Tuesday, May 13, 2008

where have all the ladies gone?


I've been steered toward the review of Over Summer Water, by Elizabeth McFarland on this month's Contemporary Poetry Review by a complaint on Wom-Po (the Women's Poetry List-Serv founded by Annie Finch, of which I am a member). First, the complaint: it was stated by a couple of Wom-po posters that they found the review "demeaning" that the reviewer referred to the author's "ladylike" clothing in an author photo and harped on the "littleness" of her vocabulary. Another poster felt the review reflected the overall tone of the Contemporary Poetry Review as not "respectful" of women and also "catty" (odd word here for the purpose). I am a staff reviewer for the CPR, so I was not only curious about the actual complaint in relation to the review, but also curious about the perception of CPR as "hierarchical" (this must mean "patriarchical"??) and as not often reviewing books by women (this review is characterized as an "aberration for them."). I discovered CPR on the web in 1999 and championed its inclusion on Web del Sol where I was then (and am now) a poetry editor for Del Sol Review as well as editor of Perihelion. I wrote my first review for CPR in 2004 (on DA Powell's trilogy). The CPR is a remarkably intelligent and lively online journal dedicated solely to poetry criticism and the only such journal I know of (Parnassus is in the same league, but also publishes poetry along with reviews and essays), and certainly, it is the only one of its kind on the web. So, I checked out the archives of CPR for reviews of books by women. There are also essays and interviews, but just quickly checking the archives, it appears that there is a preponderance of books of poetry by men reviewed. (I don't feel like actually counting them all up, maybe somebody else will and let me know.) For that matter, there are more male reviewers. On the other hand, there is a continuous "Call for Critics" banner on the front page and I know they are always looking for more reviewers. Why aren't there more female reviewers on CPR? Do they apply and get rejected? (Hard to imagine that, if the writing is good enough.) And, if there were more female reviewers, would there be more books of poetry by females reviewed? I dunno. Judging by me, no. ;-) But judging by the other female reviewers, maybe. Of course, Kathleen Rooney wrote the review on Elizabeth McFarland's book, and that was seen as a sexist review, so….not sure how that works. Are female reviewers only supposed to review other females, and those, only positively? Not sure. One thing I am sure of is that complaining about the state of things is much less effective than acting to change things. Apply to CPR! Become a reviewer! Write reviews of women's books!

Now about the actual review: I think it's a terrific review and I'm glad I ended up reading it, albeit because of a complaint. I was surprised that Rooney began the piece with a poem that had such "ugly" vocabulary ("greed", "rotted ground", "gluttony", "bloated and deformed") then went on to make the case that McFarland was, in fact, squarely set in the romantic mode of the era as both poet and editor. I had the idea initially that she would argue for a trajectory toward Plath beginning with McFarland. But McFarland's other examples were all in the usual high-romantic, didactic mode of the time. It's a thoughtful and sympathetic portrait of a talented woman unable to free herself from cultural constraints (and yet, some of her lines are more than fashionable as Rooney points out). The reference to her clothing is simply that—-her actual portrait and "costume" a reflection of the "costume" worn by poets of that time. It's instructive, I think, to look back within one's own lifetime, to an anthology of the '70s, for example, to understand what "period style" means. And yes, there is a period style now—-think about it.

22 comments:

Claire Keyes said...

Hi Joan---I read your blog and then read the review in CPR. I tend to agree with you and think the review is comprehensive and, for the most part, well-written. If anything, it is too long. I felt the reviewer had made her point early and then kept hammering away at it. Now I'm wondering why review this book at all? If the poetry is so lackluster, why take it on in the first place? With so many good books of contemporary poetry being published, the reviewer has a choice. Reviewing Elizabeth McFarland seems almost mean. If the reviewer wants to make a point about the kind of poetry most women used to write and publish, then expand the examples and don't pick on McFarland.

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Claire,

Good point--about reviewing her at all. I wondered about that too, given that we have plenty of women poets wanting a review out there. On the other hand, it was just published and it is a "marker" in a way, not only of a particular time and way of writing, but also of a time in literature when women with talent had so few options. I like that the review highlights Mcfarland's activities as an editor, that she was instrumental in raising the quality of poetry in LHJ and that she insisted on such a high payment. I liked the rounded portrait the reviewer gave of her.

