Lieder Singen/Tantzen Unter

Poetry, Sexuality, and Politics

Sharon H. Nelson

Lieder Singen/Tantzen Unter: Poetry, Sexuality, and Politics, the keynote address to the League of Canadian Poets 1992 Annual General Meeting, was printed in Matrix 38, Autumn 1992. The poetry that appears at the end of the essay is the final stanza of "invidious comparisons" from Grasping Men's Metaphors [Muses', 1993]. The final line of the stanza is from The Song of Songs.

In May, 1992, members of the League of Canadian Poets gathered in Ottawa for an annual general meeting. The theme of that meeting was the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the Feminist Caucus and the achievement of some of its aims. When I was invited to give the keynote address to that gathering, my first response was: I want to think about this.

By the time the phone had reached its cradle, and certainly before I had considered whether I wanted the job, the title, Lieder Singen/Tantzen Unter, had lodged itself firmly in my mind. I did not know how I would communicate the meaning or the resonances of that Yiddish phrase to a group of English-language poets unfamiliar with Yiddishkeit, a culture and a world-view contained in and dispersed by a language rich in fine distinctions and self-reflexive ironies, but I knew with absolute certainty that everything I wanted to say was contained in that phrase.

The literal translation of Lieder Singen/Tantzen Unter is to voice songs under which to dance. It's a line from a Yiddish song, first sung by socialist workers at the turn of the century, entitled "Alle Brider," in English, "All Brothers." The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band recently recorded "Alle Brider" but with a new twist. Allan Merovitz, the band's lead singer, revised the lyric to broaden its political implications and meanings. The new version integrates women into the historical and political contexts at every level of reference, right back to the Old Testament. It also makes explicit the integrative purposes of political action.


Rather than positing the brotherhood of man as the political definition of equality, as the old song did, the new version asks that we entertain the idea that we may all stand in relation to one another as do brothers and sisters, where brotherhood and sisterhood symbolize structural equality rather than traditional family values. The lyric suggests that "when we have realized that we are all brothers and sisters," we will celebrate our understanding and our accomplishment by dancing joyous dances, which are generically classed as freilach.

A freilach was once a symbol of the separation of women and men and of their segregation on the basis of physiology and of gender roles. Over the course of the last half century, it has evolved so that it is now a circle dance that includes the whole community regardless of age, sex, gender, language, race, or gracefulness. In this dance, there are no pre-defined steps; each dancer may create individual movements. The point is that the whole circular unit of dancers move together in the same direction.

A more gracious translation of the phrase is to make a canopy of song under which to dance. My purpose in speaking to the League was to suggest that there is a conceptual connection between the apparently diverse elements of poetry, sexuality, and politics, and that it is the work of poets to integrate these elements sufficiently that we may begin to construct a canopy of song under which to dance.

The Feminist Caucus was founded by some of Canada's most respected women poets to "examine the status of and opportunities for women in the field of Canadian poetry and, where necessary, work for improvement. . . and to increase participation by and recognition of women in all aspects of Canadian poetry."

Caucus members had recognized and suffered individually from what we had begun as a group to identify formally and publicly as sexism in the processes by which "Canadian Literature" is produced and validated. We were aware of numerous manifestations of sexism, from that obvious in the tone, diction, and content when writing by women was reviewed, to the disproportionate lack of writing by women in anthologies and literary magazines and of women writers in the lists of winners of grants and awards. We were aware also of sexism in the wording of grant applications and in the regulations pertaining to grants, in the small number of women on executive bodies and within funding agencies, and in the very language of the documents produced by the agencies, organizations, and publications that defined and determined the health, wealth, and welfare of Canadian Literature.

At the time of the formulation and formation of the Feminist Caucus, opponents accused its members of divisiveness and predicted the quick destruction and demise of the League. In fact, the purposes of the Caucus were integrative, as were its processes. After long and arduous discussion, we had decided to call ourselves not the Women's but the Feminist Caucus. As a working group, we accepted the principle that neither sex nor gender prevent anyone from using feminist analysis or from taking feminist action.

In my keynote address to the League on the occasion of the celebration of the tenth anniversary of the ratification of the Caucus, I wanted to remind those who had begun the work of feminist analysis and action, and to stress for those who had benefited from that work, the integrative principles and purposes of feminist action. I began by making some bald statements about the function of poetry. I said that writing is one of the major tools by which ideology is disseminated and culture is constructed. When we write for publication, we move from the realm of self-expression to the realm of public communication. Like all acts of public communication, making poetry for publication is a political act. It is political because it disseminates ideology and constructs culture.

Contrary to what we may have learned in school, writing poetry for publication is an act that is intended to make something happen. Its purpose is to change people's minds, by which I mean the way people see or understand the world. By changing people's minds, poetry becomes a basis for action. Because poetry is intrinsically political, it becomes a basis for political action.


