Daniel Nester is the best professor I never had.
Wait… That sounds inappropriate.
What I mean is this. While I have enjoyed Nestor’s poetic events (and our visit to a thrift store back room where a hushed voice asking “Do you like kitsch?” prompted the purchase of this), I have never taken his class. As if that weren’t disappointment enough, Nester and I have had other unfinished business lingering too, until now.
In his new book, How to be Inappropriate (Soft Skull Press, Nov 2009), Nester includes a story about foot licking. When I first heard it read aloud, my laughter caused petechial hemorrhaging when, in a violent fight for oxygen, forceful inhalation sent a snack chip straight down my throat. Having left the room in a choking fit prior to the story’s conclusion, I can finally learn how it ends. Consider this a cautionary tale. Beware the deadly humor.
And now, it is with great pleasure I introduce journalist, essayist, poet, editor, and teacher, Mr. Daniel Nester, as he talks about How to Be Inappropriate.
BD: Welcome to the Brain Drain, Dan. It’s an honor to have such a truly inappropriate guest. Now, your promotional material says your book includes poetic farts, prosaic foot licking and other such inappropriateness. What is a poetic fart, exactly? And what inspired you to write about it?
DN: A writer friend of mine, the super Denise Duhamel, put out word to me that she was guest-editing an issue on humor and poetry in a peer-reviewed, scholarly-type article called HUMOR: The International Journal for Humor Studies. And as I thought through ideas for what I might write and submit, the notion of doing a straightforward, close reading survey of instances of references to and depictions of the fart and the act of farting in English language poetry. So I put out word to my email friends and lists, got some on my own, and put together a sort of “fartspotter’s guide to poetry.”
BD: Fabulous. And is it safe to say that you are an expert in poetic farts? Have you encountered strong competition in this area and, if so, has it been credible? (My husband would swear that I’m an expert – even in my sleep – but don’t you believe it.)
DN: I don’t know if I am an expert, but I can rattle off a few for you. Here’s Alexander Pope’s, from the fourth book of his Dunciad:
And now had Fame’s posterior Trumpet blown
And all the Nation’s summon’d to the Throne
That one was from a tip from Doug Butler, my colleague at Saint Rose. Here’s another from W.H. Auden’s “Doggerel by a Senior Citizen“:
Then Speech was mannerly, an Art
Like learning not to belch or fart:
I cannot settle which is worse,
The Anti-Novel or Free Verse.
There’s just so many good ones. A couple in the piece in the book are stretches references to wind breaking, windows rattling but they all seem to be fart references, at least to my mind.
BD: I’m curious about another area of your experience: medical writing. Do you find that this type of professional writing has suppressed your penchant for silly bodily functions, thus leading to an outpouring of biological fetishism – as in the buildup of methane gas within the lower intestine – if only expressed in books?
DN: That’s a good question. I wouldn’t say I was the best medical writer, but I when I was doing it a lot, I was OK. And what kept me going were those times there was a reference to bodily functions or just plain medical strangeness. The closest my medical writing and my so-called creative writing meet was a piece I wrote about ExtenZe, a so-called “male enhancement” pill that affects that certain part of the male anatomy. I tried to see if any of the science held up, or if there were any references to the pill’s efficacy in peer-reviewed medical journals. There were none, of course: the pills are bunk. But it was cool to conduct my own little patient reported outcome thingie.
BD: So, can you describe one of the more touching moments in How to Be Inappropriate? Is there inappropriate touching, perhaps?
DN: I think there’s probably inappropriate touching, sure. One piece talks about how my wife and I went through some trials and tribulations in the fertility/IVF world to have our first kid. There’s a lot of references to the “collection rooms” there. It’s largely sincere and, I suppose, touching. I also write with a straight face about leaving New York and leaving the New York poetry world, which are comedic unto themselves, but my account is told with an acidic tone.
BD: As you know, I used your 2008 foot licking reading here to prove Foucault’s theory, that in all the ways we try to avoid talking about sexual behavior or fetishism, a discourse is thus created. This post earns thousands of hits from fans of foot licking, licking feet, sex foot, sex feet, feet sex, foot sex, footsex and so on, making obvious that foot licking is alive, well and openly discussed. Do you find Foucault’s therory to be true in your own writing, or do you feel you often take a direct approach?
BD: How much inappropriate behavior do you encourage in your creative non-fiction classes? Do you have any particularly inappropriate assignments planned for the upcoming semester?
DN: It’s not that I encourage inappropriate behavior in either myself or other writers or my students. It’s that I teach and encourage others that we shouldn’t shy away from it. I am of the mind that the most embarassing details in a story or poem or what have you are often the most interesting and honest. So I guess I’ve talked myself into a circle, that I do encourage others write inappropriately. But it’s not being inappropriate for the sake of it.
BD: If you could write your own interview question, what would it be and how would you answer it?
Me#1: Hey, Dan, what?s up?
Me#2: Call me Daniel.
Me#1: What, do you have a stick up your ass?? Why are you so formal?
Me#2: It’s not like that. I hate the way the familiar form of Dan melds into Nester, thus making it one word. Like Dannester.
Me#2: It’s also, like, my “writing name.” People don’t say “Davey Sedaris” or “Johnny Keats” or “Bill O’Reilly,” do they??
Me#1: They do say “Bill O’Reilly.” That’s what he goes by.
BD: One last question, Daniel. When Maisie, your wife, allowed you to lick her feet for the video teaser above, did her toes curl because it tickled? Was there another reason, perhaps? Or is this line of questioning simply inappropriate since Maisie isn’t here to speak for herself?
DN: It did tickle her, yes. She’s very tickling. The sound on that footage is riddled with giggles. She wouldn’t mind me saying this.