Thanks for commenting!

Joan

Julie R. Enszer said...

Hi, Joan,

I'm the person who used the word "catty" and so I feel I need to try and respond in some sort of way, with the caveat that I wrote my original email hastily while traveling. Still, here are my thoughts and why I felt initial peevishness about the CPR review. Rooney actually begins the review with an important question, and perhaps the question of all reviews:

Why should we bother reading this poem or care who wrote it?

I approach all reviews with that question in mind (though I tend to think of it as a first person I and not a plural we, but that my just be stylistic). In fact, as Claire's comment indicates, I don't think that the review really answers that question fully.

One of my first reactions to the review is exactly that, why review this book at all if indeed it is as the reviewer presents it to be. I think one of the first and important questions for a reviewer is why spend this time and energy writing about a book. When I invest time and energy in writing about a book, I do it because there is some exigent reason to read the book or at least know about it. I felt like some of that was missing from Rooney's review - and I think there is an editorial responsibility to answer that question about reviews run.

Also when I encountered the review, the language that Rooney used to describe McFarland's poems was language embedded in gender roles and sexism. I challenge you to find a review of a book by a man in which the words "prim" "quaint" "winsome" and "romantic" are used, particularly all piled atop one another. In addition, the entire paragraph about McFarland's attire while on it's face I take issue with (again when is the last review of a book of poetry by a man talked about his attire) but in addition if the attire is going to be discussed at such length, it seems to me it deserves to be contextualized in a particular time and place for which it may be, actually, quite appropriate! That simply wasn't done.

To add insult to injury (at least to this reader) there is a substantial paragraph about McFarland's marriage. Again, why isn't her work taken as autonomous? Why is it important to contextualize her (for what there is of that) in light of her husband ? Again, I think about this as a question of parity. When you read reviews of male poets, is there a paragraph or two discussing their husbands? Some perhaps, but I would argue those are anomalous.

Those were the things that I found peevish and lead me to say that the review was "catty." And by that I mean, the easy "fight" or tousle was picked. I take the point made on Wompo that "catty" is a word with sexist connotations, but I do think that the tone is "catty" and not say "combative" or "negative".

As I have reread the review and have been mulling it in the back of my mind, the other things that bothers me most about it is the complete failure to contextualize McFarland's poetry either with peers at the time or to consider it in relation to other poetry in other historical contexts.

Rooney mentions McFarland in comparison to Sexton, Plath, and Lowell. It's an easy statement, but I just don't think that it takes McFarland's work on her own terms. From what I know of her poetry, I think that the comparatives to consider are more along the lines of Stevie Smith, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Sitwell or Letitia E. Landon. Reading the poetry and biography of McFarland against any of those would, I think, make a much more interesting and illuminating review and put McFarland's work into relief to answer the question that Rooney poses at the beginning of it.

Ultimately, I think that CPR, from what I have read of it, is invested in judging "excellence" as though it were a term not bound by time and changing standards of reading and understanding poetry and I think that underlies Rooney's review. Though I haven't read the new book, I don't think McFarland is a poet who I will love and who will change my life, but I do think that she deserves a fair appraisal and one that contextualizes her work on her own terms and in conversation with others who would be sympathetic with her project.

So that is some of my thinking behind my earlier comments.

Hope you are well and that the muses are treating you with great generosity!

Julie

Ernest Hilbert said...

Hi, Joan, thanks for bringing this to my attention. I know the CPR receives a lot of criticism (and not the kind I can publish!). I have to plead good intentions, though. I rarely take on new reviewers, but most of those I've taken on in the time I've edited the magazine have been women. In terms of review copies, I send out just as many books written by women as by men for review. I go out of my way to invite women to write for the CPR. Still, I usually have just enough material at any given time to pull the next issue together. It is not easy to bring out twelve issues of poetry criticism each year. I would like to see more reviews by women submitted through our open call for critics, so thanks for making that suggestion. In the time some people spend commenting on blogs, they could just as easily have written a short review and submitted it for publication. - Ernest Hilbert

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Julie,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I think of the word "catty" as having something spiteful, maybe even envious in it (aside from its sterotypical attribution females) so it seemed an odd choice of words since Rooney is (to me) an obviously sympathetic reviewer (in the sense of placing McFarland in a realistic--and restrictive--historical context). I also thought the review had at least as much to do with McFarland's activities as an editor, and her (mostly succesful) ambitions for poetry as a whole. As far as editorial control, the great thing about CPR is that reviewers are not controlled, that all kinds of reviews are welcome, as long as they are well-written. I wouldn't want it otherwise!

