Saturday 29 December 2012

Does my penis look small in this?

In her essay in the current (Winter 2012) edition of Poetry Review[1], Pascale Petit explains that for her there is still a difference between men and women’s writing. That old chestnut. I thought that was a first or second wave Western feminist debate that was long over, done, dusted, buried. I remember writing about it myself over twenty years ago.

There are a few points on which I specifically want to take issue with her. I disagree with the proposition that difference (if indeed there is any) comes from women’s ‘closer relationship with the body and its wonder, shock and messiness’. Not to doubt that women do indeed write from and of the body, there is plenty of that around, I do it myself, but it seems disingenuous to therefore imply that men do not, or worse that the male body is less wonderful, shocking and messy. Take this for example from Matthew Caley’s poem Upside Down:

                ‘Apparently Ezra Pound would lay at languorous angles on the inevitable chaise-longue
-          feet up, head down – believing as he did
that so prone his seminal fluid would flow from his testicles to his forehead, thus energising
the brain...’[2]

or Chris Meredith’s worrying visit to the doctor, You were right to come:

                ‘The body mottles
                like a foxed old book...

                Definitions blur.
                I become earth
                the ridge of me this mountain
                its lesions breathing poison into air.’[3]

Next is her implication that there are female subjects or themes, territory where men seldom tread. Granted men may not write too many poems about getting their hair done, but many write about other so-called ‘female’ concerns. For example take Michael Longley’s delight at the first visit of his grandson in The Leveret:

                ‘A bumpy approach in your father’s arms
                To the cottage where, all of one year ago,
                You were conceived, a fire-seed in the hearth...

Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the sea
Little hoplite...’[4]

or Philip Gross’ far travelling Fantastia on a Theme from IKEA:

                ‘We could see ourselves in one, these half-a-rooms
                of dolls’-house lifestyle, life-sized (books on the shelves
                in Swedish)....

       – the human dream...’[5]

And I have not had to hunt for these examples, they all come from recent books waiting to be properly shelved in my library. They are from contemporary writers I have read in the last year or so. They are current and now. Of course one could tit-for-tat this debate until one falls over with exhaustion. As Petit, in welcoming plurality, herself acknowledges, for many gender is not relevant to their craft. Here here.

Rather I propose something more profitable in potentially making such distinctions and which Petit starts to explore in the case of contemporary Chinese poetry: that is the relevance of the question outside the relative comforts of the West. I would certainly like to know more about and understand whether it is prescient in cultures and literary traditions where for, say, the mutilated, black-clothed woman, the notion of female equality might still be a sick joke. If someone could point me in the right direction on that, I’d be grateful.

[1] Pascale Petit, Do Women Poets Write Differently to Men? Poetry Review 102:4 Winter 2012 pg. 68 – 74.
[2] Matthew Caley, Apparently, Bloodaxe, 2010 pg. 46.
[3] Chistopher Meredith, Black Mountains: Poems and Images from the Bog-Mawnog Project, Mulfran Press, 2011 pg 19.
[4] Michael Longley, A Hundred Doors, Cape, 2011 pg.5.
[5] Philip Gross, The Water Table, Bloodaxe, 2009 pg 19.

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