Tuesday, January 26, 2010

“Most of the great poets today are women.”

In response to a Harriet post by Craig Santos Perez, who is responding to a blog post by Jessica Smth (both pictured above).

Dear Jessica and Craig:

Thanks for raising this issue, one that comes up every so often in poetics.

I always find myself fascinated when I hear the claim “Most of the great (or best) poets writing today are women,” but also startled.

The first thing that startles me about such a claim is its use of quantifying logic. In order to know what most of any group is doing, one needs to have looked at all (or at least a sample large enough to imply all) of the group. The statement contains the implication that the person making it has read so much of the world’s poetry that the total quantity of good poets is apparent. Yet unless the person is truly encyclopedic, it’s likely that the person means “most of the poets among the group of poets I read,” a smaller group from which to take the sample, at which point it’s important to wonder how the sample was selected.

The second thing that startles me is the claim to objectivity. “Great” and “best” means not simply the poets I like, or the poets whose ideology I prefer, but the poets that are superior according to objective standards that should be clear to all who have good sense and reason.

Surely many people know by now that terms like “great” and “best” often come from personal standards, or cultural ones, or ideological ones, and that rarely if ever is there a ground of objective superiority against which people can make no reasonable objections.

I myself then see the claim “Most of the great/best poets writing today are women” as an ideological claim rather than objective or quantifiable. I’m not saying that one could counter the point with some more objective claim, but rather that we’re talking about an ideological question here rather than a factual one.

I don’t say all this to suggest that either of you do not mean the point sincerely. I’m not doubting for a second that you believe what you believe. But it’s out of the sincerity of competing claims that many ideological struggles (especially those regarding art) develop.

Whenever claims regarding gender and “best” poets come up, I look for how they function relative to ideology and power, that is, how they become power moves in a field of power, even when meant sincerely. And here’s a basic ideological map of how I often see that working.

1) A man says, “The best poets writing today are men.” Or, more likely, a man says, “The claim that the best poets writing today are women is ridiculous.” Here, a man defends the value of the writing of men or attacks the value of the writing of women. A significant number of male writers will side with him, and these men will often gather ranks against what they perceive as an unfair assault. Not all male writers however will side with them, and the man who makes such a statement is likely to find very few women writer allies, although he may discover some among those women writers who dislike feminism.

2) A man says, “The best poets writing today are women.” This man is ideologically siding with women, and is likely to receive positive feedback from women writers. He will seem to be allying himself with an understanding of women’s social conditions and an awareness of male oppression. But his statement also has an effect on men. It puts him in a position of critical superiority to the writing of other men; he has seen through its weakness and has in effect become master of it. He thus manages to present himself simultaneously as a successful male judge of men and a supporter of women. This will anger the men fond of statement 1, but will make him allies not only among women writers but also among male writers who believe that there are advantages to being aligned with a similar position.

3) A woman says, “The best poets writing today are women.” She will be seen as supporting and understanding the cause of women, and will have many women writers as allies as a result. Some women writers (I can’t begin to say how many) may be skeptical of the quantifying and objective nature of the claim and may think it’s not be the best way to approach the problem, while simultaneously appreciating and sympathizing with the goals of the claim, that is, with the attempt to create more and better attention to women’s writing. And obviously, men of group one will refuse the claim, while men of group two will side with it.

4) A woman says, “The best poets writing today are men.” I imagine women writers believing such a claim would be very few, if they exist at all. Such a claim certainly can’t help women’s writing in any broad way. Even women who are anti-feminists may not be likely to say such a thing. It would be seen favorably by some men, and so a woman making such a claim may receive more positive attention from those men, but those men would be the ones (in various degrees) least likely to be understanding or supportive of women’s writing (that is, men of group 1). And obviously such a claim would be highly unpopular with other women writers, although I can’t rule out that one or two might grant the woman making such a claim a degree of courage or iconoclasm.

