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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: December 2, 2008 @ 11:10 am

    Poetesses and other ridiculous words

    Fiona McCann

    An interview with Carla Bruni by Lara Marlowe in our Saturday magazine over the weekend described the French First Lady as “songwriter, poetess and singer”. Poetess? A word as ridiculous to me as if she’d also been tagged a singeress or songwriteress. Even the word actress is defunct these days, with gender neutral descriptions expected for gender neutral professions. All this coming from someone who wrote a piece in today’s paper about five “women poets” – which perhaps opens me to the same criticism. So is there still any good reason to collect five “poetesses” together for a piece, or does such an action only serve to reinforce a sense of subcategorisation that is in itself a disservice? Over to you.

    • Fred Johnston says:

      Fiona – I read the 5 women poets piece (‘poetess,’ like ‘actress’ is perfectly valid) and it is negated almost by definition; would you write a similar piece on 5 men poets? No. I have often written reviews of women poets – but consequently have been attacked as a ‘woman-hater’ when I offered a negative review. Women poets rather define themselves by the topics upon which they write, at least in this country, and it is very unusual indeed for an Irish woman poet to step beyond the creation of myths of the feminine and/or domestic or health issues into the realm of social and political engagement. Thus they tend to isolate themselves from the world – and the critical media conspires in this by tending to appoint women critics to review their work. I must confess I have had to endure readings by women poets on the topic of giving birth or the like – while bombs rained down on villages in Afghanistan, and on other mothers, and not a word from any Irish woman poet on the horror. Frankly, I think too many of them – because (in some cases) of their inexperienced but marketable youth, or because they are women – are given a rather easy critical time of it. They should learn to come of age and step into the world.

    • fustar says:


      You seem to be assuming that it’s agreed that “the realm of social and political engagement” is a more valid and interesting focus for the poetic urge. I don’t see that as obvious at all.

      I’m male, casually interested in poetry, and perfectly happy to read verse about domesticity, childbirth, notions of the feminine etc., etc. The subject matter is not what I (and others I’d imagine) am principally interested in. Give me an original, insightful, genuinely “human” piece about any of the above issues over a dreary (if well-meant) piece of politicised verse any day.

      As for “poetess” – sounds pretty antiquated and loaded a term to me. I’d be more concerned about the fawning press attention routinely given to someone as dull & pointless as Carla Bruni though! Yawn…

    • clom says:

      Could it have something to do with translation, the french for poet (poète) is masculine and the term “femme-poète” is used to designate a poetess. Maybe the term was used in notes for the interview and crept into the finished article? Or perhaps it’s used more frequently in French?

      Although the OED does specify that the gender-neutral poet is now preferred to poetess.

    • Sinéad says:

      Whether it’s poetry, the novel or most forms of narrative, there has always been an assumption that the historical and political is far more worthy than the domestic and feminine. It even happened in the early days of blogging when women were accused of writing diary style blogs about the personal/motherhood/domestic, while the men marched off and wrote the far superior political blogs.

      I’ve never used the word poetess ever.
      To me, a poet is a poet is a poet (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein).

    • clom says:

      the flipside of that type of gendering is that even now it’s seen as unmanly to write from a domestic perspective.

      any fey, quirky, whimsical or emotional content needs to be interspersed with monstrous muscular blasts of the tumescent trumpet of certitude to balance the perception that the author doesn’t spend all his spare time baking scones and stirring soup.

    • clom says:

      for what it’s worth the term “poetess” does make me a little bit queasy.

    • Medbh says:

      Poetess ranks as the one of the most anti-modern monikers around. Let’s put that dinosaur away already.

      There are plenty of women in Ireland writing poetry about the social and political, Fred. I’m guessing they don’t register with you because they’re not in the grand peen club of tradition.

    • Fiona says:

      Fred: I am, in fact, considering writing a piece about five male poets, and am interested in how gender informs their work, but I don’t believe that they are either more likely to write about Afghanistan, or that this is a more valid poetic subject. Your suggestion that subject isolates them from the world implies a very narrow view of the world to me. I certainly don’t feel they are not subjected to the same rigorous readings that men poets are, and resent your suggestion that they have yet to come of age.

      Fustar: I’m sorry to tell you I’m strangely intrigued by Bruni, I have to say, in part, I admit, because she’s so rich and beautiful. I keep reading about her in the hope that eventually she’ll have something to say. One lives in hope . . .

      Clom: Interesting point about the translation, it may well have something to do with why it ended up there. Or perhaps it’s her own self-chosen moniker – who knows?

      Sinead: It’s true that blogging has turned up that same old diatribe about what a worthy subject is. Are we all blogeresses too?

      Medbh: Yep, think I’m consigning poetess to the trash heap, only to be rescued for ironic purposes in the future.

    • fústar says:


      My view, I suppose, is why bother waiting around for Carla Bruni to say something interesting when you could focus, instead, on someone else who actually does (now) say interesting things?!

      The press treatment of her tends to mix pretentious Francophilia (even though she’s Italian – I think…) with glamour/beauty worship. The resulting stew makes me feel rather queasy.

      This could, of course, also have something to do with the fact that rich and beautiful people generally make me want to puke…

    • Fiona says:

      Fústar: Good point, and yes, the press is gone a bit batty for her. It’s the people’s princess stuff all over again. Sigh. You’re right, I should take a stand.

    • fustar says:


      Take that stand! I’ll watch your back.

    • fustar says:

      Oh and don’t get me started about certain male music journos writing about wan, fey and attractive female folk singers. We know you’ve fallen instantly in love with a romantic ideal, lads – just don’t expect us to sit through the gushing (ooer) prose.

    • As a poet, I resent being told what I ‘should’ be writing about. Poetry springs – like all art – from what’s inside confronting what’s outside.
      I write about the domestic, the self and the world, but I won’t be told what to write.
      It is rubbish to say that “it is very unusual indeed for an Irish woman poet to step beyond the creation of myths of the feminine and/or domestic or health issues into the realm of social and political engagement” (Fred Johnston above).
      We live in a patriarchy (believe it or not, Fred) and just by being a woman in this country, writing about one’s experience of life, sexual politics etc makes ones writing socially and politically engaged.
      And what exactly do you mean by the ‘myths of the feminine’?

    • Don says:

      wtf i dont think poetess is even a word

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