Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Sex Quiz: the Reasoning

On the eve of the release of the TLS/Foyles poetry competition results, it's time to review the results of the intimately related 'guess the poet's sex quiz' which I launched here.

Thank you to everyone who took part. There were four of you, all women, plus myself, which for the algebraically challenged makes 5. Not a very balanced survey, but there you go. George decided not to participate, instead asking inquisitorially "on what basis are people guessing?" I did invite people to leave their reasoning, but nobody did. A couple of people commented that they found it difficult to come to a conclusion and Lesley said she found it impossible.

I'm therefore going to try and express why I guessed as I did by going through the poems one by one and explaining my logic.

Poem A) Acts

A shortish poem of 14 lines. It might be called a sonnet but does not seem to be rhymed in a formal sense. This poem includes the phrases: "a brood of men with bushy locks" and "their teeth a flock of sheep, evenly shorn" which seem to me rather feminine conceptions, especially that word 'bushy'. On the other hand it also includes the phrase "the use of dogs" which sounds a bit more masculine. Three readers thought it was a man writing (myself included) and two thought it was a woman. On this one, we have to admit, we don't really know, but on the balance of probabilities, it's a man.

Poem B) Beach Kites

On the other hand, readers found this poem more likely to be a woman's work (4/5 votes, myself included). The poem is free verse, again loosely rhymed, and includes the line: "out they float, strong men steering their wild umbilical toys / Away from girlfriends in the car park... cooly resigned to... the cliff-hanging habits of boys... the heroes off flying or fighting, the women waiting." For me, the interest in gender roles perhaps indicates it as a woman's work, together with the rather dismissive: 'habits of boys'.

Poem C) The Adder's Skin

Readers were equally convinced (4/5, myself included) that this poem was by a man. It is a poem about surviving war as recounted through the metaphor of a preserved snake's skin. The poem is formally rhymed and includes the line: "He'd lift it gently, test its brittle weight, / Then tell me why, / When taking life your best to save its skin..." This image suggests a grandfather talking to a grandson. No reason why it should be a grandson really, apart from the fascination with fusty things in boxes...

Poem D) The Fair Issue Sits the Eton Entrance Exam

Four out of the five readers thought this was by a woman, and the one who thought it was by a man was me, a man. So, what's going on here. Have the female readers spotted something that the male reader didn't? Again, it is sonnet length (a popular form this year) and unrhymed (ditto). Is there a clue in the title? When someone is referred to as 'the fair issue' does it it mean they are male or female? In my view it could be either. But is the title pointing up an issue? The issue of what is "fair"? I wondered whether, living in France, I had missed the announcement that Eton had flung open its doors to girls, but no, it remains a boy-only establishment as noted here on Eton College's web site: "Eton regrets that it cannot give advice about girls’ schools... although Etonians naturally enjoy social contacts with girls from other schools." For me, the mention of following "in the footsteps of maharajas", a father's "cardoman whisper" and an emphasis on dark colours: "men in blackest gowns" and "dark as the darkest lobby" make this a poem where the issue at stake is more about race than sex. On the other hand, the stance taken by the writer is to refer to the principal character who might attend the school as 'you' suggesting that they do not relate to the boy (since it must be a boy) and the emphasised 'maharajas' might suggest a certain air of disdain towards the aspirations implicit in the patriarchal tone of the father. So maybe it is by a woman.

Poem E) The Modified Mercalli Scale of Earthquake Intensity.

The jury is out on this one. It's 50-50. The poem is quite formal: a series of rhymed haiku length (3 line) poems without the usual format of 5/7/5 syllables. There is a curious gender reference in the poem in the lines: "A family spirit / rattles her own portrait, / scrawls moustachioes on it." This is only grade III on the 'earthquake intensity scale' suggesting that the writer doesn't believe that gender is such a big issue. I couldn't imagine a man writing a poem about a woman scrawling moustachioes on herself and that's why I think a woman wrote this one.

Poem F) The Mauve Tam-o'-Shanter

All of us thought that this was by a man. It's a formally rhymed poem written as a first person narrative in which the narrator is obviously a man recalling how he met and married his sister's best friend. All this grew from "my act of chivalry" in the saving of a blown away hat. The narrator then goes on to reflect on his wife's death and his sense that "it wasn't meant to end like this". Just because the narrator is a man doesn't mean, of course, that it was written by a man, but the naked sincerity of the poem suggests to me that it is.

