Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mr. Logan and the problem of gender: that is what you see us by

My random touring of the web this AM has yielded some insights that some may find fascinating, and others annoying.  

First of all, after visiting Poetry Daily, I started wondering how many women and how many men had been published on the site over the course of the year.  So I counted.  This counting is not exact--I checked bios to see if names of indeterminate gender could be identified, but in some cases they were not identifiable as men or women.  So, to create balance, if a translation was posted, I counted it as by a woman if the original poet was a woman or if the translator was a woman.  Thus, my method is open to some degree of error.  

I found that, in most months, women writers comprised slightly more than 1/3 of the total posts.  A couple of months were near parity, but only during April and July 2007 did Poetry Daily publish more poems by women than by men.  The site content for the year from Jan. 4, 2007 thru Jan. 3, 2008 was 42.1% content by women, and 57.9% content by men.

What does this say?  Not a whole lot, but it does raise a lot of interesting questions.  Why do poems by men catch the eye of the PD editors more?  Is it that poems by men constitute approximately 60% of the journal content that PD reviews?  Is it that more prominent poets are men?  

The other interesting thing is that if you consider the demographic niche that poets occupy, the discrepancies are curious.  I would guess that some 5/6th of poets are college-educated.  Over the last decade, college enrollments have risen from male/female parity to a slight female enrollment edge.  So more women are enrolled than men.  I would also guess that most poets who are college graduates have a BA in English or American literature.  I couldn't guess what the percentage would be, but it would certainly be close to 60%.  If I visited the College Board's website, I might be able to find out what percentage of English majors are women, but I need to get down to work today.  I would guess that about 60% of BAs in English are awarded to women.  So in a demographic skewed significantly toward women, male poets are, on a daily basis, noticed and recognized the most.  

One is tempted to contact Lawrence Summers for an explanation . . . 

But better yet, my random web surfing uncovered a recent review by William Logan in the Dec. 07 issue of The New Criterion (link posted on C. Dale Young's blog).  Let me say up front that the brief analysis I'm going to do is the type of analysis that makes men cry foul (they wish to be accused neither of being a sissy nor a misogynist)--but I don't necessarily think that Logan is sexist.  His criticism simply opens a vein of relatively conventional thinking about gender and poetry, and, thus, reflects prevailing attitudes.    

Logan reviews recent books by Kathleen Jamie, Robert Hass, Charles Wright, Sandra McPherson, Robert Pinsky, and Les Murray.  Murray is praised for being a "gargantuan poet" and "like Falstaff and Henry VIII, those other outsized figures . . . magnificent despite the monster within."  Murray's "history has a dark physicality reminiscent of Heaney's."  So Murray is some cross between Caliban and Rabelais' Gargantua--primitive, hulking figures, not quite human, but distinctively male.  Logan criticizes Murray for clumsiness, stating that some critics have found it endearing; however, Logan is clearly complimentary toward this male primitive.

Wright is excoriated for his "cracker barrel philosophy" and "laying down a coat of sensibility, as if sensibility were somehow enough . . . but . . . you have to have a house to paint."  Wright is praised for the "ease and confidence of his line" and the "lackadaisical manner of his delivery." Slick Willie, but can he deliver a tale.  Logan clearly admires Wright's confidence, his deliberate sloppiness, and an element of brashness.

Pinsky is described as a "buttoned-up poet" whose poems "read like notes for a set of position papers."  What Logan wants is for Pinsky to loosen up and stop being so meticulous and exact, it appears.  Or loosen up the right way, as Logan accused Pinsky of trying to do in his new book, but having "all the reckless daring of Walter Mitty."  

So my read of Logan's description of the male poets (we'll get to Hass in a minute) is that Logan admires a sort of rhetorical largeness, at least in male poets.  He also values male poets with a particular moral pitch, poets who strive for meaning.  Not a one of them hits the ideal balance of brashness and meaning-making on the nose.  

Kathleen Jamie is admired by Logan for her "taut, closely rendered [poems] . . . that mark out a moral territory."  She is "local in the best sense."  He also praises her for not pre-planning the "architecture" of her pieces and for her "long, implicating sentences that take time to catch her restless intelligence."  So Jamie has a sort of projection and openness that Logan admires in the male poets.  But she's not 'large' in any sense.  Rather, her admirable looseness is tempered by smallness: local and close.  This is also a sort of precision, which was a quality abhorred in Pinsky.

