I’m currently reading gendering poetry by Vicki Bertram as part of my reading for my PhD. I’m absolutely loving this book – firstly because I can understand it – although it is academic, it’s very readable, and really interesting. The blurb on the back of the book says that Vicki Bertram ‘considers the role of gender in the writing and the reading of poetry’.
In the first chapter ‘First Impressions’ she looks at six poets – three male and three female and discusses the first poem in the first collection of each poet. She looks at Simon Armitage, Michael Donaghy, Neil Rollinson, Sujhata Bhatt, Fiona Pitt-Kethley and Kate Clanchy. What I found interesting here was her discussion of who these poems were addressed to.
In the Donaghy poem she argues that his well known poem ‘Machines‘, although addressed to a ‘dearest’, its use of an elaborate conceit between a racing bike and a piece of harpsichord music is firmly in the tradition of the Metaphysical poets – the male speaker addressing a silent lover (who in this tradition is female). Bertram writes that the poem ‘also gestures to the metaphysical tradition in the way that his female addressee functions as an excuse for this opportunity of impressing male friends and patrons’, because the real intent of the poem is not to seduce the female lover, but to display ‘the author’s skill’.
She goes on to explore Simon Armitage’s ‘Snow Joke’ which she writes is part of a ‘pub discourse’ with its use of colloquial language and its tone of an urban myth. Bertram writes that it is ‘reasonable to assume a male speaker addressing a male audience’. I can see what she means, although I didn’t feel left out, or disconnected from the poem when I read it – but this is probably because I’ve spent a lot of time in pubs – working and drinking in them as a music student, and I’m aware that I don’t feel left out, by thinking back to what it was like to become ‘one of the lads’ – an essential survival strategy for a female brass player, which I could probably write a whole other post about!
There is apparently a term for this strategy when you do it as a reader – again, Bertram points out that the critic Judith Fetterley ‘coined the term ‘immasculation’ to describe the process whereby women readers steeped in androcentric literature develop the instinct to ‘think as men, to identify with a male point of view’.
The part of the chapter that really interests me was Bertram’s thoughts on how women poets write and address the reader. She says
There are few modes of public discourse in which women can speak as women, and this is reflected in their poetry, where it is rare to find an explicit address to other women, a collective female discourse.
She gives what she calls a rare example – the poem ‘Marigolds‘ by Vicki Feaver. It’s use of the collective pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our’ throughout bridge the gap between the present and the classical past. Bertram writes that the poem ‘asks its readers to acquiesce in the implicit criticism of men’s foolish ignorance, conned (or attracted) by this fake version of meek, marriageable femininity.’ She then goes on to talk about the problems of this stance, and the issues around ‘collective female identification.’
It made me think about who my poems are addressed to, and who am I writing for. My poem ‘My People’, which explores a working class identity, is not addressed to my people at all – it’s addressed to a literary audience, or the middle class, it’s attempting to show to someone who has no idea what it is like to grow up in that environment what it is like. Of course the secondary addressees are the people who grew up there too. One of the wow moments at Struga Poetry Evenings in Macedonia was reading that poem on the launch night, and having Charles Simic come up to me at breakfast the next morning, and say ‘Your people are my people too’.
If I think about the poems I’m working on now, it gets more complicated. I’m working on a sequence called All The Men I Never Married which currently contains poems about or addressed to ex-boyfriends, but also random men that I have come into contact with in some way. Many of these poems are addressed to a ‘you’, ostensibly the man in question, but I think actually, the true addressee of these poems are women. I don’t mean that men are excluded from them – I hope they are not, but the reason I like the title is because it shifts men a little – although they are still the subject of the poems, they are not the sole subject, they are one among many. And a male reader becomes by implication a man I never married as well, with all the connotations that brings with it.
Some of the poems in this sequence explore experiences of sexism directly and I know from performing these poems that women relate directly to them – that it is a powerful thing to have something that you’ve experienced and maybe not talked about, because it just isn’t worth it because it happens all the time reflected back at you and transformed into a poem. Women come and tell me about their experiences from yesterday, last week, last year. I’ve written before about the strangeness of men coming to tell me about their one experience of sexism in 1985 when they got their bottom pinched – and my theory that they are trying to understand, rather than silencing my story by putting theirs on top of it. When I’m feeling bad-tempered, however, I do wonder!
So I don’t quite know whether this is true, whether the poems are addressed to women, or men, or both. My instinct is that most of my poems are sly, and they address one person, whilst looking out of the corner of their eye for their true audience. Maybe by implying a sexual history (which is still a taboo thing for women to do) I’m addressing men, being ‘one of the lads’, whilst really talking to women. Maybe in the poems about sexism when I’m outwardly addressing women and sharing an experience I’m sure many will relate to, I’m really hoping men will overhear it and their reality will be changed in some way. To go back to Bertram again, who quotes Richard Bradford who said that poetry is capable of ‘an unbalancing of perceptions of reality’.
I would be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on any or all of this! Please feel free to comment below. I posted about this on Facebook and there have been some fascinating discussions on there – with one person pointing out that maybe poems by female poets addressed to one other woman are fairly common, but it is poems that are addressed to a female collective that are rarer, and more problematic.
I’m not saying by the way that women ‘should’ address other women at all – I hate the word ‘should’. But I am wondering about what happens if we do, and what happens when we don’t, and whether we do or we don’t!