I’m sure it will be taken by some that in saying all this, I am slyly siding with group 1, but I myself don’t see it that way. For me, the flaws regarding quantifiability and supposed objectivity mean that I believe that there are other more preferable ways of approaching gender problems than through assertions of whose writing is “great” or “best.”

It’s arguable I suppose that given the situation of the world, women writers and writers from cultural contexts who have historically had less power to control others through claims about an objective and quantifiable “best” need to seize such terminology for themselves, to take the rights that come from quantifying and objectifying and make them their own. That reminds me though of the infamous Ron Silliman claim, so given who I am, I think such a claim should come from others. But I think also that self-awareness about what’s involved in that power move would be crucial.

Finally, the other argument you make, that it’s “experience” that leads to the best writing, seems uncertain to me. The history of writing contains writers with all sorts of relationships to their own experiences. I think it’s likely that readers will often (though not always) gravitate towards writers whose understanding of experience they share and whose relation to the world feels more powerful and convincing to them, although I have to admit that I’m one of those readers who often likes reading work from or about people very much not like me. I fully believe in and would support your ideological position regarding what writers you like and why. I just wonder whether using terms like “great” or “best” actually causes more difficulties than it solves.

Sorry for the longwindedness. I had to say the whole thing or not at all.



Jessica Smith said...

To repost my response from Harriet:

I don’t really claim to be objective– it is after all a blog post, so should be read as “my opinion.” That said, I am definitely in camp 3, in your taxonomy. I do find that the poetry I read by women writing today generally interests me more than most poetry written by men these days, although there are, of course, exceptions. This may be more of a 60-40 majority than a 99-1 majority.

As I said in the original blog post, I have no idea why I find women writers more interesting– I don’t know whether it has to do with a history of oppression, etc., those were just ideas I was tossing out (it’s a blog post, not a dissertation). I do think it has to do with things like use of multiple genres or interplay between genres (perhaps women are less burdened by history? like NY poets burdened by the shadow of O’Hara) and having something at stake/something to tell (which may correspond to living in a world where one is continually objectified and oppressed and often in physical danger). Whatever claim I would make here would indeed be conjecture, a generalization, and subjective– which doesn’t make it any less real or valid, as even science is conjecture, generalization and finally subjective.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for this elaboration, Jessica. My response wasn't directed only at your or Craig's particular use of the "great" or "best" phrasing, but more at a pattern of such claims that I've seen come up every so often on the Harriet blog.

It's interesting to me how even those writers who understand the limitations of making supposedly objective claims about art or literature still often find themselves working with terms that come from the language of objective claims--"best" or "great" being the ones in question here. I can acknowledge that there is such a thing as something that "I like best" or "really think is great," showing that the words can be used in a non-objective context. Still, I think the shadow of notions of objectivity still linger over such terms.

But maybe I'm old-fashioned. When my students for instance use the phrase "it's my truth," I always wince. It's either the truth or it isn't the truth, at least in the old definition of the word. The word "truth" marks something categorically more objective than just my individual feeling about it, or at least it used to.

Jessica Smith said...

The truth, eh? ... But who's telling it?

mark wallace said...

Not me, which is why it's not a word I often use in trying to defend my world view, and why saying "my truth" seems so odd. If it's just yours, it ain't the truth, it's just the way you'd like to see it. That's not "truth"; that's perspective.

I think we need to be a little more cautious of using words like "best," "great" and "truth" to refer to our own individual tastes and perspectives. Because no matter how much we may mean such words only subjectively, they simply don't feel subjective because, in terms of their definitions, they aren't subjective. Thus, phrases like "my truth" may claim to be only subjective, but actually they may remain (intentionally or not) ways of subtly claiming that my point of view isn't just my point of view, it's more objectively true than that. People using the phrase "my truth" are therefore to some small extent trying to force their subjectivity onto others as something more absolute than it actually is. And that's usually how I often see it used: as a way of saying "You have no right to disagree with me."

