My husband coined a term the other evening. There we were sitting on the back door step discussing Maighread Medbh a performance poet that I've read with, and he commented on the sexuality that her poems contain - calling it nipple-gazing, as opposed to navel-gazing, which he thinks a lot of poetry does.
That is not to criticise MM's work. She has a rare ability to actually 'perform' her work and to get across the aural in poetry very well. She's won prizes at poetry slams and what she does takes a lot of confidence and determination. It made me think about the difference approaches poets have when they're reading their work. On the 20th Century literature course I'm doing, there's a recording of T.S. Eliot reading 'The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock' about thirty years after it's writing, and his voice sounds dry and dusty, academic and bookish for the most part giving little to the reader in terms of interpretation. This led me on to thinking about other poems and in particular Shakespeare's Sonnets. When we hear a good voice reading them, instilling them with emotional undertones, are we hearing what Shakespeare meant us to hear or is it the interpretation of a modern mind that we are hearing?
I went back to listen to Eliot again - this time I could hear emphasis on certain sounds. I stopped listening to the sense of the words and started listening to the voice and the music that it made, the rising and falling intonation, the weird emphasis that certain consonants and vowels made - the whole of the poem sounding like a concerto for voice - speaking voice as opposed to singing. I think I may have found some way into his work, but it really depends on switching off the normal critical faculties and allowing the aural sense of his work to come through.
But what about 'nipple-gazing'? I think this takes me towards an area that I'm not entirely sure about, just yet: the representation of women in their poetry. Some say that it is overdone. Some say that it is a necessary redressing of balance in the discovery of what language can be used for in the hands of women. And some say that it is... unneeded! I think that there are aspects of these judgements in literary criticism towards what women have and do write. The important thing is to read it and read the whole picture, rather than selecting what seems to suit. And that leaves it wide open critically! So I guess this could be a rebuttal of sorts to el hubby. Which I am throwing open now for discussion...