Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Nice Girl (Poets) Finish First?

I have never claimed to be a poet; nor do I read poetry that was written in the last thirty years. Really, I rarely read poetry at all, finding the complete immersion of prose to be vastly superior to dipping into lines of metered rhythms. Therefore, I am not entirely sure why Courtney Queeney's piece over at Bookslut, "The Kings are Boring: Some Thoughts on Women's Poetry" speaks so clearly to me.
I think perhaps that Queeney's points about "niceness" in women's poetry is merely a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon that generally expects women to be quiet and nice--to pay special attention to things that are pleasant and kind.* She writes,

I started mulling over the idea of niceness in women's poetry after three different men -- from different generations, who knew me in different capacities -- read the manuscript of my first book and each responded with some variation of, I really like your poems, but they're not very nice. I can't imagine Eliot's editor telling him that The Waste Land was great, but it wasn't very nice -- niceness is, predominantly, a cultural expectation of women.

Queeney's right: The Waste Land isn't nice at all, but it speaks to some part of the population (which doesn't include me or most people I know), which is far more important than being pleasant. The same can be said for Syliva Plath:

The introduction to Plath's Great Poets pamphlet, penned by Margaret Drabble, inspired further ire for reducing Plath to a tragic victim and emphasizing the theme of motherhood in her poetry. Drabble's introduction does allude to both the head in the oven and lactation, but also characterizes Plath's poetry as "appalling… also exhilarating" and avers, "She embodied a seismic shift in consciousness." In case you didn't get it the first time: "She changed our world." I don't know about the women responding to the Guardian piece, but I certainly aspire to change the world; it seems an appropriately high bar for writers of whatever gender.

It is the very lack of niceness which has made Plath stand out from some of her sister poets, who Queeney argues tend to explore much "nicer" themes and are lauded for it:

I admire the work of many of the poets Burt cites, but then I come across his assessment of "Aqua Neon" by Ange Mlinko. According to Burt, this poem is worthy of praise because "Mlinko offers both a likable persona and a sense of place." Are we now evaluating poems based on the speaker's likability? It seems a poor consolation prize, poetry's version of winning Miss Congeniality. I was the Prom Queen; it was boring.

Perhaps this is why poetry has lost some of its punch--poets (most especially women poets) are no longer inciting strong emotions in their readers. Instead, they are trying to walk the line of making something warm and fuzzy and therefore palatable.
*End note: I hate the term nice in all its uses, and I have for years. My roommates in college used to poke fun at me for this, but I have very valid reasons for my hatred of the term: "nice" is a filler, a meaningless four letters that we use to describe something or someone who isn't noteworthy enough to deserve anything else. If I ask you to describe a person and you say, "Oh, he's nice," I automatically assume that he is also generally humorless, boring, and forgettable.

Consider using these terms in place of the word "nice," which I propose should be stricken from our language: kind, generous, friendly, gentle, compassionate, supportive, etc. "Nice" could be (and has been) used in the same context as all of these words because it is so vague as to mean absolutely nothing. Never describe me as nice, or you will see how very un-nice I can be.


Homero said...

I was watching "No Reservations" last night on the Travel Channel, and the host Anthony Bourdain was in San Francisco. One of the stops he made was with a city poet, who wrote in a quasi-Beat style. When Anthony asked his philosophy on poetry, he replied something to the effect of "It's suppose to sound nice," to which I yelled at the TV "BULLSHIT!"

Lindsay-with-an-A said...

God, and they actually respected this guy enough to put the interview on TV? Blech.

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