Poem G) Incident

This one split the readers 50-50. It is a strongly imagistic poem that only hints at the 'incident' in the the title. If the poem wasn't called 'incident', the reader would hardly know that anything had happened. It includes the line: "the gravid schoolgirl in the bunched-up skirt / lolls under anniversary flags and lights a cigarette." There is something about that image which made me think it was written by a man. But maybe women think about cigarette-smoking lolling schoolgirls as well... The poem also contains the curious line: 'ants skim fast as waterboatmen'. Strange to describe one insect in terms of another. Like saying: 'dogs prowl around like cats'. I think this is by a man.

Poem H) At a provincial zoo

This poem is very short: four stanzas of three lines each. It records the conversation between a caged owl in a 'provincial zoo' (why provincial?) and an owl at liberty. It ends: "The zoo-keeper says: / Love and philosophy shape / the wisdom of owls." There was a mix of views on whether a man or a woman might be the author of this piece. Personally, I detected a note of sentimentalism in the poem which made me think a woman had written it, but the overall view was that it was in fact a sentimental man (three out of five readers).

Poem I) The Examiners

Again, the readers were not sure about this one, but three out of five (including myself) thought it was by a man. The poem is about 'the examiners' who 'make sure you eat your prunes' and includes the odd line: "In the desert of your dreaming they are humped behind the dunes, / They are there." Is that a Freudian slip? The style of the poem is evocative of Gilbert and Sullivan (both men) and a bit reminiscent of James Fenton or the nonsense of Edward Lear. We can thus deduce that it is possibly a man writing.

Poem J) Refusal Shoes

This is a poem in regular stanzas but largely unrhymed. It appears to be based around the imagined thoughts of an immigration official who is trying to decide if the Nigerian clergyman he sees before him who "claims he is an anglican vicar, delegate to a conference at Lambeth Palace" is, in fact, a potential illegal immigrant. So, a poem about race (the second to feature in the finalist line up?) and the way people who do not fit into 'our' stereotypes are prejudged. It includes the lines: "I have walked the line of Regulations / too often, feeling like I'm auditioning / for the TV version of Men in Black." and "Time for my Nancy Sinatra impression." There is something about the brashness of this poem which makes me think it is written by a man, lines like: "He obviously didn't buy the dog-collar / or his smart barathea blazer in duty free / at Lagos..." Four out of the five readers drew the same conclusion that I did.

Poem K) The Side Line

The Side Line is another poem of formal stanzas with loose rhyme and describes in a rather intense way a character in a bar who sits in a "curved leather armchair, / the gold jammed onto his fingers, gave him / the air of a don. That's Don - as in Corleone." It appears to be written from the point of view of a man who is one of a gang: "our talk / of what we do and where we're from: the spit- / sealed pledges, the celebratory all-night sessions." It might be natural to think it was written by a man in this case, but there is something about the writing, especially that final 'revealing' of the man for who he really is: an academic who's 'side line' is gangsterism. There is an implied criticism of the man in the way he takes letters from a Scrabble bag, feeling for the high-scoring letters rather than selecting them from a table face down. In other words, he is made out to be a literary (?) cheat. So, a man, an academic and a cheat... could there be a gender issue at the root of the poem? Four out of the five readers (including myself) thought that the last poem was by a woman.

So, to continue responding to your questions George...

"Have you drawn any conclusions from the guesses, Jonathan - never mind whether they are right or not?"

Yes, I have drawn some conclusions. There were six out of eleven poems of which most readers (at least four out of five) had a strong feeling about which sex the writer was. This, in itself, whether the conclusions are right or not, is quite a good indication that when several people read poems they can arrive at independent near agreement about the gender of the writer.

"On what basis are people guessing?"

I think people are reading the poems (as evidenced by our shared views on 6/10 results) and guessing along the lines I have laid out above, but obviously I can't speak for them all.

"What are the essential(ist) assumptions being made? That is, beside subject matter?"

The assumptions might be that if a narrator is clearly a man (as in poem F) then the poem is by a man. 5/5 thought this poem was by a man. Contradicting this is the fact that in Poem K the narrator also seems to be a man, but that 4/5 readers thought the poem was by a woman, picking up, I assume, on the possible gender critiscism.

