Trigger warning for a brief mention of sexual violence.
I have not posted a Fragments of Evolving Manhood piece on a long while, mostly because my attention has been focused elsewhere, but I have been working these past couple of weeks on an essay that is pretty important to me and since it fits in the “Fragments” series, I thought I’d share some of it. I’d love to be able to call the essay “The ‘Cunt Poem’ Challenge,” and I will probably send it out with that title, but I am betting not a few editors will have a hard time with it. In any event, here is the excerpt. Please be aware as you read that the first paragraph is the introduction, which I think you need for context, while the second and third paragraphs are from later on in the essay.
The leader of my first graduate poetry workshop—this was 1985—was telling us about a challenge she’d issued to the men in the group of poets she hung out with when she was younger. “None of you,” she said she told them, “will ever write a successful ‘cunt poem,’ because, when it comes to cunts, men only understand clichés.” We all laughed, the three of us who were men perhaps a little uncomfortably, and then she informed us that a poem her challenge had inspired was in the anthology she’d assigned as our text. I read that poem four times when I got home that night, finding it harder to believe with each reading that anyone could have thought it deserved publication. Not only did it rely on precisely the kinds of clichés I understood my teacher to have been talking about, ending, for example, by calling women’s genitals, without irony, “the gates of paradise;” but the entire poem was built on the biggest cliché of all, treating The Vagina it discussed—because I still cannot help but think of the word as capitalized and in italics, even though it never appears in the poem—as nothing more than an object of the poet’s contemplation, like the Grecian urn had been for Keats, as if all the vaginas The Vagina represented were not in reality attached to the living, breathing bodies of actual women.
The first thing I did was trash every poem I’d written to that point. Then, once I’d let go of the baggage all that old work represented, the poems that became my first book, The Silence of Men (CavanKerry Press 2006), began to take shape. At last, I felt like I’d found a language in which I could speak about my body as my own, in which my desires and my fears, my vulnerabilities and regrets, my joys and my failures, were mine and no one else’s to give meaning to. Committing to that language meant committing to a radical honesty about who I was, both as a survivor of child sexual abuse and as a man; it meant rejecting utterly the rhetoric of invisibility with which the man who forced his penis into my mouth had so effectively and for so many years hijacked what I had to say.
That kind of honesty is precisely what is lacking in the clichés my teacher defined as the limits of the male imagination when it comes to writing about women’s genitals. Take, for example, the cliché that ends the “cunt poem” I spoke about at the beginning of this essay, “the gates of paradise.” The dishonesty in this metaphor lies primarily in the way it objectifies women’s bodies, describing not women’s experience of being embodied, and not even men’s experience of women’s bodies as bodies inhabited by women, but rather the particular experience men have of our own bodies when we have sex with women. It praises women’s genitals, in other words, not for being what they are, but for how men can use them, and so, on a cultural level, renders women as invisible and voiceless as I was rendered by the men who used me. To meet my teacher’s challenge, then, to be a male poet who writes a successful “cunt poem,” is not simply to find a non-cliché way of calling women’s genitals “the gates of paradise.” Rather, it is to discover language that will make visible the women whose genitals they are, unwrapping from within a male perspective the layers of misconception and misrepresentation in which they are bound by the sexual objectification of women that is so central to our culture. It is, in other words, a profoundly political endeavor, one that requires a man not only to refuse complicity in the inherent violation that sexually objectifying women is, but also to articulate a way of being a man who sees women as sexual beings that does justice to who they are as human beings.
Cross-posted on It’s All Connected.