All entries for Tuesday 04 July 2006

July 04, 2006

Quote from Medbh McGuckian

‘men are the wind, women are trousers, they are measured against us’ (in Medbh McGuckian, 'Women are Trousers' in Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identity, ed. Kathryn Kirkpatrick (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 2000), 157–189,160.)

Sally Minogue: Prescriptions and Proscriptions in Feminist Poetry

Minogue, Sally. ‘Prescriptions and Proscriptions: Feminist Criticism and Contemporary Poetry’. Problems for Feminist Criticism. Ed. Sally Minogue. London and New York: Routledge, 1990. 179 –

This is a rather rambling essay lacking in structure, but I have made a few notes below, because it does make some good points.

This essay is concerned with ‘contradictions, both between and within the various critical positions’ (180) and Minogue maps out a number of problems:

•‘the belief that the tradition of writing, and especially the poetic tradition, is “male” ’ (180): Minogue questions the meaning of this statement and whether it suggests that men are the only poets who have been successful (published or raed as shown by Olsen);
•‘that poetry has been […] an even more closely protected preserve’(181): Minogue ponders the feminist notion that a woman can only enter the world of poetry by also entering into maleness citing Jan Clausen and Jan montefiore;
•the need for ‘a female tradition in poetry’ (182). Should content be the most important thing in feminist poetry or is this too much of a ‘monolithic criterion’ (182)? What about the ‘feminist poetic or aesthetic’ (182)?

Minogue notes that central issue here is ‘the problem of value’ (182).

Minogue then compares Clausen (A Movement of Poets) and Montefiore (Feminism and Poetry). Minogue defines Clausen’s poetics as being imbued with the statement of her lesbian and female status. The content is paramount and poetry becomes embedded in self–expression. For Clausen apparently the feminist movement has thought too much of poetry’s utility and not enough of other values rather than simply as a consciousness–raising exercise. Minogue is critical of Clausen because although Clausen recognizes the need for poetry to be complex, but she does not challenge her own standpoint and assumptions in making poetry a means for self–expression.

Montefiore is ready to admit that some recuperated women poets have produced bad poetry. This kind of poetry is more valuable to the literary historian than to the literary critic. (Yet Minogue points out that Montefiore herself is a kind of ‘social historian of ideologies’ (184). ) Minogue summarises Montefiore’s argument as:

1.that most feminist poetics are ‘damagingly universalist’ or essentialist;
2.‘that a “truly” universalist (i.e. humane) women’s poetry, in which the poet deliberately disregards her gender and wishes it to be disregarded in the criticism of her poetry, is weak in respect of that’ (185);
3.poems that are ‘more feminist in terms of content and reference, and less universally humanistic, will be more conducive to the creation of a woman’s tradition’ (185–186).

Minogue relates this to Montefiore’s argument concerning bad poetry. She notes Montefiore’s belief that bad poems can be of use to the social historian and that for Montefiore, professional gloss is equal to value as Montefiore uses male values to analyse an example of a so–called bad poem, Scars Upon My Heart’ by Vera Brittain: link . Minogue deconstructs Montefiore’s analysis and she compares the poem with Sassoon’s ‘France’: link . Minogue wonders whether Sasson’s poem would be criticised because it expresses ‘an undesirable attitude’ or ‘lacks “professional finish” ’? Minogue is concerned about the ‘sliding in and out of ideological stances and values, in and out of “traditional” critical values’ (188). Montefiore states that woman’s tradition must always be in conflict with patriarchy, but Minogue questions this and the idea of value that comes with it.

Minogue wonders what poetry is valuable for feminists and she points to Clausen’s statement that there is a lack of standards for feminist poets. Minogue links this to Montefiore’s and Gilbert’s and Gubar’s claim (revised in The Madwoman in the Attic) that for women, fiction has always been paramount. Minogue suggests that there is ‘unarticulated rules’ which tyrannise young women poets. Minogue interprets Clausen’s description of such rules as follows:

1.‘feminist poetry should be (politically) useful’;
2.‘that it should be accessible in form and content’ (needs of audience);
3.‘that it should be non–traditional in form and ~(first–) person in address’ (traditional forms as male);
4.‘the subject matter should be feminist; that is either anti–male oppression or pro–female strength and community’;
5.‘a collective awareness should inform it, minimizing the role of the author as important individually’;
6.‘it should be self–sufflicient’;
7.‘it should be unconcerned with criticism, or should view criticism as patriarchally based and thus suspect’ (191).

Minogue cites Rich here as supporting Clausen’s view of these unwritten rules. Minogue concludes that these unwritten rules have been written entirely as a response to the male tradition and she believes that such a poetics is ‘limiting’ (193). Minogue is also concerned that ‘the outsider or newcomer may well be left in the dark because the insiders see no need to explain their position’ (194).

