Sunday, 14 October 2012

On artistic androgyny 2

In the previous post I talked about androgyny as a sexual condition and tried to unpack, just a little, the terms male and female, while avoiding getting tangled up in gender politics, which is not altogether a different matter, but tends to run wild over everything associated with it.

These are off the cuff, informal remarks, little runs at thoughts and feeling. I hope they'll be read as such.


If we take the standard stereotypes of the male and female imagination as appealed to in terms of marketing, we may find ourselves with chick lit with its mostly female characters on the one hand, and clipped-voice action stories with mostly male characters on the other. The former's depiction of male characters would correspond more or less to stereotype and the latter's depiction of female characters would do the same. Clearly there is a great deal of territory in between, including the realms of erotic or pornographic fiction of which Fifty Shades of Grey might be considered in interesting example, though a dull piece of writing. To visit all the various other shades of grey in the no-particular-gender's-land is beyond me, and in any case I am not particularly interested in taking the task on. Enough to say it is a territory where the shades constantly shift a little this way or that as society changes.

I am concerned chiefly with poetry. There are shades here too of course. There is poetry written directly out of exclusively female or male experience and a general act of redress has been going on for a few decades now, in which primarily female experience has been looking to establish itself not only as a major subject, but as language too. The notion of écriture féminine was developed directly as a response to the language question. It rested on a certain essentialism, the establishment of a crucial difference. Male writing was ultimately boring, said Cixous, dismissing most of written literature at a stroke.  It was a powerful political gesture and a bold attempt to seek and define new forms, including moves away from meter, rhyme, ideas and so on.  The opposite argument from a feminist perspective  - in other words deploying the same rhetorical register - was presented in Annie Finch's anthology A Formal Feeling Comes, featuring work by some very fine woman poets of a more formal bent. The title phrase itself is quoted from Emily Dickinson, whose slantwise version of that formal feeling is one of the glories of nineteenth century poetry.

I mention this but I don't think it's for me to engage in that argument. My own work has been mostly formal for a long time, with increasingly wider and more dramatic breaks from formality as it is generally understood. Reading Finch's anthology I was glad to think I was not to be cloistered in an all-male Browningesque monastery.

Besides which I have never actually felt that most of the poetry I have read was exclusively male. Keats certainly isn't - possibly none of the Romantics really are. The whole essence of poetry was about other than the male stereotype. It wasn't a locker room.  It was more a bower than anything, a place where any number of gradated voices might speak or sing.


It is feeling I am talking about and I have never felt that the voices opening before me as I wrote were ever exclusively of one gender. Sometimes they strode, but sometimes they bent and swayed. Sometimes they formed themselves into statements, but more often they touched on matters lightly and shifted sideways. These descriptions do themselves draw on stereotypes, but stereotypes are what more subtle states of being are built around.

At bottom we are creatures that breed according to our given sex. That is how we evolved and survive. At that point either we reproduce or we don't. At that point we are directed towards the evolutionary essential, the stereotypes that then - remarkably and wonderfully - produce an immense range of human behaviour. We are thinking, feeling, sensate creatures. Our imaginations are deeply interwoven with our conscious roles, but are just as strongly bound to a sense of being beyond the immediately purposive, one that moves like electricity through the extraordinarily complex web of our nerves and extend to the way we deploy language. The poet's business is with language. If the language is to remain alive it has to register the floating imagination as well as the purposive ground we are likely to tread on.

Mosty of the male artists I have known have had a feminine side, most of the female artists had a strongly masculine streak. There is probably an interesting parlour game to be played in sorting out the degree of androgyny in this or that artist. Alexander Pope? High rating. John Dryden? Less high. Keats? High. Aubrey Beardsley? Very high, etc etc. On the female side? Aphra Behn? Elizabeth Bishop? Dickinson? Duffy? Go ahead and do it for yourself.

This is not beyond the realm of the political - nothing is - but at the same time there is nothing that is beyond the realm of the imagination either. The realm of language is both. It is hands and feet and lungs and organs and thought and dream.

I am quite aware of the limitation of these notes and can see plenty of other ways of proceeding. But that would make a book, or at least a longer essay. This is just to register a keen perception and to lodge that somewhere relatively sensible.


Vita Brevis said...

Thanks, I enjoyed reading this article.

I'm afraid one word spoilt it for me.


Why no adjective for "feminine side" in men?

I'm not splitting hairs, I am giving you my genuine emotional reaction.

George S said...

Strongly cuts both ways. See the earlier use of strongly in the piece. In case of misunderstanding (as here) I don't in fact think the degree is different in men and women. I just didn't want to repeat the word for a third time.