Over the history of human cultures, poetry has been recognized as an expression of a vision of reality. Traditionally, poetry has presented an idealized vision; it is the expression of the conception of a particular culture of virtue and values, though virtue may be delineated by a catalogue of aspirations and failures and values may be implicitly rather than explicitly expressed. Because poetry communicates what is conceived culturally as valuable and virtuous, it makes a moral statement and communicates a moral position. Thus implicitly if not explicitly, poetry makes a political statement, whether that statement supports or opposes the power structures of its time and place.

Historically, a poet is a visionary, regardless of the content of the vision; and poetry, regardless of its content, opposes materialism. In its insistence on a spiritual dimension and on the value of emotion and the value of the expression of emotion, poetry is inherently opposed to the tenets of materialist philosophies. In its visionary and prophetic manifestations, poetry attacks materialism directly. When it functions as praise and hymnology, poetry is expansive and integrative, and thus it stands in opposition to philosophical systems that constrict the definition of human existence or relationship.

Almost every culture distinguishes between we, who are civilized, and others, who are not. In western culture, men and women have been socialized to perceive each other as other, as uncivilized and not quite fully human. To envision the other as fully human is to envision one who is substantially like ourselves and thus is worthy of similar consideration and care.

When we envision the other as substantially different from ourselves, we envision one who, by our own cultural definitions, is less civilized than we. To envision the other as less civilized is to deny worth. To deny worth is to deny also any responsibility to express consideration and care. It is to invent, imagine, and create images of the other as less than human, as a material object lacking in the aspirations or the capacity to aspire to the virtues and moral purposes by which we define our own humanity and our own civilization. Thus we create the category of barbarians, those others who must be kept outside our gates lest they contaminate and overwhelm our civilization and destroy our humanity.

A major barrier that prevents us from envisioning the other as like ourselves is that we live in a phallocentric culture, a world in which the primary and most important of symbols is the erect phallus. It is a symbol that signifies a system of thought and action that separates mind from body, the personal from the political, women from men, and we from others. It is a symbol that signifies power and thus implies coercion, a symbol that signifies superiority and thus implies subjugation.

We are socialized to believe that every male shares in the symbolic power of the culturally omnipresent erection. This is another way of saying that in this culture, every male is defined as basically and intrinsically a prick. By the same process, women are defined as those who lack that primary, defining feature. In other words, in our culture, physiology is the primary basis of human definition, and male physiology is normative and paradigmatic.

The segregation of individuals according to physiology is a key device in maintaining the current social order. Once we are segregated according to physiology, we lack knowledge about those from whom we are separated. Almost every culture of which we know responds similarly to the unknown; we create myths about what is unknown, mysterious, and separated, and imagine that it is probably dangerous, possibly powerful, and certainly threatening to our own cultural definitions of what constitutes what is fully human and truly civilized. It is not a big step to envision this other as a de-humanized, physical object, one it is justifiable to disempower and control.

This process of segregating, myth-making, objectifying, and subjugating supports many kinds of social inequality. When physiology is the prime basis of the definition of likeness or otherness, the paradigmatic and dominant form of social inequality is sexism.

Pornography widely disseminates the kind of imagery by which we are convinced to perceive those who are physiologically different from ourselves as other. Pornography reduces human beings to physical objects, and it portrays and idealizes actions that define that object as other, an object to be controlled.

Pornography is an expression of materialism and reductionism. It denies the humanity and the human aspirations of what is defined and portrayed as other. Pornography constricts the definition of human existence, constricts the definition of appropriate human action, and constricts the definition of human relationship; and thus pornography is the antithesis of poetry.

When men and women define each other as other, it is impossible for us to be friends across the great sexual divide. Those who cannot be our friends are potentially our enemies and certainly are not to be trusted. We treat those we cannot trust as other, and thus phallocentric culture reproduces itself. The cost of this reproduction is increased violence and increased violation due to attempts to control those we have defined as other.

The social organization that arises from these tenets restricts close relationships between ourselves and others to narrow areas, such as those relating to family responsibility or the gratification of sexual urge. Outside of these pre-defined areas, relationships with the other are conceived of as impossible or perverse. Such relationships threaten phallocentric culture and ideology by undermining the strict practice of segregation, which is the basis on which we create otherness. By denying otherness, such relationships deny and subvert the cultural construction of the other as dehumanized object and demonstrate the possibility of structural equality.

Such culturally perverse relationships have always existed. Often they occur between women and homosexual men. For many women, relationships with homosexual men are the only cross-sex relationships in which they are not perceived as objects and threatened by the violence implied by this perception. In addition, in a culture in which physiological maleness is defined as normal and normative, and heterosexism and heterosexuality are defined as normative and normal, women share with homosexuals the experience of being defined as other.

