America’s Greatest Living Poet

I’ve mentioned Eminem before but the passion in his poetry cuts me.

This is what poetry should be about.

If you don’t know who Eminem is or haven’t heard any of his performances, then watch. I’ve read that he’s suffering from a morbid fear of death and that’s a pity. I’ve seen behind that veil. There’s nothing to be afraid of.

á la Maison ❧ un sonnet délicieux

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Want to hear me reading it?

Do better? Read the poem. Send me a recording and I’ll post it here. I’d love to hear how others read it.

underappreciated

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Since Anis Shivani’s list of 15 overrated poets and authors, many have responded with writers who they believe to be underrated.

I have a fellow blogger in mind. Her name is Alegria Imperial and she writes some of the loveliest haiku on the web. Her blog is called jornals. She deserves more readers. If you like haiku, please visit her site and add yourself as an E-Mail subscriber. You will find the option at the lower right.

Don’t look for glitz, polish or graphic design.

Alegria pours her heart into her haiku. Subscribe and every so often a momentary breath, a world in three lines of poetry, will color your day.

And if you enjoy her haiku, let her know.

Just In

Here’s a web site you might not have heard of. The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog…Period.

Tom Dhorman, the site’s Managing Editor, contacted me and asked if I would mention their new and upcoming (this Sunday – Aug. 15) USTREAM broadcast: The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog Live. He tells me that “the show’s primary focus [will be] discussion of literary news from the past week and to engage the audience in an open dialogue (via the social stream chat box)”.

The website itself was started at the end of 2008 and was inspired by the blogger Cortnee Howard. She wanted to move from the blog format to something more newspaper-like. To that extent, one of the site’s goals is to provide a centralized source of daily news for writers in all genres – and that includes poetry. And it’s working. While not yet within the top 100,000, they’re closing in.

One of the site’s more refreshing attributes? An avoidance of the overly academic language and rhetoric typifying so many other literary websites. You don’t have to have an MFA to join the conversation. Tom tells me: “…many of our posts are AP style, on the shorter side and rather lighthearted. We want people to enjoy literary discussion.”

Poetry Foundation: Shame on You

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I don’t know the last time so many readers were exposed to so many poets. And to judge by the content of the comments (and not just at the Huffington Post) the majority of the respondents were unfamiliar with the majority of the poets Shivani roasted (queue irony).

Where was the Poetry Foundation?

The most that I can find is a bloodless Copy/Paste/Link squib at harriet.

This is what $200,000,000 dollars (bequeathed by the heiress Ms. Lilly) buys us? The Poetry Foundation should be ashamed of itself. Anis Shivani with his, albeit, negative criticism, probably brought more attention to more poets and to more readers than the Poetry Foundation has managed since its inception. Evidence? Have you seen upwards of 2,000 comments on a harriet post?

M.I.A. Why?

Why is this all that the Poetry Foundation can manage? An organization (worth its salt) would have jumped on this opportunity to enter the conversation. To date I, myself, did more work on this subject than an entire $200,000,000 dollar organization supposedly devoted to the furtherance of poetry and poets (or the discussion thereof). Why? Is it because Shivani didn’t post it at their site (instead of Huffington Post)? Do they consider themselves above it? Are they piqued because Shivani skewered their belovèd idols? Is it a dis? Maybe it’s nothing more than indifference and indolence – nobody can be bothered. Maybe they think it doesn’t matter?

Whatever the reason, it’s inadequate.

If this portends the future of the Poetry Foundation, it doesn’t look good.

15 More Replies to Shivani’s 15 Most Overrated American Writers

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It’s a full blown opera.

And the fat ladies are in full warble.

If you’ve finished your popcorn, then get more.

More replies to Anis Shivani’s 15 Overrated American Writers.

1.)

Wikipedia: Sharon Oldes

That has to hurt. Wikipedia keeps it ruthlessly current with an update on the poet’s reputation.

Exemplary Lines: “Negative: Poet and literary critic Anis Shivani:” (…and queue quote from Shivani.)

2.)

Leith Literary

There but for the grace of God! It’s all in the footnote. J. Nelson Leith confesses his Near-MFA-Experience or (NME). Pronounced enemy, not enema. Was the MFA program the real victim in Shivani’s article? The military has a new recruiting tool. You want an MFA? Really?

Exemplary Lines: “…in retrospect I am glad to have had years of outward-looking experience in the military and intelligence communities rather than years in a literary Hall of Mirrors.”

3.)

Absolute Gentleman

Written by Frank. The first part of Shivani’s article? Frank’s OK with it. The second part?  Two words: Razor burn. But Frank’s got the razor now, and Frank’s not feeling the kumbaya.

Exemplary Lines: “I got over it and saw through his anger to see his points. What helped me get over it was the ridiculous response from those blogging back. The biggest offender was Publishers’ Weekly, which has done more damage to good writers than The Huffington Post ever will.”

4.)

The Feminist Texan (Reads)

What does Shivani’s list have in common? The Feminist Texan knows and she doesn’t like it.

Exemplary Lines: “Color me surprised.”

5.)

The Measure

You sure you only got four bullets in that shooter? Jonny Diamond picks up where Shivani leaves off. Cover your eyes.

Exemplary Lines: “Of the writers on his list, I haven’t read the following (largely because they’ve always seemed like middle-brow hacks who sell books to Sunday readers)…” (Yikes!)

6.)

