. . . I could never dream
As Payne Knight did . . .
That Homer’s heroes measured twelve feet high.
They were but men!
One gets the sense that while Rifkin’s approach is androcentric, feminism is playing a role, working to counterbalance the sort of hero-worship from some quarters that exerts a skewing force in our understanding of certain literary figures. She seems to take particular glee in lambasting Olson occasionally; ‘Projective Verse’ is a ‘masturbatory fantasy’ and Maximus reads like a ‘hope chest.’
As Browning continues to comment on female figures in the epic field — ‘his Helen’s hair turned grey / Like any plain Miss Smith’s’ — likewise Rifkin. This is one of Career Moves’s disappointments: its failure to treat women as possibly other than marginal by critically reproducing as central the poetic productions only of men. As much as Rifkin refutes a center/margin model in avant-garde poetry proposed by Peter Bürger, preferring instead to view ‘the unstable, diversified field of cultural production in which these poets operated ... [and in which] new ‘centers’ keep cropping up’(27), she reproduces it as such through the masculinism implied in the metaphor of career-making.
In the introduction Rifkin rationalizes the focus of her scholarship, commenting that ‘when it came to building and sustaining alternative institutions, women poets seem to drop from view’(7). That is, they seem, in retrospect, to have fallen. Because Rifkin’s attempt is to ‘reconceiv[e] the stakes of literary exchange in the narrower terms of the poetic career... [to examine] institutions from the interested perspective of particular, historically situated individuals’(6), if women poets simply ‘drop from view’ they cease to be ‘historically situated individuals.’
Rifkin argues from the point of view that they were not — that ‘women poets were... excluded from [these male poet’s] sense of the contemporary literary field’(7), but in fact their historical situation as excluded was a major factor in shaping the literary field and the possibilities it offered. Yet they were not Helens — motivators of male action — but themselves active — but how? Were these same strategies undertaken by women poets, with less success, or none? Or perhaps something (the pressure to form an identity?) encouraged the success of male poets? Was the exclusion of women required? Were these men’s poetic practices productive of their ignorance or exclusion of ‘their female counterparts’?
Whether it is a phenomenon that marks post-War poetry or not, the notion of the poetic career raises questions about the role of gender. If the context (or field) constructed by men was equally consequential to the women writing who lived within and without it, then perhaps it was limited by the creative and intellectual exclusion of women. Even without attempting to construct a sense of the public field as specifically unoccupied by women, there’s ample evidence of private sacrifices to be made on the part of women, but not a word of Frances Boldereff or Lorinne Niedecker is to be found.
If they have ‘dropped from view’ initially, perhaps the pressures exerted on men to build careers propelled women also, but with what force and in what direction? Without attempting to answer such questions they remain ‘dropped’ through our continued omissions.
The ‘selective traditionalism of the avant-garde’ is what Rifkin blames for the ‘disappeared’ women poets; and while she makes reference to notions of the absence of women as ‘a constitutive feature’ of the period Career Moves covers, it is a study that, finally, quietly marks a history of male control over social and textual space. Rifkin seems not unaware of her elision, concluding with a hasty chapter on the work of a few women associated with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church: Anne Waldman, Bernadette Mayer, and Alice Notley. This chapter announces the promising futurity of ‘Unnatural Acts and the Next Acts.’
But one can’t help reading it as an addendum to the prior chapter on Ted Berrigan, as one can’t help reading the second half of the book as an addendum to the first two chapters on Olson. A full fifty pages focus on Olson — including the chapter on the ‘collaborated careers’ of Olson and Creeley (about 5 pages are devoted to a close reading Creeley’s poetry) — 30 pages investigate Zukofsky, 20 Berrigan, and 8 belong to the ‘conclusion,’ clearly meant to open onto another topic, another period marked specifically by gendered changes in the field of literary production.
Ann Vickery, in Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing, broaches just that topic. Vickery’s first book marks a significant moment in recent poetic history. Unlike any other collection of essays published to date, it focuses exclusively on the discursive and non-discursive poetic practices of contemporary women.
Regarding the textual and social formations that emerged as ‘Language’ poetry, Leaving Lines of Gender broadens the view of the field revealed by earlier critical studies, such as George Hartley’s Textual Politics and the Language Poets (1989), which focused on writing by men, and a group of books that addressed work by women in terms that explicitly avoided the significance of the collective phenomenon being played out in gendered terms.
In Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry (1996), for example, a female poet is said to construct an ‘alternate route’ in the poem as ‘cultural mapping’ where only women’s maps are ‘gendered’; there isn’t any such thing as ‘male writing.’ The single essay of Marjorie Perloff that addresses gender, ‘Canon and Loaded Gun: Feminist Poetics and the Avant-Garde,’ distinguishes camp-style the work of women poets from the work of ‘feminist’ poets. And Hank Lazer, in an essay on Susan Howe inOpposing Poetries (1996), employs the term ‘feminist’ in order to make reference to the ‘skeptical’ nature of Howe’s approach.
These works miss the significance of a generation of poets, women and men, affected by the influence of women and feminism in the field of poetic production.
Leaving Lines of Gender doesn’t rely on opposition as a means of inscribing ‘Language Writing’ onto recent literary history. An insider/outsider trope central to a work like Lazar’s two-volume Opposing Poetries, where the ‘Language moment’ is marked by textual ‘oppositional activity’ is dispelled. Vickery’s book instead explores the ‘insides’ of poetic communities that circulated around and culminated in ‘Language Poetry.’