Thanks for posting.

Cheers,
Joan

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Ernie,

Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you came by to set the record straight. And yes, a lot of reviewing does get done on blogs these days!

Best,
Joan

cbere said...

Hi Joan,
I’ve read the comments on Wompo and on your blog about the review by Kathleen Rooney. Yes, the comments about dress or marrying a poet laureate (he certainly wasn’t established when she married him) seem somewhat superfluous. The review is interesting and comprehensive; however, I’m left with the question that others have raised: judging by the samples given, why review the work in the first place? If her work is “contextualized” as suggested in one comment, McFarland certainly could come up short. After all, to give just a few examples or relative contemporary women poets,Elizabeth Bishop was only a few years older, Maxine Kumin and Anne Sexton a few years younger, and the older Elizabeth Bogan had been publishing for some time. Based on the excerpts, McFarland’s work does not appear to be in the league with these poets. What does seem clear from the review (and from other comments that I’ve read about McFarland) is that she was an astute, thoughtful poetry editor for the LHJ, and selected the work of some excellent poets for publication in the magazine.

Finally, I’ve been a reviewer for CPR since 2005, and have not seen (or experienced) any of the alleged sexism of the Review. If anything, I’ve found the editors to be quite open to my suggestions for reviews, and assume that it is the quality of the review itself that determines publication. I’ve been an equal opportunity reviewer, and see no reason to review women poets only. Rather, it’s the work of the poet herself/himself that interests me, and I’ve reviewed Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, Plath (Restored Ariel), and will review the Letters of Ted Hughes and the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy for CPR. But these have been my choices, and I think this is an important consideration in the criticism of CPR.

Carol Bere

Kathleen Rooney said...

When OVER SUMMER WATER arrived in the mail along with a handful of other books for consideration for review in CPR, I picked Elizabeth McFarland's collection from the stack because she was a dead female poet from the mid-century whose name I had never heard and whose work I had never read, but whose bio (itself written by her husband as part of the essay that opens the book) said that she'd played an important cultural role from the 1940s through the 1960s as the high-paying poetry editor of Ladies Home Journal. As someone fascinated by the intersection of art, commerce, and gender—the possibilities and restrictions created and delineated by each of these entities and their interplay with each other—I set out to read the book sincerely hoping that I'd become a fan of hers, a champion even, because her work would turn out to be a heretofore unrecognized treasure (in a league with recognized poets such as Bishop, Kumin, Sexton, Millay, et al.)—a lost great voice that had gone undiscovered and that was now going to be discovered and praised by me and (possibly) readers of CPR.

It did not turn out that way. Even though I approached McFarland's book willing to be wowed and to write—if her work deserved it—a positive review, I quickly found to my disappointment that her poetry is simply not that good. I'm sure she was a really nice person (and I didn't write the review to be "mean") and she was certainly not without talent, but her poems have not stood the test of time; they were not (a reader can tell from reading her contemporaries) exceptionally good in her day, nor are they exceptional now, except as examples of a particularly dated style of inoffensive, crowd-pleasing, Readers Digest-style versifying for the lowest common denominator. So why, then, if I couldn't say anything nice, didn't I just say nothing at all? Because a) I don't believe that the role of the critic or reviewer in any genre—poetry or otherwise—is simply to be a cheerleader for said genre, and b) I believed—and still believe—that McFarland was an important figure historically, and that it was worth beginning a discussion of her life and work (which judging by this response, it has succeeded, at least a little bit, in doing).

