Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Gendered Criticism of Women’s and Men’s Poetry

rfindlay's picture
Normal 0 false false false MicrosoftInternetExplorer4

Rebecca Findlay

Final Feminist Critical Studies Paper




Gendered Criticism of Women’s and Men’s Poetry


“As mentioned in class, I was troubled by our search for "gendered language" in poetry. I found myself asking the "so what" question. So I will ask it again. So what if poetry contains gendered language? So what if poetry does not contain gendered langauge? What was the purpose in our employing stereotypes? Did we learn anything valuable from our discussion? I'm honestly not sure. It seems like it might have been more worthwhile to consider why/how gender was used in the poetry. To what extent do poems depend on gender? Why might some poems depend more than others? What does this tell us about gender in society? Also, if we are to argue that poetic langauge is gendered, then is verbal language also gendered? I would argue that it isn't. Language seems to be more a product of our personality and social environment than our gender. I'm starting to feel like this post, similar to Tuesday's discussion, is going in circles- does that signify a dead end or a complex, important matter that my brain isn't yet ready to decode?”

—Jlustick, serendip online forum.


On Poetry Day, 2008, or, as I call it, the Day Direction Died, Julia was frustrated by the discussion of gendered language, asking, “So what?”[i]  My immediate reaction? You are so not a social scientist.  To me the ‘So what?’ is the question, and the questionAn elitist and defensive response, I admit, but I was so put off by the apparent lack of interest in the underlying cause of our assumptions that I couldn’t stop myself.  As her later post on the forum elaborated, she too saw the potential for sociological arguments.  It is interesting to note that she has many of the same questions I brought up in my second paper, in which I explored the effect women have had on language change.

I didn’t want to mention it in class, since I wanted everyone to come to a conclusion on their own (and not necessarily my own), but I concluded in “My Exercise in Futility” that verbal language is not gendered from a formal linguistics standpoint..  However, that does not mean that gender does not play a role in the choices that are made in the implementation of language.  If generalizations can be made about who is more likely to use variations in verbal language according to gender, would it not be plausible to believe that the more particular choices made in crafting literature would reveal the constructs of gender?  Moreover, what is gender if not a ‘product of our personality and social environment?’

At the end of that paper I stumbled upon what I thought was an interesting topic: if women have been the typical language innovators in this country at least (we are still unable to determine how far this generalization may extend, both cross-linguistically and historically), might it be that women successfully break down barriers in language more easily than men?  And since poetry is in effect about testing the boundaries of meaning and syntax, might not women be a generation ahead of men in poetic innovation as they are in This is impossible for me to test, but the class discussion on poetry allowed me to posit a new hypothesis.

In the following pages I will explore the validity of exploring the concept of gendered language in poetry, not as an attempt to define what it may be, but how our own biases can I realize this is far too large a task to undertake in a systematic fashion pertaining In sociolinguistics, it was thought impossible to examine language change as it occurred.[ii]  It was simpler (and still is in some ways) to examine the literary corpus and find language change after the change had been completed.  In this way I will

By the end of our discussion in class we decided that nothing could be definitively said about the correlation between the poet’s gender and the language of a poem.


“There are simply good, bad and mediocre poems, whose writer’s gender is as little relevant to their quality as her colour and class.”[iii]


As Montefiore points out, this argument may be alluring, but is currently impractical, since they are key to what is “considered quality, or even legitimacy, by the journals, publishing houses, universities and schools through which poems are taught, judged, interpreted and published.”[iv]  The idea that a poet’s mind and experience inform their writing is valid.  Sexism is not erased simply by pointing out that gender is a social construct; neither can the idea that language is gendered, or that a poet’s gender permeate her work, or worse yet, determines its subject matter or style. The world of poetry is not as egalitarian as we would hope.  An amendment already: by ‘world of poetry’ I do not mean to say that poetry itself is only partially open.  It is the opinions of critics, the professors and teachers who read them, the students who learn from these, and by extension, the public, who judge with all of their biases, concerning gender, race, religion, etc. that seal the halls of ‘great poetry’ and relegate poetry written by women to the freak show known as ‘women’s poetry.’

I agree that it is not valid to simply guess at what kind of language is feminine or masculine.  However, to continue questioning why we all make certain assumptions about the gender of a poet, and assume that the poetry would reflect that gender, are valid.  For that reason I have chosen to examine four poems, by four ‘great’ poets, male and female, from two different centuries.  I do not presume to be a great scholar of any of their works.  I will not even attempt to do close readings of these poems, preferring instead to look at them as superficially as possible, with an unfixed gaze.  The perfunctory glance I hope will allow me.  For this reason I have chosen these poems not for any similarity in content, but in language and style.  I do not expect to find some amazing resolution to my quandaries about gender and poetry.  I certainly hope I might, but this paper is not about a destination that will end all problems relating to gender differences.  I explore the language and descriptions in the criticism and reviews as a linguist might: there may be something there, but if there isn’t, you might find something you weren’t expecting.

