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Who said it? A male or a female poet?

Every competition it’s the same thing, we poets get sucked into endless debates on Facebook as to whether there is a ‘male’ of ‘female’ way of writing and whether this is responsible for female writers getting less coverage.

So here’s at last a way for those who believe so strongly in the gender binary to test themselves. Among these poem excerpts (taken randomly from whatever I had closest to hand: magazines, anthologies, pamphlets, and of course the internet) can you guess which ones were written by a man and which ones were written by a woman? To make things more balanced, I’ve also included excerpts by two openly genderqueer poets (i.e poets who sees themselves as other than male or female).

Good luck!


Louis Macneice      



‘Where alleys wake to condom wrappers,

kebab meat, a ballet pump, last week

a van pulled up and it was blood.’[1]



‘We came trained to turn the land on
to the sun’s look, teach this world to be ours;
as others dress the hills — smart-lichen to blush
hot green across cold red — we drill the shining
soil, and slowly, in these thrice-stretched
summers, it Marsforms us.’[2]



‘Yesterday the birds were shaped like paperweights
and we did little to protect them.’[3]


‘That is the desert of new beginnings, of ginger

tinctured toasts and the musk of lingering smiles

in the sinless bazaars’[4]



‘Last night the girls got their part in the nativity.

Lydia is reprising last season’s triumph as the

Angel of Glory, all blondeness and glitter

looming like a Valkyrie over star-struck shepherds.’[5]



‘She’s thinking of autumn

while my feet hang on to summer’ [6]



‘The lake raises an eyebrow when she is speckled with rain. She doesn’t do anything else but the rain takes a hint’[7]



‘Can the bald lie? The nature of the skin says not:

it’s newborn pale, erection-tender stuff,

every thought visible ­– pure knowledge,

mind in action – shining through the skull’[8]



‘Afternoons, he scams the high street punters,

black sacks of watches in his fists, or stalks the Common,

cooing, ripping crusts for ducks and swans.’[9]



‘So darting from side to side I could catch the unwonted sight

Of those almost intolerably bright

Holes punched in the sky’[10]



‘The eyes that lie, gouged and fogging

on the ground, are not so important.

Give them to a child for marbles.’[11]



‘and have you ever strung a swing

up for your kids, over the limb

of a garden tree? Just like that.’[12]



‘Confucius’ disciples murmured

Lunyu texts from bamboo scrolls, believed

within the four seas all men

are brothers.’[13]



‘Pinch the fish in running water

until it splits. Hold this sharp knife

like a river’[14]



‘That night, it rained so hard

it was biblical. The Thames sunk the promenade,

spewing up so much low life.’[15]



‘In the middle of a disembodied wharf, history

is handcart driven, all the better for its bowels,

previous sorrows and suspect tales.’ [16]



‘Hexane witchery, magnetic caul insistent from birth; a Dorset hag stone in a glass house. Trouble is, as trouble does, it’s lackadaisical: difficult in energy, relenting synchronicity; sipping pennyroyal in sync with subject ratio.’[17]



‘Decluttering at sixteen was my therapy.
The urge to collect seemed a need back then
to hold on to what’s already lost.’[18]



‘Those poor hostages, trapped in their sequential cells;
forced to walk or run, to climb, to sit then stand,
stand then sit. How miserable the captive animal is,
worried away – till they lose hair, presence, weight –
with the fret of knowing they are being watched.[19]



‘Beside the swing, on the spongy terrain,
I take you to meet Ida in the Cannibale café,

in the parietal northwest corner of the brain.’[20]


[1] Kayo Chingonyi, ‘Andrew’s Corner’, Some Bright Elegance (Salt)

[2] Tori Truslow ‘Terrunform’ (Stone Telling). Tori is a genderqueer writer.

[3] TC Tolbert, Complimentary. TC Tolbert is a genderqueer writer.

[4] John Griffin ‘The Thought-Desert’, Agenda

[5] Hugh McMillan ‘Too Big a Part’, Best British Poetry 2012.

