Rhymes with Poetess

Lesley Wheeler

A talented professor of ethnic American literatures had recently left my university, the Victorian Gothic enclave where I pursued a doctorate in the early nineties. Gossipers blamed her departure on a culture clash epitomized by her brightly-hued manicures. In the English Department, female administrative assistants painted their nails but female professors, who were much better paid, did not. Every academic subspecialty had its own costume. Medievalists were neo-peasants, long-haired and dressed in coarse fibers. Eighteenth-century experts were as chic as their tongues were sharp. Post-colonialists and the theory-minded lurked around in dark hues, spiky earrings, and lipstick. Aficionadas of women writers wore loose neutrals and semi-precious stones in chunky settings. I wrote my dissertation on figures of enclosure in poems by American women; I belted my trousers snugly and crept under stone archways in tightly-laced ankle boots.

I am hardly the only poet or scholar obsessed with codes of self-presentation. During my first years on the tenure track, I brought a visiting poet to the red brick colonnade of the small college where I still teach. One of my undergraduate students crowed, with tremendous enthusiasm, “When she first came in and she was wearing brown and black together, I thought, oh no, this is going to be a disaster. Then she turned out to be wonderful!” Even people with more relaxed dress codes have strong ideas about a writer’s proper uniform. Recently, when a class became stuck on some quarrel about gender, I asked the twenty-five students in the room to draw a poet in their notebooks. Nearly all of them sketched scruffily-bearded men in T-shirts and berets, as if they were stuck in a Happy Days version of the San Francisco Renaissance.

How to accessorize is part of the unofficial curriculum of any doctoral program. What I didn’t absorb as a graduate student I picked up on the job and at professional meetings: one colleague hinted that my winter coat with shoulder pads had to go; as I listened to a conference panel, I correlated shoes and handbags to academic status and realized that I had fallen far behind. After receiving tenure in 2000, though, I started shifting my writing effort from scholarship to poetry. The canons and codes of the two worlds can be very different and I am learning them as a foreigner. I can’t draw on observations from the insular intensity of an MFA program. My opportunities for poet-watching are limited. I can see that the crowds at annual meetings of creative writers are literally more colorful than somber-hued throngs at scholarly conferences, but the nuances evade me. Is there any rhyme between what kind of poetry a person produces and how she dresses? Do her clothes, in turn, affect her work’s reception? Do shoes have anything to do with metrical feet or textiles with linguistic textures?

Surely this way of considering poetry and poets—by their outward qualities—is superficial and reflects poorly on my intellect and character. People announce their clans, though, through their plaids, and poets and scholars affiliate into tribes just like everyone else. Break the unspoken rules and people may decide you are special and honor you, or they might feel embarrassed and sidle away. Surfaces matter.

• •

A few scholars and I sighed as the elevator doors closed. The mirrored surfaces around us reflected dark-haired white women in blazers, dry-clean-only trousers, and patterned scarves. After attending panels on women’s poetry all Saturday morning, introverts all, we wanted to hide in our hotel rooms for an hour.

Suddenly a poet, a formalist, pushed her body into the gap, bracing it wide. Her long hair, gray and brown, flared out with the light behind it. She asked urgently, scanning our faces, “Could I please borrow someone’s bathroom?”

I followed her eyes: the women around me seemed unlikely to speak. “Sure,” I answered. “I’m in 1707.”

“I’ll just get my bag and be right up,” she said, and the doors slid shut.

I slipped my key card through the lock and glanced around—no incriminating medications stood on the counter and my dirty tights were in the closet. I felt shy, knowing Annie Finch only slightly. Also, while I was wearing my one-hundred-percent-wool professor suit, I was itching underneath in my secret poet costume. This conference was heavily attended by scholars whom I admire for their generosity, originality, and learnedness. They and I like the same nineteenth- and early twentieth-century poets but read contemporary poetry through different lenses.

Finch had joined this conference late. I wondered whether she had been invited on an inspiration from the programmers or whether she had shouldered her way in as the doors slid shut. Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900, named after a line from Gertrude Stein, had gathered up people who usually work at the margins of established scholarly societies and put them on plenary panels. However she had joined the party, Finch’s feminist-formalist arguments brought a helpful kind of challenge to the feminist-experimental poetry that—finally, amazingly—occupied the center of the conversation. I perched formally on the edge of my desk chair and logged on to check messages until she knocked.

