Gender in Poetry

I’ve a question I’d like to ask, but first some background. With an androgynous name like ‘Ashley’ I’ve occasionally been mistaken for the fairer sex in the context of my poetry. A reader or editor sees a poem by ‘Ashley Capes’ without a bio, and perhaps naturally assumes that I’m female.

Now, this hardly offends me. I have no problem with it at all, and when it happens in writing, in the context of a review, like here

I certainly don’t mind, for at least two reasons. One, it’s wonderful to have my writing described as ‘sparse’ & ‘taunt’ and two, it’s just so damn nice to be mentioned in a review! (The review is for Canberra Journal Block, and my poem ‘through the backyard’ appears in it.) Actually, make that 3 reasons. I love the fact that poetry is being mentioned by a bookshop, and I also agree with SmithsalternativeBookshop that the issue is wonderful. And that it’s a shame this will be Block’s last.

But now to my question. Is poetry seen as more of a ‘female’ pursuit? I have some potential evidence to say it is, because when an androgynous name appears, and there is no other contextual information for a reader to determine the gender of the writer, it seems the female gender is default. What do you think? Opposing evidence? Supporting evidence?

26 thoughts on “Gender in Poetry

  1. I don’t default to one or the other, ‘cos it depends on the name. With yours, I’d be inclined towards female because I know more Ashleys who are women than not, but that’s more linked with my statistical encounters of the name than my assuming you would be a woman because you’ve written a poem.

    I’ve edited an issue where the managing editor of the journal assumed the writer was a particular gender but that was down to assumptions due to the behaviour exhibited rather than the writing itself.

    • Good point, Ivy – statistical encounters. I’ve met more females called ‘Ashlee’ so I associate that spelling with female gender.

      Actually, the poet-default position would seem to be male, if you consider the percentage of high profile poets – I feel as though a huge chunk are males.

      Behaviour exhibited? Bad behaviour I imagine ๐Ÿ˜‰

      • It was kinda interesting. He said he’d assumed she was male because she’d been somewhat ‘aggressive’ in email correspondence and ignored some of the guidelines when she sent in her work. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        Doesn’t usually happen that someone who ignores the rules still gets their work accepted but, luckily for her, she was a good writer. Just proves that good writing trumps all.

  2. I would say that yes, there is a stereotype among ‘some blokes down the pub’ (not reality of course) that a love of poetry is somehow feminine – this may related to the assumption (probably true) that one has to be quite sensitive to write poetry and that women are by nature more sensitive than men (obviously a false assumption). I always think of Ashley as a male name (probably because of Gone with the Wind) ๐Ÿ™‚ At least you got a mention in the review and a good one at that – haha.

    • Yeah, I see that sometimes in smaller towns. And I reckon the idea of sensitivity or at least, empathy, is pretty key to a lot of poetry.

      Ah, ‘Gone with the Wind’! That’s right, I have a classic-literature association with my name. Outstanding. Actually, name-associations always make me imagine what terrible stress parents must go through naming a child.

      Oh yes indeed, wonderful to be mentioned in the review, really happy about that!

  3. Yes, poetry is seen as a ‘sensitive’ art, studied by dusty old academics, and poets are pictured in gowns and fluffy hats writing with feather quills. Either this or, if you mention that you write poetry people think it is original and witty to reply ‘there was an old man from Nantucket’.
    However, I think I’ve known more male Ashleys than female, so I assume the male. If it is an androgynous name I try not to refer to gender. I have the problem of my name being so common that if my middle name is omitted I am lost in anonymity.

    • What about the brown jacket beneath the old elm tree? (I do have a brown jacket, but not elms nearby. Otherwise you’d be in for a photo!)

      Oh, you’ve had that a few times, Mark? Wow, how’d you keep a straight face? I think you’re right there, the middle name included definitely makes your name stand out

  4. ‘Actually, the poet-default position would seem to be male, if you consider the percentage of high profile poets โ€“ I feel as though a huge chunk are males.’ – this merely reflects the gender bias that is also rampant in the other literary endeavours (novels etc.,) and is why women used to work under pseudonyms to have a chance of getting their work published – things haven’t changed that much (that is why the Orange prize has just been announced) –

  5. Yes, and it seems to be a reflection across the writing board.

    The new award could be great – hope it gets up. Here’s a quote from the article

    “I would argue that sexism is so ingrained in the arts industry as it stands that it is, unfortunately, necessary to find ways to draw the public’s attention to the work of women writers,” she said. “I’d like to quote [poet and novelist] Alison Croggon on the subject – she expresses this better than me. ‘A world loaded in favour of one sex accounts for the pyramidal structure of gender. At the wide bottom of the writing world โ€“ the world of amateur writers on the internet, for instance โ€“ women, if anything, dominate. The closer you get to the top, the fewer women there are. And at the very top, as in this year’s Miles Franklin, the presence of women is an exception. What to do about it? One thing is certain: passively assuming women are equal and will gradually work their way to equal status doesn’t work. We need some different tools.’ This notion of needing different tools is behind our desire to set up the award.”