What are the 'assumptions about subject matter'. I suppose poems are generally not very clear so we have to make some assumptions about subject matter. Some of these poems are quite clear about subject matter, others not. For me, the most successful are those that are not very clear, such as Poem A, Acts, a poem in which, coincidentally, author gender is not easily agreed upon. Could there be a link?

"Do the guesses say more about the guessers than about the guessed?"

Not in my opinion.

"And could we tell whether a guesser was male or female from their guess?"

It would have been nice to have a better mix of gender among the guessers, but no, I don't think there is a notable difference based on sex of the guesser, apart from Poem D) The Fair Issue Sits the Eton Entrance Exam where my view was diametrically opposed to the Ladies view. Interestingly, in considering the poem more carefully, i came around to agreeing with their point of view at the end of the day.

"Does positive/negative value of any kind attach itself to either guess?"

I wouldn't have said so. It has been interesting to carry out this detailed analysis of the possible sex of the writers however. For me, it seems to have shed more light on the poems. The question, after all, can imply two possible different readings of the poem based on the author's sex.

"Do short people write short poems? Or do they compensate by writing long ones?"

Are you being facetious George?

"Could we tell a masculine female poet from a feminine male poet?"

Yes, I think you are... but don't male poets with feminine tendencies make up for these tendencies by writing in a macho style?

"Would we want to?"

Gender is a fact of life. We cannot simply forget that both men and women exist. And anyway, yes, I think it is interesting to think about whether the author is a man or a woman.

"What does the question mean?"

It means that even poetry has a social context.

"Are these typically male questions?"

For me, they are just questions. I think it is okay for both men and women to ask questions such as these. I would encourage the asking of such questions.

"Does that mean they are less fitted for saving the world?"

Are the questions less fit for saving the world because they are asked by a man? I don't think these questions (or their answers) are intended to save the world. But I do think that they may help us to understand what we as poets (both male and female) are trying to do with out art.

Now, I await the results on the 13th July with some trepidation...


George S said...

I posted a reply to the original posting, Jon, but either it hasn't arrived or you haven't put it up. I referred you there to Greer (not just The Female Eunuch but also Slipshod Sibyls) and Paglia (Sexual Personae), and suggested that some attributes that we take as value are - wrongly or rightly - thought of as masculine: these might include abstract thought, scale, structure, the journey out into the unknown and a few others, at least that is the case Paglia makes. The ‘privileging’ of such values may be because the valuers have been men but, then again, it might not be entirely and absolutely so.

Is Alice Oswald primarily a female poet? Is Jo Shapcott - apart from her subject matter - specifically female? Is Bishop? Is Hacker? And if we could isolate the feminine/female in them where would we be? Would we be saying: we want more of that, whatever it is, because it normally gets a bad deal? And what would then be the list of your ‘female’ descriptors? Would having such a list signal an advance in so far as the descriptor list might be privileged? Privileged by whom?

I am frequently asked to endorse other people's books. The overwhelming number of books that I have endorsed have been by women. I don't endorse them because they are women or because they write in an identifiably womanly way but because they are very good poets. In the same way I have probably reviewed an equal number of male and female poets, and - wonder of wonders! - my praise has not been determined by their gender. Not to my knowledge at any rate. If you think otherwise you will have to prove it.

I simply wonder at the point of the guessing game. I mean beyond the fun of a guessing game. Is it a matter of literary politics? I suspect it is not merely an anthropological issue that you are pursuing, but a political one. If so, would you like to take the guessing game into the realms of class which, I think, would be just as important a political issue? Then point me to those neglected female poets of the past that the feminist publishing houses have not yet discovered. Over thirty years of effort has gone into that.

Maybe – and this is what I guess – you simply want to point the finger at male prejudice. That too has had several years of effort and publicity behind it. It’s easily done and needs no originality, daring or even much skill. That is simply the weather of the last thirty years.

In the end, I suspect, we will be returning to questions of attribute and value. In that case, which of the ‘male’ attributes – assuming we can isolate them - would you want to downgrade and which of the female’ attributes would you privilege? And how would you go about doing that? Would that be a worthwhile exercise?

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello again George

My interest in this gender issue began in France. It had crossed my mind only dimly before. In France, however, the poetry culture seems very male dominated, even today. I have written about this subject at length here.