A lot of people, I think, would be grossed-out by that footage, but for me, it was about how my lovely wife was willing to have her feet licked on film in order to promote my book. That’s love.
BD: Thank you so much for visiting, Daniel, and for talking about your exquisitely inappropriate book. It has been a sincere pleasure.
DN: Thanks a lot for talking.
How to Be Inappropriate can be ordered through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores everywhere. Release is set for November 2009.
Author photo by Gregory Cherin, suitable for framing or rubbing against denim.
Daniel Nester’s first two books, God Save My Queen (Soft Skull Press, 2003) and God Save My Queen II (2004), are collections on his obsession with the rock band Queen. His third, The History of My World Tonight (BlazeVOX, 2006), is a collection of poems.
For more information (or T.M.I.) about Daniel’s full body of work, visit www.DanielNester.com. Also, be sure to catch his book tour readings at a city near you. (Just leave the snacks at home unless accompanied by a friend trained in the Heimlich Maneuver.)
The poem “The Critick and The Writer of Fables” published in 1713 by Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is an ambitious attempt at a satirical play on gendered and formal limitations of Augustan poetry. The critick is representative of a male poetic society, and yet by acquiring a voice from Finch within the poem, it appears to represent one side of Finch’s own internal debate in deciding where her writing belongs. She makes a case for a new style of writing by satirizing the forms already in existence. The poem, at once, exemplifies an Augustan commentary about poetic definition while it inserts the thinly veiled female object of Finch, the fable writer, as the subject in the style of the Romantic poets. Finch carves a place for her own poetry between the satirical, warring poet and the pastoral, peaceful muse, making room for her various resulting combinations. Finch’s poetry resides somewhere between two chronological, poetic traditions, as well as a gender division, without fully occupying any one more than another. It is in her displacement that she finds her own space.
Breaking through Gender Oppression
The “Critick and the Writer of Fables” is bound centrally in Finch’s first published collection, Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions, in which gender consciousness is inescapable. From a publication that announces it has been written by a Lady, the brief introduction “From the Bookseller to the Reader” says:
THE Town, already having done Justice to the Ode on the Spleen, and some few Pieces in this Volume, when scattered in other Miscellanies: I think it will be sufficient (now that Permission is at last obtained for the Printing of the Collection) to acquaint the Reader, that they are of the same Hand; which I doubt not will render this Miscellany an acceptable Present to the Publick. (Finch A2)
According to this passage, Finch writes as a woman in a man’s poetic world, without apology and with enough coercive wit that both asks for acceptance and demonstrates her worthiness of such a valuable gift. Using her previous, though comparatively small, success with a few anonymously published poems, Finch introduces her greater body of public work with “no doubt” that it is acceptable. She argues that, since the town has already granted righteous acceptance of “Ode on the Spleen,” her talent has been established and the door is open for her to share more. While this argument reads as logical, her confidence reads as contrived in light of the parenthetical allusion to public resistance and lack of permission.
Because women have not been allowed to take part in the general poetic conversation as equals to men, Finch follows her introduction with the poem “Mercury and the Elephant.” This piece reveals the general opinion of male authors toward women’s writing, including the lines, “Solicitous thus should I be / For what’s said of my Verse and Me; / Or shou,d my Friend’s Excuses frame / And beg the Criticks not to blame / (Since from a Female Hand it came) / Defects in Judgment, or in Wit; / They’d but reply — Then has she Writ!” (Finch 2-3). Disconnect between the genders is undeniable. If women commit defects in judgment and then commit such thoughts to the page, is that considered well crafted writing? Who decides? Obviously, men are judge and jury of all that enters their world, including the thoughts of women. Finch goes on to say that men read for themselves, not for women, while women write for themselves and not for men (Finch, 3). Poetic permission reflects strong patriarchal control over the craft, although there is some small glimmer of value of feminine poetics referred to in the poet’s mention of friends who make excuses. Flawed as women may appear in their craft and wit, something brings those friends to Finch’s defense. It may be the slight recognition that difference is not necessarily wrong.
Men of Taste
In the poem, the friends who Finch speaks of mirror her relationships with other poets such as Jonathan Swift, Nicholas Rowe and Alexander Pope. While there are certainly more, these three present a gamut of opinions surrounding her work. According to Barbara McGovern in her book Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography, Swift was an admirer of Finch and encourages her to publish, while Rowe encourages Finch not to venture into publication, (although it is speculated that he included a verse epilogue from Finch in his play “The Tragedy at Jane Shore”) (McGovern 100). Rowe’s advice lies in direct conflict with an account from Myra Reynolds, in her introduction to The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. In admiration the likes of which Swift shared, Rowe describes Ardelia (Finch’s pen name) in one of his poems as a “divine nymph” whose praise is unqualified (Reynolds liii). Barbara McGovern and Charles H. Hinnant, in their book The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, A Critical Edition, describes a positive aspect of the relationship between Finch and Pope. This exists in both Finch’s admiration of Pope’s poetry as well as her playful criticism of his four lines in “The Rape of the Locke.” Their amiable interactions include Pope’s enjoyment of Finch’s poetry which likely leads Pope to influence the inclusion of two of Finch’s poems in Sir Richard Steele’s Poetical Miscellanies of 1713 in addition to Pope’s own inclusion of Finch’s “The Impromptu” in his 1717 volume of miscellany poems (Hinnant and McGovern xxxvii). Unfortunately, twelve years after Finch?s death, she became the butt of Pope and Gay’s satirical jokes in “Three Hours After Marriage” (Reynolds, lv-lvii). If this environment reads as fickle and complicated, one can understand why Finch had to navigate her way through the shifting public and poetic taste with care. Perhaps this explains why she references “men of taste” in the “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” It is not the opinions of women that can make or break this artist.
