I was dropping a reply comment to my gal Emily Lloyd's allusion to the Adrienne Rich poem "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," and it suddenly struck me that I was making a very enormous gendered distinction.

Is form masculine?

And when I ask about form, of course I mean pattern. It occurred to me within seconds of writing the comment that I perceive poetic form to be a systemization of language. I mean, language is already the grandparent of all systems (and truly it is our guide for all symbolic systems we create), so employing a second layer of system on top of it seems strange, antithetical, almost. There's more.

Jacques Lacan, one of the great explicators of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, revises "penis envy" to "phallus envy." A phallus is a symbol most often represented by—yup, penises—but the phallus is not a penis. The phallus is power. Lacan connects the power of the phallus with two primary arenas: the Law and masculinity. The Law is our system of control in society—and it includes both legislation and social law (the unwritten but deeply meaningful). Lacan often calls this system "The Law of the Father," which brings it back toward the Oedipal scene—the Law becomes the true opponent of the child, freeing it from sexual competition with the male parent. Because the father, by virtue of malehood, seems to possess the phallus (and therefore power), some cultures support a patriarchal structure.

Maybe poetry's like this.

In "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," you get a very sing-songy rhythm—almost nursery-rhymish in its music—and a repetitive rhyme scheme. The poem discusses a the oppression a woman experiences through the institution (read: Law) of marriage. Her rebellion occurs in the fact that she creates a beautiful, defiant, genderless art in the form of tigers dancing across a screen. The poem alludes to the fact that the rebellion isn't read after the act, but that the rebellion occurs within the act. Furthermore, the rebellion is not visible to the oppressor, making it a form of language they can't access.

Since, at the time of the poem's writing, the business of poetry was primarily a man's game, it makes sense that Rich would rig this poem into a traditional form. And when I say Tradition, I say Male. I allege that the masculine is the enforcer of tradition, of repetition.

I'm going to think more about this, but I would be interested in hearing other people's thoughts about it.


  1. O, Charles, I do get what "AJT" is up to--or, especially, was up to at the time of its writing. I think it's just that I really hate the word "prancing"...the poem makes a good point, but I'm not crazy about Rich's writing in forms.

    Certainly, form has been considered masculine--so much so that as an undergrad, when asked to write in it, I said something like "As a lesbian woman, I feel...blah...oppressed...etc. by form." I think I said it because, somehow, I'd been told to. By other lesbian women, or women's studies' profs, or both. When I received my graded forms portfolio, my prof wrote "You don't sound oppressed when you write in form. You sound armed."

    Armed. I liked the sound of that. I still write in form most often...slipping into now even when I don't mean to. I haven't written an "entirely free" verse poem in ages. On the WOM-PO listerv I tried to articulate why--I'm not sure I did to anyone's satisfaction--and explained that, well, I don't feel particularly free. I feel a bit boxed--politically, yes, but it's also a plain human thing: I'm in this body. I can't fully get inside someone else's. I have boundaries, barriers, skin. And I write in form to kick against that box/body/boundary/stanza, to stretch it and twist it, but with the knowledge that I'll never quite bust out of it (or my body). So form to me in some ways represents a (the?) human condition. As does repetition! (Eternal recurrence and so on) Repetition, too, is very biological. Getting your effing period is like the villanelle from hell [grin].

    Ultimately, anyway, I don't see form as gendered. Yes, of course, in the history of literature, many DWMs wrote in it, laid it down like a law. But outside all that stuff (and I know many are never permitted to step outside all that stuff)...I think of form as strangely life-like. Free verse is organic...but form, well, it behaves like organs--

  2. I think form is kind of like heterosexuality. When it's done because that's what is "expected," when it's compulsory (to make another Rich reference), it is -- or can be -- stifling. When it's done because that's what truly fits, because that's what makes the work freer and more possible, then it's authentic and it's good. (I do hear rumors that those mixed-gender marriages are occasionally happy.)

    What is "the oppressor's language" (Rich, again) anyway? This is the oppressor's language / yet I must use it to speak to you. (That may be a bit off; I'm at work without poetry books at hand.) Is it more useful to smash the "container" of language/form wide open, if that language/form feels like a construct of the oppressors? Lorde: You cannot use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house (again, possibly not quite exact quote). But is it maybe more revolutionary to steal the master's tools, to use the oppressor's language in subversive ways?

    I'm thinking now, of all things, of the history of martial arts. All, or nearly all, martial arts were developed by oppressed peoples. The movements are disguised as calisthenics (t'ai chi ch'uan) or dance (capoeira); the weapons are everyday objects which enslaved persons would have had ready access to (e.g. tools of harvest). The subversion of what's been given, the concealment of revolutionary content within the apparently-decorative. Ani DiFranco: "Any tool is a weapon if you hold it right."

    Oh, this has my mind going a million miles an hour, and I must get back to work. (Bad librarian, blogging at work!) More later, perhaps.

  3. Wow, you're a smarty, Anne. I can't even think while I'm at work.

    --and I almost used that exact Lorde quote to suggest the same possibility!

  4. I think both of you have set my head spinning.

    And I have to admit something: I sometimes find pleasure from writing in form, but typically only invented forms.

    I think it was too simplistic of me to create a "this equals that" theory of form, and I'm really tired of creating binaries in my own thinking, especially binaries that use gender as their main source of organization. I hate gender. I think gender is mostly bullshit and deserves more transgression than it gets. But there I am, making the world a masculine/feminine place again.


    Thanks for your comments--you're both so brilliant!

  5. If masculinity does indeed equate with power as exercised through law (which of course it has a history of doing), and “Law” could be expanded to mean “The Way Things Are Supposed To Be”, you could make a case that set forms are inherently masculine. Although I’m wary of such boxes.

    Emily and Anne both have wonderful things to say about how poets respond to this. I’m sure I’m repeating some of their points, but anyway … I guess it’s like the choice of what to do if you hate Starbucks and one opens up down the street. Do you smash the windows and burn the beans and march with “boycott” signs? Or do you open up your own coffee shop with fair trade organic beans and live music, and cover the walls with murals by local artists? Given that the “oppressor” has already proven there’s a market for the product, might it not serve you well to offer it on your own terms?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with rejecting form on historical principle, or just because it doesn’t fit your own aesthetic. We’d never find anything new otherwise, and sometimes it is time to man the barricades.

    But it seems like writing in form can provide “borrowed power” to the most subversive (brace yourself) content or just a a unique manipulation of language within the form. A sugar-coated pill, perhaps, in that it “follows the rules”, fulfills expectations on some levels then sneaks the really wild stuff past the reader’s guard. Isn’t the act of co-opting a long-standing tradition to do some very untraditional things a statement in itself?

    Just because you color inside the lines doesn’t mean the sky has to be blue.