Finch had spilled coffee on her pale linen dress and was anxious that the stain would set; she was flying home later that day and had already checked out of her room. Fluorescence leaked from the bathroom as she pulled a new dress out of her bag, changed, and washed the soiled one in the shallow sink. We talked about aspects of the conference we had loved as well as the tensions we felt percolating among the participants—these included not only the politics of form but also questions of race, because the conference attendees were mostly white women. I asked her about the West Chester Poetry Conference, a formalist gathering held every June on the other side of Pennsylvania, which I was considering attending for the first time; she told me a funny story about bow ties.

Finch was a graduate student when, in October 1990, she published “The Sonnet Transfigured” in HOW(ever) (available in the virtual archives of its on-line successor, How2). HOW(ever) ran from 1983 to 1992, its mission not only to publish experimental work from modern and contemporary women poets, but to foster conversation between poets and feminist scholars. Finch’s brief piece is full of ellipses, but the fragments offer an argument about how women have adapted the sonnet to “a female pattern, based not on seeking but surrounding.” She suggests that re-appropriation of inherited forms can empower women writers, whether they choose to employ the sonnet for Romantic self-assertion or use it to tame fear and other destructive forces that threaten to overwhelm the self. In the next issue, three critiques appeared in response to Finch’s piece, one of them a letter from poet-scholar Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

At a plenary panel earlier that morning on “Feminism, Formalism, and Innovation,” DuPlessis, Finch, and three other poet-professors spoke eloquently about the possible intersections among those terms. During her remarks Finch recalled the long-ago HOW(ever) exchange and noted that the responses from DuPlessis and others had made her feel “hammered, but also listened to.” DuPlessis, urbane in a black ensemble with a brilliant green scarf, seemed surprised and protested sincerely that her response had not been harsh.

Standing in my hotel room, Finch leaned over my open laptop and pulled the old correspondence up on the screen. We scanned it together. The responses to Finch’s piece are not dismissive, but it makes sense that she remembered feeling “hammered”—while experimental feminist poets in the early 1990s surely did not experience themselves as academic titans, the respondents had serious credentials and strong voices. Kathleen Fraser, the editor of HOW(ever), begins with a mentor’s tone of concern, noting that “The Sonnet Transfigured” “speaks to me and worries me.” Fraser expands “the either/or dilemma” she finds in Finch’s piece—a choice between using inherited forms or drowning without them—by suggesting “a third existing position provided for us by dozens of formally transgressive works written by poets since Emily Dickinson.” DuPlessis’s reply is witty and certainly skeptical but likewise treats the original argument with respect. Her ultimate point repudiates Finch’s: formalism is “implausible,” DuPlessis writes, because techniques cannot be separated from their historical contexts and “the sonnet is a genre already historically filled with voiceless, beautiful female figures in object position.”

Finch squeezed the moisture from her dress as best she could with extra hotel towels and rolled it up in her luggage before she departed. I gave a brief poetry reading later that evening, wearing my new favorite blouse, a cotton tunic printed with old-fashioned-looking orange lilies. I had brought meditative poems, expecting an academic setting, and the venue turned out to be a noisy sports bar while a football game was in progress. No one could really hear me and someone kept yelling, to my despair, “Eat the microphone, Lesley!” Arielle Greenberg read after me, beginning with a provocative poem about shopping for panties that delighted her listeners.

• •

A group of editors conferred by email while sipping tea in Canada, the United States, France, Norway, and South Africa. The list of titles under debate sounded like the history of feminist writing since the seventies: Tongues of the Firebird, WOM/PO/EMS, and, my favorite, Pink Throat. (“Sounds like Deep Throat!” others objected.) Our styles were bound to clash. The anthology was rooted in a large virtual community with a policy of complete openness; its members do not even agree on a collective name for themselves. Few recall that this “old girls’ network” founded in 1997 is called The Discussion of Women’s Poetry List. Its participants are “wompos,” with or without capitals or a dash in the middle—or, even more strangely, “womponies.”

Eventually we pulled a phrase from an Emily Dickinson poem: Letters to the World. Dickinson is formal, free, and experimental; lesbian, bisexual, and straight; canonical, heretical, and radically brilliant. Every woman poet likes the Rorschach test in the long dress. Dickinson is also white on white and as American as Prohibition, but still, given that the name had to suit an international membership numbering in the several hundreds, this was as close to consensus as we were likely to get.

I began a short essay for the book with the observation that “Most wompos know each other only as disembodied text on glowing screens.” Actually, this observation is true for readers in most media—words may convey presence but authors tend to be geographically and temporally distant from their audiences. Because people hunger for presence and embodiment, and because lyric poetry is so profoundly rooted in sound, readings and performances appeal to wider audiences than slim volumes do. When print yields to presence, however, the meanings of the words can alter. Reading argumentative posts online, I imagine that authoritative voices belong to the elders and tentative ones issue from women just starting out, but when I meet the owners of the names I am always startled. I should have known, I say to myself, that she would favor loud prints or men’s shirts or heavy kohl around the eyes—but I never do.

