Thursday, 1 April 2010

Competitions: the patriarchy 3 / (the golden arena)

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.


Mark Granier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Granier said...

'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.'

Very nicely said George, and thanks for the lovely Rimbaud. My own poems tend to mosey between life on Saturn and the sinkhole of the week (where one of Saturn's missing rings went). I am probably better at the sinkhole stuff, often sneeringly referred to as 'epiphany poems' or 'poems where nothing happens'.

I agree with most of what you've said on these three posts, probably all of it. But then I am already one of the converts, obviously, having spitefully X'ed my Y in the womb.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello George,

Interesting to read this post (and the previous) and your remarkable quotation from Rimbaud. What is astounding in Rimbaud is that he saw (at sixteen) the necessity to break "the unending servitude of women". For someone like that, we can see that it could be true that "we shall understand them" - meaning by "them" the things that liberated women will discover that men cannot ever discover - because of their own genetically engineered outlook.

I suppose it is almost a century since the "liberty" of which Rimbaud wrote has started to be given to women. Living in Norway, as I do, in a very "Feminine" society, I know that equality is much less in Britain than it could be. In France, rights were given to women much more recently than in Britain, and poetry in France seems to reflect that fact, being very male dominated.

For me, it is not so surprising that, as U. A. Fanthorpe does, women should take a few swipes (in poetry) at men "as a kind" who had kept them in "unending servitude" (and sometimes still do). Of course, generalisation of this kind can be unfair to some, or even many. But that, I think, is the nature of the protest poem.

As you know, I made a "Sex Quiz" a couple of years ago here on my blog in order to see whether readers could guess the sex of poets whose poems were on the shortlist of the 2007 TLS/Foyles poetry competition.

The TLS competition turned out to be a male-dominated affair: 9/11 of those on the short list were men, three men won, and the competition was seemingly judged only by men. In addition, one reader guessed 8/11 of the poets' sex correctly.

For me, what this indicated was simply that there should be more representation for women on judging panels. I am actually quite encouraged to see Emerging Writers poll result which shows quite a good balance of both judges and winners.

George S said...

Yes, Jonathan - I wouldn't have quoted the Rimbaud unless I thought it important. It is rather remarkable.

I just get a little tired of being policed all the time, as if I were a criminal out on probation.

Mind you, as concerns servitude, I don't imagine the millions upon millions of men working in factories and offices, 12 hours a day and six days a week, were living like lords. They weren't even in charge of their days. And once they stopped working they generally died.

Class, as always, is not an irrelevance.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Don't you think that the TLS competition result quoted above suggests that "policing" or scrutiny (as I would prefer to call it) is necessary?

The type of scrutiny that I have in mind is not that applied to criminals - but to those who hold positions of authority and pass judgement on the work of others. Those people should expect to be required to show that their decisions are not biased. From a sexual equality point of view, the simplest way to do this would be to have a man and a woman on the competition judging panel.

The question of exploitation in the work place is a different issue in my view. However, Norway shows that improvements in equality can also result in improvements in work place conditions. For example, because a large proportion of women work, everybody goes home at 4 pm in order to be able to collect their children after school.

George S said...

It depends what you are policing for, Jonathan. You say in your email that one person got 8 out of 11. One person getting 8 out of 11 is not that high a proportion, especially in view of your sample of 5. The survey might or might not say something. Amongst other things it might say is that one competition does not define a whole field of competitions. How many competitions have been judged by women only? How many competitions judged by men and women in various proportions have produced male or female winning poems and in what proportion?

What Emerging Writer wanted to discover (er, police?) was not how many winners, but what proportion of the shortlist was male or female. She then checked me out, and saw there was essentially one person difference, so if I had had consciously chosen male-female proportions, a change of one would have made it a female majority. So, phew, I made it by one! What I resented was that the fact that the winner was female was not even mentioned. Why?

It is true that I was the only judge and that I was male. But I pointed out that the previous judge was the only judge and she was female. Some competitions can only afford one judge.

In the end her survey showed there was no significant variation either way. Her own conclusions were:

Are male judges more likely to favour men? The numbers above suggest not really.

Or are the type of poems that win or place in competitions, the type of poems more commonly written by men? Call me controversal, call me mad, call me jealous, but I'm suggesting yes.

I had been frisked and found not to be carrying harmful substances. For which many thanks.

What my post deals with - because it was suggested I should deal with it - is:

1) In what ways are poems by men and women recognizably different;

2) Why even women might value a 'male' poem over a female one (when and if they did).

That is why I chose the Amis and the Fanthorpe as examples of stereotypicality.

I try to answer honestly as I hope you can see.

I don't think you are being quite honest about what you describe as 'the question of exploitation'. I brought it in to fill out assumptions about one gender getting all the servitude, the other getting all the comforts. This is decidedly not a different issue, because it is what underlies the frisking.

What is says is: you are a member of a privileged oppressive elite who would do a woman down as soon as look at her.

My own father worked the hours I describe back in Hungary.

