Poetry reading

One week from today, I will be reading in Easton, PA with a few talented, feminist writers hosted by my colleague Marlana Eck. I have not given a reading in awhile, and this should be fun.

Here’s the poster:





What does a woman want?

In the medieval poem “The Marriage of Sir Gawain,” the knight gallantly agrees to marry a hag-like witch who has helped King Arthur by giving him the answer to his enemy’s riddle, which is “What does a woman want?” One of several ballad-like story poems of the Arthurian legend, this one appears in Eleven Romances of Sir Gawain (an online scholarly edition is here).

For contemporary intellectual types, however, the person who famously posed that question is Sigmund Freud. He spent many years refining the theory we now refer to as “penis envy” and arguing the displacement theory was at work subconsciously. Far too many casual references to Freud have simplified this idea as suggesting that women want to be anatomically arranged like men.

Um, not exactly…nope.

But back to Sir Gawain, agreeing to marry the hag in order to free his king from the evil baron’s grip. According to the poem, Arthur gives Gawain the secret he has learned from the witch herself. Depending upon the version or translation, the answer is: what a woman wants is her way (or her will, or to have her own way). She wants to be free to decide things that affect her and to make her own choices. Because Gawain is not only gallant and loyal and noble but also no dummy, he remembers Arthur’s secret. When the witch reveals herself as a gorgeous woman and asks him whether he’d prefer to see her lovely by day (when others can see her) or lovely by night (when her husband is abed with her), he defers to her. He says she should choose.

Delighted, she chooses to be lovely all the time (she now knows he will never forget that she has a will of her own).

So, if the medieval hag is correct, Freud was right, at least symbolically. Freud dwelt in a culture where men had authority, power, and self-agency, probably also true of medieval European culture, though I’d argue the Victorians were even more constrained. Anyway, women want those things, too–if possessing a penis as part of one’s anatomy could get you those things, one can understand envying the man, if not the organ itself. Indeed, Freud uses a bunch of lengthy theorizing to offer intellectual ballast to what he initially mentioned was an issue of power. Penis=power, in a male-dominated culture. It is almost too simple an idea, and almost too obvious, so he probably felt he had to pack it with a lot of other ideas. Transference and displacement theory have proven useful in other ways, but penis envy just suggests that females too often lack power to make personal choices within a social milieu.

As a feminist who yearns for balance and equality among human beings, I think it is crucial to point out that, despite the stories with which I’ve framed this post, wanting one’s way is not just what women want. It is also what men want.

People, no matter the gender, want to be able to say “No” and to be listened to and heeded. People want to direct their own lives, make their own decisions–and their own mistakes. I work with college students who are 17-22 years old, and I can assure you that they desperately want to make their own choices. Though they often also desperately want to blame someone else for the unfortunate consequences of certain ill-considered choices, they mature once they realize that sort of behavior limits them to the role of the naughty child–a dependent–not a responsible, independent person. If you want to be respected as an adult, I tell my students, you have to be willing to own up to your own poor decisions. And that’s just for starters.

Each young person I teach, tutor, or counsel wants some control over his or her life. Some try to get it by seeking to control other people, others by trying to control their environment, others by endeavoring to control the social situation they find themselves in…the list goes on. Human beings cannot really control as much as we think we can. But we can exert our will and speak up for our way. We can offer respect and seek respect. We ought to be able to make our own decisions as long as we are mature enough to deal with the results for good or ill. That goes for people of any sex.

Yet when a woman asserts that she wants her way, our society tends to judge her as a whiner or a bitch, a ball-breaker or a manipulator. Even now, many years into politically-correct language and Title IX and women as Supreme Court justices, I hear this sort of language bandied about, often “in jest.” Sure, it can be jesting; but it’s also pretty close to jousting–with words. Be a little more careful, my friends. Or as the terminology goes these days, more mindful. Perhaps, given the freedom to exercise our will, more of us will choose to be lovely all the time.