I wish to be completely open about my methods of researching and attempting this project.  I will examine four poets with related and intersecting poetic histories.  However, I am not closely reading the poets themselves, but the critics’ and public’s early responses to their poetry.  I expect to find some interesting differences between the critiques of the male and female poets.  I have chosen Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman because they are in the words of the Norton Anthology “the most revered and influential of nineteenth-century American poets.”[v] I chose their counterparts, E.E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein, simply as twentieth-century poets that challenged convention as much as they did, and in structurally relevant to each respectively.  The poems were meant to be similar structurally, as well as indicative of the poet’s form, but also easy for me to type.  What is shared among all of these writers is a single question asked when they first burst onto the scene, sometimes leaving their verses to battle on their behalf for years, decades, and in the case of Gertrude Stein, continuing today. 


Emily Dickinson

Quiet. Pretty. Bold. Charming. Delicate. Romantic. Sorrowful.

 “Her poetry is of the quietest, most unobtrusive sort, but it clings like a five-finger ampelopsis.”[vi]

All but 11 of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published posthumously, beginning in 1891.  Upon their publication the critical reception varied greatly, although the general population delighted in her “delicately pretty book of poems.”[vii]  The initial criticism of Emily Dickinson, whether favorable or un, are noticeably lacking in serious criticism.  The only faults found are the unconventional rhyme, but all close reading appears to be largely missing.  Favorable critics often placed a fragment on the page and said, how beautiful this poem describes such and such! but never looked further.  Occasionally the amateur critic alluded to some nondescript internal rhythm. Critics put off by her form were puzzled by the power of her ‘feeling’ and how it crept into and “take an abiding hold of the mind,”[viii] but examine no deeper her form to understand what seems to be an incongruity, saying only that

“it is a sad pity when the substance of true poetry is put at a disadvantage by the writer’s recklessness in respect to form […] It is hard to understand how such a mind as Miss Dickinson’s must have been in its native powers can have exhibited the intellectual – we had almost added moral – defects which the construction of her poems displays.”[ix]


  Some are not even so forgiving as this; on the second publication of her work one critic wrote that the poems: “display so patently the faults of this unconventional writer—that are so devoid of rhythm and harmony and often so absolutely unintelligible in sense.”[x]

The occasional categorization as ‘bold’ or ‘strong’ is greatly outweighed by the description of her ‘charm’ or ‘dainty verses.’  The meaning was the key to her popularity, but initially the form was seen as a stumbling block to further examination.  By the end of the 1899 she was credited for her genius by former detractor, saying that her: 

‘peculiar scheme of rhyme was handled with such mastery with such an exquisite ear for cadence, as to become in her hands a new and original stop in the great organ of English versification.’[xi]


            We have a need to know her personal history in order to understand how she produced her poetry, denying her wishes to exclude herself from society.  The myth of Emily Dickinson, reclusive spinster, lives on to this day.  One of the first things we learn about are her eccentricities.


E.E. Cummings

            Insolent. Bizarre. Bristling. Egotistical. Enthusiastic.


When I first read Mr. Cummings’s poetry, some years ago, in magazines, it inspired me chiefly with rage and scorn; from which it appears that disgust is a half-way station on the road to admiration, and that only indifference is uncomplimentary and secure.”[xii] 


For the purposes of this essay I regard E.E. Cummings as Dickinson’s 20th century male counterpart[xiii] due to his own innovations with syntax.  Cummings extends far beyond her dashes and abandonment of conventional syntax, but is still reliant on her tradition, and might have had much the same effect on his contemporary readers upon first glance. If Dickinson forwent structure (which I do not believe she really did) to enhance meaning, Cummings came full circle, using alternative structures to articulate feeling.  Cummings early work was met with disdain, but within his lifetime, and not very far into it, he was lauded as a great innovator and poet. Upon his death, The New York Times headline read “E.E. Cummings dies of stroke; Poet stood for stylistic difference.”[xiv] Neither Dickinson or Gertrude Stein saw that level of achievement in their lifetime.


Walt Whitman


Primitive. Rude.  Majesty.  Scandalous. Power. Bold.  Bold.  Bold.


