Monday, 8 June 2020

male-female ratios shifting in poetry?

Comments on statistical work on male-female ratios in publishing

Intro. This is an interim comment on work I am doing using spreadsheets and processing data from the British Library catalogue and Poet’s Yearbook (chiefly).

The data point to women occupying about 18% of single-author titles in 1974/5 and about 30% in 1990. This is the story we were expecting to hear and it shows the impact of feminism. Feminism has to be taken in a very broad sense, involving people who were not very politicised and very diverse areas of activity. It is hard to see that figure of 18% without analysing it in terms of frustration and an unnatural imbalance in a field of culture which was, essentially, akin to conversation and open to anyone who can talk convincingly. For context, I recently saw a figure stating that 63% of English candidates at A-level were girls. A wider cultural or educational context suggests that you would expect a high proportion of poets to be women.
Analysis of the figures for 1960 suggests that women were responsible for about 30% of titles. (Excluding anthologies and so on.) This suggests that their share went rapidly down during the 1960s.
It is possible that the new cultural world of the sixties was more male-dominated than what preceded it.

The data I am using for 1960 comes from the BL catalogue. They have a tag or label for “English poetry” but this was hardly in use in 1960 and so I have identified their holdings by other means, which are clearly unsatisfactory. This base data is not of good quality. I did find about 248 poetry titles for that year.

We are apparently seeing a downward shift in the share of women during the period 1960-75, so an era of cultural liberation. The numbers don’t account for this shift but we can make some speculations. So, we could connect it with the expansion of university education, being something like 80% male. (A classic "incomplete community".) Poetry is ecologically linked to the university world, so had scenes in university towns even if these were open to anyone interested (and many of the participants had graduated or dropped out from courses), then that would account for a growth in the male share of poetry. The increase in the share of females among students came much later (but also affected the poetry world, most likely). Alternatively, we can posit that women poets were less interested by theoretical approaches to poetry, including modernism. Also, that they were more likely to be engaged in Christian poetry, which sank in prestige very rapidly during the 1960s. Both these things are also connected to the university world, with its typical secularism and belief in the power of theory to deal with rapid change and to control it.

I suppose that the question of how to forget about the women poets of mid-century, or alternatively how to remember a small share of them who possessed qualities which were (bluntly) atypical and modern, is the most sensitive for historical work on modern poetry. I have recovered 64 titles by women from 1960, out of 214 single-author collections. I have to say that none of them is otherwise stuck in my memory – they all disappeared. (There are exceptions, a book On a Calm Shore by Frances Cornford- I do know who she is, and Creatures and Emblems by Kathleen Nott.) After spending entire days stuck in this rather grey catalogue material, I have developed a sensitivity to vanity presses – firms who regularly turn out dozens of titles but who never publish authors who (subsequently) make careers. The poetry business was allergic to this sector and it is a fair guess that titles from such firms were stigmatised, they would never get reviewed, would not get read by possible anthologists, perhaps even that bookshops were “onto them” and wouldn't stock such titles. An amazing proportion of those 64 titles are “vanity publications” (about half, in my estimation) and there is no possibility of defining 1960 as a benign period for women poets which was disrupted by male arrogance arriving in the form of existentialism, jazz poetry, structuralism, academic modernism, and so on. A yardstick is the 1960 anthology “45-60”, (edited by Thomas Blackburn), which has 5 women poets out of 40. This is an excellent anthology, hard to improve on; but it doesn’t have anything like 30% women contributors. My guess is that in 1960 women were concentrated in conservative and low-prestige genres, they were often resorting to vanity presses which were an exit rather than an outlet, they were frustrated and not insiders. This is just not benign. Feminism rejected the whole cultural system, and that included most of these rather puzzled women poets. If you consider “Poems by a singing housewife”, by Victoria Mabel Bellamy, you may suspect that it didn’t do much at the time and isn’t going to catch the eye of any retro-anthologist trying to broaden our view of the past. I counted 35 publications, in 1960, from a single press which does not have the highest reputation (and is still going).

My impression is that the Sixties (the version which started around 1965, actually) saw an eclipse of the importance of vanity presses, being replaced by “small to micro publishers” driven by enthusiasm. This activity was linked to live readings and so to an audience – it wasn’t cut off like the frustrated and provincial poets of a slightly earlier time. But this re-connection was also tied to the student world – so to youth culture, to the prizing of abstract ideas, and to modernism (which students were expected to like). This meant that the poets who had been using vanity presses in, say, 1950 to 1965, didn’t have the cultural assets which the new world wanted. They weren’t groovy enough. Their lot was to remain frustrated and without prestige.
See previous posts for discussion of women poets active in the 1950s, such as Audrey Beecham, Lynette Roberts, and Kathleen Nott, who reached high artistic standards before being effectively forgotten. They do not feature in Blackburn's anthology.

As a note to help those struggling with slippery sourcs - the Poetry Book Society used to issue an annual checklistof titles (some of which are on a shelf in the Poetry Library). Their count for 1960 is 131 titles. This is quite different from what I dredged up from the British Library catalogue. However, if you throw out the vanity press titles, the two counts match up. So the PBS figures are good. This allows us to measure a gap - 131 titles in 1960, 906 in 1978. This looks like an explosion, doesn't it. 1960 just wasn't a very exciting cultural moment. Low output, low quality.

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