Elizabeth Bishop and the F Word

Was Elizabeth Bishop a sacrificial feminist, or a premature frump?

Elizabeth Bishop and Sacrificial Feminism, an article by Rachel Allen, appears in Granta’s summer issue, “The F Word” (minds out of the gutter, it’s about feminism). The article offers an interesting viewpoint on those pesky gender-segregated poetry anthologies. Bishop liked to “keep her poetry objective, often genderless.” She refused to be published in otherwise all-male anthologies because, “she didn’t want to act as the book’s ‘sex-appeal.’” I was reminded of a recent panel discussion at Columbia University where Margo Jefferson bemoaned how often she receives requests to appear as the lone female member in literary panel discussions. Now she often refuses to attend unless the organizers somehow miraculously manage to locate another woman.

However Bishop didn’t just take issue with being the only female poet in otherwise male anthologies. She wasn’t happy to see her work crop up in all-female anthologies either, a wish still honored today, because; “undoubtedly gender does play an important role in the making of any art, but art is art, and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc., into two sexes is to emphasize values in them that are not art.” Rachael Allen took issue with Bishop’s stance on this issue. “There is an ongoing debate about prefacing a writer with his or her gender, and it is, irrefutably, a one-sided practice. Yet growing up with The Bloodaxe Modern Women Poets anthology, edited by Deryn Rees-Jones didn’t do me any harm (except for Bishop’s omission), and served only as encouragement. These anthologies attempt to emphasize the prominence of poets who, because of their gender, were secondary in the past.” Allan argues that these all-female collections have an intrinsic value,“All-female collections give these writers an opportunity to be read on their own terms, and with their own prerogative.”

Was Bishop a sacrificial feminist or a premature frump in refusing to allow her work to appear in single-sex poetry anthologies? I wonder what pearls of wisdom V.S Naipaul could bestow upon the question. Damien Barr offered his own unique twist on the issue of single-sex anthologies. “I was excited about Granta’s ‘F Word’ issue. The only flaw I can find in 265 pages is the total absence of men. It’s not that men are under-represented: they aren’t represented at all. Now you see why I staked my feminist credentials up front. Men can be feminists too and surely there’s value in hearing from at least one of us? Otherwise it’s like having peace talks with only one side present. Surely castrating men from the pages of ‘The F Word’ is counter-productive and a kind of sexism? Can we not be trusted with pom-poms? Must we be banished to the back of class?”

Ella Delany contributes to the New Yorker.com, the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune amongst other publications.


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