The web journal qarrtsiluni is running an issue on “fragments.” I feel a bit fragmented myself lately. Here are a few recent, fragmentary thoughts.


I am reading Lewis Mumford’s tome The City in History and enjoying it for a number of reasons. One is Mumford’s ability to employ words such as “forfend” in a correct and even natural way. Another reason is the approach he takes to trying to reason through and tease out strains of pre-history that lead up to the establishment of cities world-wide, a kind of philosophical anthropology. Sixty years of subsequent archeological discovery and interpretation may alter his theories, or perhaps lean toward confirming them; I’m not enough of a scholar to know. I do, however, find his speculations appealing. One of his theories suggests that war developed along with hierarchical religion, kingship, and the city. It makes sense that militarization on any significant scale was not “invented” until there was population enough to support it and reasons (defend the king, the god, or the goods) to deploy a military body.

He does not say human beings are not inherently aggressive. He merely suggests that when we live in smaller, more isolated groups it is in our best interest to cooperate rather than to expend resources on warfare (soldiers, arms, defenses). Something to meditate upon in current times.


Mumford was researching and writing this book in the late 1950s (publication date was 1961). Interesting to me, he cites Jung’s archetypes and theories–though not in a way that implies Mumford was in any way a Jungian–about the feminine and the masculine as regards the development of human social structures. Bachelard, writing at about the same time, also cites Jung when he discusses the poetic space. I think of Bachelard’s brief passage about how a bird creates its nest with its own body, its breast molding the shape of the container that is its temporary home, and how this correlates with Mumford’s observation that the tent, hut, or village dwelling–indeed, often the village itself (and later, the city)–tends toward a cup-shape; it is a container. The earliest communities of human beings needed to develop containers in order to improve their chances of survival: jugs, skins, gourds for water and covered bowls or jars for grain and seed storage. Once humans could last through times when game or gathered food was scarce, they could procreate more efficiently. Mumford defines irrigation ditches as containers, too, as “feminine” objects as per Jung.

The garden wall, the city wall contained the human community or the sustenance for the human community, especially once domesticated animals were added to our communities.

As for the masculine/phallic, Mumford’s examples are all the expected objects: tools and weapons and stele.


The ancient Persian word that is the root for our “paradise” comes from the term for garden, specifically a walled garden. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “city” is a circle with “crossroads” inside it. A link to one of Notre Dame’s open course lecture pages has an illustration comparing this hieroglyph with other ancient representations of cities. (Notre Dame course on the geometry of buildings that demonstrates some of the universality of “containers” as Mumford observed: Geometry of Buildings.)


Also, I wonder whether Jung’s archetype theories were still new enough in 1960 that it was kind of a trend to cite him in works like these two books. Jung does not seem to be as popular these days except among his devoted followers–a niche audience. Perhaps his ideas are now just accepted as given? Not all of his ideas, but the general understanding of archetypes, I mean. Or is he out of fashion? Or am I just missing the current books that base a significant understanding of human cultural development upon these aspects of his thinking?


Man and His Symbols was an important book for me when I was a college freshman.


I keep thinking of the places I find in the meadow where the deer bed down. They are round, cup-shaped, molded to the bodies of the deer. Containers, temporarily, for the warm animal that sleeps, that breathes.


This classic illustration was posted here: http://www.jwoolfden.com/classics.html

OKAY, cynics, I know this may be a bit of a gloss; but here is another older post which is the keynote speech I gave for DeSales’ Sigma Tau Delta induction (Honors society of English majors), April 2010.


Why the English Major Is So Adaptable: A ‘Just-So’ Story

When I was an undergraduate, Oh Best Beloved, I was not at all certain of my life path. I attended an alternative, seminar-college program that—gasp—did not require me to proclaim an academic major. In my first two years of college, I wandered through classes in studio art, Renaissance history, feminist literature, social anthropology, psych, physics, dance, and philosophy. Then, I began reading in earnest. Previously, reading had been merely an obsessively entertaining hobby; as a junior, I wanted to learn the “how” of writing. I graduated with enough credits in both English and Philosophy to have been a double-major, if my institution had required majors, or to have received an undergraduate creative writing degree, if such a thing had existed in days of yore.

