The Anxiety of the Poet-as-Male

At the moment I’m reading Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence (1973) with a mind towards my thesis overall and in particular the sample of work I have to produce for my transfer of status. Bloom’s is a very robust theory, and occasionally quite difficult to grasp. I can already see how some of his points can be used to highlight the intra-poetic relationship between the generations of Northern Irish poets in the contemporary era.

One thing that bugs me when reading criticism is the seemingly glib characterization of the poet-as-male, although it is certainly ironic in the context of my research. Bloom wallows in this, and this gendering for some reason makes me imagine a David Attenborough voice-over observing the male of the species – ‘from his start as a poet he quests for an impossible object, as his precursor quested before him’.

This stands as a fairly stark reminder that until relatively recent years the poet, in popular and critical imagination, was male. It also opens itself up rather nicely for a feminist re-imagining of the theory – done in this case by Gilbert and Gubar in the late 1970s. This is probably what Bloom would have termed clinamen – ‘which implies that the precursor poem went accurately up to a certain point, but then should have swerved, precisely in the direction that the new poem moves’.


CFP – ‘Time and Space in Contemporary Women’s Writing

I’m on the steering group for the PGCWWN, so I thought I’d post our call for papers on here on the off chance someone finds it useful.

The Postgraduate Contemporary Women’s Writing Network (PG CWWN) is pleased to announce its third biennial conference, ‘Time & Space in Contemporary Women’s Writing’, which will be held at the University of Hull on 8th and 9th September 2011. We are delighted to be able to confirm our two keynote speakers:

Professor Ann Heilmann (University of Hull), co-author (with Mark Llewellyn) of Metafiction and Metahistory in Contemporary Women’s Writing (Palgrave 2007) and Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), among numerous other publications on neo-Victorian fiction and women’s writing. For more information about her research, please visit:,-prof-ann.aspx.

Gwyneth Lewis (Writer and Poet), Wales’s National Poet 2005-06, first writer to be given the Welsh laureateship and author of seven books of poetry in Welsh and English, including Parables & Faxes (Bloodaxe Books, 1995), Zero Gravity (Bloodaxe Books, 1998), Keeping Mum (Bloodaxe Boks, 2003) and A Hospital Odyssey (Bloodaxe Books, 2010). For more information about her writing, please visit:

For further details about the event, please see If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at The deadline for abstract submissions is 1st April 2011 and we welcome proposals from postgraduates working within and across the areas of literature, drama and creative writing. The conference is generously funded by the RCUK Roberts Fund.

If you would like to be kept updated about the PG CWWN and its events, please send an email with the subject line ‘Mailing List’ to

Post S Day

Friday’s supervision went well. I still have lots of do, but I have clear direction about what needs done now before the deadline for material for transfer. Doing the research proposal in particular has helped clear my head a bit about direction. It seems that a thesis is all about knowing the road but also going off piste occasionally.

One thing strikes me about the relationship between student and supervisor – quite a lot seems to depends on the happiness of the supervisor. If he is happy, I am happy, if he is unhappy…

Some of the tasks coming out of the supervision are to add to my research proposal, write up my first chapter, submit a conference abstract and check up on a potentially sensitive aspect of my research. After I’ve done that, it’ll be time for another S Day.

S Day

Today is S Day, by which I mean that I have a supervision. I certainly have plenty to go through since the transfer of status is looming. I have a draft research proposal and some feedback to get on work I did before Christmas as well as plans for my next 10,000 words.

I’ve gone a bit mad on stationary this year. Since both my parents were teachers I had to make do with scrap paper, exercise books and biros for most of my school career. Now I splash out on nice notebooks – and my supervision notes are kept in a medium black Moleskine.

Tonight there is an MCR guest dinner at my college too, and I’m bringing two friends – one of whom is from N.I. and is up visiting from London. I’m hoping this supervision doesn’t put me on a downer!

Michael Longley on ‘We’

Jody Allen Randolph:
One of the things that really strikes me about your generation of Irish poets is the strong ‘we’, even though you were a very diverse group of poets from different backgrounds. I have heard American poets speak of their poetic communities as primarily vertical, but your generation had a very strong horizontal dynamic. How important was that to your developing sense of yourself as a poet?

Michael Longley:
Belfast has been called ‘the armpit of Europe’, ‘a cultural Siberia’: not somewhere you would expect to produce a flurry of poetry. Perhaps ‘we’ registers the relief of embattled aesthetes who have come through. ‘We’ also implies that imagination and creativity dissolve what is called here ‘the sectarian divide’ […] ‘We’ in my book now includes the astonishing next generation of Muldoon, Carson, McGuckian, Ormsby and brilliant younger poets such as Sinead Morrissey and Leontia Fynn.

