BOOK REVIEW / Gender bending

So men sometimes write as women, and women write as men. 'So what?' asks Judith Palmer; The Routledge Anthology of Cross-Gendered Verse edited by Alan Michael Parker and Mark Wilhardt Routledge, pounds 11.99 paperback

Once upon a time there was a poem, and it lived happily in its own slim volume. One day the poem caught the eye of an anthologist. "You're just what I've been looking for," said the anthologist. "Come home with me and I'll make you famous. You can live in my anthology with lots of other poems. I know you'll get on together, you have so much in common."

He had been a rich multi-layered poem of shifting meanings and vibrant ambiguities. "You won't need those here," said the anthologist, as he stripped him of his shimmering cloak of inflections. "Put this uniform on, it's much more practical, one size fits all. Isn't that better? Now everyone knows exactly what sort of poem you are." But did they? "I'm an exploration of the soul's conflicting impulses towards salvation," called the poem enticingly to a reader browsing nearby. "Don't be silly," replied the reader, "everyone knows you're just a minor example of a cross- gendered poem."

All anthologies are factitious but some are more factitious than others. They can provide illumination, different contexts in which to reinterpret a poem, a new lens through which to read. Too often, however, the lens distorts. Poems are wrenched from their original context and yoked by violence together, to form a sort of literary chain-gang. Alan Michael Parker and Mark Willhardt, editors of this anthology, are heinous offenders, mercilessly shackling poems to their own spurious thesis.

An anthology of cross-gendered verse does not, as you might suppose, consist of poems by, for or about transvestites, transsexuals or hermaphrodites. No glimpses of Dynel tresses backstage at Madame Jo-Jo's. No Jayne County, Barry Humphries or Ruby Venezuela.

No sign either of genderly-challenged poetic characters such as Shakespeare's Rosalind (requiring a boy actor to play a girl pretending to be a boy), Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (inspiration to many, including Ovid, Swinburne and Hughes), or Eliot's "old man with wrinkled dugs'', the soothsayer Tiresias.

Parker and Willhardt have made the breathtaking discovery that poets sometimes adopt personas. Women write in the voice of men, men in the voice of women. It's taken for granted that novelists invent characters, yet is considered unusual for poets to write anything that isn't confessional or autobiographical.

So we find Chaucer's Wife of Bath riding side-saddle with Tennyson's Rizpah and Blake's Nurse. Anne Sexton writes as Jesus, Lucille Clifton as Powell, the officer charged with the beating of Rodney King. A hundred poems from Middle English and early Scots through to present-day New York, offer a succession of dramatic monologues delivered in voices of the opposite sex.

Some of my favourite poems are here: Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife", for example: "While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead/ Played I about the front gate, pulling flowers"; or Rita Dove's "Genie's Prayer under the Kitchen Sink": "The hot water squeezed/ to a trickle so she counted out the finger holes/ and dialled her least-loved son."

"What remains consistent through all this diversity," the editors insist, "is the sense that each of these works should be seen within the context of gender and as an exploration of gender." Yet the book provides no biographical material. Are the poets gay or straight? At what stage in their lives was the poem written? Did the poet specialise in dramatic monologues or was the form chosen on one occasion only? In the absence of context, the anthology remains arbitrary.

It may look like a valid excuse for a poetry anthology, but look beneath the pancake make-up and false tits, and you'll find it's a travesty.

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