Fashion, War, and Other Necessities

Show some class! This is how you hit a man with glasses. Got a problem with Shivani’s ‘tude? The Art of War? Read Sun Tzu. The art of criticism? Read this blog.

Exemplary Lines: “And lastly, to declare a poet overrated (i.e. John Ashbery) is odd, considering poets are barely even visible in today’s society beyond the “MFA writing system” Shivani so deliberately discredits.” (Ashbery is just not feeling the love.)

7.)

David Maine

I see your Amy Tan and I raise you one. David Maine picks up where Jonny Diamond leaves off.

Exemplary Lines:Sharon Olds — read her a lot in grad school when I was trying to date poets. She writes a lot about, like, sex and her father. Often in the same poem, if you get my drift. I used to like her stuff but haven’t read it in ages. She had a book called Satan Says, which I thought was a killer title for a bunch of poems.”

8.)

One Way Street

Déjà vous. Richard Prouty has seen it all before. But does he disagree with Shivani? It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

Exemplary Lines: “For what it’s worth, I should point out that the emperor is dead. Poststructuralism expired a decade ago.”

9.)

Seth Abramson: The Suburban Ecstasies

Does the expression black ball mean anything to you? Get a cup of Joe and a doughnut (maybe two…or three… get the sampler) because this post is War & Peace.  Sure, maybe Shivani made you really, really, really, really… really upset, but put the gun down and let’s talk (before you all prove Shivani’s point).

Exemplary Lines: “This is a clear call, if I’m reading it right — and I’m trying to read it as it was intended, not “spin” it for the purpose of a blog-post — for Anis to be black-listed…”

10.)

From Soho to Silo

It’s all fun and games until… Alicia Rebecca Meyers sends Shivani to his room. As for you… yes, you… if you weren’t ashamed of yourself before, you will be now. Put another way: If you don’t feel two feet tall by the end of this post, it’s because you shrunk to one. Go back and re-read What I learned in Kindergarten.

Exemplary Lines: “And Shivani himself is not just a critic, but a poet. We have more than ten Facebook friends in common — which is to say, we are members of the same community.”

11.)

My 3,000 Loving Arms

Am I really like that? Sarah Sarai confesses, but it’s not the authors, it’s the concept writing.

Exemplary Lines: “Why can’t we all be friends?”

12.)

Puget Sound English Department

Quiet down class. The Puget Sound English Department weighs the pros and cons. Balanced. Considered. Maybe even debonair. It’s a five paragraph essay with a topic sentence and conclusion.

Exemplary Lines: “While Shivani’s selections will no doubt offend many of us (I was a bit taken aback to find a few of my personal favorites on his hit list), he argues, quite convincingly, that many of today’s most acclaimed writers substitute stylistic tics for nuance, solipsism for vision, and topical superficiality for the larger questions–or a greater variety of answers thereto–that have inspired the best authors of yesterday and today.”

13.)

jdbrecords

Jeffery Berg feels it is necessary to respond. The venue is bad enough but… think Jerry Seinfeld: ‘The Huffingtton Post? Really? The Huffington Post? Really?’ It’s all just such bad taste. Look for words like pettiness, laziness, snarky, toxic. Does he agree with Shivani? That’s besides the point. No love for poets.

Exemplary Lines: “Did he read and fully comprehend the exile and heartbreak in “Mrs. Sen’s” or The Namesake?”

14.)

Open Salon

Low hanging fruit. Did the French waste a perfectly good guillotine on the royal cook? No. That’s not how you start a revolution. Ted Burke wants royal blood – Mailer, Updike, Wallace. Ted Burke wants his money back. Shivani is an amateur.

Exemplary Lines: “The Huffington Post squib, alas, was too easy to write, too, too easy to assemble.” (Squib? Ouch. Good word. I’ve got to use that somewhere.)

15.)

harriet: a blog from the poetry foundation

America’s multi-million dollar hope for the preservation of poetry weighs in… or do they? Does the expression ten foot pole mean anything to you? When the 900 pound gorilla ducks and runs.

Exemplary Lines: “Here’s what he had to say about Glück…” (…and queue link)

And Shivani himself is not just a critic, but a poet. We have more than ten Facebook friends in common — which is to say, we are members of the same community

15 Reactions to Shivani’s 15 Overrated American Writers

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The fat lady’s still singing.

Reading the reactions to Anis Shivani’s post has been as much fun as the post itself.

The number of comments (at Huffington Post) is already racing toward 2,000. That, in my view, makes Shivani’s criticism a ringing success (despite the tidal wave of indignation and posturing). Any piece of writing that can draw that much attention has done something right – and by right I mean more than opinions.  In reviewing these posts, I’ve noticed a trend. Those who are most offended by Shivani seem to be those most vested in literature, either as writers, academics or critics. Those who approve of Shivani’s comments seem to be the reading public. Just my impression.

Popcorn anyone?

1.)

The Rumpus

Yikes! Like a virgin who’s touched the centerfold. Contradicting their namesake, this website backed away from their link to Shivani’s article with unrivaled horror and rectitude!

Exemplary Lines: “Yikes. I was the one who approved the original post. Lapse in judgment there! Sorry everybody.”

2.)