The taste of the time was indeed shifting when “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” was published in 1713. Finch first learned to mirror the style of Dryden while she was Maid of Honor to Mary of Modena beginning in 1682. Her personal acquaintance with him is more than likely since they had both courtly and family connections; Dryden wrote “Ode to Mistress Anne Killegrew” for another of Mary Modena’s maids at that time, and Finch and Dryden became related through the marriage of cousins (McGovern 21). By the time Alexander Pope, the poet Finch most wanted to please, had published his new Pastorals, Finch had already written a great deal of her work in accordance with Dryden’s standards. Pope and Swift each shared similar annoyances for Dryden’s poetic devices such as his use of the triplet as well as the hiatus (Reynolds, lxxxix). These devices heavily peppered Finch’s poetry long before Pope had developed his taste. Interestingly, in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” Finch writes about a departure from the poetics of Dryden. This change in her own taste may account for Pope’s fickleness toward Finch’s poetry.
Finding Freedom in the Smallest of Spaces
How is it that Anne Finch was able infiltrate the masculine world of poetry in the first place? Although female authors at this time must write from within the trappings of their gender, they also find freedom to write within a space that does not compete with that of masculine poetry. In the scholarly paper “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch,” Dorothy Memin explains of these poetesses:
In both form and content they cherish autonomy rather than preeminence and usually speak of themselves in self-deprecating low-keyed tones. And always the inescapable central term is gender: whereas male poets have imagined their own voices to be genderless, ?universal,? they never forget that they write, and will be read as women. (Memin 336)
It is likely, for these reasons, that Finch takes care to differentiate between the ways in which men read for themselves and women write for themselves, particularly after she publically declares herself a woman in a manner that might read as a public ruse; the interpretation of her anonymous work may have been presumed to be written by a man. But why this enormous focus on feminine humility? Mermin explains the connection between literary and moral reputation:
If women are peculiarly shy about having their works “exposed,” it is partly because their works and their selves are so often confused with each other. Their physical person — their beauty is generally the prime object of critical regard. (Mermin 338)
To tread this fine line between acceptance and rejection via humility is a skill that some like Aphra Behn had little stamina to execute well. While Behn’s good reputation could not survive public ridicule once she became too bold for male acceptance, Finch was far more careful. Although she does break gendered poetic boundaries by daring to make a woman the subject as well as the object in “The Critic and the Writer of Fables,” this places her in little danger of harsh criticism because the satirical tone of the poem distills her self-importance down to self-mockery.
While Finch refers to her published poems with this feigned yet necessary sense of humility, she and her husband also preserve, without publishing for fear of condemnation, a portion of her later work, now collected within the Wellesley Manuscript. As McGovern and Hinnant suggest, this fear likely stems from Finch’s allusions to political sympathies within her fables with the Jacobite cause during a time of anti-Jacobite hysteria:
What they bring out is the close relation that exists between a reluctance to publish and an attitude toward questions of moral, historical, and political import that refuses to resort to ideas of self censorship, expediency, concealment, or compromise in the preparation of a manuscript. (Hinnant and McGovern xxiii)
In these unpublished poems, Finch understands her feminine limitations within in the public realm. For a woman who published hundreds of poems, she never stopped writing what she honestly thought, if only as a matter of private self expression shared with a trusted few. These poems were Finch’s way to pledge personal allegiance to the Stuart family, regardless of public distaste for such a stance or for engagement of a woman in political debate. Considering the political climate and the further alienation at stake, particularly after her husband Hineage’s arrest for attempting to join King James on the continent after the Glorious Revolution, Finch was wise to be selective.
Suggesting this behavior as evidence of strict self protection is not to say that Finch was overly protective of all aspects of her work. She found room to speak publicly and playfully through her poetry using one of the altered Augustan elements best explained in Maragaret Doody’s The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Doody says:
The heroic couplet was associated with matters thought foreign to women – classical learning, rule over the world. The more memorable poetry of Augustan women poets is usually in iambic tetrameter in which they could be allowed to toss off individual observations and feelings. In this form too, they could safely exhibit wit without being thought too arrogant. (Doody 242)
Doody puts words to the lack of women’s political impact in this medium by using phrases like “light verse with a point” or “unassuming, but nicely formed” to highlight her examples. Finch employed this low impact line-style in “Mercury and the Elephant” with good reason. Opening Miscellany with a poem describing the struggle of women writers, she had to be careful not to earn rejection before her audience turned only a few pages. To present her heart-felt dilemma in a style reserved for humor, she is likely seen at the time to be poking fun at herself. Finch would not always play coy though, refusing to back into a woman’s corner of the writing desk. She could just as skillfully cast off her individual observations using the traditionally heroic iambic pentameter in poems such as “Ardeliah’s Answer to Ephelia” and “Nocturnal Reverie” which Doody calls some of her best work (Doody 242). It is interesting to note that these were placed toward the end of Miscellany, perhaps because they were of too serious a tone, leaving her audience to work through the larger body of work before reaching the piece de resistance.