I am not in the least against equal privileges, equal hardships, equal pay, equal anything. On the contrary I support them. I would be only too glad to have more women in the workplace. Why do you suppose otherwise?

Jonathan Wonham said...

Do I suggest that you would not be glad to have more women in the workplace? I don't think so.

I only said that I thought the work place exploitation issue was different to the sexual equality issue.

You seem to disagree with me, and believe that the long hours that men used to work is linked to suspicious attitudes on the part of women concerning poetry competition results.

Is it a powerful argument in response to the charge "you are a privileged oppressive elite" to say: "yes, but we have to work hard too."? I don't think so.

I agree that my quiz was a very small scale effort but it nonetheless took up quite a lot of time. I did it really to see if it was easy to detect a difference in men and women's poems. In that respect I think it had some success. 5/5 contributors guessed that the 1st prize poem was written by a man.

A.B. Jackson (one of the winners in the TLS competition) provided me with examples of similar situations of gender preference in other poetry competitions here. One, was an example of a male judge choosing three male winners, the other an example of a female judge picking three female winners: Wigtown Poetry Competition 2006 and 2007.

If that doesn't convince you of the potential for gender bias, I don't know what would.

George S said...

Jonathan - You don't address any of my points really. Emerging Writer tends to find the opposite of A.B. Jackson. One example of each, as you should surely realise, being a scientist, is not a case.

As I remember, in two cases in your survey, only 1 out 5 guessed right. Should I take those cases as representative?

Regarding your third paragraph, the servitude issue was brought up apropos the Rimbaud quotation and it was you who made the link to poetry, via U.A. Fanthorpe ("For me, it is not so surprising that, as U. A. Fanthorpe does, women should take a few swipes (in poetry) at men "as a kind" who had kept them in "unending servitude" (and sometimes still do).").

I take up the question of servitude from there.

I don't in fact take the Fanthorpe to be 'a protest poem', whatever that is. I take it to be a perfectly serious meditative poem. A rather good one. A poem I balanced with the Kingsley Amis.

You said in your second comment "those people [in a position of authority, including judging competitions] should expect to be required to show that their decisions are not biased".

So I have to show that my decision, in which I gave first prize to a woman, is not biased in favour of men? The onus is on me! I have to show I am not biased.

No, thank you. That is precisely what I hate.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Examples are examples. They may not be representative of everything that goes on, but to my mind they have their significance - even if not representing a fully scientific approach.

You consider that your judging is very unbiased and since I know you quite well and have seen the results of competitions judged by you, I would confirm that if asked.

But my impression is that some are not so unbiased and that generally it would be better if a man and woman shared the task of judging.

George S said...

Well, Jonathan, next time I am asked to judge a competition alone, and asked for my certificate of good behaviour, I'll quote you as a character witness. Thank you. I trust your own certificate is in good order.

As a matter of tangential information, I have taught Arvon Courses almost every year since 1980. Since the mid-eighties I have never co-taught with a man. For the last ten years all the guest readers, without exception, have been women (not my choosing - the Arvon managers). There are, if you check, Arvon Courses that are taught by two women alone, but none (last year anyway) taught by two men. As I pointed out to Emerging Writer, our Poet Laureate is a woman, the winner of the National Poetry Competition is a woman. The last Poet Laureate of Wales as a woman. The Eliot Prize winner before Philip Gross was a woman. The previous judge of both competitions I judged alone in 2009 was a woman (the same woman, Penelope Shuttle). I judged the Stphen Spender Poetry Prize with three woman judges. My line manager, Lavinia Greenlaw, is a woman. Ruth Padel could well have been Oxford Chair of Poetry had she not...

To quote you:

Examples are examples. They may not be representative of everything that goes on, but to my mind they have their significance - even if not representing a fully scientific approach.

Emerging Writer said...

Hi Lads,

This is a fascinating discussion. I too was encouraged by what looks like a lack of difference in outcome between male and female judges. George, you can quote me as character reference for your next judging job too!

I don't think anyone is consciously trying to distinguish the gender of poets and discriminate. I think the key question is, as George puts it:

Why even women might value a 'male' poem over a female one?

Is it fashion? Is it subject matter? Emotional intensity? Form poems? What?

If I had loads of time, I would look at the poems and see if anything stuck out.

And to your question of why I chose to look at shortlists rather than just winners. It was to get a good statistical base. Also, I think that on the final furlong, there's often very little to choose between the winner and the shortlisted poems and it's down to luck and subjectivity.

BTW, I took an Arvon course taught by 2 men, and lovely they were too. There was a majority of men taking the course too which, I think, is unusual. But this was in 2004.

George S said...

Peace be unto you, Emerging Writer. I don't mean to get shirty about these things, but the dialogue with Jonathan might demonstrate why I do. My annoyance was caused not by you choosing to concentrate on short lists INSTEAD of winners but on not mentioning winners at all, and surely that makes a difference.

I have tried to answer the questions you asked, in my three posts. Granted they are incomplete and therefore only a partial guess. What do you think of the answers? And what would you add?