PWxyz

The news blog of Publisher’s Weekly uses Shivani’s commentary as a teachable moment. “We need some happy thoughts,” they write; then ask: “Who are the most  underrated writers?” The results turn up in their post: PWxyz’s most Underrated Writers. But Publisher’s Weekly turns out to be a dark, bleak night for poets. Such is the shiny-faced law of unintended consequences. Is there a single poet among the 15 most underrated writers? Not one. Lesson learned. A rising tide does not lift poets.

Examplary Lines: “We need some happy thoughts. Rather than put people down, let’s life a few people up and make a list of underrated writers for a bright new week. “(Unless you’re a poet.)

3.)

The Guardian

Bring it on! Alison Flood of the Guardian takes a spectator’s relish in the all-car crash & burn that is turning out to be the literary world’s Indy 500.

Exemplary Lines: “I get the feeling that Shivani has been brewing this piece for some time.”

4.)

Ask Parliament

The post that sees both sides of the argument, fair and balanced, right up… almost… just about… to the end.

Exemplary Lines: “To be fair to Shivani, many of the writers he discussed are utter hacks.”

5.)

The Missouri Review

Disappointed. Michael Nye, the managing editor of the Missouri Review is, in a word, disappointed — which is not to say he disagrees. First paragraph? He lists the skewered authors, but what about the poets? Look for words like rabid, inflammatory, sour grapes, bully-pulpit.

Exemplary Lines: “Well, okay.”

6.)

Jezebel: Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women

Feminism anyone? 9 of the writers on Shivani’s hit list are women – and that might be 9 too many. Still no love for poets.

Exemplary Lines : “Yes, Glück has committed the first deadly sin of the female writer: thinking she’s important.” (Note: the author doesn’t write: Glück has committed the first deadly sin of the poet: thinking she’s important.

7.)

The Skeptician

A love/hate relationship? David Hill has tried to bite his tongue, but enough is enough. (Perhaps the first respondent to have actually read Shivani elsewhere.) He’s not impressed but, “to be honest”, Shivani “makes some good points”. Shivani “complains alot”, but “oddly, I think if I met him, I would like him.” Why won’t Shivani back up his criticism?

Exemplary Lines: “…I move at a different pace than many of the blogging elite that manage to fire off their own inflammatory musings every time some drivel like this ruffles enough people’s feathers.” (Moi?)

8.)

Cocktail Hour

Ritual purification. Bill Roorbach, like David Hill, just can’t resist the siren call of Shivani’s bonfire of the vanities. Guilt. Pleasure. It’s all there. And a sense of humor. In the comment section, Roorbach adds as an afterthought: “The poets on Mr. Shivani’s list are all interesting, too, but that’s a different discussion.” A different discussion? The has to hurt. No time for poetry on his Rolodex.

Exemplary Lines: “I love them!  I love their books!  Also, they’re friends and acquaintances of mine, and I don’t like to see them hurt.”

9.)

Quill & Quire

Shivani is the reincarnation of B.R. Myers. Haven’t read Myers’ article? Then you’re in for another treat – not over-easy but well-done.

Exemplary Lines: “Shivani also broadens the field of his attack, including seven poets and one critic (The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani).” (Finally, poets and novelists in the same paragraph, getting the recognition they… well… deserve?)

10.)

Ward Six

This blogger is so offended he refuses to so much as link to Shivani’s article. So, because I’m poet and have a license to practice poetic justice, I am linking to him.

Exemplary Lines: “I wish he could have just said what he thought without first having to invalidate what I think, based upon my status as a college professor in an MFA program.” (Yeah… this is personal.)

11.)

Carissa Halston

Shivani has a point, says Carissa. We can all improve, right?

Exemplary Lines: “Unless you’re incredibly well-versed in contemporary American literature, at least one of those names will make you ask, ‘Who?'”

12.)

Rachel Inez Lane

Her gripe? What a sexist prude!

Exemplary Lines: “And since when were these women ever even roped in with John Ashbery or Billy Collins.” (Ouch.)

13.)

The Faster Times

Overrated overrated lists. Lincoln Michel asks: Overrated by who? Any love for poets? Michel calls Shivani’s critique of Ashbery several decades too late. Translation: He’s beating a dead horse. Ouch. What about the other poets?  Don’t ask. Let’s talk about those novelists.

Exemplary Lines: “Is it a list of writers that MFA students overrate? Mainstream literary awards? Small magazines? The reading public? It is like making a list of overrated musicians and putting Lada Gaga and Drake next to John Cale and Children of Bodom.”

14.)

The Best Damn Creative Writing Blog

The post that finally demolishes Shivani with, among other things, a devastating critique of his poor grammar. Cortnee Howard proves why she’s Editor-in-Chief.

Exemplary Lines: “There is a semi-colon in the first sentence, but the first clause doesn’t have a subject, which is both wrong and generally confusing.”

15.)

HTMLGiant

Into the fire. This website only provided a link to Shivani’s article but offered up lots and lots of indignant comments. But, finally, someone defends the poets… sort of… in a way… as it were … kinda’… Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire.

Exemplary Lines: “Why are there even poets on that list at all? Nobody is out there rating poets. No poets are getting rich off of being overrated. Leave the poor poets to bitch at each other about who’s winning what contest and who was whose student and all that mess. Jesus.” (Never mind.)


the reappraisal begins…

Every generation, at some point, declares its independence from the one that preceded it; and the baby-boom generation is over-ripe for just such a comeuppance.

While not all the authors skewered in Anis Shivani’s article are baby-boomers, I was interested to notice those who are.