While the use of iambic tetrameter may have offered a foothold for women in a man’s poetic world, once that first step was taken, it was time to commandeer the muse. Trevor Ross in Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century, traces the symbolic fall of Apollo, Greek god of poetry, throughout men’s works produced prior to and during the Restoration. Apollo, Ross finds, mirrors the valorized male in the position of the British laureateship and “by mid-century, Apollo, like modern royalty, enjoys only a ceremonial role in the governing of Parnassus, which is itself no longer a star chamber but a democracy” (Ross 179). It is this weakening of the national poet and the poet godhead that created space for new points of power. As Ross explains:
By the 1688 *Journal from Parnassus,* the emergence of professional women writers like Behn had become enough of a threat to Parnassus that they had to be exiled altogether, lest they “soon endeavour a Monopoly of Witt.” By then, the laureate ideal had become weakened sufficiently for women poets to begin appropriating Apollo in their own defense. Finch, in her “Circuit of Apollo” (1713), has the deity dividing the honours among all women since “they all had a right to the Bay’s” and then ceding his evaluative authority to the Muses, “Since no man upon earth, nor Himself in the sky” would dare to rid Parnassus of “three parts in four from amongst woman kind.” (Ross 181)
This hostile takeover of a masculine myth reshaped the poetic world for women, if not entirely for men. While it was a tremendous accomplishment for women in the fictional realm, it may have been more dangerous in the real world. The perceived threat quite possibly reinforced the thought that men must keep women out of politics and poetry. Still, the power of women cannot be denied when evidenced in their work. The muse, referred to twice in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is both adventurous and demanding, leading a female poet rather than a man. Equally important is the fact that she “strays” down various traditionally male paths, each time finding her way back to fables.
Within “The Critick and the Writer of Fables,” there is little evidence that the fable writer is a woman other than through Finch’s use of self deprecation. This may be due to the translation in her adaptation of La Fontaine’s original, “Contre cueux qui ont le Gout difficile,” although it more likely stems from her own sense of position within English literature. Charles H. Hinnant, in The Poetry of Anne Finch: An Essay in Interpretation, explains why the origins are not so clear:
Finche’s fables, like those of Swift or Gay, are not translation — or even imitations, in the sense popularized by Oldham and Pope. Thus they do not conform to what Dryden calls paraphrase — a mode “where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not strictly followed.” (Hinnant 168-169)
While keeping with the feel of what the poem attempts to achieve by illuminating the limitations that rigid criticism places on poetry, Finch expands the meaning to suit her concerns with a pertinent historical time, place and culture. According to Hinnant, Finch “retains the denunciation by La Fontaine’s critic of the hackneyed language of the epic and pastoral, but she adds a section on satire and begins by making her poet renounce the irregular ode in favor of the fable” (Hinnant 169). Fables are an enjoyable poetic format for Finch. She is largely a talented fable writer as well as a translator in four languages. Finch’s art in capturing La Fontaine’s message creates an enhanced translation that suits her present and personal predicament.
Sadly, for Finch, fables have lost their luster for the professional male poet. They are considered amateur and femininely inferior. This notion is made evident as the poem’s speaker calls fable writing a descent in form. In the critic’s opinion, “Fable, he cries, tho grown the affected Strain. / But dies as it was born, without Regard or Pain. / Wilst of his Aim the lazy Trifler fails, / Who seeks to purchase Fame by Childish Tales” (Finch 163). This description offers no kind word for the form. A lazy person, as opposed to the skilled professional artist, fails to create anything of worth by putting little effort into the creation and earning ill reward. Fame said to not come so cheaply in the shape of a children’s tale because only craft and skill can divine a thing of beauty. Is the ease with which Fables appear to flow truly the work of lazy triflers? Absolutely not. Hinnant explains the misconception in an historical context:
The grand tradition of English criticism from Sir Philip Sydney through John Dryden established a system of critical norms that privileged poetry over verse, mimesis over fiction invention over imitation, etc. Let La Fontaine and his English successors mark exactly the same categories, but they give a witty reemphasis to the features that they agree to discern. (Hinnant 168)
Of course these critical norms are the very ideals “The Critic and the Writer of Fables” rallies against. The poet wants to hasten toward the enjoyment of fiction rather than mimesis if only to instruct through a removed example rather than the satirical rantings of a mimetic reproduction.
To expound on this thought, the interesting twist in the first stanza is where the narrator says that fables “Teach, as poets should, whilst they Divert”(Finch 163). This line rings of what Augustan poetry is supposed to accomplish, to instruct the masses on transcendental truths. According to Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. In “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. A Dissertation upon Poetry,” Johnson writes:
The business of a poet requires that he estimate the happiness and misery of every condition; observe the power of all the passions in all their combinations, and trace the changes of the human mind, as they are modified by various institutions and accidental influences of climate or custom, from the sprightliness of infancy to the despondence of decrepitude. He must divest himself of the prejudices of his age or country; he must consider right and wrong in their abstracted and invariable state; he must disregard present laws and opinions, and rise to general and transcendental truths, which will always be the same. He must, therefore, content himself with the slow progress of this name, contemn the applause of his own time, and commit his claims to the justice of posterity. He must write as the interpreter of nature and the legislator of mankind, and consider himself as presiding over the thoughts and manners of future generations, as being superior to time and place. (Johnson 2694)
Finch’s poem achieves all of these goals. She understands the joy of expression for men and the unhappiness of oppression for women. She creates a generalization of social experience for half the population in order to instruct both men and women in tolerance. She understands the skewed world view and those prejudices that are not her truth as a woman. She is not stagnant in time but, instead, traces the changing poetic times, instructing on the poetic possibilities, and painting this picture in broad strokes. Although these points may be understood by Finch’s public audience on some level, there is still the demarcation of this feminized form in which she delivers her message. Without critical distance, those readers of her time can not see the value in her departure from Augustan tradition.
