What does a 'deranged poetess' look like to you? Would she have an unkempt mass of long, frizzy hair? Ink-stained fingers and pens tucked behind each ear? Long flounced skirts that rustle with every step? A wardrobe of velvet, lace and satin mottled with age? A neck looped around with hundreds of pendants? A black cat at her ankles and an owl circling her head? Bits of crumpled paper spilling from her pockets – leaving a trail of crossed-out lines behind her as she walks? (Actually, scratch the walking. Surely a deranged poetess could only glide...)
I wish. Apparently though, it’s the label you get saddled with if you dare to criticize the way a man wrote about a female poet. Yeah, that’s right. Because you know, all those silly, mad women with their words and voices and ability to exercise an opinion! More than that, women who dare to write poetry themselves, and celebrate others who do so! But, being female and deranged and all, they get that special ‘ess’ added on the end, just to make sure that people wouldn’t confuse them with, you know, one of the serious male poets. (If anyone feels the need to criticize my interpretation by the way, don’t worry! It’s tongue-in-cheek, just like the ‘deranged poetess’ label! God, why is everything taken so seriously?!)
If you want to read more about the whole saga, check this out here. What the story essentially distils down to is Sarah Howe, this year’s brilliant recipient of the TS Eliot Prize for poetry, being criticized in various publications in the wake of her win. The essence of the critique? She must have won it because she was female, because she was Anglo-Chinese, because she was under 35, or because she was (in the Private Eye’s charming phrasing) “presentable.” To be honest, the Private Eye column – which you can read here – is by far the most frustrating. The implicit message is that a woman could never win on merit alone. Surely there must be extenuating factors? Reasons to explain away the hideous anomaly of recognizing the talent of someone other than an old, white man?
The ‘deranged poetess’ label though comes from the writer of another profile for a broadsheet newspaper – which, in itself, I’m not that interested in talking about. Instead I’m fascinated by how far its echoes reverberated. The phrase appeared in a throwaway tweet defending the profile. Soon after, #derangedpoetess began trending. Some of the tweets were sharp and witty, pointing out what a great name it’d make for a poetry collective. Plenty were angry. Hashtags like this become a flashpoint, a catalyst, something tapping into deep-seated frustration that stretches far and wide. In this case, it’s about the literary world’s continuing problem with women. To be brilliant, young AND female is, apparently, too much. The youth bit in particular. Such excess must be tempered with a heavy focus on appearance, perhaps, or the ins and outs of personal life (see Jonathan Bate’s treatment of Sylvia Plath in his new Ted Hughes biography – skewered by Janet Malcolm here). Personal lives can be fascinating, by the way, but there’s a time and a place and a way of approaching that should compliment that creator’s work, rather than undermining it.
Essentially, in the face of huge numbers of utterly fantastic female academics, poets, essayists, novelists, thinkers, playwrights etc etc etc, there are still a fair number of petulant men who wish to maintain the status quo. That’s what struck me about the Private Eye piece. It sounded like petulance hastily masked with scorn. How dare anyone other than the usual formula be recognized! How dare the normal balances of power be ever-so-slightly tipped!
The few poems of Howe’s that I’ve read so far sound alive, full of revelry in the potential of words, their sound and shape and vivid texture. (FYI, if you’re a certain type of male literary critic, you can dismiss this as “florid”). So much of the time I find contemporary poetry oddly stiff and clinical. This was a delight by comparison.
Before this all kicked off, I had a conversation on the phone with my mum about what a great surprise of a win it was. I first heard about it through listening to Howe talk on an excellent Guardian Books Podcast, also featuring Emmy the Great – both discussing their creative processes, their heritage, and the differences between poetry and lyrics. I’d listened idly whilst cooking dinner, noting the name and relishing what I’d heard, but not necessarily inclined to follow it up. A few days later I saw the hashtag, followed up the story, and wondered whether to laugh or cry. In the end I opted for another phone-call with my mum. Now I’m much more likely to buy Howe's winning collection: 'A Loop of Jade'. Maybe that’s one great thing to take from this.
This whole storm also, aptly, re-stoked my fire for poetry – both reading, and writing. There’s so much to delve into, so much to think about and distil down into the rhythm of a line. I want to carry on crafting and learning and doing more in the way of performance poetry. In the meantime, I like the idea of joining this flock of deranged poetesses – perhaps in a red lace dress, with a grey wool cloak and the wind whipping through my curls. Maybe even with two or three white, wild ponies in the background... That’d definitely be how a deranged poetess presents herself, right?
Everything I'm wearing is vintage - all bought second-hand. Another shoot done over Christmas in a pocket of sunshine. Talking about women and poets, by the way, my friend Izzy has written a poetry collection called (somewhat aptly for today's theme) The Voices of Women - just published - and you should definitely take a look at her blog post all about it here.