Here’s what he has to say about John Ashbery:

Exemplary Lines: “The sheiks protest use of / aims. In the past / coal has protected their / O long, watchful hour. / the engines had been humming / stones of March in the gray woods / still, the rods, could not they take long / More anthems until dust / flocks disguised machine.”

More responsible than anyone else for turning late twentieth-century American poetry into a hermetic, self-enclosed, utterly private affair. Displays sophomoric lust to encode postmodern alienation into form that embodies the supposed chaos of the mind. Though he has somehow acquired a reputation for the visionary (especially among the Brits, who think he’s the greatest American poet), John Berryman’s Dream Songs are infinitely more on the mark. Another amateur philosopher, like Jorie Graham, another acolyte of what he thinks is Wittgensteinian logic. Ran away with postmodern irony, eccentricized it to the point of meaninglessness. Now we have no working definition of irony anymore–thanks, John Ashbery! Mixes low and high levels of language, low and high culture, every available postmodern artifact and text, from media jargon to comic books, to recreate a reality ordered only by language itself. When reality=language (as his carping cousins, the language poets, have it, just like him), politics becomes vacuous, and any usurper can and will step in. Has been a Mannerist after his own outdated manner at least since Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Among the writers listed here, I want to like him the most–it’s too bad he’s been a parody of himself for so long.

And here is his take on Mary Oliver:

Exemplary lines: “My right hand / was holding my left hand / which was holding the tree / which was filled with stars // and the soft rain– / imagine! imagine! / the long and wondrous journeys / still to be ours.”

America’s best-selling poet along with Billy Collins, and that tells you all you need to know about how the public views American literature. A “nature poet” whose poems all seem to follow the same pattern: time, animal, setting, observation, epiphany. For example, 5 a.m., opossum, backyard, broken, it ran. Or 3 p.m., kitten, field, how real, peace. Only has to mechanically alter the variables, to get the same desired effect. United with other writers on this list by showmanship, calling attention to her own skills, putting herself at the center of epiphanies and moral goodness. Publishes a book a year with interchangeable contents–how she has put on the brakes on her own evolution is the real wonder. Poems are free of striking images, ideas, or form. Animals and natural settings are described in the vaguest of terms. Has long been enrolled in the Dale Carnegie school of winning friends and influencing people. As far removed from Emerson as Stephen King is from Melville. Here she is communicating with the snow crickets: “I looked down / into the theater of their perfect faces– / that frozen, bottomless glare.” Communicating with the hermit crab: “Once I looked inside / the darkness / of a shell folded like a pastry, / and there was a fancy face.” Her optimism, like Billy Collins’s, is a slap to the face of history. Again and again, she happily wonders: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” One suspects, she knows the answer.

He also has some opinions about Helen Vendler,  Sharon Olds, Jorie Graham, Louise Glück, and Billy Collins.

So far, the comments (following the post) are scatter shot – as one would expect. Many deride the criticism as subjective, but when has criticism been anything but?

What’s especially interesting is that fully half the authors are poets. Thinking back on my Let Poetry Die post, this must be the first time I’ve seen so many contemporary poets stuffed into a non-literary web site or publication. Unluckily for them (or justifiably) they’re being sauced like a pot of lobsters. Although I haven’t read each and every comment, very few of them mention any sort of familiarity beyond Ashbery (9 out of 10 negative) or the critic Helen Vendler (who seems to have been foisted on students by professors who couldn’t do better).

No one is jumping to the defense of these poets (as opposed to the novelists). And I’m not sure by whom these poets were overrated, other than by whatever academic institution hired them or teaches them. Of all the poets mentioned, Ashbery has the furthest to fall. I doubt his reputation will survive the next generation. History is overstuffed with artists who were lionized by their own generation, only to be swept into dusty anthologies.

Poets, Poetry & the Perfection of Women

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my other new book…

As promised, my other post about poetry and women (my two favorite subjects). The previous post was about the treachery of women. So, my other summer reading is How to Read Chinese Poetry: A Guided Anthology. The “book” is workbook sized (which means it’s about the size of a college workbook) and I’ve only just begun it.

The history of poetry in China is astounding. For hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years no one with any governmental ambitions could advance to even the most menial position without passing an arduous exam predicated on a thorough knowledge of poetry (and literature in general). Poetry was tremendously valued and esteemed to a degree (in its longevity) unmatched by any other culture. The history of English poetry pales in comparison.

Part of the reason, I think, comes from the continuity of Chinese writing & language. Unlike the Western Alphabet, Chinese script doesn’t reflect pronunciation. Any given symbol (such as the moon) could remain essentially unchanged for hundreds of years. If Elizabethans wanted to read poetry from a thousand years before, they needed to learn the actual languages – Latin, Greek or Anglo-Saxon because western writing reflects pronunciation. A Chinese poet, on the other hand, only needed to be literate.  If we used a similar system in the west then all of us could read and understand classical languages (though we wouldn’t know anything about the original Latin and Greek words). Similarly (and setting aside issues of grammar) any western reader can learn to ‘read’ Chinese without speaking the language. The moon is the moon is the moon.