How ironic that Johnson’s Rasselas is a fable defining what Augustan poetry should be while missing his own mark, ignoring half the picture so entirely. How can a man who ponders life so thoroughly come to the conclusion that poetry by Finch or any other woman has no place in his anthology, The Lives of the Poets, Linda Zionkowski, in her book Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784, argues that the female poet was not always excluded from what eventually became a masculine literary field. Johnson complicates the ability to understand the omission because he was known to offer female writers encouragement:
[His encouragement] prohibits an easy dismissal of the problem as an instance of gender prejudice. Although the increasing commercialization of eighteenth-century life complicated the distinctions between professionals and pseudoprofessionals, Geoffrey Holmes argues that during Johnson’s time, a profession was still characterized as a lifelong vocation requiring extensive training and application “The Lives” preoccupation with the nature of literary labor, the social status of poets, and the relation of poets to the audiences whose needs they presumably served reveal Johnson’s concern with detailing the distinguishing features of his profession. In repeatedly asserting what Magali Larson calls “the monopoly of competence” of nonaristocratic literary men, the Lives articulates and codifies new expectations for poetic careers — expectations that could not be met by writers whose class and gender required them to operate under an alternative economy. (Zionkowski 186)
To see poetry through the lens of labor obviously lessens the blame on gender alone. It is gender as attached to labor or, more precisely, the lack there-of that has its hand in turning the tide. Education is another aspect of this economic point of view. Without educating all women, how can they first train to be laborers? Johnson, and others like him, determined the rules for professionalism and inspired the exclusion of all women. While the motive for learning and recording what Johnson could about what he saw as a profession seems innocent enough, the result was tragic for poetic women who were no longer anthologized between 1750 and 1779 (Zionkowski 186). This is obviously only one theory and it is not an easy idea to rest all blame upon. Johnson must have been at least somewhat aware of his impact on the history of inspiring male-centric British poetry much to the dismay of his female poetic acquaintances.
Interesting as this revelation about the connection between poetry and labor may be, there is no such handy explanation that can excuse the “taste of men” for excluding the poetry of women, particularly when women’s textual elements evidence the gender divide time and again in those historical moments when they are included. “Taste,” a term briefly addressed by William Wordsworth in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems,” is only referenced in order to say that he does not fit into the traditional approach to what is acceptable in poetry (Wordsworth 649). This idea plays a significant role in Finch’s poem with which she criticizes “men of taste” for limiting poetic form to the exclusion of anything different. Wordsworth’s own taste renounces the contrived language and structure of Augustan poetry in order to replace it with common language which speaks to the common man (Wordsworth 650). Although Finch writes long before Wordsworth, her poem too argues for the need of language that speaks to the common human being (not just man), demonstrating that changing taste does eventually make room for the new but that it happens slowly.
Similar as Wordsworth and Finch may seem in their directives; Wordsworth had no real knowledge of Finch’s poetic identity. Of her selected pastoral poetry, referred to him by a friend, he says in a letter to Alexander Dyce in 1830:
Her style in rhyme is often admirable: chaste, tender, and vigorous, and entirely free from sparkle, antithesis, and that overculture which reminds one, by its broad glare, its stiffness and heaviness, of the double daisies of the garden, compared with their modest and sensitive kindred of the fields. (Hopkins, 178)
Speaking aptly on “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Nocturnal Reverie,” Wordsworth’s assumption is that this is entirely representative of Finch’s greater body of work. The reality is that much of Finch’s poetry adheres more closely to the Augustan style. Only a handful of her poems were pastoral.
Alexander Dyce, the recipient of Wordsworth’s note, is an important piece within the history of Finch’s legacy. Sharon C. Seelig’s article, “The Poets of the Renaissance,” investigates the poetic climate that existed at the time that Katherine Philips and Finch were included in an anthology by Dyce in 1827:
In his preface Dyce makes it clear that he is correcting an omission: Of the Selections which have been made from the chaos of our past Poetry, the majority has been confined almost entirely to the writings of men; and from the great *Collections of the English Poets,* where so many worthwhile compositions find a place, the productions of women have been carefully excluded.” (Qtd. In Seelig 163)
George W. Bethune produced an anthology of women authors as well in 1848, joining in the view that human nature, and in particular female nature (or intelligence), was improving. (Seelig 163). These changing points of view prove that Finch, with a talented group of other women poets, indeed carved a place in poetic history. Sadly, at the time, the increase in accessibility to women’s writing is attributed to improved female nature rather the opening of the door by more tolerant men and more persistent women. Although the end result, women finding their place in anthologies, is a move toward a more balanced artistic environment, I believe that Finch’s inclusion in anthologies alongside men like Pope gave her work more credence given the earlier stigma of being cordoned off for being the very thing that makes her superior against adversity.
Using the Tools at Hand
While the popular convention of Augustan poetry offered a framework with which Finch could put forth her perspective, it was lacking in the ability for language and form to readily reflect a woman’s full truth without being told in a man’s voice. Jacques Derrida, in his theory “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” recalls Levi-Strauss’ use of the term “bricoleur” to refer to someone “who uses the means at hand.” Derrida expands on this idea saying that bricolage, or “the necessity of borrowing one’s concept from the text or heritage which is more or less coherent or ruined, it must be said that every discourse is a bircoleur” (Derrida 920) Finch thus becomes a handywoman borrowing from past and failed poetic forms as avenues for the feminine voice. By doing so, she de-centers the original and creates something new. This is not unlike T. S. Eliot’s theory, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the poet must conform to the cannon but must also expand the capabilities of the work just enough to make it new and interesting (Elliot 1093). Augustan poetry was the only convention at hand for women writers to be taken seriously, but was in need of change to accommodate the feminine voice. To create something entirely new is a sure fire way to be rejected in a climate that adores time honored tradition so Finch uses the tools she has at hand. By using Augustan references and modes of writing, Finch pushes portions of the old voices out of the way, makes room for her own, creating an entirely new public voice within the compilation.
Turning these broken forms in upon themselves for examination is partially an Augustan satirical function but, in the case of such self-reflexivity, it demonstrates an almost postmodern move. Linda Hutcheon, in her book The Politics of Postmodernism, defines historiographic metafiction which, through a two part process of dedoxification and self-reflexivity, reveals the power as well as the limitations employed by a particular narrative form. To dedoxify something is to problematize it by a reverse definition, one that denaturalizes and reveals the ideology behind a form as clouded by cultural norms. Hutcheon describes it best by saying:
Postmodern representational practices that refuse to stay neatly within accepted conventions and traditions and that deploy hybrid forms and seemingly mutual contradictory strategies frustrate critical attempts (including this one) to systematize them, to order them with an eye to control and mastery — that is to totalize (Hutcheon 35).