One last interesting thing about the Jamie section of the review is Logan's pointless modifying phrase in a sentence which compares a grumpy stanza by Jamie to Larkin: "This sounds like a poem Larkin might have written, had he been a woman."  This stopped me in my tracks.  If you read the review and the lines Logan quoted, the content has nothing whatsoever to do with gender.  Jamie talks about having children, but in a gender-neutral way.  Men, btw, often have children as well, although Larkin did not.  Perhaps Logan should have said, "This sounds like a poem Larkin might have written, had he been a parent."  

Sandra McPherson is derided as sentimental, but praised for her early work, in which she "began as a delicate, dilettantish observer of nature, her eye a direct descendent of Moore's and Bishop's."  Her early work was "meticulous."  Her new book is good in that it is an "embarrassment of riches, so clotted with detail."  Again, not 'large'--McPherson is best when she is small (delicate) and meticulous, detailed.  Frankly, Bishop and Moore are much admired for the way they disappear into their work--each is an example of the poet ghost in the machine.  This is the exact opposite of the rhetorical presence and largeness that Logan admires in the male poets, even if this presence is imperfect.  

One can extrapolate a bit and, while risking being unfair to Logan, suggest that what he values in female poets is an absence of self, while what he values in male poets is a present, vocal self.  Logan does admire Jamie's 'restless intelligence,' but he describes her as a poet who is safely contained within certain "architecture" and "territory."  She's present, but conveniently caged.  His descriptions of male poets do not suggest containment whatsoever, unless it is the self-containment from which Pinsky should break free.

What Logan wants is a male poet who is very "present" in the warp of the work, but who says things and philosophizes the way Logan would like.  Robert Hass is criticized for being too moral, for creating a "poetry of lecture."  I'm not here to judge whether Logan is right or not, because this post is about examining Logan's language describing male and female poets, not to assess his critical tastes or the aptness of his judgements.  

But Hass gets slammed for the conclusion of his poem, "The World as Will and Representation," the poem about the alcoholic mother in the collection Time and Materials.  At the end, Hass' speaker does seem to empathize with the mother, but he also notes through the allusion to the Aeneid that he identifies with the father's survival instinct.  Whether Logan is right to criticize this poem as weak is not for me to say here.  But I will point out that what really upsets Logan about this poem is that Hass' topic and theme here is gender: "'Justice and power?  Gender?'  What was a harrowing family portrait finishes as a lecture on gender.  There's no pity for the father, guilty of that terrible crime, not wanting to leave his young son with a lush."

What I object to here is the implication that gender is not an appropriate subject for poetry or discovery.  I guess death and sex are fine, as is moral philosophy.  But gender is a "lecture," not a discussion, an exploration, or a legitimate theme.  

But it is precisely when gender is called to the surface that there is something new to explore.  The poem that Logan wants Hass to write, one in which the drunken parent is shamed and the responsible parent is honored, would be a little obvious and quite dull.  What would be revealed there that we didn't know?  Here, the boy's empathy for the mother, resolved to burn in the hell of her failed marriage is curious and interesting.  As is the boy's recognition of female suffering in what was not, at the time, a world in which women were valued for themselves.  But if you can only interpret the mention of gender as invective against men, even if a man writes it, I guess you'll miss an interesting conversation.

What an analysis of the language Logan's critiques reveals to me is that female poets might be most valued when they are invisible and contained, while male poets are most valued when they are rhetorically large, present, and loose.  Men grab attention and are praised for it; women shrink from attention and are praised for it, and you wonder why Poetry Daily publishes significantly more poems by men than by women.  Anna Fels makes a similar point in Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women's Changing Lives.

I don't see the review as a sexist statement by Mr. Logan--this is just the world in which he lives, reflected in his language.  The doltish remark about Kathleen Jamie also makes this clear: it's nearly unconscious.  

This reminds me of a passage from Virginia Woolf that I used to inscribe in the front of my writing journals.  It's from To the Lighthouse:  ". . . our apparitions, the things you know us by, are simply childish.  Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by."

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