Are Male Poets Misogynists?

Every time a woman has asked me what I do and I’ve told her that I write poetry, I’ve gotten one of two reactions.  If the woman in question is uneducated, she asks if I’m gay.  And if the woman is educated, she asks me whether it’s true that all male poets are misogynists.  Despite the fact that it’s fashionable among educated people who would be (justifiably) horrified by the first stereotype, I think the second stereotype is just as retarded as the first.

Both stereotypes, after all, proceed from the same assumption: normally, poetry is written by women, so when a man writes poetry, something is amiss.  Indeed, “poet” is one of the few job titles it even occurs to people to modify with “male,” the expectation being that practitioners should be female.  The only others I can think of are “male stripper,” “male nurse,” “male flight attendant,” and of course, “male prostitute.”  All of these designations carry strong homosexual connotations in our culture (in the last, it is a job requirement), including, I suppose, “male poet.”  Of course, it is not the case that a majority of poets are female (at least not a clear majority), nor that the majority of male poets are gay.  But the point is, people think these things are true: ergo, when a poet is male, something is fishy, and when said male poet is not gay, something is doubly fishy.

Many of the supposedly misogynistic characteristics of male poets, it seems to me, are—to the extent that they are true at all—true of artists generally, and for various reasons are selectively noticed in (straight) male poets.  For example, artists tend to be more honest than normal people—at least, honest in the sense of “socially blunt, with little regard for propriety.”  To a woman used to being flattered by men, this can read as misogyny.  I doubt that male poets on the whole are any more socially plain-dealing than, say, female sculptors, but the trait as it appears in us reads differently.  If a woman is in the habit of making unexpectedly cutting remarks to or about men, people may find it just as offputting, but will process it as a political stance rather than a psychological flaw.

It is certainly true in my experience that artists of both genders tend to have troubled personal lives, but ascribing this to sexism seems reductionist.  I think it more likely attributable to the fact that artists tend to be emotionally needy—if we were not, we would not have become artists (I speak here not broadly of people who possess artistic talent, but specifically of those who pursue the Arts as a profession).  I refuse to speculate on whether male artists or female artists cheat on their partners more, although I think it safe to say that both groups do so in numbers exceeding those of the general population.  In the liberal circles in which poets tend to gather, however, it is the fashion for such behavior (and bad behavior generally) to be excused in women more so than in men, at least in the present day.  It is also not uncommon, in male/female romantic partnerships between artists, for the partners to be operating under two different definitions of infidelity—the female partner, for example, is often permitted simultaneously to maintain sexual relationships with other females.  The society of artists is often such that female artists walk with a longer tether, resulting in disproportionate condemnation of males for identical actions.

Even those artists who are not technically unfaithful to their partners frequently have difficulty maintaining happy relationships of long standing.  It is unavoidable that hearts will be broken on all sides.  But a female heartbreaker is the more intriguing for it, and certainly no-one will accuse a gay male heartbreaker of hating men, as is he is a man himself.  Only the straight male heartbreaker draws accusations of “misogyny,” or indeed, accusations of much of anything.

You know that illustration of how sexism happens because when a man observes a negative characteristic in an individual woman, he assumes it is true of all women, but when he observes a negative characteristic in another man he just assumes it is true of that individual?  The same error in reverse can cause women to perceive sexism where none exists.  If I make fun of you for no reason, and then five minutes later I also make fun of a man for no reason, then clearly this is how I treat everyone, not just women.  But many women—especially, once again, in the academic liberal circles in which poets travel—are so accustomed to ferreting out sexism that they will take any man’s treatment of any woman in any situation as indicative of his opinion of women generally without remembering to observe his treatment of other men as a control.  We’re not sexist; we’re insane.

There is also the issue of subject matter.  As straight male poets are—just like gay male poets, straight female poets, gay female poets, and bisexuals of both genders—human beings who lead lives and accrue experiences, we are occasionally motivated to make reference to these experiences in our poems.  Some of these experiences involve love and sexuality, hardly uncommon themes in poetry.  But alone among the various combinations of genders and orientations, when straight male poets make reference to our sex lives in the work, we are “assholes” who are “bragging” about them.  We realize that speaking openly about our sex lives is not necessarily courageous or inherently politically enlightening, as it is when an LGBTQ poet or even a straight woman does so; all we ask is that it not be automatically considered oppressive and gauche.

To the extent that the stereotype of straight-male-poet misogyny conceals a kernel of truth, I think it is this: male poets can be safely assumed to have been, by male standards, atypically sensitive as youths, and in high school probably had an unusually high number of female friends, cared less than did other males about sports, had atypically feminine tastes in music etc., and because of all this grew generally to consider themselves “safe” from feminist complaints about men.  But then upon entering college, they, as not only English majors but creative-writing students, are situationally obliged to bear the brunt of the most extreme feminist rhetoric the campus has to offer, when as far as they can tell, they deserve it less than do any other males.  Thinking something along the lines of This is the thanks I get for being one of the sensitive guys?, many become deeply cynical about gender politics in general.  But this is hardly the same thing as simple misogyny.