What got me thinking about this post were some comments in the introductory material:

“Love and Courtship” is a prominent theme in the airs of the Book of Poetry [the earliest extent collection of Chinese poetry]. Many of the airs are bone fide erotic love songs, featuring unabashed accounts of a tryst or an affair. In these songs , women show few signs of inhibition and, indeed, are often the daring and resourceful initiators of a secret affair. Such uninhibited, self-willed women are not seen in later literati compositions, with the exception of Yuan songs. In most literati compositions, women often fall into two rather static types: the beautiful and the abandoned. ¶ “The Beautiful Woman” shows how the literati reconceptualized woman as an abstract, static object of desire—for spiritual fulfillment, sensual pleasure, or both.”

Above · The sign for Woman from 1500 BC to the present. AncientScripts

And that’s interesting because this same abstract idealization of women also occurred (and occurs) in Western Literature (and probably in all cultures with an accumulated history of literature).  Why? I suspect that the early and rambunctious poetry of erotic love is deemed too vulgar as art develops. The earliest poetry all seems to spring from popular lyrics — consider modern rock, country and rap — and as “a literature” begins to establish itself (separate itself) and come into contact with more patrician and aristocratic circles, it’s possible that erotic poetry is considered too gauche and unrefined. In general, all cultures place a premium on the spiritual as a more fit pursuit for philosophy , art, music and literature. How do women fit into such otherworldly pursuits? Uneasily. And usually (or at least historically) it’s because men are doing the defining.

  • The renaissance angel at left could be a  woman or a young man. The book Angels in the Early Modern World has this to say: “Other definitive assumptions about angels also began to crystallise in the early centuries of the Church. Angels were asexual spiritual beings, though they usually took the outward form of young men. An idea only partially attributable to Scripture – that angels appeared as winged creatures – was becoming an almost universal iconographic convention, as angels were increasingly depicted in wall painting, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. The very question of whether these figures could legitimately be represented in art was definitively settled in the affirmative by the second Council of Nicea.” The effect, ironically or perhaps deliberately, is to eroticize spiritual iconography and spirituality itself- not just through the representation of women and girls, but men and boys. In other words, the perfect woman (the angel) is homoerotic as well.

The exclusion of women from the inner sanctum of spiritual and religious practice isn’t isolated – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists (inasmuch as Taoist sects have organized), Hindus, etc… The presence of women among men gives rise to the inevitable: they become objects of lust, they arouse and are desirous, emotions that just don’t jibe with otherworldly detachment and contemplation. It’s no wonder women have been excluded.  Millions of years of evolution seems more than most men can overcome. Easier to hide women away, exclude them or, in the case of literature,  idealize them, than be around them. They become paragons of untouchable virtue and beauty. The literature pretends to ignore the raw, physical and erotic allure of women’s femininity (just as religious iconography asexualizes them). They become the angels of Renaissance painting. They symbolize an archetypal otherworldly beauty acceptable because it is, in theory, detached from physical longing. They are an idealized representation of the spiritual pursuit – it’s detached beauty. I write in theory because the iconography, ironically, transforms the other-world beauty of angels into its own kind of eroticism and homoeroticism.

  • Angel by Abbott Handerson Thayer. The painting at right comes from the end of the 19th century and early 20th . Thayer was known as a painter of Ideal Figures and his paintings of angels are his most popular and  critically recognized. The painting at right is the most famous. No other painting before or since so beautifully captures the ineffable beauty that both eroticizes and denies the erotic. The model was his daughter Mary, but absent that knowledge, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if the model was a boy. Her youth encourages a certain asexuality.

Anyway, this is my stab at some sort of explanation for the idealization of women in art, philosophy and religion. More than this requires a degree in gender studies and sociology. However, I suspect that this impulse to “asexualize” women is all part of the same spectrum (whether in art or religion). It is a desire to transform or redirect physical desire and it’s a hard place for women to inhabit. The result is that women are seen as either/or, either angels or as devils. Everything in between gets lost: girlhood, their own desires, romance, sex, childbirth, motherhood, marriage, housekeeping. That’s why Anne Bradstreet’s poem, Before the birth of one of her children, is so important.

  • The image at left is one that I found on the web. I don’t know whom to credit but clicking on the image will lead you to one possible source. There’s something about this image that appeals to me. It’s as if the conventions – the concealments and misdirections of two thousand years – have been, like clothes, stripped away. The woman behind the iconography is revealed. But even so, a new ambiguity confronts us. What do you feel when you view her? Strength or vulnerability? Eroticism or reticence? We are invited, perhaps, to recreate the angels of our desire and spirituality. Who will she be? Will she be permitted into the inner circle of our theologies – as we have made and make her? – or as she is?

The West’s Book of Poetry

The west’s poetic tradition, unlike China’s, isn’t confined to one language or society. It begins with the Greeks and Romans and from there their influence spread through the various languages of Europe.

The women of Rome, to judge by Ovid’s Amores, had more in common with China’s rambunctious women than anything idealized. Like the Chinese women, they “show few signs of inhibition and, indeed, are often the daring and resourceful initiators of [secret affairs].” One of my favorite poems by Ovid (for it’s eroticism and self-effacing good humour)   was beautifully translated by Christopher Marlowe – the greatest poet and playwright after Shakespeare and the man who was, perhaps, also Shakespeare’s elder friend, collaborator and inspiration.

Ovid’s Sixth Elegy: Book III of his Amores • Christopher Marlowe

All of Marlowe’s translations of Ovid’s Erotic poetry can be found at the Perseus Digital Library.

  • Interestingly, Ovid’s first version of the Amores (now lost) was longer and probably more explicit. Even within an artist’s lifetime, one sees a progression from the more to the less explicit.

