What is a competition if not a 'golden arena / Of dedicated action'?
The 'traditional' areas of women's poetry have been regarded as the home, family, and love. Add to this the more recent 'the condition of being a woman' (viz. UAF). According to the stereotypes described in the previous posts, we might find this traditional area presented as an' impossible junction'. We don't necessarily expect the men's poetry to be about motorboats and yachting, gardening, landscapes near Parma, or indeed, The Double Vortex. But it might be. Would the women's then be about that 'impossible junction'? Might we, on the stereotypical basis, expect men's and women's poems to be distinguishable by subject matter? And, if so, would one automatically estimate an average poem about the double vortex to be better than an average poem about being a woman?
There is a passage in Rimbaud's correspondence that I give first in French, then in Oliver Bernard's English translation:
Ces poëtes seront! Quand sea brisé l'infini servage de la femme, quand elle vivra pour elle et par elle, l'homme, - jusqu'ici abominable, - lui ayant donné son renvoi, elle sera poëte, ell aussi! La femme trouvera de l'iconnu! Ses mondes d'idées différont-ils des nôtres? - Elle trouvera des choses étrange, insondables, repoussantes, delicieuses; nour les prendons, nous les comprendons.
Poets like this will exist! When the unending servitude of women is broken, when she lives by and for herself, when man - hitherto abominable - has given her her freedom, she too will be a poet! Woman will discover part of the unknown! Will her world of ideas be different from ours? She will discover things strange and unfathomable, repulsive and delicious. We shall take them unto ourselves, we shall understand them.
Ringing words, no? He wrote this to Paul Demeny on 15 May 1871 when he was just sixteen. It is the time of the Paris Commune, but he is in Charleville.
A strong romantic impulse carries the boy to the imagining of a specifically female understanding, not so much of herself, as of the 'world of ideas'.
The world of ideas isn't highlights from the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the Readers Digest of Great Thinkers. The ideas Rimbaud means, are, I assume, embedded, visceral, embodied, emerging out of the mind-body. That world is the opposite of the common-place. He expresses great enthusiasm for it, for the strange, unfathomabe, repulsive and delicious.
I think I would too. I would in so far as it was the truth, or felt like the truth, not like a proposition but a sense of being-in-the-world. I suspect it already exists in the best poems, whether by men or women, and that artists are neither stereotypical male nor stereotypical female.
There is in the best poems a kind of hidden largeness beyond the self or the self-image, a sense, if you like, of the world bursting through language: the unknown. Poetry is nothing if not the unknown. It may be, of course, that the unknown works through the sense of self, through that stereotypical kindly, intelligent, female magazine face, through it as through a landscape that emerges onto a different, larger, unknown landscape.
Maybe this unknown landscape is what both men and women competition judges look for in poems. And they find it in Alice Oswald and in Kathleen Jamie and in Jo Shapcott and in Jen Hadfield. They don't tend to find it in stereotypical men's poems about gardening, motorboats and yachting, landscapes near Parma or the Double Helix. Maybe this looked-for thing is a non-stereotypical thing. Maybe more men are likely to be obsessive, ludicrous and vainglorious enough to set out for such places and look very foolish in failing. Maybe the cavey-breeder dreaming of glory is obsessed enough to the point of breeding a prize-winning guinea pig in the golden arena of dedicated action.
Maybe it is only that. Germaine Greer once pointed out that the average woman is brighter and copes better than the average man. This may well be true - I couldn't possibly comment - but she notes the men at the extremes. One end of the extreme is dire, the other is oddly brilliant. The majority of the better poems in any competition may be by women. It may be that the best and the worst are by men.
Maybe it is that. Maybe it is something else. I don't know. The fact is I don't think about it. I think Rimbaud's notion is exciting (and more than a touch boyish - wow! bang! whizz!). I also think that the details of everyday, non-bang, whizz, wow life are infinitely precious, that ordinary, dull Wednesdays are as miraculous as life on Saturn.
So I don't prefer poems about Saturn to poems about dull Wednesdays. What I want is the sense, in Wednesday, that Saturn exists and that we acknowledge its existence. Without that sense there can be no golden arena, however dedicated the action.
That, by the way, is why I so admired Helen Mort's winning poem in Cafewriters.