The XX Factor

How to Review Poetry by Women: A Review  

Patricia Lockwood

Photograph by Grep Hoax   

Patricia Lockwood has written a book of poetry, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals. And because Lockwood is an important and popular poet (in part due to her viral hit “Rape Joke,” and also because of her freewheeling Twitter presence), critics have reviewed it. And then more critics reviewed the reviews, in pieces about who can say what about whom. Which brings me to this post, which is, I’ll admit, a review of the reviews of the reviews.  

After the New York Times Magazine favored Lockwood with a great, effusive profile, written by a guy, three additional guys penned responses to her new volume of verse: Jonathan Farmer in Slate, Dwight Garner in the New York Times, and Adam Plunkett on the New Yorker’s website. Some (one) of these essays was pretty egregious—as Mallory Ortberg rightfully points out in her Toast piece, “Don’t Worry So Much: How Not To Review Women’s Writing,” Plunkett condescendingly frets that poor Lockwood won’t be able to resist the allure of Twitter fame. He “worries” she will unconsciously shape herself to the lowbrow tastes of Internet. Worse, what begins as a legitimate complaint—a rejection of Lockwood’s “brutish, broish caricatures” and a wish for “more nuance”—turns into a dumb whine about how Lockwood doesn’t want to foreground the complexities of the male libido. (“The subtleties of men’s desires were never the point,” Plunkett grouses. He should have just quoted Woody Allen’s line from Deconstructing Harry: “I’m feeling a little out-of-focus.”)

On the other hand, Garner’s review was a lovely bit of appreciation, if not deep engagement, and Farmer’s piece was excellent. (Did I mention it ran in Slate?) Farmer starts off by admitting that he doesn’t like reading Lockwood because she makes him feel “slow-witted and over-serious, clumsy, credulous, and uncool.” “Her poems aren’t wrong,” he admits, “I am that guy. But I don’t like being reminded.” What follows is a really smart and shaded look at a body of work that is intentionally provocative, subversive, and blued-up; extravagantly sexual and crazy and weird. Though Farmer allows that his discomfort with the poems “might have something to do with my advantaged standing as a straight white male in the culture she handles with such imaginative disregard,” it doesn’t come off that way. Part of Lockwood’s talent and shtick is channeling (and satirizing) obnoxious ideas about gender. You don’t have to agree with those ideas in order to wince at all the deer she’s gangbanging and the cheerleaders she’s dismembering in order to make her point.  

But Farmer’s essay wound up as Exhibit A in an Awl post about “Men Unsettled by Woman’s Poems.” “Almost every review of the book—whose most famous piece is a poem about rape—so far in a major outlet has been written by a man,” disapproves Matt Buchanan (without unpacking why that’s a problem, or giving any evidence that Farmer’s maleness blinkered his vision). And in New York magazine on Wednesday, a post on reactions to the new collection was promoted with the headline, “Finally, A Woman Reviews Patricia Lockwood.” The piece ends with the writer’s glowing endorsement of Motherland, and an ironic qualification—“but maybe that was just some hormonal thing.” One inference from the closer: You can’t fully appreciate Lockwood unless you’re female. Another: Any critique of Lockwood and those who love her is automatically sexist, like calling a woman hormonal.

Obviously, we need more woman reviewers. I’m also sympathetic to the corollary that sometimes straight white guys don’t know what they’re talking about, so they should just be quiet. But these precepts do not excuse the dismissive backlash against male critics who are sincerely trying to get inside Lockwood’s work. “Plunkett managed to review Lockwood’s personality, not her poems,” New York observes. Too often, reviews of reviewers fall prey to the same distraction.

So let’s agree to a few rules. They are simple: If you are a person, you can say your opinions about any person’s poetry. Straight white men can say things about straight white women’s poetry. Black gay men can say things about Asian transgender poetry. Women who turn into polyamorous donkeys on the stroke of midnight can say things about the poetry of little green fellows whose sexual fetishes lie beyond the scope of this analogy. It’s all fair game.

Thus, the problem with the New Yorker essay is not that Plunkett, A Man, is unqualified to discuss Lockwood, A Woman. It is that he failed our “focus on the work” test in a tricky way—by framing his own subjective response (“I feel excluded and not taken seriously here”) as a flaw in the poetry. Presented honestly, that subjective response would seem narcissistic and lame, but acceptable; presented as pure, detached criticism (“Lockwood’s aesthetic failing is that she does not give due weight to male desire”), it is in bad faith.

And yet even Plunkett, by far the worst offender of our three dude critics, takes a few moments to express something more complicated than “This lady hurt my feelings.” A line in one poem about ejaculating in Nature’s eye, he argues, “is addressed to a man but written for people to laugh at him, even if the poem doesn’t evoke Nature well enough to think of her as any sort of woman, let alone one whom you repressed your anger toward.” So the problem (according to him) isn’t really that the guy is unfairly maligned; it’s that the female character hasn’t come fully alive. In the same way, every single one of the male reviewers mentioned here agrees that “Rape Joke” is a masterpiece. Why? Because it accomplishes more than a (funny, loose, acerbic, imaginative, outrageous, etc.) sequence of cartwheels. It also strikes complex emotions against each other, doing for poetry what Leslie Jamison’s essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” did for prose, which was to wrestle with the trope of the violated woman—how clichéd it is, but also how real. In other words, the difference between the Lockwood poems these writers loved and the ones they didn’t had nothing to do with gender politics. It had to do with art.