Finch performs this move by writing a fable about a fable writer, at once demonstrating that a fable, typically seen as artistic folly, is actually a powerful tool used to deliver her message. Within the same poem, she does this also by satirizing the satirical. While Hutcheon’s theory refers to a specific kind of postmodern narrative, the idea illustrates well Anne Finch’s use of poetic fable to reveal both the established social power, from the shortcomings fable possesses due to public imposition to the versatility with which it delivers her message about what the form has the power to do very well.
Another form Finch manipulates within “The Critick and the Wirter of Fables” is the recycling of epic references to Greek mythology. She turns this into something preposterously larger than life and then, like the muse, commandeers the story for her own benefit. Finch satirically employs the form but also reveals it as tired, if not for her new spin on the ending. Her passage reads, “The walls of Troy shall be our loftier Stage / Our mighty theme the fierce Achilles Rage, / Amidst her Towers, the dedicated Horse / Shall be received, big with destructive Force; / Till Men shall say, when Flames have brought her down. / “Troy is no more, and Ilium was a town?” (Finch 163). Finch references the city of Troy as well as the Trojan horse as “she? as if to say women’s poetry (her own) actively infiltrates a feminine city in order to reclaim power after a ravaging under the rule of men. In the end, neither the feminine city nor the feminine horse survives, but something new exits when Troy is replaced by the town of Ilium. Finch appears to understand that her poetry must go into battle, but also that the fight will render something new rising up from the ashes of destruction.
Next up for critique in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” is the traditional Augustan pastoral, a true sleeper according to the critic. The idea of sleep is playfully handled in “The Critick and the Writer of Fables” when the critick says “Oh! stun me not with these insipid Dreams, / The Eternal Hush the Lullaby of Streams. / Which still, he cries their even Measures keep, / Till both the Writers and the Readers sleep” (Finch 164) Christopher Miller, in “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening,” examines the gender innovation of “Nocturnal Reverie” and compares Finch’s imaginative spin on darkness to the originating trope in which, “Finch mimics the famous evening-to-fantasy scholarly devotion in John Milton’s “Il Penseroso” (1631), but she focuses more on sensory absorption of the nocturnal world than on the humoral disposition associated with it” (Miller 604). In this nocturnal space, a different kind of pastoral where eyes would typically be closed, Finch, as the thinly veiled fable writer, says that the critic and “men of taste” must open their eyes to new poetry and see all the possibility that she sees by directing her reader toward “Nocturnal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, Finch seems to agree that this form is tired although she can easily prove that it has the ability to move beyond the “Swain’s unhappy Smart” and the “Envy of the Plains” (Finch 163) Essentially, poets of the male persuasion need to wake up, read what waits in front of them, and by the time they get to her “Nocternal Reverie” at the end of Miscellany, they will have indeed learned from experience.
What Fresh Poetry is This?
When the only poetic form the critic will accept is revealed to be satire, the fable writer is astonished and critiques the critic right back. With biting tongue she asks, “Must only Satire keep your Fancies warm? / Wilst even there, you praise with such Reserve, / As if you’d in the midst of plenty starve, / Tho’ ne’er so liberally we authors carve” (Finch 164). It becomes obvious that the critic will never truly be satisfied, even with their form of choice. The thirst and hunger for poetic gems would be quenched if only the critic and “men of taste” would relinquish the lofty airs that fill them with nothingness in order to drink from the depths of an abundant well of craft. Finch’s poetry can lead them there but she cannot make them drink. Left to choose for themselves, the last lines leave them where they began, with “Operas and panegyricks” (Finch 164). In Finch’s lifetime she never did see much movement on this front.
This lack of transcendence permeates the end of “The Critick and the Writer of Fables.” Likewise, in “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale,'” Hinnant talks about the ways in which Finch associates with the natural world rather than the superiority of the human world without ending on the note of achieved perfection (Hinnant 511). She does this here too and, while it may make the piece feel unfinished, I think Finch simply asks for the recognition that other poetic possibilities exist. While she does not directly describe what this new proposed form would look like, I believe she refers to poems she has already written. Everything is an experiment. Rather than hold poetry to some new immovable standard. In leaving the possibilities open ended, she has no desire to create new confines within which she and others must conform at her particular command. This is a grand departure from what her male counterparts consistently try to categorize and control. Finch just wants to be, and it’s oh so very romantic.
Derrida, Jacques. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Comp. David H. Richter. New York: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2006. 914-926.
Doody, Margaret. The Daring Muse, Augustan Poetry Reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985. 233-264.
Eliot, T S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 1092-1098.
Finch, Anne. Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. London: J[Ohn] B[Arber], 1713. Google Books. 5 Apr. 2008 .
Greenblat, Stephen, ed. “Chapter 10. Imlac’s History Continued. a Dissertation Upon Poetry.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Restoration and the Eighteenth Century. Comp. Lawrence Lipking and James Noggle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2006. 2693-2694.
Hinnant, Charles H., and Barbara McGovern. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems, a Critical Edition. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1998. xv-xli.
Hinnant, Charles H. “Song and Speech in Anne Finch’s ‘To the Nightingale'” Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900 31 (1991): 499-513. JSTOR. College of Saint Rose, Albany.
Hinnant, Charles H. The Poetry of Anne Finch: an Essay in Interpretation. Newark: University of Delaware P, 1994. 166-196.
Hopkins, David, ed. Routledge Anthology of Poets on Poets. 2nd ed. Florence: Routledge, 1994. 178.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. 29-58.