Many male poets are also understandably sick of having to defend themselves time and again against the accusation that straight male sensitivity does not in fact exist, and is only a coldly calculated sexual strategy—i.e., the idea that we don’t even really like poetry, but are only pretending we do to get girls.  Whenever a sensitive straight guy reveals himself to have any sex drive at all, people act as if this confirms the suspicion that the sensitivity was just an act.  I don’t see why this would have to be the case.  A man can genuinely like poetry and also want to have sex just like everyone else at the same time.  And if the fact that he likes poetry happens to work as a sexual asset, so what?  Rock stars get way more women than poets do, and no-one has ever accused the Rolling Stones of only pretending to like music.

Hell, I am still pissed about an “exposé” on sensitive guys I read in Jane Magazine eleven years ago (the boy in your English class who claims to like literature may want to have sex with you just like a frat guy, which proves he doesn’t actually like literature at all!).  Just like women who dress sexy, sensitive guys are tired of the opposite sex turning around and reproaching us for our “manipulativeness” when all we’ve done is exactly what they said they wanted us to do.  And this is, once again, hardly the same thing as simple misogyny.

It is, I guess, the lamentable result of being the real-life incarnation of a traditional object of fantasy.  Girls grow up dreaming of being in love with a poet in the same way that boys grow up dreaming of dating a stripper.  And just as the men who do end up dating strippers are shocked and dismayed to find that they don’t sit around the house in glitter and platform heels and don’t invite their girlfriends by for threeways on a nightly basis, the women who end up eventually dating a real live poet are shocked and dismayed to find that he quotes The Simpsons, looks at internet porn, and doesn’t necessarily climb every tree he sees to shout things about love from the top.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, a more sensitive man may even be a less romantic one.  All sensitivity really means is a heightened perceptiveness.  A male poet, perceptive as we tend to be, might for example be more likely to notice that, for every one person you passed on the street and for whatever reason happened to have the courage to smile at and say hello to on that particular day, there were a thousand other people at whom, also for no reason, you didn’t happen to smile, a good number of whom would probably have been better suited to you than whoever you’re with, and therefore come to define love as a reciprocal fiction two random people engage in because for some reason pretending that someone else is special in exchange for their pretending that you are special makes us feel like fucking killing ourselves slightly less of the time.  (You know how poets are “melancholy” and stuff?  Well, that’s why.)  But just because that isn’t the exact same thing you imagined a “poet” would say about love when you were six years old and running around like a drooling spaz in the princess costume you made mommy and daddy buy you by throwing a tantrum in the store, that doesn’t make us misogynists.

Male poets don’t hate women.  We hate people.  There’s a difference.

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10 Responses to “Are Male Poets Misogynists?”

  1. John Ortega Says:

    This was a really fun entry to read.

  2. Peter K Says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “male poet” before. Maybe it’s an American thing.

    Dante – “male poet”? Wordsworth – “male poet”? Wallace Stevens – “male poet”?

    Ted Hughes – “male poet”?

    Ah, Ted Hughes… Maybe female American lit. students are still hung up on the whole Sylvia Plath thing?

  3. Elisa Says:

    I’ve never heard that (“male poet”) either. (I’m American.) While it may be true that people assume the men they know are not sensitive enough to be poets, unless they’re gay, if you asked random people on the street to list some famous poets I bet they’d mostly name men.

  4. wellcraftedtoo Says:

    Hi Chris! Like your new blog. (Just found it.)

    Most of the artists I know are in long-term committed relationships. That is, the successful artists. By successful, I mean productive, active, fulfilled. Not necessarily, of course, commercially successful.

    A stereotype that I do think actually exists is that of the emotionally unstable, ’suffering’ artist. That’s an old one, and hard to budge. But if one looks closely at the lives of many artists, you see lots of turmoil and trouble, but I’m not sure if it’s any more than in the public at large.

    And if you look at successful, productive artists you see–just like in the successful, productive public at large–stable, disciplined work habits (for the most part!), and lots of committed relationships.

    So I think it’s a mixed bag for artists, just like it is for everyone, and that stereotypes re artists fall apart quickly when examined.

    I do, though, think you’re right that artists share their inner lives more openly than much of the ‘non-artist’ population (my terms, not yours, but I think that’s what you said). After all, isn’t that much of what art is all about? And that that reason alone may well create an impression of emotional instability and difficulty.

    Have not encountered your assertions that male poets are usually greeted with the assumptions that they are either gay, or woman-hating. Doesn’t fit with any of my stereotypes of poets: that they are largely still today male, that most are hetero, and that most hetero male poets are very interested in women, and not at all necessarily misogynist. Actually, the only gay poet who comes to my mind is Whitman. On the other side of the room is a long, lively roster of scribbling men inspired by women they adored (and were ‘tortured’ by!).

    One question I have is why take so seriously the occasional dumb comment/question (I can only assume you don’t hear this garbage that often)?

    Got to run. Fun finding you on (org). Hadn’t run into you on the net in a long time.

  5. Cameron Says:

    Good stuff, Chris. It needed to be said.

  6. Pamela Martin Says:

    Hey Chris,

    Messing with my blog(s), and remembered I’d posted on yours. Checked it, and my link is messed up.

    Have a new blog, The World Of Dew, that I hope to devote solely to writing (when I get a bit more time–crazy lately), as well as the older one, Wellcraftedtoo.

    Here are links (know this isn’t a ‘comment’, not sure how else to contact you): (The World of Dew–solely writing) and (writing and whatever).

    Hope you take a look.

  7. Scott M Kenemore Says:

    So, so true. I fucking loved this post!

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