As for Julie R. Enszer’s (and now Carol Bere’s) concern about my mention of her husband, Daniel Hoffman, a key figure in this book’s posthumous publication, I'd like to state for the record that before this one, I'd never written a review in which I mentioned the writer's husband or partner at all, but I'd also like to state for the record that I'd never received a book by a writer whose husband or partner had written a critical preface and author's biography (a very admirable one, as I mention in the review) entitled “ A Poet Who Brought Poetry to the Millions” that took up almost as much of the book as the writer's work itself. This preface is where readers learn a great deal of valuable information about the socio-cultural and artistic significance of McFarland, who does seem to be—as I tried to point out and as Joan has pointed out again—a female artist very much fenced in by and determined to cater to the prevailing bourgeois expectation of what was acceptable in poetry for women (or Ladies, as the journal she helped edit would have it) at the time. This essay by her husband is also the source of many touching and revealing anecdotes about the poet, their relationship, and the gender attitudes of the period, a period in which (again, as I point out in the review, in one of my several mentions of clothes, which seem to figure prominently in her life and work) she had to dress in a trenchcoat and trousers “with her hair done up in a beret” in order to sneak into the all-male Boar’s Head Poetry Society at Columbia University since the school remained men-only until 1983.

By all indications, McFarland’s poems are the work of a woman whose poetic practice was shaped by the (clearly, depressingly patriarchal and biased) expectations of what it was appropriate for women to read and write. And more importantly, there is no indication—either in her poems or in the poems she chose to publish in LJH—that she chafed against those expectations. Quite the opposite. Her success and the success of her enterprise seem to derive from the fact that she was able to deliver poems that matched these narrow expectations pretty consistently. And that answers what is probably the big question, which is: why review her at all? Trying to imaginatively recuperate her as some kind of proto-feminist when she was anything but serves no one: not the real proto-feminists, not contemporary female writers who now have more choices and respect than they otherwise would have thanks to true feminist trailblazers, nor to McFarland herself, who deserves to have her life and work assessed honestly.

To ignore this about her work—or just to not talk about her at all because to talk about her is to risk being negative—is to practice neither criticism nor social history, but simply to engage in mystification.

Kathleen Rooney said...

When OVER SUMMER WATER arrived in the mail along with a handful of other books for consideration for review in CPR, I picked Elizabeth McFarland's collection from the stack because she was a dead female poet from the mid-century whose name I had never heard and whose work I had never read, but whose bio (itself written by her husband as part of the essay that opens the book) said that she'd played an important cultural role from the 1940s through the 1960s as the high-paying poetry editor of Ladies Home Journal. As someone fascinated by the intersection of art, commerce, and gender—the possibilities and restrictions created and delineated by each of these entities and their interplay with each other—I set out to read the book sincerely hoping that I'd become a fan of hers, a champion even, because her work would turn out to be a heretofore unrecognized treasure (in a league with recognized poets such as Bishop, Kumin, Sexton, Millay, et al.)—a lost great voice that had gone undiscovered and that was now going to be discovered and praised by me and (possibly) readers of CPR.

It did not turn out that way. Even though I approached McFarland's book willing to be wowed and to write—if her work deserved it—a positive review, I quickly found to my disappointment that her poetry is simply not that good. I'm sure she was a really nice person (and I didn't write the review to be "mean") and she was certainly not without talent, but her poems have not stood the test of time; they were not (a reader can tell from reading her contemporaries) exceptionally good in her day, nor are they exceptional now, except as examples of a particularly dated style of inoffensive, crowd-pleasing, Readers Digest-style versifying for the lowest common denominator. So why, then, if I couldn't say anything nice, didn't I just say nothing at all? Because a) I don't believe that the role of the critic or reviewer in any genre—poetry or otherwise—is simply to be a cheerleader for said genre, and b) I believed—and still believe—that McFarland was an important figure historically, and that it was worth beginning a discussion of her life and work (which judging by this response, it has succeeded, at least a little bit, in doing).

As for Julie R. Enszer’s (and now Carol Bere’s) concern about my mention of her husband, Daniel Hoffman, a key figure in this book’s posthumous publication, I'd like to state for the record that before this one, I'd never written a review in which I mentioned the writer's husband or partner at all, but I'd also like to state for the record that I'd never received a book by a writer whose husband or partner had written a critical preface and author's biography (a very admirable one, as I mention in the review) entitled “ A Poet Who Brought Poetry to the Millions” that took up almost as much of the book as the writer's work itself. This preface is where readers learn a great deal of valuable information about the socio-cultural and artistic significance of McFarland, who does seem to be—as I tried to point out and as Joan has pointed out again—a female artist very much fenced in by and determined to cater to the prevailing bourgeois expectation of what was acceptable in poetry for women (or Ladies, as the journal she helped edit would have it) at the time. This essay by her husband is also the source of many touching and revealing anecdotes about the poet, their relationship, and the gender attitudes of the period, a period in which (again, as I point out in the review, in one of my several mentions of clothes, which seem to figure prominently in her life and work) she had to dress in a trenchcoat and trousers “with her hair done up in a beret” in order to sneak into the all-male Boar’s Head Poetry Society at Columbia University since the school remained men-only until 1983.