[6] David Hale’s ‘A Mother’s Gift’, The Last Walking Stick Factory (Happenstance Press)

[7] Flora de Falbe ‘Five things about the lake’, Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award

[8] Jo Shapcott, ‘Hairless’, Of Mutability (Faber)

[9] Hannah Lowe, ‘ Jack’s Milk’, Chick (Bloodaxe Book)

[10] Louis MacNeice ‘Star Gazer’, The Burning Perch (Faber)

[11] Kirsten Irving, ‘Recipe for a saint’, The Forward Book of Poetry 2014

[12] James Brookes, ‘A Hometown Execution’, Sins of the Leopard (Salt)

[13] Jennifer Wong, ‘Leap Year’, Goldfish (Chameleon Press).

[14] Josh Wallaert, ‘How to Gut the Fish’, A Guide to the Northwest Territory (Miel)

[15] Patience Agbabi, ‘Unfinished Business’ Poetry Review.

[16] Nia Davies, ‘The Gun’, Then Spree (Salt).

[17] Charlotte Newman, ‘Adrenaline Accord’, Penning Perfumes vol.1.

[18] Richie McCaffery, ‘The Collector’, Spinning Plates (Happenstance).

[19] Emily Hasler, ‘The Animal in Motion’, Transom.

[20] Megan Fernandes, ‘THE BRAINHOOD ADVENTURE!’, Organ Speech (Corrupt Press).

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Short clips out of context do little to resolve the question.

    What needs to be noted, though, is that the quality of the reader’s skill, time given per poem, and context of reading ie whether gender issues are uppermost in one’s social and or intellectual environmental at the time.
    No one comes to a poem blind – how well we recognize our own slant and so compensate, is not a foregone conclusion.

  2. Thank you for a good blog. While not the main intention of this particular blog, of course, No. 5 has me straight on to searching for more of the poet’s work. Subtle irony and humour and glittery stuff, lovely. And almost all the extracts seem excellent demonstrations of how to write good poetry. While the gender question is intriguing (I thought No. 5 was written by a man but was somehow surprised to be right) in reality it’s probably not that significant, given the myriad shades and levels of everything in life.

    With reference to Unfinished Business I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Patience Agbabi read from her wonderful take on The Wife of Bath at a poetry evening, Beautiful. An inspiration. Patience shows us how it should be done.

  3. I didn’t feel confident that I knew the gender of any of these writers. If I’d guessed, I think I’d have been wrong in almost every case. This didn’t surprise me! When judging competitions. I learn the identity of the winning poets only after I’ve become very familiar with their poems. This has proved to me repeatedly that, without clues in a poem’s subject matter, I am often not sure of its writer’s gender.

    I find this fact – and this ingenious blog! – very interesting. I suspect that themes and techniques may link poets far more closely than gender.

  4. How strange. Number five is the only extract I think is completely devoid of poetry! In fact I’d venture to say it’s prose and bland prose at that. Where is the irony in this straightforward description? –

    The only irony I can detect is presumably unintended -Glittery stuff involving children is a disturbing notion. :-/

  5. Well nigh impossible! There are some poet friends whose work I would recognise anywhere, but many poets write in different “voices” according to subject.

    Does it matter? Never mind the gender, feel the quality!

  6. I knew you wouldn’t publish my vaguely controversial but reasoned comment. Free speech is dead! You won’t publish this one either, but you’ll have to read it in order to moderate it.

    I just got the latest edition of Magma. I see you’ve taken to publishing clueless crosswords in lieu of poetry. Here’s mine:

    L H
    L O
    L O

    etc……. Not impressed? Neither was I with the clumsily titled and utterly abject ‘poem’ For A Windmill Turbine, or the one about Today, Today, Today and Tomorrow. Pass The Parcel and Standing On Mussel Shells are of similarly dismal ilk. You’re not doing much to entice me into renewing my subscription by printing so much rubbish.

