Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

What exactly is a masculine style?

Yesterday, someone (I think it might have been the Poetry Foundation, but I could be very wrong) tweeted this piece from Drexel University, and it made me sad, frankly. It’s an advice column of sorts for poets. Here’s the question(s):

I think of poetry as a boys’ club. Do female poets have to learn to write in a “masculine” style to gain any praise for their poems?
— Sarah, Malden, Massachusetts

P.S. Do you know of any good poems about female relationships?

The question made me sad on a number of levels, but the one that hurt the most was the idea that this woman might feel the need to regender herself in order to find acceptance for her work. Kristin Hoggatt, who answered the question, is right to a certain extent when she says poetry is a boy’s club. Things have improved since the 70’s, and I’d like to see some updated numbers from the ones Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young put together in 2007 (there’s a good linkfest here on the discussion) where they found that, on the average, women were getting roughly 38% of the poetry pie in 2005. I suspect there’s still a long way to go before women reach anything near parity in terms of representation.

I’ve discovered in the last year or two that the new poetry I’ve enjoyed most has been written largely by women, and it’s not because the women I’ve been reading took on a masculine style, at least not in the way I think of that term.

But it’s the term that’s the problem, isn’t it? What exactly does “masculine style” mean? Hoggatt sidesteps the question, and I don’t blame her–I’m tempted to do it myself, because the question reeks of stereotypes and prescribed gender roles. Masculine, traditionally, is assumed to mean strong, muscular, active, less worried about emotion (and perhaps about meaning), dangerous, innovative, risk-taking, experimental. Which is crap, because there’s nothing inherently masculine about any of those traits, just as there’s nothing particularly feminine about poetry which is more introspective or driven by emotion. If we assign a gender construct to these values, that’s on us as readers, editors, writers–it’s not on the poets themselves.

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s likely that Sarah probably had some sexist folks either workshop some of her poems or read them in some other context, and they derided her work as weak or girly, which is why she’s sort of asking for permission to toughen up, as it were, and write like a guy. My response to Sarah is this: anyone who would tell you that your work needs to be more masculine to be accepted isn’t a good reader, period. Not just not a good reader for you–not a good reader at all. I remain convinced that the strongest, most innovative poetry out there today is being written mostly by women, and I promise you, they’re not adopting a masculine style in order to be accepted. They’re writing in their own strong, confident voices; they’re challenging tradition and power structure and form; they’re innovating and taking risks and stretching the boundaries of what’s considered poetry.

We’ve published a fair number of these women at The Rumpus, as well as reviewed them, with more to come. Keep an eye out for them.

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June 11, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

10 Comments »

  1. masculine/feminine are completely arbitrary cultural constructs, but that said, there is definitely a difference in how most readers approach a text that has “Jane” written at the top of the page as opposed to “Jim”; we still live in a word where women audiences empathize with and follow male characters without flinching while audiences made up of boys and men mostly reject stories featuring female characters (girls enjoy thrillers, boys eschew “chick flicks”); things made “for men” in an exaggerated way are considered “cool” while things made “for women” in an exaggerated way are considered pathetic (compare the Lifetime network to Spike TV; etc.); and poetry isn’t some pure universe above the rest of the culture: there are many who see “William” or “Robert” on the cover of a book and think, “that’s serious poetry,” but if they see “Sara” or “Emily” on the front of a book they think, “that’s women’s poetry”; and by this scheme “women’s” comes to mean something exclusive from “serious”; even the rare long-dead canonized woman poet is valued for her cuteness and quirkiness above all: Dickinson, Plath. There is no woman held in regard similar to Eliot or Pound or Yeats or Stevens or Ashbury or or or…

    Comment by amy | June 11, 2010 | Reply

  2. There is no woman held in regard similar to Eliot or Pound or Yeats or Stevens or Ashbury or or or…

    Well, that poetry, like other arts has been for the most part until recently a closed shop is undeniable. But among contemporary poets for the past several decades, the above statement hardly seems true. I prefer Whitman to Dickinson, but know many, many who disagree with me. Eliot as a poet seems to have stood up to the test of time, but Pound, to me at least, however much I appreciate his essays, appears florid, affected, and not nearly so interesting as Gertrude Stein. John Ashbury–a gigantic ho hum; I could name a dozen women poets writing today that deliver in ways he cannot begin to imagine. Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva certainly were the equals of Pasternak and Mandelstam, and in part because of their womanly perspective. Of course as in all aspects of society a sexist underestimation and double standard exists for women in poetry, among critics, academics, and some male poets as well, but insofar as poetry has a future as an artform, such attitudes are ridiculous.

