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.