Saturday, 2 January 2010

Bloody women poets

On New Year's Eve I spent hours in the kitchen preparing heaps of food. Like a lot of people I work much better in the kitchen with music or radio to keep me company and one thing I listened to the other day was Radio 4's Woman's Hour (I listen to it about four times a year...usually in the holidays). I managed to hit their end of the year poetry round-up special and you can hear it here until the morning of 7th January or thereabouts (if you're somewhere where the BBC i-player is accessible that is...).

It's a great programme – interviews with Jen Hadfield, Carol Ann Duffy, Sharon Olds and Alice Oswald as well as a few words on Elizabeth Alexander's Obama inauguration poem, a fair chunk of Sylvia Plath, a note about the Ruth Padel Oxford business...all this plus in-studio guests Fiona Sampson and Sarah Churchwell. It was all good stuff (though I especially enjoyed the Olds section and the contributions from Churchwell...I must be in an American mood just now).

Here's a quote or two from the programme...taken completely out of context, of course, and with punctuation put in by me (i.e. a bit slapdash – apologies to these no doubt highly professional women of perfect punctuation).

Carol Ann Duffy
“Poetry for me is a secular prayer”

Alice Oswald
“I do see poetry as a kind of music”

Fiona Sampson (editor of 'Poetry Review') on the subject of women critics/reviewers:
“Certainly there is a problem for women critics...that is to say there aren't many women critics in poetry and whether that's because criticism is somehow assumed to be macho and destructive (whereas in fact of course close reading can be extremely nurturing), or whether it's because critical practice is seen as somehow geeky and anoraky and sort of the engine room rather than the elegant liner of the beautifully finished creative task, or whether it's because there is quite a problem with women's authority (which I suggest is probably closer to the truth) or whether, fourthly, women are still more likely to multi-task and when they do actually have time away from earning their living and looking after the kids they want to be writing their own poems...for one reason or another at the moment, in the middle generation, there aren't many women critics.”

That last one...it's interesting. I studied literature (not English Lit as it happens but it easily could have been) and I remember at uni thinking how life-draining lit crit was (particularly at that time – the late 1980s). I hated it because it seemed to me so often to be either deathly dull or overwhelmingly, and quite unnecessarily, overcomplicated and it quite likely put me off hanging around in literature at that time. Years later and back involved with the work of words, I do, every now and again, write about other poets' work on here but I couldn't be further from a person who wants to be a critic (and I suppose I am loosely of that 'middle generation' Sampson mentions...). I know reviews can be interesting and worthwhile (sometimes...maybe...) but it does often feel like life's too short to wade through...well, an ocean of them to find out for sure. Plus...so often I feel that poetry doesn't really need reviews (or it shouldn't). A good poem is its own review...isn't it? That's one of the things I like about it (it can cut out the middle man, if you like).

It's worth listening to the whole programme if you can.

x

34 comments:

Dianne said...

Thanks, and I still appreciate constructive comments on my stuff,
I relish it as a matter of fact.

Happy new day,
Dianne

The Solitary Walker said...

I think there's a place for literary criticism. Not a big place, not the most important place - but a place. In its widest sense, we do it all the time, whether we formalize it in writing or not - compare, evaluate, judge, opine, come to an opinion about, discuss, criticize. And all this is to the good - particularly if we can back up what we say, and as long as it's an attempt to be intelligent, meaningful criticism.

Life's too short to wade through stuff that doesn't appeal - and that goes for newspaper reviews and literary criticism just as it does for anything else. And there's a lot of dry as dust, prejudiced, opinionated rubbish out there. But there's also lots of good stuff too. For instance, Eliot's critical essays had a huge effect on me at one time. And Lawrence's critical stuff on other writers - though boundlessly one-sided and, one suspects, often jealous - can be wonderfully entertaining and insightful. I could go on... Actually the best writers often make the best critics too.

As to why there aren't more women critics, I'm not sure - but I think there may be something in that multi-tasking argument.

I've heard that quote about poetry being a 'secular prayer' before. I like this idea a lot.

Rachel Fox said...

Hi Dianne
Happy January to you too.