And then, I was out in the world. The world was in a terrible recession. Jobs were scarce. Inflation was in the double digits. Gas prices were skyrocketing. The sky was falling, and I was a newly-minted English major.

All my Wise Elders advised me to specialize. That meant going to graduate school, which I probably should have done a little sooner, or learning a trade. I thought I could survive outside of academia despite the economic woes, the scarce want-ads. My reasoning was that I had four years of humanities training in critical thinking, research, and problem-solving and that at 21 years old it was time to put those theories into application. I thought I had learned to be adaptable.

And what do you think, O My Children?

I was right.

You are likewise English majors, and you are also facing a time of recession and a paucity of careers in your chosen area of interest. This will not hinder your success, though it may make your career journey a little more…circuitous. Or shall we say: intriguing. But you like a challenge, don’t you? That’s the most terrific thing about choosing creative writing, or English, or rhetoric, or literature—the more you study them, the more intricate and complex and revealing these subjects are. I have never met an English major who wasn’t also a dedicated life-long learner. But I have met English majors who are lawyers, and psychologists, and social workers, and business executives, and filmmakers, and visual artists, and physicians, and ecologists, and diplomats, even computer geeks, not to mention those other careers: screenwriters, playwrights, poets, novelists, journalists, bloggers, teachers…

So, Best Beloved, do not sell yourself short. Furthermore, do not expect a “Reader, I married him” moment with your career. Allow yourself room to transform. Carpe diem.

What that meant for me back in 1979 was a temp job for the legal discovery department of a large law firm. From there, I signed on as a member of the International Union of Typographers No. 6 and learned a specialty: typographical proofreading. That field went extinct with the advent of desktop publishing. But by then, I’d jumped to advertising, which I hated, and into magazine work, which wasn’t so bad. There’s a Darwinian term for this: co-adaptation. I was finally getting close to a more specialist use of my English major background as the economy improved; and I married and had children and, in time, went to graduate school for the scholarly pursuits I’d missed so much.

I didn’t starve. Neither will you. You can do research. You can make yourself clear. You know your audiences may require different modes or styles of you, and you’ve learned how to adapt yourself and your arguments to those audiences. You can be persuasive. That’s how I got my first job after the temp work wound down; I was inexperienced but convincing. Even in a tight job market, employers are seeking people like you—adaptable, well-educated people. My husband recently directed me to an article in the New York Times that stated today’s businesspeople want employees who are clear communicators, especially in writing. This is partly because executives do their own writing nowadays. Fewer secretaries to rely on; each person’s expected to make herself clear—on her own written merits. Even if it’s email instead of the paper memos of my day.

English majors can write.

The jobs I’ve briefly mentioned paid my bills and got me medical insurance but did not satisfy my urge to practice the how and why of writing, so I did what writers generally do: I wrote. I cannot emphasize enough the role that constant practice of craft plays in the development of a writer. It doesn’t matter if no one sees your work—though I encourage you to share it with others and get feedback and critique—what matters is that you continually practice what you’ve learned in college and extend your education through application and extension of those principles.

If you find yourself in a day job that has little, apparently, to do with your major, don’t despair. Because writing is portable. I still write most of my drafts with pen or pencil in a small notebook, and laptops are pretty easy to transport—you can, with a little self-discipline, write anywhere. In my day, I have written in small dingy office warrens, in the waiting rooms of doctors and music teachers, in the parking lot while the high school band wrapped up its practice, in the sun beside the dressage ring at the horse farm, while my babies were napping, while the laundry was cycling, in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else wakens. The poems and essays I drafted under these circumstances sometimes reflected the places of their composition—but not always. I have waxed metaphysical in playgrounds. Another example of becoming adaptable out of necessity, Best Beloved, when the Great Magician or the Djinn of All Deserts or the small god Nqa tried me with obstacles to test my persistence.

