Kathrine Varnes – Is it a Boy or a Girl? Gender as the Ever-Present Authority and Anxiety in Bishop Studies


Is it a Boy or a Girl? Gender as the Ever-Present Authority and Anxiety in Bishop Studies

Kathrine Varnes

Published in Connotations Vol. 4.3 (1994/95)


In the last issue of Connotations, an article by Jonathan Ausubel entitled "Subjected People: Towards a Grammar for the Underclass in Elizabeth Bishop's Poetry" appeared with a response written by Jacqueline Vaught Brogan. Ausubel's close grammatical analysis substantiates the claims of the more content-driven observances of Bishop criticism by convincingly pinpointing for readers more evidence of her increasingly famous ear and intellect. Although little in the essay's central argument seems disputable, Brogan's response takes issue with Ausubel's, albeit loose, formulation of an underclass in Bishop's work. For, as Brogan sees it, Bishop's poetry suggests that "we are all equally subjected by the language constructing and conscripting our world" (176). While Ausubel takes a critical stance outside of a feminism which he finds too narrow, Brogan reads Bishop's poetry as leveling difference under the subjection of language. Thus, both arguments trigger the question: Where exactly can we place Bishop in relation to feminist criticism? Given the recent proliferation of feminist work on Bishop, gender seems a topic with which no criticism on Bishop can wholly dispense.1) Yet, when we contextualize these two articles within the past few decades that have produced Bishop criticism, we discover that the emphasis on authenticity in poetry--especially when confronted with Bishop's indeterminate relationship to feminism--created a peculiar critical anxiety about gender that still continues in Bishop studies. [→page 314]

Brogan's earlier feminist essay on Bishop, "Perversity as Voice," praised and critiqued by Ausubel, begins by defining authenticity as a patriarchal coin in the exchange of the lyric voice.2) Arguing convincingly that "we have largely retained some notion of authenticity in the lyric voice as an unchallenged assumption that has continued to be disseminated until the most recent of critical discussions," Brogan draws primarily on Wordsworth and Northrop Frye in order to establish "an authentic voice" as a patriarchal concern, and on Jonathan Culler and Paul de Man to question it (178-79). Brogan does not explore, however, how this interest in authenticity continues to develop during the decades between Frye and Culler, a period during which feminism concurrently negotiated for a critical foothold. I believe that this historical relationship, primarily evolving in the 1960s and 1970s, is vital to understanding critical developments and how they affect our critical placements of Bishop.

In an essay that provides a general historical survey of American poetry in the 1960s, Leslie Ullman describes the publication of two major anthologies, first, New Poets of England and America containing the "formal, detached and ironic poetry favored by New Criticism," and, second, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 that rejects "the aesthetic associated with academic poetry in favor of freer interaction between the poet's sensibilities and the content of the poem, allowing that content to create itself in adherence to its own laws" (190-91).3) Constructing her written history, Ullman narrates a poetic liberation from formalism that leads to a more authentic, less mediated product that ultimately reflects the "self." This interpretation of poetic form as a social form in the sense that both keep readers and writers from an authentic content does not originate with Ullman; in fact, her history reiterates what has become a critical paradigm for literary histories, especially of the last several decades.4) In a general critical climate that favored representations of an authentic self, then, feminist critics also claimed this rejection of formalism in favor of a more personal verse-style.

In feminism, as Betsy Erkkila notes, "… the critical emphasis on woman's literature as a record of women's personal experience tended to privilege certain kinds of women writers" (7).5) This increasing interest in literature that reflected "real" or "authentic" women came not just from a critical but also a political climate in which the validating feminist [→page 315] slogan, "The personal is political," circulated. Part of a larger argument about women's lives, this privileging of women writers whose poetry could be read as personal experience still works to combat negative stereotypes in a sexist canon. For many critics, however, the issue is no longer that they choose to write on autobiographical poetry, but that women's poetry is already inherently personal.6) This focus on "the self," particularly the authentic self, as a rule of definition, also set a precedent of linking "authentic" poetry to women in a way that excluded several women poets, including Bishop, from the feminist canon.7) Thus, what Brogan sees as perversion in Bishop's voice because it challenges patriarchal assumptions about the "authenticity, originality, and authority" of the lyric voice, also challenges previous feminist assumptions about aesthetic and political authenticity in poetry (176).