The earliest “English” poetry is that of the Anglo-Saxons. (English, in this sense, refers more to the nation than to the language.) The degree to which the Anglo-Saxons were exposed to the great poets of Latin or Greek is debatable. However, the Anglo-Saxons were certainly exposed to Latin itself, both by the Romans and later by missionaries and their establishment of Christianity. Anglo-Saxon poetry doesn’t appear to have been influenced by the meters of Greek or Latin and I don’t know whether that was through ignorance of classical poetry or other reasons. The verse forms of Anglo-Saxon are those of its proto-germanic heritage.

The most popular and well-known understanding of Old English poetry continues to be Sievers’ alliterative verse. The system is based upon accent, alliteration, the quantity of vowels, and patterns of syllabic accentuation. It consists of five permutations on a base verse scheme; any one of the five types can be used in any verse. The system was inherited from and exists in one form or another in all of the older Germanic languages. New World Encycopedia

If Anglo-Saxon is to be considered the earliest poetry of the English language, then the Exeter Book of Riddles is the closest parallel to China’s Book of Poetry. Interestingly, and contrary to expectation, the position of women in Anglo Saxon society was more liberated (or more modern) than the ignorant barbarity of England’s 19th century legal practice. Whereas 19th century woman could expect to be left in poverty and destitution upon divorce (all their properties having become that of their husband). The women of Anglo-Saxon Britain (who were not slaves) were entitled to half their combined worth:

Within marriage, finances belonged to both the husband and the wife. This we know from wills and charters. Æthelbert’s law number 79 from the seventh century says about divorce:

If she wish to go away with her children, let her have half the property.

The greater equality of women is, I think, reflected the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons. There isn’t the same idealization of women that would become the Courtly Convention of  Chaucer’s time (the literati’s equivalent to China’s abstracted “Beautiful Woman” with her loss of self-will) – a convention from which Chaucer worked to liberate himself. The Exeter Book is full of poetic riddles that hint at erotic and sexual relationships between Anglo-Saxon men and women:

The poem/riddle roughly  translates as follows:

I’m the world’s wonder, for I make women happy
–a boon to the neighborhood, a bane to no one,
though I may perhaps prick the one who picks me.

I am set well up, stand in a bed,
have a roughish root. Rarely (though it happens)
a churl’s daughter more daring than the rest
–and lovelier! –lays hold of me,
and lays me in larder.

She learns soon enough,
the curly-haired creature who clamps me so,
of my meeting with her: moist is her eye!

(The answer to the riddle may not be what you think it is.) And here is riddle 54:

The translation comes from Hullweb’s History of Hull (the translation doesn’t follow line by line):

A young man made for the corner
where he knew she was standing;
this strapping youth had come some way –
with his own hands he whipped up her dress,

·

and under her girdle (as she stood there)
thrust something stiff, worked his will;
they both shook. This fellow quickened:
one moment he was forceful, a first rate servant,
so strenuous that the next he was knocked up,

·

quite blown by his exertion. Beneath the girdle
a thing began to grow that upstanding men
often think of, tenderly, and acquire.

To the Anglo-Saxon man, the perfect woman resembles himself

The Elizabethans

The rambunctious celebration of women if not always as sexual equals then at least as gameful erotic partners didn’t reappear until the Elizabethan Era, some six hundred years later. The Elizabethans were probably unaware of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Their models were the classical poets of Rome and as far as they were concerned, they (meaning they themselves) were the beginning of English literature. They were aware of Chaucer and Gower but they generally didn’t treat them as models.

The Elizabethans felt a more compelling link to the Roman poets with their mix of urbane wit, winking licentiousness and generous decorum. This was the poetry of empire and the Elizabethans were nothing if not a budding empire. Wit was the vapor the Elizabethans breathed. Sidney was first among the poets with his double-meaning erotic gamesmanship. That said, the reader of Sidney’s sonnets never gets a sense of Stella’s own desires and personality. She is only a vessel for Sidney’s sparkling wit.

Shakespeare, predictably enough, was the poet to breathe life into women. In his dramas, his female protagonists unabashedly match wits with men. The same liveliness can be found in Shakespeare’s  Dark Lady sonnets 127 through 154. Here is Sonnet 130 (perhaps the most famous among them):

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
….And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
….As any she belied with false compare.

And it is with this sonnet that Shakespeare does something that no poet (with the possible exception of Ovid) did before him. He turns the Patrarchan expectation, that of the perfect and unattainable woman, on its head. The eyes of Shakespeare’s mistress “are nothing like the sun”. Her breasts are dun/dark, not white. Her hair is black and wiry. She has bad breath. And yet he can’t stay away from her. This sonnet isn’t about something as brittle as beauty or spotless virtue. For Shakespeare, a woman’s perfection something else – described in the omission. It is not in her eyes, her lips, her breasts or cheeks; and the same applies for us. We are, to each other, full of flaws and shortcomings; but it’s in imperfection that lovers mysteriously find perfection – and good humor. For all the eroticism, perfection and beauty in Petrarch’s Sonnets, they aren’t funny. (Besides which, the subject isn’t really erotic poetry, but the sense that women are equals in the affairs of men and women.) The Chinese Book of Poetry, Ovid’s Amores, the Anglo-Saxton riddle-poems, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets to the dark lady (all celebrating the imperfect perfection of men and women)  are rich with wry smiles and outright laughter.

