Books are a Feminist Issue

There’s been quite a bit of cyberdrama about this poem, and its video.

Mark Grist – Girls Who Read

Some women feminist poets, and some male poets who are undoubtedly feminists (or allies, if you deny that men can be feminists) are really angry that performance poet Mark Grist has produced a poem celebrating that intelligence is sexy, and that there is more to women than ‘tits’ and ‘arse’. They complain that this poem is still in the business of objectifying women. I can’t see how appreciating a woman’s mind objectifies her. The opposite, I would have thought. Grist’s poem delights in the idea of conversation and intellectual argument, in enjoying debating issues with a equal. One guy actually asked me on twitter: “What about women who don’t or can’t read?” presumably trying to be totally PC and inclusive. He might have been joking, but if not, then I’m sorry, but I found his comment unintentionally funny.

The feminist poetry magazine ‘tender’ was writing and ¬†tweeting about this too. They didn’t give the video three cheers, they thought that telling us that women actually have brains was rather underwhelming. I’d rather be encouraging to a man who seems like a feminist ally, even if his commentary didn’t go far enough. They tweeted a link to poet and blogger delladilly who wrote a bitter parody of Grist’s poem, one which wilfully misunderstands his position. Instructing someone to ‘date a girl who reads’ assumes a position of entitlement to that date which Grist never claims. In fact the video is mildly self-deprecating. The girl who sits alone in the pub, reading, who inspires the poet’s tirade against his “tits and arse” loving friends, is so obviously reading to deflect unwanted attention from men. At the end of the poem, just as the poet is thinking of going over to talk to her, her boyfriend arrives, so the poet, for all his fantasies about life with an intelligent woman, is left on his own.

A further objection was that the poet mentions that he finds women who read sexy. It makes some feminists uncomfortable that Grist is still viewing women as objects of male lust. Well, I think any poet is entitled to discuss his thoughts and emotions. If you read Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress,¬†Robert Herrick’s Delight in Disorder, or the supremely naughty To His Mistress, Going to Bed by John Donne, you will see male lust very openly displayed in great poems. To ask a man not to talk about his sexuality in poetry is to shut off a powerful strand of human experience. We should not be in the business of creating taboo subjects. To try to shut people down by dismissing their views – isn’t that what women have struggled against for centuries? Besides, if we ask the same self-censorship from women, there would be female friends of mine on Facebook who would need to keep their thoughts on David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch to themselves.

I suspect the people who are picking holes in Grist’s poetic performance are not his target audience, which is laddish young men, and women who seek validation in adopting a sexualised appearance. Granted, the poem does not give us a sophisticated view of gender relations, but I saw it as generally a positive feminist statement. Some commentators have asked whether it is a “feminist anthem”. Well, no. But it does try to counter the prevalent “rape culture” with a different view of women; one where their “passion, wit and dreams” are appreciated. I think in today’s cultural climate we should be grateful for that. Let’s not dismiss a feminist ally by saying he’s not feminist enough. There’s a slightly patronising note to the poem, and a faint note of self-aggrandisement (“Hey, look at me, I like women with BRAINS, aren’t I right on?”) but I’m prepared to take the sentiments expressed at face value.

So on the whole, I’d award two cheers to Mark Grist for saying something celebratory about women’s brains. Although seasoned feminists might not find it sufficiently revolutionary, his target audience might get something new to think about from this piece. I’d award one cheer to the feminist critics who have slated this poem, for not embracing what was generally a supportive statement, even if it was a bit “Feminism 101” for their sophisticated tastes.

Heaney’s Gun

I’ve written in this blog before about the need to introduce more people to poetry and how to do it – well, I’ve started. The human dynamo who is Sarah Gregson, the Learning and Participation Manager at the Corn Exchange Theatre in Newbury, is keen to increase the poetry and spoken word programme at the theatre, so we have started ‘Poetry for the Petrified’ – initially, five evenings of poetry reading and writing, on Wednesdays, upstairs in the Balcony Bar. There were ten participants this week – some are already seasoned poets, some complete beginners, some with experience in other types of writing, some not.

Some of the students brought poems to share. We heard the end section of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” – the Ring the wild bells bit – some Maya Angelou, Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Follower’, a lovely piece by that famous poet “Anon” on the subject of trees and how we use wood, and this translation from a Turkish poem by Edip Cansever, which I really enjoyed.

I also brought a Heaney poem along; ‘Digging’ – the first poem in his first collection, partly because it sounded like a personal manifesto. That poem, and ‘Follower’ both seemed to lament his inability to take up the farming life, and hope that a life in writing would prove to be a worthy substitute. But one of our number did have a slight problem with the opening lines of ‘Digging’:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests, snug as a gun.

Why a gun? When guns don’t feature in the rest of the poem? Was it some reference to ‘The Troubles’, or maybe a farmer’s shotgun? Or was it just that Heaney, who was a great one for ‘sonics’, fell in love with those blunt ‘u’ sounds and added that near palindrome for fun?

Anyway it set me thinking of Chekhov’s maxim (pardon the poor pun) about dramatic relevance, which has been variously stated – he probably said it several times:

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one
it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

Did that gun really earn it’s place in the poem, or was it a distraction? A red herring? Very un-Heaney-like to make a slip up, but then it was a very early poem by the master. I’d be interested in your view on that.

We covered quite a bit of ground in that first class. Next week, I think we will talk about thinginess, and write some poems about Things…