By all indications, McFarland’s poems are the work of a woman whose poetic practice was shaped by the (clearly, depressingly patriarchal and biased) expectations of what it was appropriate for women to read and write. And more importantly, there is no indication—either in her poems or in the poems she chose to publish in LJH—that she chafed against those expectations. Quite the opposite. Her success and the success of her enterprise seem to derive from the fact that she was able to deliver poems that matched these narrow expectations pretty consistently. And that answers what is probably the big question, which is: why review her at all? Trying to imaginatively recuperate her as some kind of proto-feminist when she was anything but serves no one: not the real proto-feminists, not contemporary female writers who now have more choices and respect than they otherwise would have thanks to true feminist trailblazers, nor to McFarland herself, who deserves to have her life and work assessed honestly.

To ignore this about her work—or just to not talk about her at all because to talk about her is to risk being negative—is to practice neither criticism nor social history, but simply to engage in mystification.

Joan Houlihan said...

Hi Carol,

I agree about CPR--I have never seen or experienced any sexism there either. I also agree about reviewing whomever and whatever you see fit to review, and for whatever reason, as long as the author/work interests you. How else to write something worth reading? On the other hand, why not mention McFarland's wardrobe or husband? They're both of interest in terms of the context and era she wanted to evoke. McFarland's work isn't what is noteworthy, but what she did for poetry, how she did it, and under what cultural constraints, is. It's weird to think that certain observations are always off-limits, no matter what. I think Rooney made intelligent choices and, in fact, was more than generous in her assessment of McFarland's contributions to poetry. She's also given us a reminder of the way things were through her "portrait of a lady" rather than indulge in wishful revisionism by deleting all contextual references.

Best,
Joan

Julie R. Enszer said...

All,

This is just to say, I really appreciate the conversation here about this. Kathleen, your comments are points well taken. I have to say I'm always a little reticent in thinking through this sort of thing in the blog environment because I am doing just that - thinking through things and that process lends itself to multiple considerations. Sometimes the public forum in the blog environment doesn't lend itself to such thoughtful consideration, but this one certainly has, for me at least.

I appreciate people's time to respond.

cbere said...

Hi Joan,

Kathleen Rooney refers to the important preface to McFarland's poems written by her husband, Daniel Hoffman.(My original comment about him had a somewhat different context, but I stand corrected.) I don't know if your readers have read Hoffman's article,which was linked on Poetry Daily recently. In the context of the discussion, Hoffman's piece is well worth reading. Here's thelink.

Carol Bere

http://www.poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_hoffman.php

Kathleen Rooney said...

Thanks, Julie. I do appreciate having this chance to elaborate a bit more on my take on Elizabeth McFarland. So thank *you* for taking the time to share your responses. And thanks, Joan, for providing us with this forum to have this conversation.

Ms Baroque said...

Hi there - well, I'll weigh in here and say I was approached by Ernie to contribute to CPR, back in the day, and that my long conversation with Ruth Fainlight which is in this month's issue was commissioned by him. I've perceived no trace of sexism...

Also, other magazine editors have told me they are "always looking for good critical prose from women" - so it seems that there may be a dearth of women coming forward weith the stuff.

You do hear this about poetry collections, too - that the publishers are inundated with mss from men but get far fewer from women.

The standard wisdom is that it's a confidence, or putting-yoursef-forward, issue - but are women really that reticent? Among poets of my acquaintance there are just as many men who say they "couldn't write critical prose" as women.

Inconclusive.

I think a lot of what passes for reviewing on blogs is more like enthusing.

Edward said...