And this brings us to another reason for the abstract idealization of women. Western history teaches us that tragedy is high art and comedy is for the common crowd. Writing about women and men as they are seems to become, inescapably, the province of humor. Ipso facto, literati who wanted to be taken seriously wrote serious poetry; and serious poetry about real, imperfect women didn’t cut it. (Perfect women, it seems,  may be beautiful, but they are humorless.)

And what were women writing?

And this is a huge subject.

The post so far hardly merits a starting point. And there are many cultures whose poetic literature I’m unfamiliar with – India for example or Russia. I don’t read all that much foreign language poetry because I don’t like modern translations. Too many modern translators (heavy quotes) think its OK to translate the carefully structured verse of an original into lackluster free verse. Content isn’t enough for me. I like to get a sense for the language as well. That, to me, is what separates poetry from prose. Cervantes wrote that reading a translation was like looking at the back side of a Persian rug.

All of which is to say: If I haven’t mentioned poets I should have, it’s not because of an agenda.

Also, if any readers want to help me out and suggest other poets, please do.

That said, some poetry, I think, translates better than others. Haiku may be the most successfully translated if only because the haiku’s essence doesn’t reside in its language (to the same degree as a Shakespearean Sonnet) but in a kind of poetic outlook or philosophy. This isn’t to say there’s no wordplay in haiku, but my feeling (which could be wrong) is that the brevity of the poetic form is friendlier to annotation where translation fails.

And what interests me about Haiku is what interests me about Japanese literature in general. Of all the cultures with which I’m familiar, the Japanese, historically, seem the most accepting of women poets. In China, by contrast, there were many women poets but, at least according to the book Women Poets of China, much of their poetry went unpublished if not destroyed:

Writing poetry was an essential part of the education and the social life of any educated man in ancient China, but it was not so for a woman. Most of the poems of those who did write were not handed down to posterity. Many women’s poems were shown only to their intimates, but were never published. In some cases, the poet herself (Sun Tao-hsüsm), or the parents of the poet (Chu Shu-chen), destroyed her work so that the reputation of the clan would not be damaged. Love poems usually led to gossip that the author was an unfaithful wife. Not until the Ching Dynasty ( 1644-1911) with the promotion of several leading (male) scholars such as Yüan Mei and Ch’en Wên-shu, did writing poetry become fashionable for ladies of the scholar gentry class. [p. 139]

On a Visit to Ch’ung Chên Taoist Temple
I see in the South Hall the List of
Successful Candidates in the Imperial Examinations
(9th Century)

Cloud capped peaks fill the eyes
In the Spring sunshine.
Their names are written in beautiful characters
And posted in order of merit.
How I hate this silk dress
That conceals a poet.
I lift my head and read their names
In powerless envy.

Yü Hsüan-Chi  [p. 19 Women Poets of China]

Japan, by contrast, seems to have been almost modern in its acceptance women’s poetry (if not women themselves). The world’s first (generally accepted) novel was written in Japan and by a women, Murasaki Shikibu, and is considered by most to be a work of genius. I’ve read it. I’m trying to encourage my wife to read it. But it’s not poetry, and curiously Japan never produced narrative poetry on the scale of an Iliad or Odyssey.

For whatever reason the Japanese aesthetic has always preferred shorter forms. Perhaps because of this, and because of the deliberately impersonal and ephemeral nature of haiku, the influence of gender is hard to pinpoint. Classical Haiku are not meant to be about the poet. The same autobiographical embarrassments that worried Chinese poets didn’t apply to haiku. This, if for no other reason, probably made the haiku of women acceptable (if they were even recognized as being by women).

It meant that the haiku poet Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) could travel the Japanese countryside like the great poet Basho (who died shortly before her birth). Whereas Basho clothed himself like a monk, Chiyo-ni travelled as a Buddhist nun. It’s worth noting also (and which may also have played a part in the acceptability of women poets) that there was no tradition of publications by individual poets. When haiku (or Tanka) were published, they were usually small print runs – anthologies of current poets. I’ve read that at the height of the form (mid 17th century) fully 1 in 20 of Japan’s population regularly wrote haiku. Anthologizing, I think, also made it easier for women poets to see their work in print. The result is that a poet like Chiyo-ni was appreciated, not as a woman poet (or not entirely) but on the merit of her poetry.

  • It seems Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master has become somewhat of a rarity, and that means Amazon resellers are trying to retire on it. The original price is $14.95 (I own it). If you want a copy and can find a copy close to that price, then you’re doing well.

However, the very thing that may have allowed women to participate in the writing of haiku, their aesthetic of the impersonal , also makes it hard to distinguish them from men. Japanese critics are fond of saying Basho’s haiku are like daimonds and Chiyo-ni’s are like pearls.

how terrifying
her rouged fingers
against the white chrysanthemums

woman’s desire
deeply rooted –
the wild violets

butterfly
you also get mad
some days                            [pp. 84-85]

The only woman in the Western tradition (to my knowledge) who wrote with any sort of sexual freedom (prior to the 20th century) wrote in ancient Greece   – Sappho – born sometimes between 630 and 612 BC. Very little of her poetry remains, but her fame as a poet was and is well-recorded.

Of course I love you

Of course I love you
but if you love me,
marry a young woman!

I couldn’t stand it
to live with a young
man, I being older.