A confession, or baring of the bra strap: I’m much more comfortable with provocation on the page or screen than in the flesh. Yes, women poets and their poems should be able to wear anything. It is my own jealousy, I think, that makes me look at writers who perform their sexiness in leather or skimpy dresses and imagine that the mostly-male reputation-makers appoint them as prom queens more often than they choose the sensibly dressed. When I see a woman poet in spike heels I wrestle, nevertheless, with disapproval. I like the kind of feminism that revels in feisty self-assertion and I understand the desire to gain a little altitude. Still, especially when one is tramping around sprawling college campuses, those strappy, precarious leg-lengthening devices seem like a perverse way to discipline one’s tender feet.

• •

Interior features of poems, especially meter, receive the most attention from those who write about contemporary poetry in received forms. Poetry’s forward edges, however, are at least as interesting—the words before the line break and the white space. Sometimes this right-hand border is ragged both on the page and in the mind’s ear; sometimes prominent rhymes and punctuation marks seem to corset it tightly; often the line-endings are laced with subtle sonic resemblances.

A few women still manage to publish poems that wear full end-rhymes arranged in predictable patterns—sonnets, villanelles, ballad stanzas, nonce forms. Others deploy slant end-rhymes in more muted designs. Mostly, however, the poems by women that make it into magazines are unrhymed or use chiming sounds for fleeting effects, especially for sonic closure. I have the impression that rhyming women have a hard time in the journal market and have been searching for some persuasive way to verify that.

In the summer of 2008 I tallied poems that were end-rhymed in predictable patterns in various American literary magazines, breaking down the results by the sex of the authors, which I determined from the pronouns in their biographical notes. Slant rhyme as well as full rhyme counted, since sometimes the difference is faint, even a matter of pronunciation; I did scan for variations such as identical rhyme, pararhyme, and anagrammatic rhyme but found them very rarely. I chose the magazines unscientifically, focusing chiefly on ones that were easily available to me in my rural college town. I selected only one regular issue from each, the most recent. I looked at one magazine that publishes only metered poems, Measure, for reference, and one that publishes only women, How2. I found what others have, that most journals—Poetry, Ploughshares, AGNI, Threepenny Review, FIELD, Measure—simply offered more poems by men than women, often dramatically more. Prairie Schooner printed slightly more female than male poets (53% versus 47%) and Crab Orchard Review published dramatically more poems by women (63%), though its gender differential was still not as high as the gaps at Poetry (19% of the poems were by women) or AGNI (29% by women). Prairie Schooner and Crab Orchard Review happen to be edited by women, but so is Threepenny Review. Although more women earn MFAs than men do, it is possible that they submit their work for consideration less frequently or persistently. There is no way to know for sure how the proportion by gender of what is published relates to the proportion by gender of what is submitted or solicited.

Threepenny Review and FIELD had not published any end-rhymed poems at all; Ploughshares, guest-edited by Philip Levine, had only published 1 in 63 (that by a man). How2 published more, featuring two poems in monorhyme. Only 12% of the poems in AGNI fit my criteria and all of them were by men. In Prairie Schooner and Crab Orchard Review fewer than 10% of all the poems were predictably end-rhymed; men published nearly half of the rhyming verses in Prairie Schooner but only a third of those in Crab Orchard Review. At Poetry, only 6 of the 32 poems adhered to rhyme schemes, but 5 of those (83%) were authored by men.

My provisional conclusions: first, end rhyme schemes are unfashionable—either poets do not use them often, or the poems they write according to those patterns tend not to be selected for publication. Second: journals that feature much poetry by female authors tend to offer few rhymed poems, but gender proportions in rhymed and unrhymed poems are similar. That is, the sex of the rhymer doesn’t seem to matter. The magazines that print relatively few poems by women, however, may be even less likely to choose rhyming poems by women. In short, writing in rhyme schemes is probably not a wise career move, especially if one is a woman. Wariness of poetesses and their trailing gowns lingers.

• •

Several women had warned me against the West Chester Poetry Conference for its old-boy clubbiness; others told me that the annual gathering was consistently useful and fun. Avoid the dorms and pack warm clothing, they advised.