  7. Craig, no one was censoring you. We just don’t have a person moderating the blog full-time 24 hours a day. Anyway, kids have used glitter for years, and will continue to use it for years to come, especially dressed up as an angel in a nativity play. I don’t see why anyone should allow it to become a taboo word just because of a criminal pop singer.

    You’re entitled not like everything in the magazine. I rarely like everything in any magazine. I’m not sure how much you know about concrete and visual poetry though and I’d be wary of making hasty judgements. And what you dislike may well be what others liked most of all.

  8. Okay Rob, fair enough re. the censorship. Apologies to you as moderator in this instance and thanks for allowing my comments. Although I have to say there have been a couple of occasions in the past when I have made reasoned references to blog posts which contradicted the ‘Magma’ stance on a subject, or that of another response and they’ve not appeared.

    However, please don’t patronise me by questioning my knowledge of concrete poetry, or indeed poetry per se. I couldn’t format my ‘Hello/Goodbye’ rubbish on here, but I’m sure you get the idea of how it should look. Or perhaps how it shouldn’t look, seeing as it is just two words contrived into a purposeless shape. Although I reckon it’s a better concept than the today/tomorrow idea and the standing on mussel shell concoctions that Magma’s editors filled two pages with.

    I can easily justify my criticism by critiquing another page-stealing ‘poem’ ‘For A Windmill Turbine’ by Alec Finlay. This is not a hasty judgment I hasten to add! Although if it were, it would still be correct.

    Firstly, let’s consider that title. Other than Alec Finlay and your editors, I am not aware of ANYONE who calls a Wind Turbine a Windmill Turbine. It is a basic error of understanding. Nothing to do with art, inventiveness or the application of a poetic licence, but simply indicative of the ignorance of a writer who doesn’t even know the name of the thing he’s writing for, to or about!

    That’s bad enough, but then I look at what he’s written for/to/about his windmill turbine and it turns out to be the word ‘AXIS’ arranged in such a way that three of the letters appear to represent the tips of the rotor blades and the X is in the middle to represent a horizontal axis. Yes, I get the joke in terms of ‘X’ marks the spot (or the axis), but what is there of poetry in this? What is Alec expressing to his windmill turbine about its place in the world, or about his (and our) relationship to it, about environmental issues, or anything of import whatsoever? The answer is NOTHING.

    The liking or disliking of poetry, or any form of writing, is a subjective matter, and I concede that some people might like this sort of thing for its novelty aspect which might briefly amuse as one realises that the shape of the word or words is arranged in the shape of the object it references. Indeed I got an irony induced chuckle pondering how much wind turbine production will be required to eliminate the carbon footprint left by all the glossy paper wasted on the publication of this piece of inconsequential tat. But amusement on this level is an immature emotional reaction to a gimmick, not a reasoned response to a piece of poetry. To support my point further regarding sound judgment, I can see poetic merit in several of the shape poems in the current issue, particularly Helix Aspera, Sun Blurbs and The Games Field Again. The latter is particularly effective in the way the word separations split the mood and message of the poem into what is seen and what is emoted. There is a rationale to the form and a poetic substance to the piece in that form which lifts it above the ordinary. Whether I like or dislike these poems is not important. What matters is that they are poems, concrete or otherwise.

    In respect to poetry, this is the objective view based on sound logic and KNOWLEDGE which provides proof that whatever anyone may like or not like about contrivance, ‘judgement’ is all about poetic merit and integrity. The truth is Alec (and others) are just more kids playing with glitter. Perhaps if we were all in primary school, an acceptance by ‘teacher’ that it helps the child build confidence to have their naïve work displayed on a wall, could be deemed acceptable condescension. The problem is we’re not in primary school and neither your condescension, or that of the editors who chose to print his and other minimalists word shapes in Magma, does not go down favourably with someone who spent £7.50 on admission to the crèche. After all, Magma is supposed to be a quality literary publication, not a latter day version of ‘Vision On’ presented by the corpse of Tony Hart.

