Sunday, September 14, 2014

Poetry and Masculinity

Poetry and masculinity have a complicated relationship.  In most times and places, the poetic canon, and the institutions supporting poetry, have been dominated by men.  This is certainly true in the United States now, as the good people at VIDA have helped make plain with their quantitative analysis of who gets published where.  There’s also a strong sense in which masculinity is associated with power, even in the world of poetry—an issue I tried to assess in this essay for Poetry’s website.  But there is also a feeling, in many quarters, that poetry is in some sense emasculating, as if it were somehow the antimatter to football or the Ford F100 pickup truck.  This goes deep: back in 1958, when the sociologist Robert Neal Wilson interviewed scores of poets for his study Man Made Plain: The Poet in Contemporary Society, one of the complaints that came up frequently was the sense that men who became poets were looked down on as not being sufficiently manly, for letting down the side of masculinity.

Clearly there is a lot of untangling to be done if one wants to approach the Gordian knot of poetry and masculinity, and one thread I want to start with when I take up that attempt again is the one offered in Diederik Oostdijk’s study Among the Nightmare Fighters: Americans Poets of World War II. The book came to my attention in a review in the William Carlos Williams Review by the wonderful Brian Reed, who describes it thusly (with a nice little shout-out to one of my books):
Among the Nightmare Fighters offers an illuminating if partial survey of World War II’s importance in the history of American poetry and poetics. Oostdijk argues that, despite their stereotype of belonging to a “silent generation,” mid-twentieth-century poets who experienced the war either first-hand or on the home front did in fact speak out, albeit often “in a quiet and undemonstrative way” and sometimes years afterward. Their reticence, he explains, stemmed partly from having witnessed “events… too devastating to capture in words” but also from a belief that “the history of World War II was already fixed in the American imagination and that their personal musings would have no major impact.” To illustrate the value of what soldiers, veterans, and conscientious objectors did manage to write, he focuses on a single “tight-knit circle of poets,” “a generation of white, male, so-called academic poets who published their poems in the Kenyon Review, the New Yorker, and Partisan Review” and who “came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s.” These writers—including John Ciardi, James Dickey, Anthony Hecht, Randall Jarrell, Lincoln Kirstein, Robert Lowell, Howard Nemerov, Karl Shapiro, and William Stafford—“collectively… show that the effects of war are ultimately shattering to all individuals caught in it,” especially any simple “equation of war and masculinity.” 
…. Among the Nightmare Fighters will likely interest any literary or cultural critic who studies warfare, gender, and trauma, especially anyone concerned with the Holocaust and its aftermath. It also deserves to be placed alongside other recent, first-rate works on masculinity and Cold War-era American poetry such as Robert Archambeau’s Laureates and Heretics (2010), Rachel Blau duPlessis’s Purple Passages (2012), and Michael Davidson’s Guys Like Us (2003).
If, like me, you’ve got to have this book, you can order it here.