Each person in this blog who made some kind of point that they then had to recant is hereby sentenced to 1 year and one day of "no comment". The world is filled with people who have unlimited opinions colored by a limited palette(a dull gray flecked with red) It should embarrass you to go on about the sexist nature of a review only to find out the thought process that led you there was completely off the mark(An old professor of mine would say, "That is a very private reading" next to a gentleperson's C+)In all seriousness, you should ask yourself how many other opinions you hold are just as hasty and ill-informed as your criticism of this review. I would be very skeptical of any idea this mind proposes until you can sort out "things you know" from "things you feel". It must be an interesting way of getting closer to the truth this working things out.(hint: You cannot work things out when you do not know anything about them) Today I am going to work out my feelings in regard to Uncle Stosh's review of Thomas Pynchon's latest novel "Against the Day". When I am done, perhaps someone who has read the book, is intimately familiar with Pynchon's life, and has read the review in question(The only thing in the above list that I have actually done) can start a discussion thread based on whatever I vomit forth. I assure you it will be filled with my personal agenda, scars from my childhood, and what seems like an actual point. Just be forewarned that nothing will actually be related to the work in question, the author, or for that matter the review itself. Of course, I will use random points from the review as jumping off points into that one room attic in my head.(I apologize for all grammatical mistakes. I ran from college because of too many discussions like this one where people all spell so well but inside the correctness there is oh so much wrong.)

Joan Houlihan said...

Kathleen, thank you for this clear-headed response. It's too bad that any book review, which is, after all, opinion, needs to be explained or defended. In this case, where the women's poetry list is intent on recovering women poets and writers lost to a gender-bound history, I would have thought your review would be especially welcome...

Annie Finch said...

Hi all,

I'm curious how many participating in this discussion have read the book itself. How can one determine whether a review of a book is comprehensive or accurate without having seen the book?

The New York Times article on McFarland which Dave Bonta referred to on Wom-Po quotes another poem by McFarland which I found beautifully written and moving. It seems it was the first poem in the book, which makes me wonder even more why it wasn't part of the review in CPR. Now I am curious to buy the book and see if there are other good poems in it which Rooney didn't discuss.

Here is the passage Dave quoted:


I have stood so long in this place
I have lost account of my face.
I have stared so long at this tree
I am grown blossomy.
In my branches, words
Bicker like birds.


Certainly quite different in tone, seriousness, and skill from the passages quoted in CPR.

Kathleen Rooney said...

In light of Annie Finch's comment, *I* wonder how many people participating in this discussion--here or on WomPo--have actually read the review. I don't think anyone can say--or should try to say--that a review (inherently a highly subjective type of writing) is empirically "right" or "wrong," but I do agree that criticism should be accurate and comprehensive, and I *do* quote the poem that she cites:

"Fittingly, McFarland’s poems concern themselves frequently with appearances and styles, containing images of mirrors and reflections, and, especially in the earlier poems, her own face. In “Myself,” for instance, she writes “I have stood so long in this place / I have lost account of my face,” and in “Lost Girl,” she writes, “She has grown into herself, she has lost her girlness / And found her face.”

Annie Finch said...

Dear Kathleen,

Many apologies for my carelessness and inaccurate comment! I did in fact read the review extremely carefully when it first came out, but quite a bit of time passed in between then and when I skimmed it quickly to doublecheck for a mention of "Myself." I'm glad to know that you did in fact refer to the poem.

Annie

Annie Finch said...

P.S. I do remain curious why you didn't focus on "Myself" and "Lost Girl," which seem to be some of the more intriguing poems, at greater length. Did you not find them of as much interest as the other poems that are quoted more fully? Or did you think they were anomalous, their quality not representative of that of other poems in the book? I'll have a copy of the book soon and will be better able to discuss it; meanwhile, I'd appreciate your response to these questions.

Kathleen Rooney said...

Hi, Annie. Good question, and glad you're picking up a copy of the book. To answer, no, those poems are not of as much interest (though they are of some interest, hence, my quoting them at all), but more importantly, they are not particularly representative of the quality of her work overall (a quality which is certainly "intriguing," hence my effort in reviewing the book at all). I did not choose to pick through the collection in search of anomalous poems that are successful by contemporary standards. I sought to give a sense of the collection as a whole, and to identify the reasons it seems unsatisfying, and to connect those reasons with the social limitations imposed by the milieu in which she was writing.

Mike said...

This blog is great