“Fresh, hardy, and grown for the masses.”[xv]


Instead of the modest appreciation and hesitation that Higginson gave to Emily Dickinson in his first letter to her, when Whitman sent his 1855 Leaves to Emerson, Walt Whitman received praise for it and was encouraged to continue and publish.[xvi] Although of course people had their reservations about the book and most early reviews were negative, they focused on the licentious nature of the poems and the poet himself.  Some were loathe to call new style poetry at all, but rather than blame his lack of skill, they called it carelessness or impertinence.[xvii]

Compare this review of Whitman’s free verse form to the early reviews of Dickinson’s:


“I see that no counting of syllables will reveal the mechanism of the music; and that this rushing spontaneity could not stay to bind itself with the fetters of metre. But I know that the music is there, and that I would not for something change ears with those who cannot hear it.”[xviii]


Whitman was assumed to have neglected the conventions of poetry through impertinence or indifference rather than ignorance, as was assumed of Dickinson.  The great distinction between the two is a matter of agency, with Dickinson portrayed as the naïve young woman who could have been decent if she had only been taught, and the audacious, offensive Whitman flouting the rules of all good poetry.  The men are portrayed as egomaniacs while the women as bumbling would-be poetesses.


Gertrude Stein


Arrogant.  Contentious.  Decadent.  Massive.  Dominant.  Frustrating.


“almost insuperable amount of silliness, an irritating ceaseless rattle…great bravery, a certain real originality, and a few flashes of exquisite beauty…”[xix]


“appears to be a collection of heterogeneous words, thrown together without any respect for meaning, but only a respect for the shape and rhythm of sentences”[xx]


 “She is a homologue of the false-blind; that in some measure, she is a sham.”[xxi] 


Kenneth Burke on her lectures in America: “they are expressed so girlishly that we are tempted not to ask how the various parts fit together.”[xxii]


“Monotonous gibberings of paranoiacs in the private wards of asylums.”[xxiii]


“Someone has applied an egg-beater to my brain.” [xxiv]


As you can see, I have taken up extra space to offer some of the many violent reactions people have had to Gertrude Stein’s work from the beginning.  These pointed arguments against her writing in general echo our own class’s frustration with “Lifting Belly.”  Although many of these quotations concern her prose works, I lifted them with the understanding that they indicate the reception of all her work, including poetry.  The rage that many felt about her work, and the question of its validity as art, is almost as senseless as they claim her work to be. 

In “The Centenary” Milton Hindus posits that Whitman’s assertion that the words of his poems are “nothing—the drift of them is everything”[xxv] can refer to the piling up, the massive.  If this is indeed what Whitman meant, then he is closely allied with Gertrude Stein, for even as she chooses words carefully, it is the piling up of phrases and words, whether through portmanteaus or repetition, that gives her “nonsense” meaning, or if not meaning, then feeling. 

The uproar that Gertrude Stein’s work incited appears to be similar to the backlash that Whitman received with his publication of Leaves of Grass, albeit with one major differenceThe media was enthralled with the expatriate lesbian persona that Gertrude Stein displayed, so much so that her writing played second fiddle, and was dismissed as nonsensical.  Walt Whitman’s personal life was the subject of inquiry because it played such an important role in his work.

Persona and Person

Walt Whitman himself writes “to give judgment on real poems, one needs an account of the poet himself.”[xxvi]  Even as he accounts for himself, he is far less scrutinized than either of the women I have studied in this essay. The myth of Gertrude Stein is so hemmed in to the criticism of her work that it has been daunting for me to find criticism that is not simply a description of the writer.  Gertrude Stein exploited the tendency for people to mythologize so that she herself became legendary.  

It is not only limited to Stein, but applies to Dickinson as well.  In the early criticism of her work, a picture is painted, and Todd was clamoured for to give an account of her life by the public.  The figure of the reclusive and allowed the critics to assume Dickinson was ill-taught and ignorant of proper poetic structure, and they were more amazed at her ability to ‘overcome’ this and still express feeling than interested in examining how she expressed it through that very same ‘flawed’ format.  Appearance of both of the women seems to be offered as an explanation for their respective poetic structures.  As Catherine R. Stimpson noted, Stein’s fatness was a focus for critics, who always were relied upon to remark on it.[xxvii]  Her belief in her own genius deterred people.    Perhaps her large figure was thought to have expressed itself in her work, the magnitude of her body reflected in the volume of her work and amount of words that she put to paper.

