Here’s a thing; it’s Sunday afternoon, and Sunday’s a Rugby League day, yet I’m here, because there’s something that’s been nagging and nagging, and if I don’t write about it I shall go on waking up in the night worrying at it. Sometimes I wish poetry didn’t have such a hold on me. Nevertheless.
Some time in the early 1970s I was trying to get to grips with sociolinguistics, and, especially, with the notion of gendered language. One of my colleagues at the College of Ed. where I was a lecturer played his students (and me) an audiotape of pairs of people talking on a train. What they were talking about was pretty much gender-neutral. Simplistically, not about fashion or football. The conversations sounded slightly odd, out of kilter but we couldn’t put our collective finger on why.
This is how it worked. The researchers made transcriptions of the taped conversations, which were those of pairs of women and pairs of men. They then had men reading the dialogues of the women, and vice versa. Simply, the idioms, the structures, the dynamic, the interactions didn’t fit. It seemed that the problem went much deeper than gendered lexis. I leave that for your consideration.
At the time, my view of the world had been radically challenged by two bombshell texts: John Berger’s Ways of seeing, and Dale Spender’s Man-made language. Interestingly and paradoxically, Berger’s presentation includes statements like
The invention of the camera changed the way men saw
all images are man made.
Which pretty well made Spender’s point.Lots of things have happened since then, but they continue to be just as important to me now as they were 40 years ago.
Why am I telling you this? I’m still buzzing from a week in St Ives with poetry inspirations and tutors Kim Moore and Helen Mort, and from the impact of the poems they brought into the workshops. Poems which simultaneously raised issues of the negative, of silence, of contradiction and of how women are written about and how women write about themselves. Let’s chuck into the mix the fact that Kim Moore suggested I watch a You Tube clip of a lecture on “the female gaze” by Jill Soloway. Here’s the link.You might want to watch it before you read on. http://youtube.com/watch?v=lhlxxW87S4c
Did that link work? welcome back, in any case.
What she says isn’t new, but in essence she says that the male gaze is characterised by being predatory, objectifying and commodifying, particularly when the gaze is turned on women. Think, say, of Durer who created an image of the ‘ideal woman’ by assembling it from bits of other images, like a kit. It’s tied up with ‘ownership’ and the power of defining the limits of another identity. This is essentially no different from Berger’s thesis, which in turn draws on earlier writers, though his conciseness is all his own:
“a woman…. is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself”
which, he argues is constructed from centuries of images of woman made essentially passive, looking back at the active and proprietorial observer.
Soloway asks what constitutes ‘the female gaze’ and make the obvious point that it’s not the simple reverse of the male gaze, substituting women observers for male observers, but maintaining the assymetric power relationship. Whether she manages to explain what the female gaze is, I’ll leave to you to decide. What I can’t leave in the air is when Soloway says, blithely enough, the male gaze is pretty well everything. Because if the male gaze is necessarily predatory and reifying then the semantic and rhetorical books are well and truly cooked, and I might as well stop right now. It’s not that simple, because life never is. The core of it is pretty well indisputable; Western art and literature are dominated by men and their gaze well into the 19th C. Think about all the countless paintings of madonnas (by men) and then paintings of mothers and children by women. Check out Berthe Morrisot and you’ll see what I mean. Now we live in more relativist cultures, with all their contradictions and ambiguities. Have look at these female nudes. Two are contemporary. One is more than 20,000 years old. One is painted by a woman. One by a man. One we know nothing about. Where’s the male or female gaze? I don’t know, and I’m not out to win any arguments. I’m just asking myself questions.
Let me ask some more. Let’s shift the ground to poetry…it is a poetry blog after all. Think about Browning’s My last duchess. There’s a poem about the predatory male gaze if ever there was one. But whose gaze is turned on the Duke, and whose on the the woman whose portrait the Duke is showing off. What is the poet assuming about the duchess? Or think about Philip Larkin’s The less deceived and how he imagines (gazes on) the little street girl abducted and taken into fulfilment’s desolate attic. At every turn I feel the ground slipping away from under my feet.
At this point, I’m going to go back to an earlier post, (December 204) in which I was equally uncertain of what I was arguing about or why. I started with a quotation from George Eliot…who had to assume a male persona to get published.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity”
I went on to write about my response to work by Pascale Petit, Kim Moore, Fiona Benson and Wendy Pratt, and to wonder whether I could access their experience of the world via their poems. I wrote:
“I read these poems, and then I read what I’ve written in the last two years and I see what isn’t there, and I wonder if I have access to what’s missing. Just to explain why I chose that opening quotation from George Eliot; for the last 18 months or so I have grown gradually more deaf. It’s something that can be dealt with, and will be, but at the moment I hear the world through a soft sieve. I miss the point of conversations and questions if I’m not attending. It’s like listening to French. I recognise songs on the radio by the bass lines and drum patterns but I can’t hear the whole tune. And now these poets. It’s as though they’ve shown me emotional registers and harmonies that I can’t hear or feel for myself, as though, in George Eliot’s word I’m ‘well-wadded’. I’m writing rhetoric and well-observed landscapes, and anecdotes, but I’m not accessing the whole picture.”
I was reminded of this last week when I read one of Clare Shaw’s remarkable poems from her annual foray into the world of NaPoRiMo. Here’s a bit of it (thanks for the permission, Clare)
I was told not to write about wombs
but mine writes itself
in capitals. It is prolific,
I cannot forget it.
It reminds me
of all its hard work,
how patient and kind
it has been;
what it gave me. It boasts
it is further inside me
than the maps would suggest.
It says has swallowed small men
and some creatures.
How once it was sea and sky,
and a star floated there,
and its world was endless.
I pick out one phrase that all my conflicted and muddled feelings spin on: it is further inside me / than the maps would suggest. It’s that internal understanding, that knowledge that seem beyond me. And at this point I’m going to pass the buck. Over the last few years I’ve written poems in the voices of so many women…which is to say, I’ve made the attempt. Myra Hindley, Keith Bennett’s mother Winnie, Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc’s mother, a cunning woman, one of the Three Graces, Ophelia and so on. And I’ve turned my gaze on other women without appropriating their imagined voices. My week in St Ives, and a week spent reading about ‘the male gaze’ and ‘the female gaze’ have left me uncertain of what I’ve been engaged in. What I’ll do is post of some of these poems, one at a time, and see what you make of them. Male gaze or not? And what tells us?
The first is new, though the subject is one that’s dear to me. A little Toulouse Lautrec drawing, on a bit of torn card (which reproductions crop out),tucked away in a corner of the Alte Pinakotech in Munich. You come upon it after huge galleries , like celestial butchers’ cold rooms, full of enormous Rubens nudes
After the Rubens
Just your head, just your slumped shoulders.
They’ve tucked you away, low down
in a corner by the door, with the woman
tugging a stubborn goat over the chalk.
I guess you’ll settle for this, no one
staring, this small space to yourself,
no one to bother. Do you mind
that all he had was chalks,
a torn off bit of pasteboard.
Do you mind that your hair’s come
unpinned and he’s noticed that,
and how grey is your skin, do you mind
that scribble of pistacchio smudged in
to make you hair catch fire.I don’t know
your name and for this I am sorry.
It’s just that you look so tired that I stare.
Do you mind.And if I don’t stare, if
I look away, where will we be then.