And SW...yes, I don't disagree with you (do I ever?) and maybe it's a bit of a personal matter (formal and analytical=not my thing...) but maybe the key is in there with your bit about 'place'. Where is the place for lit crit? For me it's very low down the list of importance a lot of the time (and yet without reviews in the right places a poet is nothing...). Yes, I do some critting here from time to time (but only when I really have to!)and yes, I'm aware there are people who read the likes of 'Poetry Review' and enjoy it but I've tried (a whole year's subscription back in the late '90s/early '00s some time) and it didn't keep my eyes on the page. To me the crit takes the life out of poetry to an extent (and again that is just a personal view...of course!). Listen to the radio programme and Oswald's section about how she likes people to read her poetry (out loud, stomping about the room)...there's a link there...let it be sound and vigour and spiky...let it not be analysed within an inch of its life (and beyond...). Oh no...I can feel that academia allergy coming on again...See what you've done?

x

The Solitary Walker said...

I don't think I'd like to read Oswald's poetry 'stomping about the room'! Can't imagine why she said that. Her poetry is far too delicate and reflective for stomping around to!

Sorry I may have brought on your allergy. How about a quick lie-down in a darkened room listening to a Lemn Sissay CD? That should cure it. Or do you have more cakes to bake, multi-tasking person that you are?

Rachel Fox said...

The 'stomping about the room' was me sort of paraphrasing...I'm going to have to go and get the proper quote now!
A woman's work is never done...
x

Rachel Fox said...

OK, what Oswald says is (in answer to a question about how she likes her poetry to be read):

"Ideally people would stand up, read out loud and wave their arms about and stamp their feet. I do see poetry as a kind of music and I'm very interested in all those little taps and clicks and breaths that punctuate a poem that aren't actually words. And sometimes when I'm writing I do punch them in the air or tap my foot to bring that out."

Then she goes on to talk about the difference between reading poetry and reading novels. Worth a trip over the beeb to listen.

Now can I go and walk the dog, brush the child's hair, have some breakfast etc.? Honestly!

x

sunnydunny said...

I just caught the end of the programme, so I must listen to it properly. I read reviews, but when they get too analytical and/or academic I get turned off. I mostly react to poetry on an emotional level.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Thanks for the link, I'll try to remember to pop over and listen.

I reviewed regularly for a website for a while, but it was a place where reviews where expected to be respectful and constructive, which is the kind of review I'm happy with. Not that i think you shouldn't say anything negative, but i do think that a lot of reviews in a lot of publications tend to be unnecessarily negative, the reviewer (usually you're right, male) showing off his superior intelligence by being cuttingly clever. I occasionally post about other people's work on my blog, but only if I've liked their work and as a sort of 'you may want to read thins' signpost, rather than any pretence of reviewing as such. It is however an interesting intellectual exercise to look at work that closely and I've found it helped me to become more aware of my own poetry.

sunnydunny said...

I've now listened to the programme, Rachel, and I found it very interesting. One truly weird and unexpected thing - because I'm a fan - was that when Alice Oswald was reading her poem it made me think of The Walrus and the Carpenter. Same rhythm, maybe. I don't have heroes, but if I had poetry heroes Sharon Olds would be one of them. No-one else writes about our body-based humanity as well as she does. And the discussion of 'women's poetry' as distinct from just 'poetry' reminded me how far we've got to go to achieve real equality, to which I'm passionately committed.

Rachel Fox said...

SD Colin...on your first point...I think you're probably understating your reaction to poetry there. The reaction we recognise in ourselves is the emotional one but most of us (even the biggest philistines amongst us...) react to poetry in a myriad of different ways (some of which we are much better off NOT analysing too much!). The idea that academic folk have a complicated reaction and the rest of us a simpler one is an easy thought to think but I don't think it's right at all. They just use more words to describe their reactions. And they get published.

CGP - you'll love the programme I think - it's a great way to start the year. After listening to it I feel full of excitement and enthusiasm about women writing poetry (and being appreciated for what they do - now that's new!). Your comments about criticism place you perhaps in Sampson's first group of reasons why women might not be critics (preferring constructive to destructive...or as she puts it preferring nurturing to macho attack). Certainly Carol Ann Duffy talked about that subject on her South Bank Show appearance last year (I watched that over Xmas too). It's a nice idea to think of women as nurturing (and of course many are) but I've met some horrible macho women in my time too (not particularly in poetry though...maybe they're off doing something more thrusting...).

x

Rachel Fox said...

And SD Colin...your second comment...glad you enjoyed the programme. I have read some Olds (and read our friend Swiss singing her praises too) but after this interview I am keen to read more (I loved a lot of what she said...and the way she said it). I read a few snidey comments online last year about her being up for a prize of late (the TSE, I think?)...shame about that kind of thing. Silly. Only makes the person saying it look/sound foolish/envious/petty.