McGovern, Barbara. Anne Finch and Her Poetry: a Critical Biography. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1992.
Mermin, Dorothy. “Women Becoming Poets: Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, Anne Finch.” ELH 57 (1990): 335-355. JSTOR. Neil Hellman Library, Albany. 15 Apr. 2008. Keyword: Anne Finch.
Miller, Christopher R. “Staying Out Late: Anne Finch’s Poetics of Evening.” SEL 45 (2005): 603-623. 12 Mar. 2008 .
Ross, Trevor Thornton. Making of the English Literary Canon : From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century. Montreal, QC, Canada: McGill-Queen UP, 2000. 173-205.
Seelig, Sharon C. “The Poets of the Renaissance.” Fault Lines and Controversies in the Study of Seventeenth-Century English Literature. Ed. Claude J. Summers. Columbia: University of Missouri P, 2002. 156-169.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” The Norton Anthology: Theory and Literature. Comp. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Ltd., 2001. 648-668.
Zionkowski, Linda. Men’s Work : Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660-1784. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001. 171-204.
This paper was discussed in The Guardian on the topic of Anne Finch’s poetry.
Taking stock, a reflective exercise often assigned at the end of a class, is also a graduation requirement. This is my first draft. Tweaking to follow… although references to “navel gazing” and “mental masturbation” are definitely keepers.
The Collegiate Experience and My Intellectual Cosmos
This reflective essay has been assigned to help connect my Senior Seminar experience, with its focus on pre-romantic poetry, to the greater Saint Rose experience and thus my intellectual cosmos. To be honest, I find this task rather difficult. My trouble stems from the Senior Seminar portion of this ponderance. Let me first say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual, in-depth conversation every class has offered and that I find significant value in the exploration of early literary theory and the ability to measure today’s ideas by comparison. Still, I struggle to kindle some sort of greater passion for the subject matter in a present-day application that brings new awareness to light.
In my ideal world, Senior Seminar should be more than an entertaining intellectual exercise. I had hoped for a topic that would engage my passion, inspire me to action in righting some contemporary wrong and raise my own awareness as well as the awareness of those who read what new discoveries my research has to offer. Instead, I am reminded time and again, as we jest about the many ways in which poets have continually pondered their navels, that the struggle of the human experience merely shifts at a snail’s pace. Looking to history offers little more than greater historical knowledge of humanity’s slowly morphing circumstances, faulty attempts at understanding through overly general categorization, and constant repetition of these mistakes. While history is a fantastic place to begin, traveling back in time is not necessarily the best place to finish, at least in the opinion of this Saint Rose senior.
While the official capstone of pre-romantics study has been a wonderful venue in which to exercise analytical skills developed in other classes, I would say that the study of theory and postmodernism have been my personal and intellectual capstones. Through these two classes I have become significantly aware of and even horrified by the assault of stereotypes upon my own thoughts. I have since used that awareness to both examine and challenge knee-jerk reactions as well as my long standing perceptions of this crazy world we live in. Theory has provided new ways of understanding beyond those with which I was familiar. By studying an array of alternative ideas, I found freedom in choice and relieved the constraint on my personal identity. Of course, one could argue that social constructs not only bind identity, but that there can be no identity without such definition. It is in the understanding that boundaries are arbitrary and differ from culture to culture that freedom to make new and different choices exists. Liberated in my ability to move beyond the limited scope of what little I was told I could be, I have also learned to see this postmodern world for what it is and have situated myself within as a global citizen. Armed with my new perspective, I dare to dream bigger dreams and choose to live a life in which I am more aware of the impact I have on others as well as myself.
An example of how Postmodernism changed my life stems from examining a postmodern text through a theoretical lens. Choosing Linda Hutcheon’s definition of historiographic metafiction, I have explored the film and filming process of The Last King of Scotland. This movie focuses on former dictator Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda as experienced by the fictional Dr. Garrigan. Many uneducated Ugandan citizens who watched this film in underground viewing huts believed the fictionalized version to be historical, calling the film “real.” While this might appear to suggest the realism that film technology has the ability to create, the project reveals a far more disturbing picture. Intimidated extras believed that Forest Whitaker was truly Idi Amin and that they were being paid to support his political agenda. A twisted version of the death of Uganda’s beloved Kay, Amin’s wife, corrupts her image through one more Western violation of a black woman for the sake of appealing to a Western audience. Also, in a culture where modesty is imperative, filmmakers in a bind to find willing extras coerced Amin’s impoverished former poet to run naked through a party scene, essentially blackmailing him so he could make enough money to return to his family when he merely wanted to read. Throughout my paper, which I still intend to polish and publish, unethical Western film making philosophy becomes as exposed as that poor poet. By the end of the fifteenth page, there is no question that ethical behavior is required in this failed form of historiographic metafiction, one influenced by money and the reinforcement of stereotypes rather than empowerment of all of humanity . Revealing the horrors of Hollywood-style colonization and commoditization of an entire third world nation, this, by far, is my most meaningful academic work to date. My latest paper on the poetics of Anne Finch could never be as powerful.
On a personal level, what I have learned in Postmodernism has inspired me to action. I have begun to thoroughly and independently research my own possible impact as a Westerner when volunteering in Africa this summer. I will continue to diligently study how best to immerse myself within the Ghanaian culture while recording the lives of dying HIV/AIDS patients for their soon to be orphaned children. Preservation of cultural and familial information is my main goal and I wish to leave as little impact upon these people as possible. For this reason, I have chosen a non-governmental organization serving the needs and projects developed by the local villagers rather than joining forces with one imposing Western ideological ideas and solutions. This is not to say that Western philosophy is entirely corrupt, but there is no denying that, in inextricable conjunction with capitalism, it consumes other cultures at an extraordinary pace. While the study of literature has been invaluable in gaining better understanding, literature without action is nothing more than mental masturbation.
