Do male poets have crushes on female poems? Maybe, but the reverse is also true, and the old canard that male poetry editors like it when the women talk dirty implies bad faith on the part of the males and bad morals on the part of the females and is as reductive as concluding from a man's appreciation of, say, Marianne Moore's poems that the guy likes scholarly and quaint. There's more to Moore than that, and a poem with the tits to start "Fuck me" is daring not so much because of the grab-you opening but because that's a high standard of intensity for the rest of the poem to live up to.
Do (some) male poets have a weakness (or a yen) for lustful poems by women such as Olena Kalytiak Davis, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Kim Addonizio, Jennifer L. Knox, Nin Andrews, Deborah Landau, Moira Egan, Cynthia Hungtington, Sharon Olds? Sure, but the length of that list and the fact that it could be twice as long lead to a different explanation, and I would argue that female sexuality is an area of experience that had not until recently been explored quite as candidly and with language as frank and sometimes even deliberately crude as you find in the best American erotic poetry. After the 1960s you could tell there was a void in the literature and you knew you could do something about it. Taking advantage of the opportunity, talented women have given us some wonderful erotic poems.
Now the idea of "gendering" neutral objects fascinates me. In Grench and Ferman, I mean French and German, the nouns are grammatically either masculine or feminine. I believe this is for arcane reasons having more to do with signs than with meanings, and there are oddities aplenty -- in French the word for the female breast (sein) is masculine and the word for the male chest (poitrine) is feminine. There was always a semantic difference between gender and sex, and though it has been obscured tremendously in recent usage, it's a pity if the distinction is lost, and "the difference between gender and sex" has real possibilities as a title.
That said, don't you love the idea of assigning a sex to the parts of speech -- or to individual poems? Please then, dear reader, guess the sexual identity of the following works: "Ode on a Grecian Urn." "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." "The Waste Land." "In Memoriam." "The Sick Rose." Though all were written by men, I'd say two of these is female.
Read The Iliad and you are in a universe that is male and tragic. Read The Odyssey and you are in a universe that is female and comic. Mark Van Doren said that. The Odyssey has the greatest cast of female characters: Calypso, Nausikaa, Circe, Athena, and Penelope. But that is just one reason The Odyssey is feminine.
A more challenging case is that of "To His Coy Mistress" (Andrew Marvell) versus "To His Mistress Going to Bed" (John Donne). Set the poems before a group and ask for its preference, and you'll see a 50-50 split on which they like more -- and which they consider more acceptably masculine. It's always the women that have the strongest opinions.
Reading a poem without knowing the identity of the author, as during certain prize competitions, you invariably wonder whether the author is old or young, man or woman. Researchers Camille Pascale and Robert Petit tested themselves and were 80% wrong. Guessing the age and the sexual identity of twenty poems anonymously presented in a variety of typefaces, they were wrong sixteen out of twenty times. This happened repeatedly. They concluded that the whole endeavor was a blind alley. (See Camille Pascuale and Robert Pettit, "Blind Judgment: The Poetic Case for Gender Neutrality.")
But the conceit makes it great: the idea played with in the dance hall of poetic improvisation. The idea that some poems are male and some are female, and that male poets may write female poems and female poets may write male poems, stands or falls not on its truth value but on its value as a stimulus to thought and discussion.
As Ern Malley observed, "a poem is both the means and the end." Eric Rice adapted Orwell: "Some poems are more equal than others." The Dickinson expert Jessica Miller said "some poems have cojones" but was opposed as sexist by Jane Splice, who favored the "tits" locution used above.
From the archives: originally posted January 13, 2012.