Cultural perceptions of and responses to homosexuality provide an interesting site of political interaction. Homosexuality calls attention to heterosexuality as a definition of the categories of power in a hierarchy based on physiology and thus to the intersection of politics and sexuality. In a phallocentric culture, physiology defines not only a category but a class in a hierarchy. Physiological maleness and masculine gender together define the topmost class in a sexual hierarchy, and the sexual hierarchy becomes the basis and the model for the definition of all power relations.

Homosexuality threatens phallocentric culture at its very roots and in its most basic premises by subverting the definition of otherness. Homosexuality demonstrates that what is perceived as a sex object is not in fact determined by physiology. Male homosexuality demonstrates that what is objectified sexually is not necessarily female. In other words, it is not physiology that determines who or what is objectified.

Once we see that it is not physiology that determines who or what is objectified, we can see also that the sexual hierarchy serves as a paradigm regardless of which object is chosen to fit into which position. For instance, the paradigm based on physiological difference serves also as the basis for the constructions of ageism and racism. Sexism, racism, and ageism all operate by mechanisms that segregate, objectify, and subjugate, and each of these actions supports every other by buttressing those mechanisms. The purpose of all of these constructions is to maintain hierarchies of power. In fact, it is the action of constructing and maintaining such hierarchies rather than any particular physiological difference that determines who is empowered.

The conception of the poet as a segregated, lonely, creative genius is part of the romantic mythology that props up phallocentric culture. This image of the poet, and of the artist in general, is dearly held because it encourages the belief that art is so special and priceless that only artists ought to be responsible for the costs of its production, and that art is so segregated from life that no one but artists need attend to it. Such cherished beliefs are part of the techniques for the marginalization of the arts, artists, and arts organizations.

There are parallel beliefs that are similarly culturally constructed, for instance that children are so special and priceless that only women ought to be responsible for the costs of their nurturance, and that nurturing itself is "naturally" segregated from other parts of life. Thus no one but women need attend to it. The practical result of the construction of this hypothesis is also parallel: nurturing is defined as women's work; and women, women's work, and women's cultural and political interests and the organizations which define and defend them are culturally and politically marginalized.

In yet another parallel construction, some political conservatives and some feminists claim that moral and ethical behaviour are sex-linked characteristics; that women, by virtue of physiology, are morally superior to men; and that therefore only women ought to be responsible for defining and protecting morality and acting to accomplish moral purposes. This argument serves to infantilize men and to excuse them from moral responsibility on the basis of their physiology.

The practical result of this elementally phallocentric theoretical construction is that morality and actions based on moral purpose are marginalized and segregated from the mainstream of the production of phallocentric culture. Morality is defined as a special category segregated from other parts of life; action based on moral purpose is defined as belonging to that special, separate category; and morality and action based on moral purpose are defined as the "natural" province of those already marginalized; and therefore, in practice, no one need attend to morality or be concerned to satisfy any moral purpose except under extraordinary, abnormal, and marginal conditions outside and separate from the practices of everyday life.

So long as we accept romantic mythologies about the artist, or the physiological basis of sexuality, nurturing ability, or moral consciousness, we will remain segregated, and thus able to objectify others. While we practice segregation and objectification, we will necessarily argue about who is placed where in the hierarchy and which claims deserve priority, and we will be unable to define a broad community of interest. So long as we fail to define a broad community of interest, we will remain incapable of defending ourselves against the many parallel expressions of phallocentrism, such as ageism, racism, sexism, or any of the other -ismic ills of our time.

We are, women and men alike, socialized into a phallocentric culture. The romantic myths that support it turn all of us into cardboard characters subject to pre-defined roles and actions. As many of us know from experience, the script is a bad one, whether we take the male or the female role.

As writers, we are transmitters of culture, but we are also creators of culture. Therefore we need not be bound by the limits of existing culture. We do not have to cooperate in the dissemination of visions and images which feed into the culture of pornographic materialism. We do not have to acquiesce in the construction of an ideology that claims that poetry is apolitical and that poetry makes nothing happen.

We are free to subvert existing imagery and existing patterns of thought and social organization, and to envision and create new imagery. We are free to define new constructions of human relationship that subvert phallocentric traditions. If we so choose, we can make available in the world language and imagery that express a broad range of intense feelings without suggesting either violence or the need to silence those we perceive to be different from ourselves.

If we intend our organizations to be politically effective, we must recognize the need to define a broad community of interest. We must create a circular unit of dancers who, regardless of our individual choreographies, move together in the same direction, not because we ignore our differences, but because we understand that a polymorphous organism carries evolutionary advantages, and because we are convinced of the political necessity of beginning to make a canopy of song under which to dance.


may your imagination prosper
may your flocks of images multiply
may your metaphors fructify
and may your voice rise
like a warm wind over a cold country
until the day breathes and the shadows flee

Sharon H. Nelson. 15 March 1999.