One Girl

I

Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough,
A-top on the topmost twig–which the pluckers forgot, somehow–
Forget it not, nay, but got it not, for none could get it till now.

II

Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found,
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound,
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

And their feet move

And their feet move
rhythmically, as tender
feet of Cretan girls
danced once around an
altar of love, crushing
a circle in the soft smooth flowering grass

More of Sappho’s poetry can be found at Poemhunter.

Why did so few of Sappho’s poems survive? In a word: Christianity.

History tells us that Christians destroyed her poetry around 380 A.D., prompted by Pope Gregory Nazianzen. To be sure the job was done right, Pope Gregory VII organized another book burning in 1073 A.D.. The reasons for her poetry’s destruction haven’t survived, but it’s not hard to speculate. It was probably a combination of her perceived paganism and her open sexuality (as opposed to her reputed sexual orientation – which didn’t become an issue until much later).

There were other Hellenistic women poets and if you’re interested in pursuing the subject, a (fee based) article can be found at JSTOR: Hellenistic Women Poets.

The women of Rome lived in a more liberated time than the earlier Greek poets. However, the only woman whose poetry survives is Sulpicia. What little survives hints at a woman who, like Sappho, wrote freely about herself and her identity.

At last. It’s come. Love,
the kind that veiling
will give me reputation more
than showing my soul naked to someone.
I prayed to Aphrodite in Latin, in poems;
she brought him, snuggled him
into my bosom.
Venus has kept her promises:
let her tell the story of my happiness,
in case some woman will be said
not to have had her share.
I would not want to trust
anything to tablets, signed and sealed,
so no one reads me
before my love–
but indiscretion has its charms;
it’s boring
to fit one’s face to reputation.
May I be said to be
a worthy lover for a worthy love.

More of Sulpicia’s poetry can be found at Stoa.org.

After the fall of Rome and (probably not coincidentally) the rise of Christianity, women’s poetic voices are increasingly silent and silenced. It takes just over a thousand years before Marie de France appears – an Anglo-Norman poet.  Project Gutenburg, increasingly my all-time favorite literary resource on the net, has made
the French Mediaeval Romances from the Lays of Marie de France by Marie de France available as a free E-Book. Don’t expect anything self-revelatory in Marie de France’s writing. Hers was a new age and a world apart. That is, the poets of Rome and Greece were long gone and unknown. Marie de France was writing in a tradition and convention defined by male poets. It would be another 700 years or so (18th and 19th century) before women began liberating themselves from the convention of the perfect woman – before they began writing about themselves, their lives and defining themselves.

During that time, the writings of Mary Sidney and Emilia Lanier (claimed to be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady by A.L. Rose) are relatively conventional. While Lanier’s Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is rightfully called our first proto-feminist work, and while Lanier was the first woman in the English language to declare herself a poet, we get no sense of Lanier’s own identity through her poetry. The poem remains a conventionally literary (and characteristically Elizabethan) work that sets forth a forceful argument in defense of women. Of the women poets of the Elizabethan era, Lady Mary Wroth is, to me, the most compelling. You can find her works at Luminariam. The following sonnet, by Wroth, plays a curious game with prevailing Elizabethan gender roles. Many poems were written (Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to his Love being the most famous) urging women to let down their guard. Wroth knows full well that she shouldn’t, assumes the role convention expects, but also, in the end, surrenders to the same “joyes” to which men are entitled.

Am I thus conquer’d?  have I lost the powers,
….That to withstand which joyes to ruine me? *
….Must I bee still, while it my strength devoures,
….And captive leads me prisoner bound, unfree?

Love first shall leave men’s fant’sies to them free,
….Desire shall quench love’s flames, spring hate sweet showers,
….Love shall loose all his Darts, have sight, and see
….His shame and wishings, hinder happy houres.

Why should we not Love’s purblinde charmes resist?
….Must we be servile, doing what he list?
….No, seeke some host to harbour thee:  I fly

Thy Babish tricks, and freedome doe professe;
….But O, my hurt makes my lost heart confesse:
….I love, and must; so farewell liberty.

* …have I lost the powers [to withstand that] which joyes to ruine me?

One senses a uniquely feminine perspective when reading Mary Wroth’s poems, but she still wrote firmly within expected conventions. And this is why Anne Bradstreet, writing about the same time, is such a rarity. While her initial poems are conventionally literary, her later, highly personal poems are a miracle. She is unique. Her few, later, personal poems assume a woman’s voice with as much passion as anything written by the ancient Greek and Roman poets.

My feeling is that women were defined (or trapped) by the convention of the perfect woman – asexual, virtuous, untouched and untouchable. Since I’ve always felt that the various arts share trends and attitudes (how can they not?) the depiction of the Angel, at least to me, parallels the expectation of women in art and society. After the classical era of Roma and Greece in the West, and the Book of Poetry in the East, thousands of years ebbed and flowed before women were free to define themselves in their writings. Some might argue that they’re still constrained; but if so, those constraints have never been weaker.

One last poet I haven’t mentioned (though there are, no doubt, others I’m unaware of): Al-Khansa (image at left) – an Islamic poet of the 7th century whose work was admired by Muhammad. Her poetry precedes Islam and is later influenced by it (through Muhammad himself). The poetry is beautiful but very different from a Sappho. The reader only very indirectly gets a sense of the poet’s personality and desires.

I look forward to ideas and recommendations from readers.

from up in Vermont

August 5, 2010