Jody Allen Randolph, ‘Michael Longley in Conversation with Jody Allen Randolph’, The Poetry Ireland Review, 79 (2004), pp. 78-89


The generational hierarchy is nowhere so clearly defined as in Northern Ireland, probably due to the sheer number of poets in that 1960s generation who all started publishing within a few years of each other. The coherence of shared backgrounds can be illusory though – the departures from ‘we’ are more interesting to me than the parallels.

Viva la VIDA

VIDA have published statistics on the number of women being published and reviewed by the major (ie. high end) literary publications. They make for interesting viewing, and have prompted plenty of discussion online. Over at the Magma Blog, for example, Rob Mackenzie is asking whether literary publications are biased against women. Of course, Magma can ask this because they can happily publish their own statistics.

This fascination with figures is something I touched on in an earlier post. I’m not totally convinced that lists of figures and surveys technically achieve much – but I’m essentially getting sick trailing through them in the introductions of books on women’s poetry. I’d be far more interested to see the issues engaged with in TLS, Granta, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry and all the other magazines VIDA has shown to be failing women’s writing.

The Plath Special

My blogging friend over at The Plath Diaries doesn’t much rate one of my poets, which makes me a bit sad. Perhaps her good opinion can be salvaged?

When I was fourteen I feel heavily under the dangerous spell of Sylvia Plath, like so many other teenage girls with literary aspirations. Now I think of the [poems that won the Kavanagh Award at 18] as being far too Plath-influenced, though they probably had a valuable, raw quality about them.
‘Sinead Morrissey in Interview with Declan Meade’, The Stinging Fly, 1.14 (2002-3), pp. 2-13, 7.

No? Then I definitely won’t mention Leontia Flynn’s poem ‘Sylvia Plath’s Sinus Condition’… oh wait…

'to tear one's flesh - to push push push / the self-destruct button...'

‘sensing a difference’

Some folks on twitter responded very kindly to my whining about the vacuous nature of my research. So I’ve decided to blog about my moment of epiphany about a Bryce poem.

The poem is ‘The Spider’, which you can hear her read on my other site, PoetCasting. I’ve always considered this a poem variously about control, about walls, escape, power, fear and everything else the entrapment suggests. However, my view changed almost entirely when I read a short prose piece on the writing process.

For me, the art of writing is as much physical; the scribbling, crossing-out, spidering connections around the thought – that thinking in ink – is essential to the process.
Colette Bryce, ‘On First Drafts…: Thinking in Ink’, The Stinging Fly, 2.12 (2009), p. 30.

All of a sudden it seems that this poem could be about trapping a thought in a form. A form that is ‘there but not there’. The spider is the wandering and uncontrolled mind that the poet contains to the best of their ability.

Later, Bryce says:

Sometimes, I’ll write the poem in reverse, discover it backwards, from the last lines to the first.

Now, when I recorded her reading ‘The Spider’, we made another recording which eventually we decided not to post online. This was ‘The Spider’ in reverse, from the last word to the first. I didn’t really get this at the time – as a poem about entrapment it makes little sense to work backwards since much of the effect depends on the unveiling of the prison. As a poem about poetry, it makes more sense.

That isn’t to say it isn’t a good poem about entrapment and power etc. too.

This was also the first collection for which Bryce also chose the cover image....

A poet in the hand is worth two in the book

Proverbs, for all their cliché, no – because of their cliché, can be very illuminating when considering our relation to language. In the poetry of Leontia Flynn, I find that they play right into her wry tone. Take for example this, the final few lines of one of her ‘Without Me’ poems from These Days:

Suddenly it’s beyond me:
how I’m turning my thoughts to the bird or two in the bush
and to all the fish in the intervening sea.

If Flynn’s tone wasn’t as such, no one could possibly forgive her for using proverbs in a poem. If I need evidence of this I’ll just fire off a few mixed up proverbs in an ABA rhyme to some poetry magazines and watch the rejections roll in. Tone matters more than content, perhaps?

Flynn concentrates on the absurdity of proverbs in a humorous prose piece, ‘Bears Shit In The Woods‘ which was published in a very irreverent Belfast publication, The Vacuum.

what about ‘The worm has turned’? Even if a worm should turn, is there any reason to find this threatening? Unless you happen to be afraid of worms already, in which case its actual direction is probably irrelevant. Although it could be ‘wyrm’ in the Old English or nerdy Tolkein sense of ‘serpent’ or ‘dragon’, but that only confirms the suspicion that these expressions need updated.

All this is not strictly of any use for my thesis. Which just goes to show that you can lead a horse [me] to water [the library], but you can’t make him [me] drink [study].

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