Thursday, 1 April 2010

On judging competitions: the patriarchy 1

Having done many in my time and being due to judge the National Poetry Competition next year, after this year's judges picked Helen Dunmore's poem as winner, I come across this post on the web. Under the heading, wondering about sexual imbalance in poetry competitions, and the further suggestion of bias in the paragraph below (quoted from someone else, but still quoted), my own name appears on a list of competition judges. Although the competition I judged was won by a woman, the post simply notes that there were more men than women on the shortlist. A correspondence follows, which please feel free to follow.

There is a serious, well-meant question in the post about the respective qualities of men's or women's poetry, but my first answer was that the question itself, however well-meant, was loaded. That is because one could only answer by stereotype, and that there is only one possible acceptable answer which would be along the lines of the question about having stopped beating one's wife. It's like fair cop: I am a member of the patriarchy and have the genitalia to prove it. (Case closed.)

First the answer to the simple question of imbalance and bias. It would be very hard, next to impossible, to go through an anonymous competition of 1000-2000 entries trying to work out which was by a woman and then looking to discount it. Neither I, nor any male poet I know, goes about wanting to do women down. The argument would then come back: yes, but you / they don't know that you / they are doing women down. You can't know because you are a member of the patriarchy (case closed.)

I have translated two books of poetry by women and two by men, though that wasn't a determining factor. I have written more blurbs for women than for men. More have asked. I am notoriously askable, rotten patronising patriarchal pig that I am (case closed.)

One - I mean any male poet - could go on piling deed of supposed virtue on deed on supposed virtue - but I suspect none of the deeds would turn out to be a deed of virtue, by virtue of the fact of who had done it, because... (case closed).

I don't think I have ever done anything literary for a man or a woman because they happened to be man or woman.

The difficult one. Can we tell a man's poem from a woman's poem?

Much depends on whether you are willing to engage in stereotypes. Kingsley Amis's 'A Bookshop Idyll' did that as a joke. Here are verses 3- 6:

...Like all strangers, they [the titles of poems] divide by sex:
Landscape near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.

'I travel, you see', 'I think' and 'I can read'
These titles seem to say;
But I Remember You, Love is my Creed,
Poem for J.,

The ladies' choice, discountenance my patter
For several seconds;
From somewhere in this (as in any) matter
A moral beckons.

Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man's love is of man's life a thing apart;
Girls aren't like that
That is rather a period piece, isn't it? Quoting Byron too.

There is , from the other side of the aisle, this poem by the late U.A. Fanthorpe

Woman's World

They inhabit other
Worlds, these browsers
At the rack of magazines.

The gardener, the yachtsman,
Adrift in a world of tackle
And climbing begonias.

Their fingers move on the thick paper,
They are already there, in
The Channel, the bastard trench.

The cavey-breeder
Sees it all before him,
The impossible triumphs calmly achieved at shows,
Before he has even bought his magazine,
Let alone a guinea-pig.

Only the women fail
To enter this golden arena
Of dedicated action.

Their magazines offer
Not the single track of Amateur
Gardening, Motorboat
And Yachting, Cat-Fancier's Gazette,

Only the impossible junctions
Of being a woman.

I'm going to cut this post into two and think about the poems and whatever follows or doesn't.

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