Gender counts: for better or for verse

Women's Studies


Gender counts: for better or for verse

ELIZABETH BISHOP memorably once said, "art is art and to separate it into two sexes is to emphasise values in them that are not art". Many writers and readers who resist the segregation of art on the basis of sex share Bishop's opinion that poetry transcends gender difference. On the other hand, Vicki Bertram's new critical exegesis entitled Gendering Poetry: Contemporary Women and Men Poets challenges this universal viewpoint and asserts that "Sex and gender matter in poetry. They play a significant and neglected part in the way poets write and readers read. To deny this is to facilitate a critical tradition that prioritises and naturalises men's writing and concerns". Bertram reassesses a history of old betrayals and old prejudices in this new book.

It stirs up a lively debate on the role played by gender in poetry by bringing into discussion the work of contemporary poets in Britain and in Ireland while drawing comparisons with their American counterparts. An assessment of women poets sits alongside the study of men poets, aiming to redress the symmetry of gender power relations in poetry. Yet another seminal purpose of the study is to demolish a rather stale assumption that gender matters only to women's writing. By employing unique theoretical models based on psychoanalysis, cultural, literary and gender studies, Bertram demonstrates how gender makes a difference to creative art although it does not determine the content.

A well-structured and carefully researched introduction provides valuable information on the critical traditions of poetry and on the gender-genre conflict by drawing in historical, political and cultural dimensions into the discussion. The author attacks categorisations that operate in literary studies, over-views and reviews which feature the work of women as a group found almost always in the last chapter — as if they were products of some quarantined sub-creative culture. Much worse is that the work of women writers is exclusively focused on feminism, making them victims of a narrow, isolationist approach. The notion of masculinity in poetry is introduced by Bertram as a retaliative political strategy ensuring that poetry by men should be read with questions of sexual politics. Much to the discomfort of the readers (an intended one) the last chapter of Bertram's book is devoted to a group of men poets whose work is viewed through a gender perspective.

Focusing on lyric poetry, Bertram's model examines the dialogic interaction between the poem and the reader. In the dynamic process of reading the analysis unfolds how the poem's craft is determined not only by its subject positioning but also by its gender. Bertram believes that such negotiations between the poem, poet and the reader will bear marks of social and cultural practice. As a result, the potential for invention and interpretation in poetry is all the more greater as it transforms the perceptions of reality and art. Poets featured in this study include Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Don Paterson, Michael Donaghy, Carol Ann Duffy, Jo Shapcott, David Dabydeen, Robert Crawford, Jackie Kay, Sujata Bhatt and Glyn Maxwell, just to mention a few.

The chapters that are strikingly innovative in their approach are the "Caribbean Comparisons" and "The Intimate Authority of Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters". The former makes an interesting enquiry into the intricate connections between gender and culture, particularly in relation to the influence of the English colonial legacy on West Indian literature. The latter examines the inter-textual entanglement of Hughes's Letters with Plath's poems. Since Hughes's poems, alias letters, are highly referential as he addresses them to a dead persona within the context of her poetry, the reader's interaction too demands a reference to Plath. In the process of this interconnected reading, Bertram resurrects Plath's poems as live products of imagination and truth which continue to mesmerise readers. In contrast, Hughes's poems are dismissed for their tonal flatness, passivity and the fixed positioning of the reader which disallows any vibrant interaction. The analysis is stimulating and controversial as it boldly opposes the dominant aesthetic and challenges traditional evaluative norms.

Gendering Poetry is a perceptive study on the workings of gender. It is relevant to contemporary studies as it focuses on the important interface of poetry, culture and gender, demonstrating that poetry participates in an eclectic range of discourses today. The book is a responsible effort as it raises the profile of gender studies and attempts to place the discourse on the map of mainstream criticism. Acknowledging the fact that literary criticism shapes canons, the author realises well the importance of discussing the work of poets who may slip out of sight if there is a lack of published criticism. It is sobering to realise that almost all creative and critical work on gender continues to be an outcome of female anger and anxiety of survival. It appears as though women writers/ critics have to periodically re-launch a task of recovery either by re-inventing new models or by re-examining old prejudices just to secure a firm place in literary history. If Bertram were considering an after-life extension of her exegesis, suggesting that there is an interesting work in the pipeline, then I would recommend Gendering Criticism as a next venture.

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