From these debates two areas emerge:

1.political correctness;
2.the relationship between political and poetic values.

Minogue refers first to being PC and she notes the disagreements between feminists from black or white backgrounds, heterosexual or lesbian sexualities. She sees this as linked to the question of political and poetic value, but also to the spheres of political and academic feminism.

Is there such a thing as a natural woman’s voice? Patriarchal views of a ‘natural’ femininity dominate feminist consciousness and indicate problems with essentialism Yet without essentialism how can one argue for a feminist poetics? One problem is the need for oversimplification in shaping an essentialist view. There must be some quality that separates women – sociological, linguistic etc. It is particular elements of woman that have meant a disadvantage, but there are also other elements, of being working class for example, that cut across peculiar elements of being woman.

‘So an acceptance of essentialism may be necessary but not sufficient condition for being a feminist, for I may put some other category before that of being a woman and sometimes be aware of being the two together, and sometimes be aware that being one determines my fate and my actions more than does the other.’ (197)

‘A feminist poetics based on essentialism seeks to put being a woman before being human, because it sees the embrace of ‘humanity’ as being in its nature disadvantageous to women. But a feminist poetics which does the same will be doing something even more far–reaching’ (198)

‘if we were to make a female/feminine poetic dependent on giving priority to the particular oppression which comes with being female, we would be ruling out of women’s poetry an enormous area of interest, experience and concern’ (198–199)

Is a feminine language possible? The French feminists think not ; for Kristeva, for example, woman is defined by negatives.

'Toward a Feminist Poetics' by Elaine Showalter

Showalter, Elaine. ‘Toward a Feminist Poetics’. The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. London: Virago, 1986. 125- 143.

Showalter begins by offering the example of a ‘London symposium’ of 1977 at which Leon Edel, biographer of Henry James, poses the situation of three scholars, Criticus, Poeticus and Plutarchus who stand on the steps of the British Museum discussing ‘why femininity requires brainwork’ (125). Showalter is concerned by stereotypes of feminism that see feminist critics as being ‘obsessed with the phallus’ and ‘obsessed with destroying male artists’ (126). Showalter wonders if such stereotypes emerge from the fact that feminism lacks a fully articulated theory.

Another problem for Showalter is the way in which feminists turn away from theory as a result of the attitudes of some male academics: theory is their property. Showalter writes: ‘From this perspective, the academic demand for theory can only be heard as a threat to the feminist need for authenticity, and the visitor looking for a formula that he or she can take away without personal encounter is not welcome’ (127). In response, Showalter wants to outline a poetics of feminist criticism.

Consequently Showalter divides feminist criticism into two sections:
The Woman as Reader or Feminist Critique : ‘the way in which a female reader changes our apprehension of a given text, awakening it to the significance of its sexual codes’; historically grounded inquiry which probes the ideological assumptions of literary phenomena’; ‘subjects include the images and stereotypes of women in literature, the omissions of and misconceptions about women in criticism, and the fissures in male-constructed literary history’; ‘concerned with the exploitation and manipulation of the female audience, especially in popular culture and film, and with the analysis of woman-as-sign in semiotic systems’ (128); ‘political and polemical’; like the Old Testament looking for the errors of the past (129).
The Woman as Writer or Gynocritics (la gynocritique) : ‘woman as producer of textual meaning, with the history themes, genres, and structures of literature by women’; ‘subjects include the psychodynamics of female creativity; linguistics and the problem of a female language; the trajectory of the individual or collective female literary career; literary history’(128); ‘self-contained and experimental’; like the New Testament – the grace of the imagination (129); ‘to construct a female framework for the analysis of women’s literature, to develop new models based on women’s experience’; ‘focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture’; ‘hypotheses of a female sub-culture’; ‘the occupations, interactions, and consciousness of women’; ‘feminine values penetrate and undermine the masculine systems that contain them’; ‘engaged in the myth of the Amazons, and the fantasies of a separate female society’ (131).


One of the problems of the feminist critique is that it is male-orientated. If we study stereotypes of women, the sexism of male critics, and the limited roles women play in literary history, we are not learning what women have felt and experienced, but only what men thought women should be. […] The critique also has a tendency to naturalize women’s victimization by making it the inevitable and obsessive topic of discussion. (130)

The divided consciousness: ‘[T] he current theoretical impasse in feminist criticism, I believe, is more than a problem of finding “exacting definitions and a suitable terminology” […] It comes from our own divided consciousness, the split in each of us. We are both daughters of the male tradition, of our teachers, our professors, our dissertation advisors and our publishers – a tradition which asks us to be rational, marginal and grateful; and sisters in a new woman’s movement which engenders another kind of awareness and commitment, which demands that we renounce the pseudo-success of token womanhood and the ironic masks of academic debate’ (141).


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