Recently I had the displeasure of taking a course dedicated to Renaissance poetry, and MY OH MY were those old white men a bunch of misogynistic poets. While there were a few glimmers of hope amidst the nearly translucent pages of my weathered Norton Anthology of Poetry (as shown by my previous discussion of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 2), the vast majority of the poems I read for this class made me wonder why they were even regarded as important and “great” pieces of writing in the first place, never mind why we continue to include them in poetry collections like this one. It’s safe to say that after reading dozens of these poems over the course of the semester, my patience was worn down to a precariously thin layer of frustration.
It was necessary for me to think of concrete ways of addressing this problem while still being able to do well in the class. Refusing to read the poems was obviously not an option for me, meaning that I had to get a bit creative with my reading strategy.
I must say up front that the following advice is purely based on my own personal experiences reading these works. These steps may not work for everyone and that is perfectly okay. We all have our own tips and tricks to help us confront, interpret, and challenge views that challenge our own– the following pieces of advice happen to be my own personal strategy. At any rate, I hope you find this discussion at least a bit helpful or thought-provoking in some way.
1. Actually read it.
Yes, actually read the incredibly sexist poem or story or novel that you’d desperately like to avoid at all costs (unless, of course, it contains something personally triggering– then do whatever you need to in order to practice self-care). The reason I urge you to read it is that it’s difficult (nigh impossible) to make an educated argument against something if you do not have relevant textual evidence with which to back up your claim.
2. Maintain your distance.
I’m sure there’s a better, clearer, more accurate and succinct way of saying this, but I’ll try my best. I think it’s important to recognize that someone can acknowledge and understand another person’s opinions without believing in or agreeing with them. For instance, in my poetry class I was required to read, understand, and explicate these poems in order to receive a good grade. However, this did not stop me from challenging the ideas that these poems presented. It was vital that I read these poems with from a certain intellectual and ideological distance that allowed me to understand them without having to agree with their meaning.
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3. Allow feminism to fuel your analysis.
While it’s important to understand and think about the poems according to the context in which they were written, it’s also valuable to read them through a feminist lens. Feminist literary theory exists for a reason: to be utilized. Moreover, this class forced me to become comfortable with directly pointing out the sexism in writing that is considered to be canonically “great.” I was not going to sit there and tell my professor that I support the inclusion of Robert Herrick’s “Upon Julia’s Breasts” in the Norton Anthology of Poetry over providing ample space for one of Lady Mary Wroth’s entire crown of sonnets. (Honestly, are those four lines of pure female objectification really a necessary component of this collection?) Just because something has been deemed a “classic” work of literature does not mean that it is without flaws.
4. Think about your own beliefs and values.
At the end of the day, I used this class as an opportunity to assess and spend time thinking about my own core beliefs. What about these poems did I find offensive and uncomfortable to read? Why did I feel this way about what I was reading in the first place? By using this as an opportunity for individual reflection I was able to better understand my own personal values.
Again, I hope this discussion is thought-provoking or beneficial in some way, whether that be in an academic setting or simply while reading in your daily life.
Have you ever read something that challenged your beliefs? How did you handle the situation? What do you think about the advice that I’ve offered? Do you have any advice for confronting issues like this? I would absolutely love to discuss these topics in greater detail, so please let me know what you think in the comments section down below!