noli me tangere

March 21, 2011 § 6 Comments

I’ve been having trouble writing recently. My degree is in English Language & Literature, and there’s no creative writing element. Fine, traditional, why should I need to study creative writing etc. etc., and there’s a lot of debate at the moment whenever these courses are mentioned as to whether they’re valuable, whether they’re harming literary culture or whatever. Obviously there is some value to being in a formal creative writing teaching environment, if you pick a good course – time to work/write, time to discuss your writing with other engaged people, which can be otherwise hard to get if your friends aren’t into the same things as you or you know. But my problem isn’t so much that, and if I’m honest I’m not so interested in the courses’ inherent value, since it’s just a mixed thing – my problem is that I’m having difficult connecting what I read with how I write.

I’ve never been a very political writer of poetry, although I’m into politics and am fairly critical of the way that broadcast/print media in particular tend to represent women (and other groups that are often marginalised – people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, people who identify as lgbtq…). This didn’t translate well across to how I read for a long time. I think this partly comes from reading for a degree that is mostly based on texts that are pre-1830. The debate usually becomes, to crudely generalise, “in what ways is this misogynistic and racist and in what ways is it progressive for its time” rather than “is this misogynistic/racist”. Obviously this is the appropriate way of approaching a lot of medieval/early modern/romantic texts, and it’s all fairly relative, and it doesn’t stop me from necessarily enjoying all of my favourite old poems. After a while, you get kind of used to it – and with plays in particular, you look at how they can be reinterpreted to suit modern ideas and purposes. But you surrender to the idea that characters/personas/people who aren’t privileged straight white men will probably be treated with less respect than the characters that are privileged straight white men. Which is often most of them, really.

So this isn’t a problem in itself, since I think you really have to read sixteenth century poetry with an awareness of sixteenth century issues if you’re planning on writing well on it. Obviously if you’re reading for fun you can do whatever you want. But then it meant that when I started reading poets that were writing much, much more recently than all of the other writers that I’d studied, I discovered that they were still at it in the mid to late 20th century, still writing all this hateful stuff that I was, by now, used to – most memorably, Ed Dorn’s sequence ‘Oxford’, which starts with a description of all the women he sees on the train and their legs, nationalities and cunts shining at him or some shit like that. It might even be a good poem, I don’t know, but I read the whole thing and all I can remember is him leching at these women’s legs and all and it makes me feel kind of disgusted. Is that my problem? Should I not care? Should I say oh well, it was the 1960s which is in the past even though it was a few years after The Feminine Mystique and almost two decades after The Second Sex and at the same time that Lorine Niedecker was writing and the year that Veronica Forrest-Thompson published Identi-kit and actually maybe he was the one with the problem? Or maybe he’s being ironic? Maybe I’m just not in on the joke. Except, mostly, jokes are more funny when they’re not just saying exactly what everybody else has been saying for hundreds of years and nudging you in the ribs and telling to you to just fucking laugh. Like all the Facebook groups that people were joining about a year ago where men ironically pleaded with women to stop talking over Modern Warfare and make them their lunch. Why do you think that’s funny?

Also, I don’t hear Ed Dorn laughing.

But because I haven’t been reading or writing about modern poetry for the past year and a half (and I wrote very poorly about it in first year when I did try my hand at it) I’m now stumped. I don’t know how I’m meant to respond to this. I feel too stupid in the monolithic face of it – like right now I’m worried about even saying all that about Ed Dorn because I feel I don’t know enough, like some Black Mountain warrior is going to come and sit on my hands and tell me I know nothing worthwhile. In Emily Critchley’s little piece before the poem she has in Infinite Difference, she talks about how her thesis:

concentrated on understanding socially the dominance of the Language scene by its male writers, while claiming feminism as one of their key political concerns

& she also talks about these problems rearing their heads once again in Cambridge, decades on. So what’s changed? I don’t want to have to say I find this poem sexist, therefore it is Bad Art. Hundreds of years of poetry that’s sexist has shown me that that’s not true, or wasn’t until recently, and there are probably still some sexist men writing Good Poetry. But do I want Good Poetry? What do I want to spend my time writing, even if I read all of the sexist and non-sexist stuff that I can get my hands on, because mostly reading anything good/interesting/weird/bad should help me improve? I have never really been able to think of my own writing in the way that I think about the texts that I read – I can barely rhyme, despite being obsessed with rhyme’s development across the centuries (ever want to discuss Byron’s use of polysyllabic rhyme? drop me an email). I don’t feel comfortable shifting margins about or splitting lines across the page or even using typography to express much, despite having written a 2000 word essay on Chelsey Minnis’s use of the ellipsis for a language paper in my second year here. And I think this is tied to why I feel afraid of pointing out poets that are sexist. It doesn’t mean they’re bad.