To this end Vickery delves into the archive: the Susan Howe papers, the Bernadette Mayer papers, the Sun & Moon papers, the Ron Silliman papers, and, especially, the Lyn Hejinian papers, are prominent sources. Vickery offers an interesting analysis of the archive and the work of the archivist in her introduction, and the glimpses at correspondence between Howe and Hejinian or Silliman and Bernstein, for example is an enticement.
Though Vickery sees a genealogy as ‘a way of reading texts and their contexts against each other’(16) such that a ‘feminist genealogy’ isn’t Other, it is not singular at all, but offers variants, alternatives to both genealogies of feminist poetry produced with the women’s movement as a centralizing force and to partial narratives of Language poetry that have been written. Vickery refers to her work as ‘the writing of community’(5) and her purpose in doing so is manifold, but primarily she hopes to offer ‘an alternative to reductive originary narratives’ such as Ron Silliman’s In The American Tree and Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (her examples), to attend to ‘the shifting ‘mess’ that encapsulates actual poetic practice through the traces it leaves’(13).
She also hopes ‘to recover and celebrate the work of women writers,’ as poets, publishers, editors, theorists and ‘supporting a broader poetic practice’ — indeed addressing these various acts and positions is part of the ‘mess’; and ‘to position Language writing within a diverse field of innovative poetries and demonstrate how its consolidation as a group practice... was both enabling and problematic for the women writers involved’(6).
No longer will one or two tropes or metaphors serve to characterize the poetic work done by women. At the same time Vickery is wary of the potentially reductive nature of describing the practice ‘of women writers.’ Her point is never to ‘universalize’ women’s experience as writers.
One question that must be asked then: how is a feminist genealogy situated in the larger poetic field? Vickery explores writing by women as a differentiable field, not within Language writing, but as, constitutive of, that group of practices. She writes: ‘We need a map of Language writing as a field of rich and diverse feminisms’(51). A feminist genealogy is, she writes, ‘a mode of intervention’ with which she hopes to reveal hidden differences and relationships.
Vickery’s vast survey marks the shifting gender of poetic authority, revealing women as poets and editors, publishers and critics — a revelation that is crucial to an understanding of poetics in the United States since 1968. This is an ambitious project, covering a great deal of territory. The pace is brisk: with introduction and conclusion, it totals eighteen quite brief chapters: the average length is 14.5 pages (most scholarly studies might have 6-8 chapters of about 40 pages). Her goal was ‘to present some breadth of representation with a detailed examination of specific texts’(19), and considering the breadth, the brevity, and the relatively unexplored nature of the territory she covers, chapters will seem, at worse, a cursory treatment (the tone of these essays is, at times, dispassionate), and will, at best, encapsulating or pointing in valuable directions, to peripheries teaming with intriguing questions.
Often the field (of all the practices Vickery attends to: her methodological field) appears too diversified; it is unclear how an individual chapter is meant to contribute to the whole — though this itself might be read as a testament to what was enabling and problematic for her subjects.
This is not to suggest that this study doesn’t have its share of developed points and crucial revelations: the pace accounts for a survey of various facets and complexities of this ‘feminist genealogy.’ Aside from chapters on Hejinian, Susan Howe and Rae Armantrout, already subjects of chapter- or book-length works, several poets whose work hasn’t been as thoroughly explored are included. They are Tina Darragh, Fanny Howe, Bernadette Mayer, Joan Retallack, and Hannah Weiner. Interspersed with these close readings of poetry, several more chapters consider other scenes of poetic activity.
One chapter explores a web of material and ideological conditions that, historically and contemporaneously, promote a gendering of critical and theoretical writing as male, and create a context in which ‘women don’t write theory.’ The prevalence of critical texts published in the 1980s by men, she argues, have been viewed as ‘representative’ of this genealogy, and Vickery looks at the role literary criticism plays in reproducing this assumption, such as Jed Rasula’s American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects 1940–1990, in which she finds, in at least one instance, ‘women writers [being] performatively marginalized, literally sentenced to the margins in the body of criticism’(105).
The chapter continues to theorize about women’s theoretical writing. In short, Vickery shows the means by which various texts construct and perpetuate critical understandings that make it difficult for women to locate themselves, and to be located, while bringing into view women’s theoretical practice in order to construct an ‘alternate’ genealogy. The anthology, another mode of genealogy making, is investigated as well, but this chapter appears more of descriptive than analytical, an instance of where Vickery’s study lays essential groundwork for further critical studies. Other chapters reveal various acts in the 70s and 80s through which particular women built poetic communities, such as Kathleen Fraser’s HOW(ever), Hejinian’s Tuumba press, and Susan Howe’s radio program Poetry.
The result is a variety of approaches that attend to language itself as a field of poetic activities. The central issue of gender and authority is shown to be intricately constructed across various contexts that are, whether textual and social, always linguistic. Vickery shows how these two contexts impact on another through the notion of the genealogy, which is very much a social understanding of a period created on (or out of) textual evidence of activity. That which speaks first or loudest, while influential to primary configurations of a genealogy, must give way to alternatives, Vickery suggests, when one is attuned to the various cadences and volumes that exist as well. The archive is loud with variations.
While reading these two involving studies there is often a sense that the writer’s attention shifts to another point, another argument, leaving the previous thought prematurely. This perhaps reflects the duty of an academic treatment of poetry to be, on the one hand, a rhetorical performance, and on the other hand, to gaze upon a set of objects for empirical study, to borrow Rifkin’s terms.
Whatever individual critical paths each makes through their material — and this, too, contributes to the interest in reading — these books are interestingly shaped, I think, by cultural and critical pressures to pay attention to certain subjects in particular ways; to address women, in Rifkin’s case, to address women inclusively, in Vickery’s.