Saturday, October 5, 2013

I spent much of yesterday roughing out an author index for The Conversation. Despite my many years of copyediting, I've never made an index before, so I thought I'd be wise to give myself a head start with the manuscript copy before I was faced with typeset pages and a breathless deadline. It turns out that, so far, I've got nine pages of author names. This seems amazing to me. Did I really cite that many different writers in this book?

There are a few front runners in the "numbers of times mentioned" category: Shakespeare is the clear victor, closely followed (in order) by Frost, Coleridge, Keats, and Whitman. None of that is too surprising, but what about Browning and Tennyson neck and neck in the second round? There's a surprise.

Probably you've noticed that every one of these names refers to an old white guy. Frost is the baby of the list. But I do include lots of women in this book, as well as many people of color, so why do the white guys get mentioned so much more often?

When I looked at how and where they appeared in the book, this is what I noticed. I referred most often to Shakespeare's work. I referred most often to Frost's teaching and writing philosophies. I referred most often to Coleridge's poetry and his writings on Shakespeare. I referred several times to Keats's work, but his name also came up in the commentary of other people I was quoting. I referred to Whitman's poetry and his influence but also used him in writing strategies. I referred to Browning's and Tennyson's poetry but spoke most often of them in historical context.

What you can't see from this list is the length of the citation. I do devote entire chapters to Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Brigit Kelly, and Gray Jacobik. Note that I have to use first names with three of these women because if I were just to say "Kelly," you would have no idea whom I meant. Moreover, three of these four women are twenty- and twenty-first-century writers.

Besides Dickinson, what other pre-twentieth-century English-speaking woman poet has the cachet of last-name-only familiarity? Barrett Browning needs to be distinguished from her husband. Rossetti needs to be distinguished from her brother. And neither of these poets is anywhere close to Dickinson in stature.

This skewed situation disturbs me, of course. But when I'm writing a book that focuses on the great poetry of the past, there's nothing I can do about it. No matter how much I might it wish it were otherwise, I cannot pretend that Christina Rossetti is as good a poet as John Keats. I cannot pretend that Aphra Behn deserves as much attention as William Shakespeare.

As I keep saying to myself, maybe what matters here is that I am a woman and I am writing this book. And I am conversing with these men, and I will not stop.

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