It doesn’t mean I should have to stand for it, either. I should be able to write about it. And I need to start feeling like I can write like the people I read, or from the same place as them at least – I shouldn’t just be stuck writing how I wrote when I was sixteen just because a few people liked my poems when I was sixteen. It’s only my own fault if I don’t. No more timidity, and no more cowering at Charles Olson’s feet.


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§ 6 Responses to noli me tangere

  • Char R says:

    YES, yes to all of this. It’s so difficult.

  • Chloe Stopa-Hunt says:

    I really enjoyed this piece – a lot of these issues have been bothering me in similar-ish ways, since I started writing again (gosh, nearly nine months ago, now). It’s actually a pleasure to see someone else talking about them, especially with both concision & passion, as you do here. I don’t have recommendations (still catching up after 2.5 years away from contemporary poetry and Doing Other Things), but I will be checking back to see if other people do.

    I’m interested in the relationship between art & activism; political writing & more traditional lyric or aesthetic work. Recently I’ve started writing more about disability, but it’s quite a balancing act, I think. I don’t want to sound [what-people-would-call-]”strident” (I hate the word), or sloganeering. Or, indeed, like a wallower. I’ve also found myself slipping in sly little bits of feminism in not-obviously-feminist poems… *covert glance*

    • Chloe Stopa-Hunt says:

      Er, clarification: I don’t mean women shouldn’t enact the behaviours that get called “strident”, I just think the word has minimal usage-value outside the vocabulary of misogynists.

    • charlotte says:

      i know what you mean about it being a balancing act – i’ve started trying to write poems that are more obviously feminist recently & there are new problems with that – what else do i put in, in what way can i be sure that i’ve written something worthwhile for itself and not just what it says, etc. but i think it’s important to try – i don’t think i’m comfortable ignoring it as much as i used to do.

  • brrnrrd says:

    I’ve been having similar thoughts… First, I wonder if *anyone at all* has enjoyed the course…Had I gone Elsewhere, I might have come to my final year an optimistic young writer instead of a shivering nervous wreck whose perusal of Bloom in conjunction with the eyes staring down from the Bod means I do nothing except wonder why the fuck I’m bothering to write anything at all so late in the day. It’s true – such is the mentality that it’s deemed better to study the work of an artist than to respond creatively yourself. Better to write an essay on rhetoric and ponder at your own inadequacy. Your experiences will never match up to the days of yore…

    Your (seemingly confused) feelings about whether to criticise something as sexist reflects my own issues about the CHRONIC RACISM in most of the texts I’ve had placed before me. I’ve never been able to ignore it but we’re not taught half so much about the GALLONS OF INK that have been devoted to deconstructing / criticising these texts, as the lofty, aloof form of analysis that would rather look at anacrusis or catalexis – for these are the things that are deemed intelligent…

    Now, I have a problem with both sides, (which is obvs the point of your post) – since I can’t stand a passage of feminist / poco criticism that ignores the *craft*, but I can’t stand people who think that the political ramifications of a racist / sexist / etc piece of work don’t matter. I’ve always said I’d like to see a feminist talk about lighting (in the context of film theory anyway) – and I guess what I’m getting at, is politically aware people still taking *aesthetics* in to account… Is it purely sexism that makes The Taming of the Shrew so effing funny? Or is comedy (to take the Hobbesian view) inherently malicious? And once we’ve worked it out, what does it mean for our own work..? All art stamps on the throat of *somebody*… otherwise it’s just one of those bloody pebble pictures with water running over it.

    It all makes me wonder why universities haven’t succumbed to the same fate as the music / publishing / film industry. Yes yes, we’re lucky etc, but why do we continue to pay them to force us to read certain books, by certain authors? Point in case: I was in a friend’s room the other day and she pointed out that she taught her students from two volumes sitting on her shelf because “frankly they’re too stupid to read the book themselves.”


  • Kirsty says:

    Top passionate post Charlotte. I find writing poetry overtly ABOUT feminism often means it heads straight into a chopped up essay or, worse, diatribe. Which instantly means that only the converted will read it with pleasure and anyone who mistrusts feminism finds it easy to ignore, as they’re being shouted at about things that ‘don’t apply to them.’ You have to be sneaky and take people’s balance in an unexpected way – don’t talk about a character doing something for its feminist or shocking merits – just have them do it, or place them in an unusual role and unsettle a few people (and hopefully bring pleasure to others).


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