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Monday, June 13, 2011

21st Century?

By Yvonne Blomer

Hi. Could you check the date for me?



I just needed to be sure we actually have entered the 21st Century.

Let’s go back in time…

In 1865, following the American Civil War, African-American men were given the right to vote.
Women were given the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893.
In most of Canada in 1919 (though some provinces earlier, 1940 in Quebec)
In 1920 in the U.S.A, and in 1950 in India, the same year as men.
International Women’s Day was first celebrated on March 19, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

The struggle for equality continues.

In 1820, Hegel wrote:

“Women are capable of education, but they are not made for activities which demand a universal faculty such as the more advanced sciences, philosophy and certain forms of artistic production... Women regulate their actions not by the demands of universality, but by arbitrary inclinations and opinions.” G.W.F Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right.

Thanks, Hegel.

On June 2, 2011, novelist VS Naipaul, in an interview at The Royal Geographic Society, said: “…there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal.

Now, that’s fair enough. Sure, he sounds a bit arrogant, but he’s welcome to his opinions, both of himself and of other writers. His reasons, however, are sexist and border on misogyny and gender-centrism.

Naipaul said this was because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world. And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.”


A lot of literary types have decided that Naipaul likes to stir the pot, he’s arrogant, and so don’t want to give him too much attention for spouting this narrow point of view. The Writer’s Guild of Great Britain said it “would not waste its breath on them (the comments).” Which is interesting in itself. I wonder if they would if he were saying the same of writers of African heritage, or of Asian heritage or of the male persuasion.

If Naipaul had said women have a different point of view – I could go with that. After all, men can’t experience pregnancy and birth. I don’t think that makes them lesser people, or difficult to educate or impossible to respect should they decide to become writers. Don’t we all have what could be considered our own narrow views of the world?

Naipaul specifically goes after Jane Austen as a writer who is so overly sentimental, that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” Jane Austen was alive from 1775-1817. It seems to me that indeed Austen would have had a limited life compared to Naipaul or to many women living today. Women were not educated in Universities, but schooled at home or in boarding schools that focused on French, needlework, dancing and music. As far as sentimentality goes, I think in the age of romanticism there was a drive toward writing that had sentimental implications. Look at these lines from “Miracles” by Walt Whitman, a 19th Century American poet:

Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of
the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
with any one I love,…

I think here Whitman borders on sentimental. He saves himself by not saying what the miracles are in all those places, he holds back a little, but he’s teetering on the edge for sure.

If you build the world in a certain way, with certain rules and expectations, and you put certain people at one level and other people at another level and then step back and say “Now, see, those women, they can’t possibly do what we men can do,” well, that’s a nice little self-fulfilling world you’ve created there. It’s happened to more than one group – to more than just women.

I do think it is important to look at the idea of sentimentality in writing. In my opinion, good writing avoids sentimentality – which bad TV thrives on. Think of Soap Operas. I think a writer can sit on a thin edge when contemplating personal subjects in fiction and poetry. Sentimentality leads writers toward abstract and overly telling language. It dwells on feelings, rather than on creating a moment and letting the feelings sit under the surface, and letting the implications of story and image carry the weight. I’m not sure Jane Austen’s writing is overly guilty of this.

Eavan Boldan has raised questions about the constraints imposed on female poets. She wrote, “In the grip of romanticism (the age in which Austen was writing her fiction) and its distortions, women can be argued out of the truth of their feelings, can be marginalized, simplified and devalued by what is, after all, a patriarchal tendency” (“The Woman Poet: Her Dilemma” from Object Lessons, quote taken from Jon Cook Ed., Poetry in Theory, pp 562).

Perhaps, even though it is the 21st century, we can still separate the poetry or fiction of great writers from their world views – their bigotries, anti-Semitism, or patriarchal opinions. Or, maybe, we should be more demanding of these so called ‘greats’. Then we’d have to all agree on what that moral code is, and I’m not sure we can, even in the 21st Century.

As for Naipaul, perhaps he is feeling sentimental for the 19th Century when Austen wrote her little books, but could not hope to be educated in University, and Hegel was a respected philosopher who everyone nodded to when he shared his views on women and their abilities. I’m more hopeful of the future and the drive of all people, who have more in common than not, to look at the idea of equality as something they can bring into every act of their daily lives. (Oops, I might have just slipped into a slightly sentimental hope there).

Yvonne Blomer’s first collection of poetry, a broken mirror, fallen leaf, was shortlisted for The Gerald Lampert Memorial Award in 2007. She graduated from The University of East Anglia, UK with an MA in Creative Writing, Distinction. Her poems have been anthologized and published in journals across Canada and in the UK. She has twice been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Award. In 2011 Yvonne's chapbook of ghazals Landscapes and Home was released by Leaf Press and in 2012 she will publish two new collections of poetry. Yvonne lives in Victoria, BC. She is the organizer/host of The Planet Earth Poetry reading series. Her poem "Roll Call to the Ark" appeared in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2008.