Make the time to write, because writers can get rusty. Above all, make the time to read, because after you graduate, reading is the best way to continue your literary education.

But you knew that.

Of course, there is graduate school. And there are writing seminars and getaways and retreats and conferences. If you haven’t got the time or money to get to writers’ conferences or workshops, you can adapt by exchanging literary emails with a few like-minded friends or gathering in a library or coffee shop to exchange work or discuss books that excite you. Scholarship may seem like a solitary pursuit, but it benefits from lively interactions with other human beings.

Yes, Oh Best Beloved, do remember other human beings. We do not, after all, write only for ourselves; we write in and of and for a community of people. If our work is obscure, obtuse, or unclear, we are not taking part in this communication. The most fundamental purpose of language is to make clear our intent to another person who is, after all, not inside our brain but functioning under his or her own neurological system. Language—in our case, English—is the most formidable tool for demanding, commanding, sharing, expressing. Those in this room are understandably passionate about it. I am pleased to be among you. The world badly needs your talents, enthusiasm, and the abilities you possess to analyze the facts and transform yourselves and others because, My Children, the English Major somehow became adaptable, and that is all to the good.


The Color Purple by Alice Walker

I’m thinking about a conversation I had recently with a 21-year-old male student I will call “B.”

B had enrolled in a senior-level humanities class, Contemporary Women’s Literature. He told me he was excited about the texts, which included some books he had wanted to read but hadn’t gotten around to yet, such as The Color Purple. After the first class, however, he felt wary. The reason? “The professor, I’m afraid she’s some kind of a feminist, so maybe I won’t feel comfortable sharing my opinions,” said B, “Like, she seems the kind who’d give me the stink-eye just because I’m a guy.”

“Did she give you the stink-eye in class today?” I asked. (I know the professor, and I know he was wrong about her.)

“No…but she talked about looking at feminism in ‘the most positive light’ as we read the books.”

“And do you have a problem with that?”

B shrugged. “I have four sisters,” he said, “I mean, I’m a guy who respects women so much, I always put the toilet seat down! But I don’t know about looking at books from a feminist perspective…”

I asked him if he could define what “a feminist perspective” means. The short answer is that he didn’t really know, but he hemmed and hawed about “not liking men” and “seeing all masculine stuff as basically bad.”

“So it seems to me your professor was acknowledging that many people have the impression that feminism is somehow a negative thing, and she wanted to make it clear she would be approaching it more positively in terms of social change and literature. Do you think you could be falling into the stereotyping fallacy, B?” I asked.

No, he assured me, he had no sense of male superiority and he felt women were equal to men, should be paid the same wages, could do the same jobs—“but that whole feminist thing,” he added, returning to his earlier vague objection, “I mean, you’re not a feminist, for example—”

Good thing I didn’t have my mouth full of coffee when he said that.

“B, I went to college in the 1970s! I went to liberal arts colleges and took courses in women’s studies in art and literature. How could I not be a feminist?”

He looked taken aback. “But,” he sputtered, “but, you’re reasonable about it…” (“it” being feminism, I gathered).

He was so well-meaning, I almost wanted to take that as a compliment, my being reasonable. How many middle-aged people get called reasonable by 21-year-olds? But, seizing the clichéd “teaching moment,” I asked him from where he might have received ideas of the feminist movement as a legion of self-righteous man-haters and whether this professor’s specific approach to the novels might be a kind of corrective to his or other students’ received notions. After all, I notice that today’s young women often evade being pegged as feminists, even when their values and achievements coincide perfectly with the movement’s aims. He thought about that. And then I had a meeting to attend.

He’s a lovely young man, and I think he will enjoy the class. It may be too much to hope that he felt a bit of perspective shift from our discussion, but one thing’s for sure:

He won’t forget that I’m a feminist! (If merely a reasonable one.)