On the other hand, if somebody really does think something is "best" and that saying so is "truth" and wants to make a claim based in more than just personal preference, that might lead to an interesting discussion, but it would be one of another kind.

Ian Keenan said...

People tend to identify with poets of their own gender for various reasons. People of the same gender have similar experiences but also poets that read poets are subconsciously looking for some kind of validation that their own species is capable of certain things.

Male chauvinism would ideally be replaced by the belief that everyone is equally capable of writing great poetry, but male chauvinism is imitated by some female poets for the simple reason that it is so successful. Is it really that much fun to say 'everyone is equally capable of writing great poetry' or do people like to believe that their kind is better, and perhaps they have contributed to that superiority?

Another successful tradition is double standards. I can say this about you but you can't say that about me. It's been good for thousands of years of cultural domination. Once the double standard is established, then it's time to beat the other group over the head with it.

I don't think my favorite male or female writers would want to be cited to discourage the other gender, just like Tolstoy or Proust probably wouldn't want to be used by Bellow to put down the Zulus or the Papuans. If they do, there's something inherently wrong with their literary project. Granted, there's the subconscious drive I've cited but it's symptomatic of immaturity and careerism when it's not overcome.

Anonymous said...

Now, now hold on a minute. I've got a PIE CHART. (Brappp.) Excuse me. Now, listen up. See, the American People are tired of "best" this, "best" that. We can't even best our inclinations at THE ALL YOU CAN EAT, and so instead, we need a poetry that is FAIR.

See, now, now, see, hold on a minute. Now, let's take a look at BEST AMERICAN POETRY, okay? Not even all of that is poetry, for starters. Secondly, the judge is on quaaludes -- if that's how you spell it. (I always -- Brappp -- confuse that with the Qua'aran or Iraan or whoever is out there.) Excuse me. Anyhow, what you have is a giant sucking sound, how do they put it, "O'ER THE E'EN" heading south.

See: Now, now here's the MEAT AND POTATOES, Dan Quaalude. Heh heh heh, sorry. See: The man says female poets are best because he wants to slam yams, as they say on the back forty, but the female poets see that's hogwater and therefore no man can be reputable up that dirty lane. The female says that female poets are best because she's thinking of THE WOMAN THROUGH HISTORY which is a fallacy on the surface. Now, now, now, I'm not saying the woman hasn't suffered.

See: The woman has suffered, but that doesn't make her the best poet. Necessarily. Then you've got your female saying the male is the best poet and that's because her daddy didn't bring home the RUMP-ROAST on time. And you've got your male saying the male is the best poet because he wants to -- Lord knows why -- smoke a pipe and chortle and mess around in the garage wearing some KNICKERBOCKERS. Boy, I tell you, I don't know which is worst.

Now, now, you could throw up your arms and say NO MORE POETRY but I'm talking about the impulse to say BEST. Let's be real. BEST is best applied to -- well -- burgers 'n' beans. You're darned tootin' that the American People want to know about burgers 'n' beans. Maybe some slaw, too. But to say BEST POETRY -- well that makes me feel like a kicked armadillo, to be true. Like all the wind gone out of the whooppee cushion. No more whooppee.

When I say -- Now, now, now, see -- a FAIR poetry, I mean a poetry without an agenda. If you look at my PIE CHART, you can see that by the year 2020 -- a year I might add that will require NO HINDSIGHT -- we will have a FAIR poetry. True, this will require that all of our bards, as it were, must wander around in the wilderness between now and then, and by that I mean a reservation or a WAL MART or a Coney Island of the Mind, and they will know not, Lo, what a category is and isn't.

Instead, we will have a poetry that climbs up the wall like a kudzu or another vintage and it will be what it will be.

I thank you.


H Ross Perot aka BA

Jordan said...

