Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Neutering “Poetess” – Why Calling Myself a “Poet” Doesn’t Fix the Problem

Recently, a generous reader (Rosemary N-W) commented on a post:

Oh yes, and there is that *shudder* word 'poetess'. Do you hafta? The old feminist in me cringes; we in my generation insisted on being given equal status, arguing that one doesn't, for instance, say 'doctoress;' or lawyeress'. You are SUCH a briliant poet, why not claim it? Self- denigration is inappropriate for your talent, believe me.

I will admit, as I replied to Rosemary, that

I hadn't considered the word "poetess" as at all denigrating - hardly anyone uses it anymore, truth be told. I don't consider it an unequal term - perhaps an antiquated one. No, we don't say "doctoress" or "lawyeress" - everything is sexless nowadays. But I had many, many years of romance language training, and I'm rather enamored of the richness of a language that allows you to gender nouns. I don't mind being gendered - I'm a woman, I'm happy to claim that, despite whatever judgment comes with it.

I understand that a large part of this is that I missed the years of struggle for the measure of equality I *do* have, which it sounds like you were engaged in. I certainly don't take it for granted, and I do know there's still a long way to go. If a woman poet is going to be considered unequal, in my opinion, it's not the word "poetess" that does that.

I’ve been chewing on this comment-conversation for awhile now. My first (admittedly ungenerous) reaction was that calling oneself “poet” is hardly setting oneself up for admiration and grandeur. It’s a (very) wobbly few steps above “homeless” when claimed as a profession, and less prestigious than any number of other professions. In fact, I’ve rather had to beat myself out of mumbling it, and I work VERY HARD, when folks ask what I write, to stop at “poetry” or “I’m a poet,” and not add “but I am also a librarian. You see that? Full time job and contributing member of society. I HAVE A REAL JOB.”

Society (and parents) may prefer the “I have a job” admission addition, but to the poet (as I imagine it might be for any artist), that job that pays the bills is, in itself, an admission of failure. “Yes, I am a poet, but I’m not a rich or famous or even middle-class poet. In fact, if I were to try to make a living with my writing, I’d get thinner than I did on the South Beach Diet and ask you if I could have the box your new computer came in so I could add a dormer to my homeless un-house.” That’s no way to impress a crowd.

And so I don’t think “poetess” is any worse off than the word “poet” itself. There’s enough baggage these days that comes with being any kind of creative sort that poeting isn’t any more prestigious or less value-laden than its sisterly form. Personally, I am enamored of the way romance languages gender their nouns, and I like the chance to get a bit frilly on occasion. I’m not particularly interested in neutering my title for form’s sake, and it has no impact on the quality of my work – you either like my work, or you don’t. I don’t take offense. There are many fine poets I can’t quite stand to read, though I appreciate their contribution to the craft. And I’m happy that they write, and consider them family of a sort, even if it’s the crazy drunk uncle kind of family.

Other poets don’t look at me sideways if I say the word “poetess.” They might think I’m a bit wonky or unnecessarily flamboyant, but, please. That’s NORMAL in the writing world if you hang around poet circles. It’s practically a competition. And to be quite frank, I didn’t like the swallowed stop of “Peripatetic Poet” – I much preferred the rhythm of “Peripatetic Poetess” as the title of the blog. In true poet form, I eschewed propriety in favor of what I considered a better mouthfeel of phrase.

It may also have been the case that "Peripatetic Poet" was taken as a name on Blogger (and hasn't been posted to since its inception in 2005), so I had to do something so as not to lose my lovely phrase as a blog title.

It’s not a matter of differential status based on womanhood. Well, perhaps it is – I have the choice of calling myself a poet or poetess as I please, whereas I imagine a man would have a harder time getting away with the feminine form. In any case, it’s a status I chose, as I named the blog, and to me, it is a source of pride. Hell, anyone can get a job. But me? I am a writer. I am a poet. I break off little pieces of myself and my truths and offer them in the hope that someone will find them interesting, useful, or songlike enough to remember.My name is in print, I am in the Library of Congress, and I have an ISBN. That's about as successful as it gets for a poet of any stripe, unless you hit the Really Awesome Jackpot of Writerly Life and get Billy Collins or Kay Ryan famous.

So feminists, fear not. I’m not reverting, I promise. Hell, if I could get away with it, I’d call myself a bard, but I’ve neither the instrumental nor the metrical talent to go that far.

In any case, I’m just very happy someone reads the blog, and gives me the opportunity to think these things out loud.

1 comment:

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

It's obviously not a contentious issue for many people, LOL. No heated arguments for or against to be seen here, apart from your own convincing eloquence.

But how shameful of me not to have commented before, since I started it all.

You win! Even the sainted Germaine is on record as saying (way back when) that we have much more important fights than matters of language. And although things have come a long way, some fights are still un-won, such as equal pay for equal work (in Australia anyway) which certainly do matter more.

I'm glad you are a poet and proud to be one, and will try to control my twitches at that word. :-D