Retournons à nos toucans…

Now that I have put the children on the school bus, I’d like to return to the issues I was considering when real life intervened, which of course is nevertheless part of the answer.

Firstly let me clarify that I am using the word ‘fey’ in the sense of ‘elfin, otherworldly, whimsical’ as defined by my concise OED. Note that this does not mean that a fey poem is necessarily a bad one. Isn’t “The Lady of Shalott” a fine example of a fey poem? How about Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven?” Of course both these poems date from less enlightened times which were necessarily feyer than today. So I suppose if feyness could be equated in some way with a contemporary badness it would be in terms of irrelevance, and occasionally (in the case of EB’s “Giant Snail”)a rather cloying cutesiness.

Now I believed I was implying, because the entire paragraph was about women poets, that childless female poets were prone to it. I can’t see a reason why childless male poets would be any feyer than those with children. This is of course because the day to day business of childrearing is still, with commendable exceptions, predominantly in the hands of women. As I have mentioned before in these pages, Caitlin Thomas traveled coach with their three kids while Dylan had a first class carriage. He also had a shed to write in where the children were not permitted to disturb him. I think we can safely say he was insulated from his children somewhat.

Any issue that suggests physiological gender divisions today is alas bordering on the politically incorrect. This will not stop me saying that I think there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the majority of women are hard-wired to nurture. This is why our biological clocks begin ticking at around thirty: our bodies are screaming to become pregnant, whether we wish to or no. We brood over babies in supermarkets and on television. Eventually most of us succumb, and if our bodies prove unco-operative, we undergo the agonies of fertility treatment and/or adopt. Of course some men also feel these pangs, but if we loaded the scale on this one I think it would tip down on the female side.

What happens if this desire is then thwarted? Well, Elizabeth Bishop acquired a toucan which, I am assured, she loved like a child. I find this statement is evidence for, rather than against, a certain feyness.

I have no doubt EB loved her toucan like a child. The toucan, on the other hand, loved her back like a toucan. It did not sit sobbing in her lap while she was trying to write, wailing that it had broken another toucan’s beak and was going to be arrested. She did not need to spend half an hour on the phone talking to the toucan’s head coach about responsibilities and teaching methods. If the toucan had distracted her she could have shut it in its cage and/or left the house. The toucan did not suggest to her that it would be less likely to have nightmares if it slept in her bed that night. Do we see where I am going with this?

I would also like to point out that being the primary caregiver for two children has in most ways an strongly negative impact on the writing life. They reduce the time I have to write and affect my concentration. I cannot attend all the poetry events I am invited to because I won’t have them babysat more than a few times each week, and because I can’t always get babysitters when I need them. Under these circumstances it seems churlish not to allow me a token advantage in perhaps one tiny area of writing, when compared to women who have never had that responsibility.

My children ground me. They are messy, earthy, irresponsible little darlings who require constant attention. I am beholden to them even in their absence: their favorite clothes are expected to be clean, the fridge and pantry stocked with the foods they like, purchases made for their science projects and halloween fun. Oh yes, their expectations of me are ludicrously high, although they love me back only carelessly. Both mine have told me, in fits of pique, that they hate me. My eldest, as a baby, threw up (no I don’t mean spit up–she had stomach issues) on me regularly. Yesterday, my youngest chose bedtime as a time to ask me ‘how a mommy’s tummy knew it was going to have a boy or a girl?’ At 9.45 pm I was telling her about sperm (which she rather fetchingly repeated as ‘squirm’) and eggs and XY chromosomes.

Hence I do not need to anthropomorphosize my dog, who is a wonderful, patient golden retriever. I am grateful that she loves me like a dog and that I can love her back as one too. She is asleep by the front door as I write this. She is not asking me for juice, or if she can play with the dog next door, or if I could explain how God can exist if we can’t actually see him, and is he Santa?

Consequently I have been able to write this, which is perhaps not very scientific, but hopefully gets my point across.

And now I am going to read some more Thomas Mann. 


  1. Amen, sister.

    Oh, wait, wrong blog thread.

    But anyway, I think you’ve made all the points that we have covered in conversation over the past few years. I wonder, does Mr. Cole read your blog, and if so, what will he make of this?

    It would be interesting to see how well-known contemporary male poets deal with their children. I don’t know if Billy Collins and Tony Hoagland have children, but if they do – what role do they take in the raising of them? Dylan and Hughes, of course, are easy examples to use, but even they are a bit outdated. Social expectations of women are quite different today than they were in the 50s (despite the outcries of the Feminist Movement), when Dylan died.


  2. I think children are one of many possible lapidaries that smooth us all into beautiful, polished poets (and people, of course). For you (and me, I have two, a son 19 and a daughter 15) they become some of our “givens” which may or may not find their way into our work but surely inform it. I like to think that those who are childless by choice or chance simply have other givens to work with. As for “fey,” my sense of the word has always been that it had a connotation of strangeness that was somehow “inauthentic” or perverse. Although OED is probably the better word on the subject, it could be that an American reading of the word is part of the subtext here. BTW at least one femaile writer whose work is at least somewhat grounded in family is Emily Grosholz. Mark Jarman’s latest also seemed to have this cast, as I recall.

  3. Maryann Corbett

    Anna, pardon me once again for using your blog space to contact you. There’s another e-mail in the Barefoot Muse submissions box about my poem’s sound file.
    Maryann Corbett

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