  6. Fascinating question to ponder Ashley, in the light of the responses here. When I opened up the cafe and started writing/engaging I noticed a tendency for people to assume I was female based on my alias. That seems to have stopped, possibly since I grew the blokey looking shadow avatar. I read recently some words from Adam Smith dating back to the 18th Century that only poets read poetry, and it’s a claim that seems to have been repeated in various contexts. If it’s true, it would be interesting to look into the question of why, among a community of people who are stereotypically sensitive, sexism is seen to be ‘so ingrained’. Thanks Ashley.

    • Hi Brad – jus going by my response – which was based on what I think people who don’t read a lot of poetry think (everybody knows something about poetry – we all read it at school and have heard it read to us as kids – and everybody has an opinion about poets if you ask them)- I personally don’t think writing poetry is a feminine past-time – it is not a gender issue to me at all – anyone who loves words can write poetry – gender has nothing to do with it (but the stereotype remains – either female or feminine – to write that sensitive stuff). I don’t think poets would generally have that opinion. I also don’t think only poets access poetry – Joe Blow and co. mightn’t read poetry journals but they can still appreciate other forms of poetry. It is interesting, but when I used to put stuff in the ABC POOL under the name GB – most people assumed I was male – ha!

    • Ah, that blokey-shadow is bit of a give away! Yes, I’ve heard that quote a few times too, and wondered about it. How true is it today? Or perhaps, sometimes it could be ‘only poets buy poetry’? As I often wonder about that too.

      Quite a question, Brad! If it is ingrained, and we poets are sensitive, what’s happening there? So does that mean that sexism is ideological (and ‘hidden’) and sensitivity is not?

      • I feel as though I need to be very cautious about what I say next Ashley. I know the issue is a sensitive one, and I am sensitive of that. I can also see that we each have varying levels of sensitivity toward the issue.

        I have a strong suspicion that new tools need to be developed which can deal with understanding that ‘sensitivities’ are themselves ideological – or in my honest opinion. I’m willing to have my suspicions proven wrong though.

        It would be great to see men and women promoting the idea of developing those new tools co-operatively; perhaps as an initiative of the Australian ‘Orange Prize’ steering committee.

        Thank you for asking the question Ashley. I think the conversation that you have prompted here between us has the potential to go further up the chain and make that initiative happen.

        And thank you Gabrielle for letting me know what you thought ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I think there was a sexist paradigm that assumes women write *bad* (simple/maudlin/domestic) poetry and men write *great* poetry (Shakespeare/Byron/Cummings) and the women who write *great* poetry are the exception to the rule (Dickinson/Wright/Plath). Is it still that way now? I fricken hope not, but I’m suspicious. (Clearly, no exhaustive lists.)

      • ๐Ÿ™‚ Surveys … lie detectors … and then a complete overhaul of the education system: wrenching it by the deep roots from its hard patriarchal ground and planting in fresh fields of emancipation for all. *sigh* I suspect for this to occur, there would be blood and there would be bone.

      • I should hunt around a bit and see if that hasn’t been done, already. It might be interesting to see some stats on percentages of female poets vs ‘widely recognised’ female poets etc

    • Hi Clare – that’s an attitude that floats around out there, huh? Actually, perhaps some of it can be applied to poetry itself, ie: that ‘simple’ or ‘domestic’ poetry is bad. Which I find offensive too.

      • Your right Ashley – and I find it offensive too – it should not be the topic, but the way it is written – the simplest of actions can be described in the most beautiful and poetic way – and we all live with domesticity (well most people – maybe not James Packer etc.,) and describing life through poetry is a big part of poetry.

    • And sometimes when men write about domesticity it’s received differently than when women do. Suddenly it’s cutting edge and insightful. Gee … am I bitter? ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. I agree, Brad, surely sensitivity is ideological too. But how to work outside of it, in order to critique it? A tough job, but as you say, new tools ought to help with this. Like the re-imagining of histories, perhaps, used in order to unlock empathy.

    Really interested to see what the Orange Prize comes up with.

  9. Funny, I have always had the notion that it is a male pursuit, although I couldn’t really tell you why – perhaps we studied more male poets at school.

    When I started to post my poetry under my pseudonym I was astounded to get a question asking if I was male or female – I automatically assumed my femaleness would be in there somewhere but that was my quite incorrect and narrow view. It made me see my writing in a new light.

    • Hi bluebee! That you studied more male poets definitely may have added to that – I think that’d be a big part of it.

      I think that makes sense, I suspected that there was something inherently ‘male’ about my writing, and there might be, but I’m not sure how to articulate it quite yet.

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