Claims to being the best are at the heart of all poetry everywhere. Those claims seem to have worked better for some poets (Shakespeare, Dante, Ibn Gabirol, Imru al-Qays) than for others. Mainly those claims are the product of a wasteful delusion -- like 99% of all poetry everywhere. And where's the harm in it, I mean except for the people who give up everything else in life under the power of that delusion.

Setting aside the gender politics of who's doing the claiming on behalf of whom, it's high time women started exhibiting symptoms of this delusion at the same rate as men.

mark wallace said...

BA, I appreciate what you're saying about the total overuse of the word "best." Everybody riffs on it so much that it's a very tired phrase, often best used by advertisers. Of course, there's no such actual thing as "fair," although it's a nice ideal to ascribe to. And the reason there's no such thing as fair? Because somebody ultimately has to make the decision as to what counts as fair--and people can't agree on what fair is, so that when the decision for fairness is made, nobody much thinks that what ends up happening is fair.

Jordan, the point you make in your second paragraph is one I acknowledged but remain unconvinced about. It's certainly possible to argue that the world of poetry and whatever else will get better once women start behaving more like men. But my guess is that some women may not want to, and think that they have good reasons for it--the behavior of men being the first.

Ian, I hear you, and I don't doubt that for many people, saying "My kind is better" is an undeniable temptation. Sadly, we can see its results plainly in so much of the world's history.

Matt said...

i think the key to using "great" is to use it with an exclamation point: "great!"

so it becomes a synonym with fabulous! fantastic! wunderbar! awesome! way cool!

i dunno...even without the !'s, i still think those words are good. better to be overly enthusiastic about things than to be a total downer...

mark wallace said...

Enthusiasm is great, Matt. It's the pretense to objectivity (in some uses of the terms) that's more of a problem.

Jessica Smith said...

I think it's weird that these discussions of poetry and gender have become (largely) men talking to each other. And men saying, "oh no, not 'best'". Why can't women be the best? Why can't I use that word? What's it to you? (I ask these questions very seriously. What is at stake here that so badly needs defending against?)

No one claims to be objective anymore-- certainly not people who have been oppressed, as a people, for so long that the idea of objectivity is a joke.

I like how Reb phrases it on another Harriet comment thread:
"All along I thought I preferred male poets. I owned more books by them, was definitely more familiar with their work from major literary magazines and from my education. Turns out I was incredibly ignorant."

mark wallace said...

It's interesting that you use the word "weird," Jessica, since men trying to take over the discussion on a public blog (especially on a man's blog; Harriet has a little more gender balance than my blog, though I suppose not by much) happens in nearly 100% of cases, when the discussion is gender or anything else. I guess what it is is a ubiquitous norm--so I'm wondering if it's so much that it's "weird" or that it's "inevitable and frustrating."

I'm not sure to what degree your questions are meant to be rhetorical, since what's at stake is fairly clearly gender and power.

Actually, that you would say "most great poets writing today are women" doesn't particularly surprise me, nor do I feel annoyed about it. Given the circumstances, it's likely that it's only one of the two things you could say, the second being a critique of the terms themselves.

Certainly one of the questions raised in my original post is that maybe women should indeed be making these kinds of claims, and more often--it's just that I don't think I'm the one who should be telling them that they need to take over that kind of language. If you want to, it's cool with me. Jordan for instance seems to think you should be also, although I'm not certain whether you and him would share the reasons why.

As to "no one claims to be objective anymore," that's only true if the "no one" in question is made up of a relatively limited social group, such as, say, most poets and literary or cultural critics, a group that I don't spend much time speaking to these days. In fact, most of the U.S., and especially those with the most power, are certainly committed to a belief in the objective value of what they do.

I wonder sometimes if we're in a more fundamentalist moment in nation and world history than we were a few years back--and then it occurs to me that probably we never left such a moment.

mark wallace said...

Oh, and I like that Reb quote too, very much--it does seem to hit at the heart of what really may be at stake here.

Jessica Smith said...

You're right, of course, about weirdness and claims to objectivity...