Hang on - have I ever been snidey on here? Maybe now and again but I've usually paid for it and/or withdrawn it. It is easy to be snidey but it's stupid, usually. There's a big difference between a silly, snidey remark and real, clever humour (and between snidey comments and well thought-out criticism too).

As for the 'women's poetry vs poetry' thing in the programme...I think that attitude is really on its way out of the door. Maybe in academia it's still an issue but for readers and fans I think poets like, say, CA Duffy and Kathleen Jamie are so central and successful and respected that it really is a thing of the past in many people's minds. At least I hope so! Academia will catch up eventually.
x

BarbaraS said...

I can never decide whether I lke reviews or not, or even doing them... but I suppose the reason why I would like them, is that I have to read everything more closely. Sounds like an interesting prog, Rachel, I would have enjoyed that. Anyway the year has turned anew, hope it brings you lots of things :)

Rachel Fox said...

Can you get i-player in Ireland, Barbara? I seem to remember someone saying that you can't. Shame - there's some great stuff on there and this programme was right up your street.
x

Rachel Fox said...

And I think maybe you are a bit like me, Barbara...writing a review once in a while is OK but doing it regularly, maybe even getting to the point where you have to do them quickly, bash through them because it's a job...then they would be hell (and pointless...).
x

Claire A said...

I think Fiona Sampson's definition of literary criticism would be very different to Solitary Walker's, here: "compare, evaluate, judge, opine, come to an opinion about, discuss, criticize". All very well, but expressing an opinion about something, or even writing a review, doesn't make you a literary critic. For me, literary criticism isn't your opinion of a poet or book (whether you put it in writing or not), but dedicated research and study, the end result of which discusses poetics as a whole (the impact of a certain poet/book/movement on poetics, or whatever). Literary criticism to me is (not exclusively, but usually) to be found in essays, dissertations, journals, anthologies and textbooks -- which to most people probably sounds rather outdated and stuffy. In a world where 'everyone's a critic' (ie, we can all express our opinions about books, rattle off blog reviews and give our damning verdicts/glowing recommendations instantly on Twitter and Facebook), do readers want -- or more importantly, need -- essays on How Poetry Does X anymore? Sampson makes the good point that no one has the time to write the stuff (precisely because it's a damn sight more complicated than dashing off a blogpost or whatever), but I think there's also a possiblity that no one wants/needs to read it anymore. We can easily find out whether X poetry book is a 'must buy' or 'waste of time' or whatever by Googling it... why do we need to read a research paper?

(NB: Personally, I'm all for lit crit, but I'm currently reading a literary PhD, so go figure. But I think Colin summed it up perfectly: "when they get too analytical and/or academic I get turned off." That's a reaction from someone who's very much involved in the poetry world -- so imagine how your average wo/man on the street feels about lit crit!)

Claire A said...

I really feel the need too to draw the line between reviews and literary criticism. They are not the same thing -- I certainly don't think Sampson is talking about reviewing when she says "critical practice." We're so immersed in this all-access generation (not a bad thing, necessarily!), that we really believe the hype that we're all critics! What Sampson's talking about here, I feel, is something more complex and less accessible -- and that's precisely where the problem lies, methinks!

(Now why couldn't I just have said that in my first comment, instead of rambling, eh?!)

Rachel Fox said...

Have you listened to the programme, Claire? It's well worth it. And you would hear that what she is talking about is people writing in 'Poetry Review' (and in that case she means both book reviews and longer more, researched pieces I would imagine). Maybe she will drop by and tell us for sure!

And yes, it seems you have at least one foot in academia now! You can help make it a better place I'm sure. And I am not entirely anti-critic - I very much enjoyed Sarah Churchwell's contributions to the programme and she is an academic and critic, isn't she?

And why can't we all be critics (now and again...when we feel like it)? You (one of the younger visitors) must know that roles are a lot more flexible than they used to be (I'm the in-between generation...and my mother the get-one-job-and-stick-in-it-till-retirement bunch). OK this can't apply with brain surgery or oil drilling (just watched 'There will be blood') but in the arts...yes, things can change, people come and go, very, very little is set in stone.

x

Rachel Fox said...

