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.