As an example of this male-dominated culture I did a head count of women in anthologies of 20th Century French poetry in translation:

The Random House Book of 20th Century french Poetry (ed. Paul Auster; Vintage, 1984) contains 1 woman poet in a total of 48 contributors.

Mid-Century French Poets (ed. Wallace Fowlie; Grove Press, 1955) contains no women poets among ten contributors.

The Penguin Book of French Verse (ed. Brian Woledge, Geoffrey Brereton and Anthony Hartley; Penguin, 1980) contains 1 woman poet among 23 contributors in the 20th Century Section.

20th Century French Poems (ed. Stephen Romer; Faber 2002) contains 7 women poets from a total of 53 contributors.

The origin of this bias seems to rest firmly on the shoulders of Gallimard, the major publisher of French poetry, who have only 4% of their output from women, a number of whom are well known foreign writers such as Emily Dickinson.

A recent anthology of poems about Paris called "poètes de la ville" from Gallimard had 45 contributors and no women.

So, in France, it is very much a political issue. French women are being denied a broad poetry forum. To quote the back cover of the anthology: 'Women's Poetry in France, 1965-1995' published by Wake Forest University Press: this anthology contains "the work of such well known writers as Anne-Marie Albiach, Andree Chedid and Marguerite Duras but also others who have been unjustly neglected in their own country."

So, that was the starting point for my interest. I have also been honest enough to write about the bias in my own poetry book shelves here. I am prepared to admit that I am not, in general, attracted by the work of women poets, although there are a number of notable exceptions, particularly, for example, Elizabeth Bishop.

What bothers me is that I don't know whether the presence of so few women poets on my shelves reflects the results of long term cultural neglect of women writers or my own biased value system, to use the term you mentioned.

As you know, I work on the editorial staff of Upstairs at Duroc magazine in Paris. The editorial committee of this magazine assess the contributions anonymously and go through a rigorous process of selection in which every editors' comments are taken into account in two rounds of selection. The editorial team is quite large and includes both men and women. The result is an extremely readable magazine in which contributor gender is very balanced (21 men out of a total of 40 contributors in the last issue). This is not a function of the selection process, which is anonymous, but rather of a good mix among the editorial committee. It also proves, I think, that the writing of men and women, when judged anonymously, is found to be equally good.

George S said...

I guess the ting to do would be to make a list of the women poets neglected by the anthologies you mention and to make up a counter-anthology. At least as a conjecture.

Worth trying?

Jonathan Wonham said...

One of the interesting things about the first four anthologies that I mentioned above is that there is no overlap between them among the women writers.

In other words, Romer includes neither Catherine Pozzi or Anne-Marie Albiach in his anthology.

The Wake Forest Press book I referred to anthologises 28 French women poets so the counter-anthology you suggest is already available. Not that I think the concept of a 'counter-anthology' is a very healthy or desirable situation.

The quiz was just for fun and for interest. In general it was quite difficult to identify the gender of the writer and, in a way, I hope that our guessing results are not that accurate.

Beverley said...

Hi Jonathan, I'm in California now, and looking forward to seeing the results of the contest. I don't have the poems with me, but it seems to me that the most interesting criterion for determining the gender of the writers of these poems isn't overt content but style. My guess would be that male poems tend to be more rational in their organisation and more stripped of ornament, and that female poems might be expected to be more intuitive, associative (sinuous?) and decorative, by which I mean there might be more adjectives and adverbs, possibly more chatter. Sounds like I'd rather be a "male-identified" poet (as someone once said to me of Ann Carson), doesn't it?

Lots of exceptions, of course, especially when we look at the canon; still I think it's possible to generalize.

And yes, I agree, this is an interesting exercise. My choices, by the way, were mostly intuitive. If I went back and rationalized them, as you have done, I'd probably find I should have been more analytical. I'm still betting the TLS readers picked more male than female poets.

PS Andrew Zawacki, in the intro to his anthology of Slovenian writing ("Afterwards," White Pine Press, Buffalo, NY, 1999) talks about "the discouraging lack of writing by Slovenian women promoted in Slovenia" and hence in his anthology. He quotes "Australian poet and editor Tracy Ryan," who asks "Is it possible that many editors do not 'see' a good woman-authored poems because their template automatically excludes it?"