Although it would be helpful to my argument that the critics treat similar innovative works differently according to gender, it must be noted that Walt Whitman was of course attacked for his personal ‘flaws’ and ‘scandalous’ private life.  However, I do think it was because sexuality was such an important and apparent aspect of his poetry that it was attacked, whereas Emily Dickinson was so elusive a persona that the public craved to know more about her to understand the poetry. 

We still rely on it today, as well.  Anthologies and collections of poems contain writing samples to reveal the poet’s handwriting, which we hope will tell us whether they were hurried or precise, spontaneous or painstaking.  We listen to the poet read her own poetry so that we might study her voice, hanging on the hope that the tone and timbre might give us insight into her world.  We read biographies; indeed each book of poetry has at least a small blurb about her life, or at least her lifespan.  The reliance on the personal reminds me of the feminist catchphrase, ‘the personal is political;’  in this case, the personal is poetic. 

Perhaps it is this obsession with the persona that is indicative of a kind of sexism that we undertake every time we speak of women’s poetry.  Knowing about a writer can open up new readings of their work, but also closes others off.   This was not a paper meant to conclude: only to explore, which is an oft criticized feature in papers.  However, nothing can be concluded yet; this shows the past of the differences among criticism of male and female poets in order to enlighten our own.  The only thing to conclude is what we have already: that there is no fundamental difference in the way men and women write, but only in our assumptions about how men and women write.  In this way the radical feminist notion of women’s poetry as intimately connected to the reader, as indicative of women’s visceral experience and new female-centered language, is only indicative of our desire to see ourselves in the work that we read.  I believe that as feminists, we can read our experience into any poetry that attempts to express reality and human nature simultaneously, regardless of it being written by a man or woman.  The next question is how I might combat my own prejudice against men’s poetry.

To close, I offer two quotes: one, regarding Gertrude Stein and the other writers of her day, the other, a quotation already used in my paper expressing a thought that can be applied to each of these poets, and any other poet that challenges the conventional form:

They destroyed the common use of language. Normal ways of using words bored them.  They wished to use words in a new, sensational fashion.  They twisted grammar, syntax.” [xxviii]


It appears that disgust is a half-way station on the road to admiration, and that only indifference is uncomplimentary and secure.”[xxix] 



[i] This is obviously quoting from her forum post, but I’m not sure how to cite that. 

[ii] With the innovation of real-time analysis and the application of statistics

[iii] Monetfiore, 2.

[iv] Monetfiore, 2.

[v] Ferguson et al. 1310 

[vi] Recent Verse II, Overland Monthly 19 [February 1892], 218-19, (Buckingham, 296)

[vii] Unverified, Concord People and Patriot, February 1892. Buckingham, 295.

[viii] Congregationalist 75, [December 31, 1891] 459. (Buckingham, 281.)

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “Recent Verse II,” Overland Monthly 19 [February 1892], 218-19, (Buckingham, 296)   

[xi] Carman, Bliss. “Bliss Carman’s Marginal Notes.” Chicago Post, [July 15, 1899] p. 7.  (Buckingham, 545.)

[xii] Wolf, Robert L.  Review of Tulips and Chimneys in the November 18, 1923 edition of World.  Quoted in Norman, 166.

[xiii] I also strongly considered choosing William Carlos Williams.  As in, I decided to switch to E.E. Cummings at 1:30 AM on Friday, December 19, 2008.

[xiv] “E.E. Cummings Dies of Stroke” New York Times. [Sept. 4, 1962]

[xv] Franny Fern, “Fresh Fern Leaves.” Whitman, 798

[xvi] Killingsworth, 105. 

[xvii] Killingsworth, 106.

[xviii] Gilchrist, Anne, “An Englishwoman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman.”  Whitman 803 (802-806)

[xix] Sitwell, Edith, “Miss Stein’s Stories” Hoffman 45.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Wyndham, Lewis. “Tests for the Counterfeit in the Arts and The Prose-Song of Gertrude Stein.” Hoffman, 54.

[xxii] Burke, Kenneth, “The Impartial Essence.” Hoffman,  73.

[xxiii] Gold, Michael, “Gertrude Stein: A Literary Idiot.” Hoffman: 76.

[xxiv] Anonymous, “Flat Prose” Hoffman, 39.

[xxv] Hindus, 4.

[xxvi] Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Volume of Poems Just Published.

[xxvii]Stimpson, Catherine R.  “The Somagrams of Gertrude Stein.”  Hoffman, 183. 

[xxviii] Gold, Michael, “Gertrude Stein: A Literary Idiot.” Hoffman: 77.

[xxix] Wolf, Robert L.  Review of Tulips and Chimneys in the November 18, 1923 edition of World.  Quoted in Norman, 166.