Sunday, September 22, 2013

ModPo 2013 #13 Outward Conquest and Inward Discovery: On the Gendered Politics of Whitmanians and Dickinsonians

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Note: I am currently taking a course on called Modern and Contemporary American Poetry taught by Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. I will be posting my thoughts on the course discussions here.

In the video discussion on Whitmanians and Dickinsonians, I liked the challenge of reading the poems from the false binary of a gendered perspective. I have always taken a feminist stance in most of my reading and papers, even in college. So, I'll just dive into it because this is something that I've always been passionate about. 

There is no denying that there is a power struggle between the feminine and the masculine. It might be a false binary (since one can't do without the other) but it has always been around since, well, Adam and Eve. And I see it applied to the Whitmanian and Dickinsonian poets. 

Let's start with Whitman himself. His poem is a conquest poem. It's conquering the world, at least America, in all its naked glory, from the "blab of the pave" to the earth that farmers plod upon. Whitman is concerned with embracing, taking in the "outdoors." It is a very masculine preoccupation: going out into the world and taking it by the horns. Then, we move on to WCW who is concerned about "his nose" and its indiscriminate way of nosing everything. He, too, like Whitman, celebrates the earthly, the outdoors, the rank smell of creation. He, too, goes out and points out to us that he is the "happy genius" of his entire household. Ginsberg explores as well. He surveys the supermarket, the "inside" and the "outside" of the America of 1955. It's no wonder that all the Whitmanians are men. The impulse to roam seems to be a masculine one. 

The domain of Dickinson is the mind. She celebrates discoveries within, "Vesuvius at home." For a woman of her time, that is where she is confined. By cultural dictates, a woman's place truly was at home. That just defines the restrictions of her time. But she was not content to be restricted so she went after a space that was open to her: her own mind and its expansion. In the video discussion, there was a point being made that the Whitmanians and Dickinsonians were not so much about male and female than about extrovert and introvert. But, if you think about it, the activities of women at the time of Whitman and Dickinson, were conducive for introversion. Where else could a woman express her real thoughts except in her own household, in her own head? Going to Niedecker, we see a rebellion, a rejection of a traditional woman's role as she counters her grandfather's wishes. Ironically, she chooses an occupation that keeps her indoors: the act of writing. Corman, too, is preoccupied with the intimate, with just the you and the I as captured on a page. Lastly, Armantrout, celebrates a multitude of "I's" that springs from the very intimate (and very indoor) activity of reading. 

Even today, when women have made huge leaps in terms of equality...they are not completely free of traditional roles and stereotypes. Women have had to cope with being "superwomen" to "succeed" (good mother, good provider, good wife, good lover, etc.). Even today, a woman cannot really travel alone and un-harassed the way Whitman might have (note: in Delhi, a woman can be subjected to "Eve teasing" or even rape by virtue of traveling alone....and more particularly, traveling alone at night). In the Philippines, the sons of the family are permitted to go off at all times of the day because they are just being "boys." But the girls in the family are subject to curfews simply because they are the ones who can get pregnant. 

Don't get me wrong: I'm not pitting the sexes against each other. I am simply pointing out why Whitmanians have a very "male"/ outward point of view in terms of their writing and why Dickinsonians are mostly women (thanks, Cid Corman, for joining the Dickinsonians!) and mostly "feminine"/ inward in their point of view. It's a matter of culture and politics. 

Thanks, ModPo, for the opportunity to study a range of poets and different perspectives!

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