By Joey Connolly
It’s hard to be a straight male poet. Your poetry is more likely to be published in magazines, in anthologies and in single-author collections. If you do get published, you’re more likely to have attention paid to your writing. You’re more likely to rise into senior teaching positions and to edit major poetry publications. You don’t, like tennis players, get paid more for winning the major prizes, but you are much more likely to win them in the first place. Your witty, aphoristic sayings about poetry are more likely to be quoted by young men like me, to impress women at parties. You work in an artistic field structured and interpreted by theory written overwhelmingly by men like you. The form itself has a history of – in fact, is inseparable in the minds of thousands of people from – the kind of ‘love’ poem which lovingly dwells on each element of a woman’s body, separately and distinctly. Your eyes are like . . ., you know the drill.
‘That sounds easy,’ I hear you say, ‘I could do that.’ (I assume you’re a straight man, reader, as have my predecessors over the ages). Well, yes, but there’s one last thing about being a straight male poet I’ve yet to mention. It’s hard to be an SMP in the same way as it’s hard to be a policeman; with the power of privilege (over the law, over the canon) comes responsibility. It’s unpleasant to feel immoral (and to be immoral), and it’s very very easy as an SMP to take part in – either actively or passively – a system of writing and reading which implicates your poetry in the oppression of other, less privileged, people. Exclusivity, objectification, plain old sexism – the pitfalls, for the SMP, are everywhere.
Convincing arguments about the spectrum-based (‘spectral’?) nature of gender and sexuality aside, I’m a straight male poet. It’s important to me that my poetry is tied to the world, and rooted in my own experience. But if my experience frequently revolves around my romantic relationships with women, then that’s what I have to write about. Right? Besides, it seems outrageous that honestly representing my own experience could be somehow unethical or dismissive. I don’t actively seek to say mean things about women in my poems, after all: at the worst I’m neutral, surely.
And yet. The neutrality of inaction in the face of a child asleep on a train-track, most would agree, is tantamount to murder (I know, I know, that’s far too heavy an analogy. How about ‘the neutrality of inaction in the face of a pug choking on a shoelace’?). The point is: apparent ‘neutrality’ is not always enough. The problem might even be that what we think of as a ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ style of writing actually describes the position from which a certain person – we might say a straight, white, middle-class, middle-aged English man – tends to write.
A poem isn’t as complicated as a person. A poem is complicated, but human beings are complicated. Even a knee is complicated. A neuron is complicated, and a human brain has a hundred billion of them. I could spend a hundred years describing how complicated is thine eye, my lady, but my point is that a poem about a person will always, automatically and intrinsically, be reductive of that person. Especially if it turns out (and this gives me a terrible headache about my own poems) that a love-interest described in a piece of writing turns out to be playing a bit-part in a poem which is actually about me, the straight male narrator of my straight male poem.
Is poetry automatically reductive, then? Do we write off the thousands of years of poetry dominated by SMPs as sexist and outdated? Well, it’d save me from feeling guilty about the mighty unread Collected Byron on my bedside table, but on balance – no, let’s not do that. One solution is to shift responsibility from the writer on to the reader: if we make sure the poetry audience isn’t passively absorbing the messages of the poetry, then we don’t need to worry too much about what those messages are. In fact, I’d argue that poetry almost by definition requires that kind of active, questioning response from its readers. So that’s nice.
But that old shifting-of-responsibility away from men is too familiar a trick, isn’t it, to make us entirely comfortable. What else? Well, I’d say now is a great time to start answering that question. There are a number of male poets writing today – Don Paterson and Frederick Seidel perhaps pre-eminently among them – who make this problem essentially a part of their poetry. A love poem by an SMP doesn’t have to be a picture of a woman (picking flowers, daintily knitting a Babygro etc.) – it can be a picture of a man looking at a woman, and have something to say about that man’s way of looking, too. One of the great things about poetry is its ability to point at so many things at once, to always be about the things it uses. With some attention, it’s possible to read a lot of love poetry in this way – of discussing, measuring and critiquing the desire it depicts. And, with a little work, a little consideration (and by using Word’s ‘find and replace’ function to remove all instances of ‘her eyes’ from our manuscripts) we SMPs can make our agonising slog through life a little easier.
Joey Connolly edits Kaffeeklatsch, a journal of poetry and criticism. A collection of his own poetry is forthcoming from Carcanet in 2016.