Meeking and mewling – about “women and poetry”

Women and poetry – what kind of question is that? And can it be separated from the question of how sexist a society is? I think not. The mere fact of asking about “women in a specific context” points to an imbalance in the power equation. All the same, to say, “women and ...” allows issues to be addressed that might not be articulated otherwise.

Sexism is unsexy in the German art world. It’s an issue to be dealt with, sure, but supposedly it isn’t a lived and experienced reality. Then, when all of a sudden only men are nominated for some prize, there is a hue and cry. Which soon dies down though. There is an unspoken rule: sexism mustn’t become too obvious. Otherwise we’ll end up being forced to have a serious discussion about it. The progression towards greater gender justice – something I’d be only too happy to believe in – is thereby skilfully arrested.

Gender issues are power issues. The power – or: the influence – of literature in the German-speaking world can hardly be measured. Power and poetry are mutually exclusive, right? Poets aren’t entirely blameless in this situation. Their voices claim no space; nothing can be non-committal, harmless and small enough for them. So it’s actually quite a spectacle, this tussle for dominance between the sexes, even in such an insignificant field. Not everyone would agree with me though that this “power play” exists.

Power, no matter how mini – and that this is what it’s all about is evident in the reactions to German-speaking female Nobel Prize winners. Herta Müller: many welcomed her getting the award, but there were other voices, too. One of the accusations – I’m not quoting verbatim, just conveying the tone – Herta Müller never really managed to get past her village in Banat. Another was that her texts are stuck in the past.

What is this? Certainly not arguments in a literary discourse. I call it resentment. Paraphrasable as: “They can give you an award in Sweden but over here we still decide if you have something to say to us or not”. This “we” need not solely be male. But the tone is directed only at a female author – it’s hard to imagine anyone undermining Günter Grass’s authority in such a manner, belittling him. A male award winner, now that’s something for every “woMAN” to preen about, it is the eternal manhood that draws us on high. In contrast, the gang back home believe they have the right to show a female Nobel Prize winner her place: at the very bottom.

“MAN” obviously has something to lose.

But lose what? There’s no status or money to be had any more in literature and the world of ideas. So it can be only one thing: the very last shreds of the power of definition.

The question, “Who is allowed to speak?” is ground that was ceded long ago. Anyone – man or woman – can speak now. But the question has become subtly nuanced. Today it is: “As what is someone/something heard?” As a representative voice of a linguistic community? That in principle legitimises an (internal or external) debate as worthwhile? Or rather as something that is particular, marginal, at best something that one good-naturedly lets by?

Literary texts are seldom heard for what they are. Because there are too many stereotypes, too many set templates that come into play between the recipient and the text. They make genuine engagement happily redundant. Of course, not just gender-related templates. But more likely than not, as soon as a woman writes a text, it will have a stereotype slapped on it.

“Woman/young/not ugly : love poem!” is one such template under which poems literally vanish. Works very well, regardless of the kind of poem one is dealing with. That’s what stereotypes are for.

Germany searched a long time for a super stereotype. It was called “women’s writing”. That would have solved the problem once and for ever: all texts by women have one common feature – in other words: women authors gush, “it” gushes out. So they aren’t authors at all who reflect and have reasons for addressing a problem in this way or another. And at the same time “we” need not ask ourselves what reason there could be for us to listen to them.

The search was finally called off when it proved futile. It was not transferred to the issue of “men’s writing”.

But without defined stereotypes – and there are hardly any for older female poets, which is why there are also fewer of them – something unpleasant happens. The reader is confronted with a voice, it speaks, and one must independently answer the question: what do you have to say to me? How should I answer you – and me?

The rule absolves one of the responsibility to ask oneself: “Does that make sense?” Germany likes rules. The public is just rediscovering rhyme schemes and traditional verse forms – ooh look, a villanelle! So you know what you’ve got.

But please don’t question: “What’s the point of this?” Far too risky. The poem may end up mattering to you. Questioning. Won’t allow itself to be meekly labelled. What if suddenly you yourself no longer want to be meekly labelled?

This fear would be completely unnecessary though. We’re meek, meekly mewling – in soft alexandrines. And it’s a fact: women not even that loudly.

Anja Utler was born in 1973 in Schwandorf and lived for several years in Vienna. She now lives in Regensburg. She has done her doctoral thesis on Contemporary Russian Poetry. She works as a poet, essayist and translator and translates from several Slavic languages as well as English. She teaches Applied Arts at the University in Vienna. Her most recent book publications include Von den Knochen der Sanftheit. Behauptungen, Reden, Quergänge (Edition Korrespondenzen, 2016) und »manchmal sehr mitreißend«, Über die poetische Erfahrung gesprochener Gedichte (Transcript Verlag, 2016).
Anja Utler, 2015
Translation: Anya Malhotra
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