Seeking (and Taking) Exception to Ashton’s Logic
Jennifer Ashton’s logic is seared shut–-I do believe there’s no convincing her that a minor turn or two in her argument are missteps. Yet I must say that she does misrepresent the rationale for the selection practices she critiques in the following assertion: “If you know it’s a mistake to think that your sex determines your artistic choices, why accept a theoretical framework for your projects that entails making that mistake?”(“The Trouble with ‘Numbers Trouble,’”115). Or, putting it another way, Ashton accuses editors and critics (and readers) of falling for the mistaken “thinking [that] there is something distinctively feminine about one formal innovation or another”(116)--this is the heart of the logical paradox Ashton adroitly frames. She claims that anthologies of women’s poetry are unnecessary because their logic fails to make the case for their necessity. This is a very academic argument, except it doesn’t hold up in the real world in several ways.
It seems painfully clear that the impulse to gather poetry by innovative women is not rooted in gender essentialism--to collect the “distinctively feminine.” So how does an experienced scholar like Ashton arrive at this diagnosis of the anthologizer’s (or literary critic’s) logic? I see at least two ways: first, I can only guess that she overlooks the fact that women poets are paying more attention to how gender and language intersect at this moment in time. This would make the rationale circumstantial (or situational) but not necessarily essentializing. And second, Ashton makes the mistake of conflating this shared situation (women poets attending to gender and language) with the formal outcome (innovation), when these are just axes of interest. Anthologies of innovative women poets map this intersection.
That is, “women” is not an arbitrary grouping; women do have “shared ideas” (to borrow a phrase from Ashton’s second footnote) and thus are a community. Further, a community that is both gender-conscious and innovation-conscious presents one “index of these shared ideas” (another footnote phrase) about gender and language – and therein lies the reason we single out “innovative women” and read them as a group. (I hope this logic isn’t too obvious to bear repeating). It is true that the rhetoric (and gestures) of inclusion that demarcate the framework of critical projects like anthologies is more inclusive than this, as Ashton points out; and true that this is not all that anthologies of women innovators accomplish. But there’s no denying that critics, readers, and poets are thinking about poetry by women with good reason; because there’s a notable phenomenon motivating this collective work, one that women poets respond to variously. Some even deny that their gender is insignificant to their work. That in itself is significant.
Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young take exception to Ashton’s academism by pointing to statistics derived from the “real world” of concern. Author Ashton and co-authors Spahr and Young clearly have different stakes in approaching the topic of gender, poetry, and publishing. To my mind, one extremely useful question we can gather from the exchange published in Chicago Review is whether or not focusing on “women” narrows our view of the ways gender – as a set of ideas and practices, and as a “situation” that a particular poet writes consciously out of – may appear in formally innovative poetry? Spahr and Young were quick to advocate a paradigm shift that would bring attention to non-Anglo, non-US women writers. But presumably a poet of any gender configuration could share the ideas of the feminist-innovative community; the work of some number of men, or even a single male poet, might be as “essential” (i.e. crucial) to our current consideration of gender and poetic form. Such work would speak to the success of “feminist intervention” in an entirely different manner.