I think it's "weird" not because it's abnormal-- it is true that blog comment threads are usually male-dominated-- but because I wonder why women don't get in there, elbows flying, when issues of gender and power are on the line.

(Not that they're actually on the line; no conclusion we could come to here would change the nature of power worldwide. But at the same time they are always on the line.)

And I wonder why, since women aren't there battling, men seem to feel that they need to be. If blog comments were lined up like soldiers, we women would be outnumbered. So what's the value of defending against us? (I mean this more as a question toward some of the Harriet commentators than toward yours.)

As to objectivity, I still think that people who are not in power are less likely to make claims to objectivity than people in power. It would be interesting to conduct a poll on this and break it down by class, race, and gender.

mark wallace said...

Jessica, the answer to your conundrum about defensiveness may be at least partly that defensiveness and aggression are closely connected--and the more aggressive/defensive anybody is, the more likely that their feelings are going to exceed the nature of the provocation.

I do see your point about objectivity and people not in power, and I agree with what you say about likelihood. If, say, we thought of objectivity as a weapon (which it often is), say a gun, one's impression about the gun would very much depend on whether one is pulling the trigger or being shot at.

Anonymous said...

I never met an editor who claimed to be objective. Have you?

tmorange said...

The Critical Discourse of Poetry: An Ideological Melodrama

Act One.
Setting: somewhere in blogworld...

F: Most of the great poets today are women.
M: Quantify "most."
F: Enough to feel confident in my claim.
M: So you assert your opinion as fact.
F: Yes.
M: Instead of qualifying it as opinion with phrases like "to me" or "IMHO."
F: Right.
M: Thereby engaging an ideological struggle in a field of power.
F: What's it to you?
M: Just wanted you to be aware.

Act Two.
Setting: same blogworld, different day...

M2: Most of the great poets today are women.
F: You are siding with me ideologically. I am likely to give you positive feedback.
M2: I seem to understand you and the historical struggles of your kind.
M: Your placement of yourself in a position of critical superiority and mastery reduces me to weakness.
M2: It's unfortunate for you that any declaration or assertion of value behalf of someone else automatically becomes an assault on your own values. They must indeed be terribly weak if they cannot stand up better for themselves. The fact is, we do not live in a monoculture and there is not one single value set to which we must all invariably adhere. If it makes you feel better and poses less an affront to the sense of power you derive from the maintainence and assertion of your own values, I will readily qualify my initial assertion of objective fact as opinion and say, for the record: it is my personal opinion, offered with no intention of engaging an ideological struggle, that most of the great poets today are women. I'll go a step further in backing down from any possible or plausible power moves and opine, weakly and ineffectually, not that more or even some women are the great poets of the day, but simply that I myself find poetry by women personally more engaging, challenging, and rewarding to me, personally and individually, than the poetry of men -- which, in its ongoing history of published excess relative to women and racial/ethnic minorities literally makes me want to throw up, it disgusts me, so much that when i see another new book of poetry my a man i'm torn between an unstiflable yawn of cavernous boredom and the urge to vomit uncontrollably all over the bookstore shelf. This is particularly ironic given that i am myself a male poet and that indeed my poetry too like that of other male poets makes me want to throw up, and it's not so much that i hate myself or men like some sort of man-hating feminist wuss but that it's sort of like eating nothing but bananas year after year, eventually you throw up from it so much that you don't want to eat bananas any more, you find them disgusting and want to eat something else, like apples.
M: Just so you know, backing down from a power move is itself to engage an ideological struggle in the field of power. Pointing this out notwithstanding, of course.
F remains silent

Anonymous said...

Matt, Matt, Matt.

Matt, Matt, Matt.


(verification word: Forkee)

egyptnewstoday.blogspot.com said...

Once the double standard is established, then it's time to beat the other group over the head with it.
This blog is very interesting and has a lot of feature articles. Distinctive design as well as the owner of this blog I hope to continue to do so ..

Thank you