I have, in a previous reflection paper, likened my personal growth through the study of literature to a spiritual awakening; the best possible outcome college can have on an individual without the involvement of religion. I can honestly say that the study of theory and the global impact of the postmodern have changed, for the better, who I am as a person. Saint Rose initially rejected my application and, upon appeal, accepted me with condition, so it is with great pleasure that I have proven worthy of that chance by earning a 4.0. While earning that grade is certainly a crowning achievement, it means nothing but for the fact that I am walking away with a new world view as well as an eye toward making a difference. That, to me, is an end result well worth the hard work I have invested in myself these past two years.
Assignment: Respond to comment from the fictional professors below.
“Mary Robinson’s “London Summer Morning” is a cheap rip-off of Swift’s “A Description of The Morning”; she gives us a list of London sights and sounds but without the satirical bite.” – [Fictional] Professor Larry Hunt
In Mary Robinson’s poem “London Summer Morning” (1800) and Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of The Morning” (1709), each poet similarly departs from the classical pastoral tradition. These poems record the less aesthetic details of urban noise and filth surrounding the daily preparations of industrialized London rather than idealizing the dawn as a time of beauty, peace and renewal. While this strong similarity exists with almost a decade between publications, this does not constitute a “cheap rip-off” on the part of Robinson, regardless of her allusion to line seven in Swift’s poem.
Poets have often shared common interest and observations of their mutual societal surroundings and have engaged in discourse with each other over time through the poetic craft. Robinson’s engagement with the subject matter of Swift’s poem, as well as her own surroundings, is no less valuable than Dryden’s allusions to Greek mythology in order to reference the common social shorthand of understanding.
While Robinson “lists off” a series of London’s sights and sounds, her poem is not without the revered satirical bite present in Swift’s poem. The details she chooses to include are telling of London’s class divide and the way she portrays this divide is not without bias. Swift’s poignant poem solely draws upon images of the working class while Robinson juxtaposes the tasks of the working class and poor with those of the upper class elite. This juxtaposition, in my opinion, better illustrates the disparity between classes, while at the same time demonstrating their interdependence. The elite are not the ones paving the way for the day’s smooth operation, but their wealth is what affords the lower working class the monetary means of sustenance via the exchange for goods.
The most biting bit of Robinson’s satire is evident in lines 27-29, “Now pastry dainties catch the eye minute / Of humming insects, while the limey snare / Waits to enthrall them.” One must wonder if the insects are truly the wealthy consumers ensnared by the wares of the working class. This image bestows power to the merchants, no matter how filthy and loud they are in their marketing methods when compared with the appearance polished upper class. The “eye minute” could illustrate that the elite do not see or acknowledge the class disparity displayed before them, but rather their eye is on the prize. This is not to say that the working class occupies a minimized position in Robinson’s mind. The shop-keeping damsel “Now, spruce and trim” (line 23) and “smart” (line 25), becomes well kept by the time the passerby “Peeps through the window, watching every charm” (line 26). Although “charm” could be a reference to the wares for sale, it seems more likely that the watching refers to action rather than an inanimate object. Thus, the charm described here is likely that of a seduction of sorts in the art of the sale. We see this type of positive spin from line 2 where the smoke of noisy London is described as “sultry.”This transition of dawn is when the “have nots” become the “haves” and the wealthy become those in need.
While Swift’s poem well observes and records London’s morning, Robinson overtly places the job of the poet somewhere between the working class and the elite. Granted, her “poor poet” is awake, laboriously recording the goings on of the day and making meaning of the sights and sounds. At the same time, that poet does so from within the space of strict observance after rolling out of bed, perhaps from a second story window with a full view of the entire street and not necessarily on the same level as those being observed. This poet is like the upper class who hears the sounds of London but does not partake in working to make them. According to Smith, this in-between space is reserved for poets who, regardless of looking out from within, write from beyond the boundaries of mere existence by consciously entering the realm of all that they observe. While borrowing from Swift via poetic discourse, this observance of poetic process becomes Robinson’s new and interesting twist on what Swift has to offer.
“The history of the late eighteenth- century poetry documents the poet’s increasing self absorption, reaching an apotheosis in a poet like Charlotte Smith.” – [Fictional] Professor Sarah Black
Late eighteenth-century poetry, while moving away from social generalizations used to instruct the masses, has certainly migrated toward self awareness through personal musings. To say that this self awareness is “self absorption” and that Charlotte Smith is the quintessence of an entire era is blatantly overstating the point. This overstatement is particularly evident when a poet like Aphra Behn, with a style also new for her time, worked equally hard to achieve similar exploration of the feminine self, albeit without the evolution of linguistic style and form yet enabling her to achieve the same results.
Smith may take a comparatively heavy handed approach to self expression, offering her personal emotions freely throughout her poetry, but her work is far more than evidence of self absorption. It is also a social commentary on the lives of women who are not well married, the numbers of which throughout history offer no singular experience. In larger works such as “The Emigrants,” Smith abandons a strong focus upon self reflexive feelings. Instead, she traces the challenges of those aristocrats and Catholic clerics fleeing the French Revolution and acknowledges the women left behind in France by those who become counter-revolutionary soldiers. This broad view of historical events aligns more with Augustan poetry written to instruct the public. Where the difference lies is within the gender balanced subject matter.
None of this is to say that Smith’s poetry hasn’t been a direct source of inspiration to William Wordsworth, the very man who defined the scope of Romanticism. It is simply to say that, rather than to call Smith a self absorbed apotheosis, it would be far more accurate to say that Smith’s ability to turn inward for self validation in a world where no public validation existed has inspired a new poetic era while, at the same time, her poetry successfully educates the public on the feminine position within the social spectrum.