The most striking example of Bishop's exclusion occurs in a very strategic place: Maxine Kumin's widely available foreword to Anne Sexton's The Complete Poems in 1981.8) After a largely biographical essay, Kumin places Sexton in her sense of literary history:

Freed … from their clichéd roles as goddesses of hearth and bedroom, women began to write openly out of their own experiences. Before there was a Women's Movement, the underground river was already flowing, carrying such diverse cargoes as the poems of Bogan, Levertov, Rukeyser, Swenson, Plath, Rich, Sexton. (xxxiii)

After these two sentences, an asterisk leads readers to a footnote: "I have omitted from this list Elizabeth Bishop, who chose not to have her work included in anthologies of women poets." Historically placed by Kumin "before the women's movement," the poems of Bishop are excluded because the poet chose not to participate in the movement of a metaphorical underground river. Kumin makes it clear that this exclusion has little to do with the poetry, but only where the poet published. In these last words of Kumin's introduction to Sexton, then, many readers of poetry see a condemnation of Bishop, but unless already familiar with her work, they would not necessarily know of Bishop's rationale for her decision and might dismiss her as traitorous, even irrelevant.

Nearly all Bishop critics, however, are aware of her rationale as expressed in her interview with George Starbuck, published in 1977, [→page 316] four years before Kumin's foreword: "I didn't think about it very seriously, but I felt it was a lot of nonsense, separating the sexes. I suppose this feeling came from feminist principles stronger than I was aware of" (56).9) In fact, citing this very passage in reference to Bishop's feminism has become a rite of passage used to clarify critical stances on Bishop's resistance to marginalization. Why must we repeatedly rehearse this scene? We must, at least partially, because the scandal is not so much Bishop's decision, but the critical treatment of Bishop that followed.10)

In many ways, her decision proves a convenient diversion from the poetry, which as Brogan aptly points out, refuses to supply a stable, authentic lyric voice. While this element can create anxiety for any reader, a political movement looking for political truths to sustain a position would be sorely disappointed in Bishop, even in poems that tempt with a lure of authenticity as does "In the Waiting Room." As many critics including Ausubel and Brogan have shown, the indeterminacies in this poem provide its most compelling center. What has changed in criticism, however, is that indeterminacy is now understood as a political stance.11) And this acceptance of indeterminacy needs to inform, also, what we expect to ascertain about a poet's political position and how that might influence our readings of the poems.

One of Ausubel's points is that gender provides too narrow a perspective to account for the intricacies of Bishop's work. Instead of eliminating gender as a viable inquiry, I propose expanding our notions of what that inquiry entails. Bishop's poems may not always specify the narrator's gender, but the question of gender is still at play. In fact, its very indeterminacy would have many readers searching for tell-tale clues. This unavoidable cultural obsession that has us immediately ask new parents, "Is it a boy or a girl?" does not drop out merely because Bishop sidesteps the question. On the contrary, the fact that Bishop deliberately creates non-gendered narrators makes an issue of gender: gender may not be everything, but it is worth leaving out.

While, like Ausubel, I also find a narrowness in some feminist criticism, I link it to a more mainstream way of thinking about authenticity in poetry. Although it is reductive to look for evidence from the poet's life to support a critical reading, a cultural context cannot be ignored. At [→page 317] a time when career poets were nearly always men, and when feminism operated primarily on a heterosexual model--or the occasional "radical" lesbian stereotype--Bishop's public persona didn't exactly fit. In fact, "fitting in" might have been the more dangerous possibility.

Perhaps a perfect fit, though it makes a fine essay, is not what critics should want. We need to keep gender in play without falling into mere biography or essentialism, without falling into an expectation of authenticity in the lyric voice, without subsuming the difference of gender under a universal subjection of language. As Ausubel's article investigates class, not gender, with an eye to how that plays out in grammar, we see by his own definition of the underclass that class and gender are not discreet categories. Indeed, like Bishop's refusal to publish in women's only publications, Ausubel's suggestion of a grammar for the underclass is useful for feminist considerations of Bishop, despite his preclusion of gender as a prevailing issue in Bishop's work.

University of Delaware
Newark, Delaware