    Comment by CitizenE | June 11, 2010 | Reply

    • Ashbery

      Comment by Matt | June 11, 2010 | Reply

      • Silly as it may seem, not everyone, and certainly not most of the poets I have known think a whole lot of John Ashbery. Critics and the pub business certainly find his poetry substantial. To me, his poetry has all the flavor of slippery elm powder, but some people think that technique is all that matters; I’m not one of them–witty word play, pardon my silliness, a great big ho hum.

        Comment by CitizenE | June 12, 2010

    • “…ways he cannot begin to imagine”

      a pretty silly thing to say, since ashbery imagines better than almost everyone, especially you.

      Comment by Matt | June 11, 2010 | Reply

      • And this by Cesar Vallejo:

        A cripple walks by, giving his arm to a child.

        Am I going to read, then, Andre Breton?

        Another shivers with cold, coughs, spits blood.

        To play ever at alluding to the profound I?

        Comment by CitizenE | June 12, 2010

  3. I think there are differences between male and female voices and styles but I don’t think it’s fair to judge the quality of their work with a lens of stereotype. Too often poems written by women are praised for being “sensual,” while poems written by men receive stronger adjectives.

    I like an equal number of male and female poets, but there is no one I like specifically because of the way their poems slant towards gender, stylistically or otherwise. It seems like a backstep to try and define masculine writing. A strong poem is a strong poem.

    I was once writing a fiction story from a male perspective and a professor told me to use The Gender Genie (http://bookblog.net/gender/genie.php). I was disappointed when it correctly guessed my gender, and altered the story accordingly. The algorithm was based on a lot of the stereotypes you mention: It assumed men talk more about objects, and women more about relationships. It assumed that women use more pronouns and men use more words that identify or determine nouns, as well as words that quantify them. Obviously, fiction is different than poetry, but when I played with the site by writing my poetry in sentence form, I still came out female every time.

    I don’t think that women stand to benefit from molding to a “masculine” stereotype. But I also don’t think that women should feel restricted to the more feminine sensual poems they’re supposed to be writing. Basically, what I’m saying is that a good poem will enter your mind and take over. A good poem will penetrate and make it’s presence known. It might be masculine or feminine in style, but those things won’t be the source of its power.

    Comment by Hannah Miet | June 11, 2010 | Reply

  4. “Masculine” in my ears refers to sex not gender. Even here in Norway the translator (a man) of my first book told me that the work was really “just confessional” since it was mainly about childbirth and nursing. He said it wasn’t universal. I asked if lusting after women or male masturbation techniques were more universal… plenty of poetry and literature about both of those things.

    Comment by renkat | June 11, 2010 | Reply

  5. […] 12, 2010 · Leave a Comment Poet Brian Spears tries to answer a question about a “masculine style” in poetry and,he answers it briefly by suggesting the question is flawed, based on gender stereotypes. In his […]

    Pingback by Feminaissance of poetry « ] Outside The Lines [ | June 12, 2010 | Reply

  6. I think a “masculine style” now means a calm, measured, tepid style never reaching “too high” or descending “too low” emotionally–gone is the ideal of the mercurial poet currently pathologized as bipolar. The poetry of the Romantic poets now would be seen as too feminine and a modernized Romantic poet, male or female, writing now would have trouble being recognized or treated seriously. I have an acquaintance who is a very talented Canadian poet and he couldn’t find a publisher for his book which is essentially modernized Romantic poetry, but if he had lived during the Romantic period he would have been seen as a true poet. Last week I was at a poetry conference and my poetry book “Welcoming” was on display alongside several others. I like the image on the cover of the book which is of a curvy vase with a figure inside holding flowers; a very feminine image of a paiting that was done in soft pastels. I noticed that no one was picking up the “cute little book” and other books with the colours black, off white and brown were more attention getting. I chatted with someone about cover images and he said he preferred ones with “stronger” colours like black, off white and brown as they suggested more serious books….

    Comment by Andrea Nicki | June 14, 2010 | Reply


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