I wouldn't go overboard on the difference between reviews and lit crit though, Claire, because I think there is an overlap. For example 'Poetry Review' is a fairly academic publication but it is read by a slightly wider audience (I imagine) than just English lecturers and students (poets come from all walks after all...). On the other hand some of the really academic lit crit is only read by students and their teachers (and some of them barely manage to stay awake..). I read quite a lot of 'proper' lit crit whilst at uni (back in't dark ages) and my god do they know how to say something simple but stretch it out to fill a book! Sometimes I wish I'd just done medecine or something useful...

x

swiss said...

which is one of the reasons i won;t go on and on and on about all the above.

no, really, i won't....

but, on the poetry front it was the following

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pd34q

that made me laugh most over the festove period. one for those who liked their nursery rhymes.

Rachel Fox said...

Have you read the Mark Steel book I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Swiss? Might be one for you. I just LOVED it...and indeed would be (right now) setting up a cult in his name were it not for the icy roads and well, some other stuff (like I hate cults...).
x

swiss said...

the mark steel book? haven't read it but would if i came across it. i like mark steel esp the things he did for the ou a few years back.

none of which should disguise the fact i'm resenting you for making me listen to that woman's hour debacle. i feel like setting myself on fire. or never reading another line of poetry. forever. aside from your woman from whatever university who can barely string a coherent thread of thought from one sentence to the next there's all that bollocks about 'courageous' poetry and 'getting permission'. wtf! and that was before the whole patronage/university ridiclousness at the end.

i had to listen to it in two bits. i skipped the whole plath part as standing out in the snow in my bare feet while hitting myself in the face with a rock was more wildly entertaining. t could se where it was going and, being less fulminant than me, but no less annoyed, gently swutched it off.

which only allowed me to hear sharon olds saying she had no imagination. aside from that being profoundly depressing i fear it's got her cast into the wendy cope pile of i'm never going to read you again.

only alice oswald saved it from despair for me.

Rachel Fox said...

Now, see... I just enjoyed it.
x

swiss said...

i know, i know ut well it just woudn't be me if i didn't go off on one. sadly, tragically predictable! ho hum....

Rachel Fox said...

My thing used to be wildly overreacting complaint letters (I wrote to newspapers, magazines, companies, anywhere!). I have stopped now though...there were just too many things to complain about. And it got tiring...
x

Rachel Fox said...

And I hope you didn't do any permanent damage with the rock. Or to the rock.
x

Rachel Fox said...

OK, I went back and listened to the Olds bit again. I can understand why some people (particularly some people who write) would hate what she said in that interview but I really didn't. Some writers work more with the (conventional) imagination and some are more tweakers of bits of life in words. I'm certainly more the latter (and we are a bit the lowest of the low amongst poets, it can seem) so I'm quite pleased to hear someone talk down (if you like) the importance of the imagination in their own work (and she is only talking about her own work...not suggesting that anyone else should do the same). Maybe you are more imaginative, Swiss...enjoy it then and bash your head less!

As a person who only studied poetry by men in school (great men but men all the same...) I am just glad that there are women poets being given some day of now just now! This was a whole programme of very different women poets (some I admire, some I couldn't give a toss about) but all the same...a whole programme. I won't hate it, I just won't!

x

Sorlil said...

I see I'm really late at joining this conversation but I can't see what all the fuss is about, I enjoyed the programme! Perhaps I missed something - was feeding, winding, changing nappies etc whilst listening!

Rachel Fox said...

How apt, Sorlil, how apt!
x

deemikay said...

I like: "A good poem is its own review...isn't it?"

Replace that with "piece of art" and it still works. :)

deemikay said...

Oh, and as always... I'd say there's a difference between reviews and criticism. A review is just, well, a review. But a piece of criticism should be something else.

Many reviewers think they're critics when they're anything but...

(And you'll know I'll love the Alice OSwald quote. It is indeed all about the song.)

Rachel Fox said...

I read your comment and thought 'who's that "its own review" quote from...don't remember that in the programme...not bad...' And it was me! Hah!

x

Rachel Fox said...

I think there are critics who sometimes write reviews and reviewers who sometimes get further into literary criticism. I don't think there's always such clear divide.

And I'm not really bovvered in all honesty. I think some of the academia around arts and literature gets a bit carried away with itself. I had a look in there once but there was just too much talking (I know, the cheek!). Blah, blah, blah...

x

deemikay said...

Yes indeed... it you. :) Poughbuoy may steal it though...

And I proobably (as always) didn't say enough about reviews/criticis... yes, the gray area is quite large and people can do both (just pick up any issue of the TLS). But we should see them as different things, even if produced by the same person. Or something. :os

Rachel Fox said...

Oh, I think a lot of the people who need to know already know...and lots of other people couldn't give a flying fox!

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