    If anyone can and would like to explain to me in what way my conclusions on this matter are flawed, and where I can find the axis to Alec’s poetry, I’d be delighted to be disabused. However, it’s not enough to use words like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ in a discussion regarding objective merit or demerit. Even if sometimes our inner child likes to like things for the sake of liking them, and not concern ourselves with justification, I’m sure, as adults, we’re all aware of the fact, that fact cannot exist without rational explanation.



  9. Dear Craig, to me the wind turbine poem ‘Axis’ is a wonderful gesture of opening. It generates a whole landscape filled with the white space of the wind. So I think it does ‘express [the turbine’s] place in the world’ and ‘our relationship to it’ with ultimate economy. One word, four letters, has no right to do this (and of course it does not do it on its own – it is the reader that does it). Plus it makes me want to dance [I cannot dance]. My regret is that I could not reproduce it as an A1 poster.

    Alec’s work fits into traditions of concrete and landscape poetry which I enjoy (although it is not where my own work is located, nor do I claim any special expertise in that field). We put these poems prominently at the start of the magazine to provoke thought and demonstrate that there are different ways of thinking about ‘poetry’. As you know, this is Magma, and there will be a different take on that question in the next issue.


    PS I liked Tony Hart.

  10. Hello Ian,

    Well, that is an imaginative way of explaining the four letter arrangement. I’ll give you credit for having a decent stab at giving it an illusion of credibility. I notice you’ve not referred to the WindMILL Turbine though….. I wonder if we’re talking about the same poem? 😉

    I liked Tony Hart too. In fact I had one of my paintings on the ‘Vision On’ board when I was seven years old. It remains the prime achievement of my artistic pursuits. I’ve painted better pictures since then, but sadly poor bony Tony is no longer here to validate my work. I’m sure if he were, he’d forgive me being forty years older than the usual contenders for a place on his white space in the wind. I can visualise the great man happily hanging my latest masterpiece, which I’ve imaginatively titled ‘Stick Man With Walking Stick Throwing His Stick Dog A Stick’. 🙂

    I’ve also written a wattle and daub poem (not keen on concrete) on a similar theme. It is is a moving commentary on the sad decline of community in Britain and the way that all old people end up isolated, lonely and malnourished. They have nothing to help them cope with the nihilistic nature of their wretched existence beyond the pursuit of futility. The tragedy is that these feelings end up being internalised into frustration, irritability and anger. At that point it’s difficult to have any sympathy for them.

    I’ve gone for an alliterative approach with the poem, brilliantly echoing the click of stick against stick.

    It’s called:

    ‘Old Stick Man With Walking Stick Throwing His Stick Dog A Stick Makes Me Sick’

    Old stick man,
    stuck with walking stick;
    walking stick dog,
    throwing stick,
    finds dog too thick
    to run for stick.
    Gives dog stick
    with walking stick.
    What a prick.

    Copyright CDL 2013

    As far as the other poetry goes, I haven’t got a degree in creative writing. Nor am I an academic, a tutor, a pamphleteer or the bastard child of Simon Armitage. Hence my magazine publishing debut remains elusive. Although I did get 2nd prize in the Southam And District Lions’ Club Poetry Competition last year. They had nearly 100 entries and I won £40. Beaten into second place only by a bedridden woman from the local old folk’s home who wrote a piece of rhyming description about a spider’s web. Not that I’m bitter about losing to an old person who isn’t even a poet.

    I always accept that a judge’s/editor’s decisions are beyond dispute.


    Best wishes,


  11. “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
    An’ ev’n devotion!”

  12. That one is too easy. If on the other hand I take it as a reply to my previous, then I concede it is a witty riposte. 🙂

    I reckon it’s bit harsh to think that of me, but I ought to tell you I’ve actually been playing the part of the bonnet for the past ten years! 😉

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