DuPlessis suggests that she could have focused in this book on other or additional male modernist poets without her findings being “significantly changed” (195). Her choices appear to have been not so much assertions of poetic importance as namings of writers who benefited most visibly from the patriarchal assumptions of both our literary and general culture. They’re also namings without blaming. DuPlessis recognizes the enormous advantages that patriarchal position-taking has offered/offers to male poets – the unquestioned right to ‘speak’ for all gender roles and material situations, to pronounce ‘authoritatively’ on all topics, and to be praised for doing so. She notes also how male poets have been not only reluctant to share such advantages with women poets whom they recognized as able – such as Pound with Mina Loy – but have also quarrelled and maneuvered among themselves for the (most) patriarchal mantle. She both regrets the resultant exclusions and envies the male ability – because of the greater social power the general culture still accords to men – to make “imperial” pronouncements. She begins her book’s final paragraph “I wanted (imperially?) to declare the end of the patriarchal era of poetry by the sheer force of these sometimes negative examples and by the temperate if also suspicious empathy that characterizes most of my analysis” (196). That is, as a willing
It’s a situation and question that many contemporary women writers – and at least some male ones – must have encountered: in attempting to reject the unconscious, and too often conscious, misogyny of high modernism and its successors must one also avoid explicit association with their poetics? DuPlessis believes not – that it is possible to work from the immediate past, toward a time when “women are (when everybody is) seen as 100% human – coequal, coeval, social partners with all civic and cultural rights” (197). Feminist writers who are attempting a separatist course will likely not find much of interest in DuPlessis’s book. Many modernist liberal feminist writers – of both genders and assorted sexualities – may prefer not to be troubled by the ethical/aesthetic conflicts it asks them to consider. Both are unlikely to find much that is new in DuPlessis’s general observation that high modernism, and its first successors, despite their often helpful disdain for mainstream gender assumptions, were indelibly characterized by male creative aggression, misogyny, and anxieties about masculinity. That’s been no secret, although it’s also not been frequently examined nor have its implications been assessed.
Where DuPlessis’s book is most interesting is in her study of the fissures and shifts within poetry’s patriarchal positions, as in her discussion of Pound’s unsolicited and self-serving editing of Mina Loy’s “The Effectual Marriage,” of Ginsberg and Olson’s creations of larger possibilities for effective masculinity, and of Creeley’s late-life attempts to theorize a “common” pan-gender poetry culture. She’s also perceptive in identifying the erotic charge which misogynistic male-bonding declarations can generate (hence her “purple passages” title) as in the Olson-Creeley letters and Olson’s “The Lordly and Isolate Satyrs.” Her ruthlessly detailed reading of the latter is worth the price of the book. I also found memorable her observation that the men in Olson’s poetry are almost all historical and the woman almost all mythological – and recalled how normal that had seemed (i.e. how normal it seemed to disempower women by idealizing them) in the 1950s and early 60s as those poems were appearing. Her linking of such thinking to Robert Graves’s widely read The White Goddess (1948) was also instructive – at least to me who, like DuPlessis, grew up during the creative lifetimes of all the writers in her book’s title.
To a Canadian, however, it was also unusual to encounter a woman poet who writes openly about reading the work of Eliot, Pound, Zukofsky, Olson, or Creeley. My impression has been that almost all Canadian women poets since the 1970s have dismissed them and their anxieties and misogynies as irredeemable and, if they were reading them at all, regarded revealing that they did as a probable embarrassment. Few, I think, would want to write a book such as this. Similarly I have seen little interest among them in the work of Canadian male modernists. A book authored by Erin Moure or Lisa Robertson and subtitled “A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, Al Purdy and the Ends of Patriarchal Poetry” would be an astonishment beyond astonishments.
DuPlessis, however, sees the poets she studies here as symptomatic of larger and continuing cultural and discursive issues. For her, any writers who can trace their poetics or their understandings of poetics problems to the modernist period in poetry, anthropology, linguistics or psychology, or who lived in the general culture of which it was a part, are implicated in these issues. The difficulty for women of being able to speak, or to be perceived to speak, “imperially,” and the assumption that it may be “natural” for men to do so, persists in many other sites than poetry and literary criticism – as last week’s (May 28, 2013) Government of Ontario disclosure that it was seeking “ways to compel companies to set goals for boosting the number of women sitting as corporate directors, as well as in senior management” probably indicates.
But should anyone be able to speak imperially? Should various positions in imperial discourse, such as the several that are implicit in the Ontario disclosure, be sorted and named? Are not imperial claims also forms of narrowly situated knowledge? – (something which DuPlessis’s textual analyses tend to suggest). Is imperial speech a lyric speech? Those are questions which – in her genial envy perhaps – DuPlessis does not seem to find it opportune here to consider. The explicit call of her final paragraph is only for “all sex-gender positions in culture” to have equal “imperial claims” and for gender to cease being a “hierarchical marker” (197). She leaves it to poets to find their own ways of helping achieve this, and to other scholars to work out the implications of her book for understandings of US and other English-language poetries.