At West Chester in 2009, the male poet’s uniform, in fact, did not feature a bow tie. Instead the place would have resembled Casual Friday in a corporate office if not for all the beards and long hair. Most men wore light-colored button-down shirts, open at the collar and tucked into khakis, with jackets added in the evening. I imagined that veteran participants wore this costume in a studied way, conscious of West Chester’s reputation for formality of all kinds, but in any case, clothing did not mark status. One could recognize insiders at various levels of proximity to the power hub by their sheer self-confidence, but no trace of exclusiveness marred the many social events: most attendees were welcoming, frank, and interested in everyone else. Nametags did not identify institutional affiliations, so no one stared at my chest and then veered away because of my university’s irrelevance, as happens at scholarly conferences.

During the long, rainy weekend, I bought Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Harlot, full of anagrammatic rhymes and featuring a giant penis on the cover. She gave a reading and later her sandals revealed that she had scansion marks—an iamb and a trochee—tattooed on the tops of her feet. At the scantily attended participant readings, I encountered outfits and presentation styles that were especially diverse: one balding man wore his hair long and his goatee sharp, like a pudgy Shakespeare; another, clad in a velvet jacket, seemed to be channeling Vachel Lindsay. The feature event I enjoyed most involved Rhina Espaillat performing in comfortable slacks and canvas sneakers alongside a classical guitarist. Annie Finch arrived two days after the panels began—I spotted her in a dark dress with a conservative pattern, involved in an intense hallway tête-á-tête with a gregarious, prosody-mad medievalist in a navy blazer and striped tie.

There was some on-stage exclusivity in several of the regular sessions. White men introduced other white men in glowing superlatives, congratulating each other on their agreement about who the great poets are (mostly white, mostly men). When Annie Finch received the Robert A. Fitzgerald Award, Tom Cable introduced her warmly and had clearly been thinking about her work for years. His remarks were preferable to the overblown rhetoric at some other events, but the difference was striking. So was the size of the audience: ten men and 25 women were scattered through the large auditorium. The staged conversation about meter between Finch and Cable was nonetheless learned and lively. It gave me more new information, more scholarly and poetic leads to follow, than any other event at the conference.

I longed for more attention to non-European received forms—the blues, the ghazal, page poems influenced by oral modes such as chant and hip-hop. I missed the presence of sound-oriented African-American poets whom I knew lived within an easy commute. I would have benefitted from more conversation about the queering of the sonnet or the current politics of formalism. At the time, I felt marginal to West Chester’s canon as a woman. I now think I was too comfortable there.

The women in my clan look forward to conferences for the pleasure of strengthening an acquaintance over a real cup of coffee or an actual pale ale, fizzing brightly in the bar glass. Hearing how difficult arguments suddenly make sense in the scholar’s voice, even watching how the poet asserts elbow-room for herself in a tweedy crowd, is satisfying. However, professors tend to be most comfortable in disembodied language. When I step out of the text, I just don’t know how to pack.

Here is the sartorial information I have gleaned from the past few years of conference-going, journal-reading, and poetry-teaching:

What seems most prudent, if a woman must rhyme in public, is to do it either very wittily (high heels, unstable) or in a way that hardly anyone notices (small patterns, machine washable). Enjamb your assonantal rhymes in a scuffed-up meter and the cognoscenti will recognize the tailoring, but most readers won’t register it, including the fashion-forward graduate students who make the first cut at some literary journals.

For scholars researching rhyme, the focus should be on violation, but observance of poetry’s period costumes is a must. Citations remain necessary as foundation garments: if you have published an extensively footnoted book with an elite university press, references may become optional for certain occasions, but you will feel naked without them. Exposed skin should be avoided at all costs lest it bulge, leak, or sprout hair.

Perhaps if one aims only for immortality and scorns the contemporary runways—or if one has financial independence from the world of grants and writers’ gigs—none of these rules signify. Maybe compelling work really does find its own way regardless of labels. I keep thinking of Marianne Moore, though: her tricorne hat and cape, those elaborate syllabic stanzas patterned with almost-inaudible rhymes. Her poems, as many have observed, are full of tightly-rolled pangolins and other armored animals; those metaphors figure the silences she maintains about her own life, but they also suggest an understanding of identity that resonates with my deductions. One of the first of her armored creatures is the mud-caked elephant in “Black Earth,” a piece Moore omitted from her Collected Poems. In this poem, she makes the point that the elephant both wears and is her hide, a scratched surface inscribed with the “history of power.” Our own surface features likewise define us, and if you don’t read the outfit or watch the end-rhymes, you can misunderstand the whole fascinating pachyderm.

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