Five Things for Friday

  1. Stand Up and Spit is an ongoing project cataloguing Ranting poetry from the 1980s, and producing a series of gigs and events. There are still a couple of events left in their current schedule, and there may be more in the future – if you can get to them, they’re definitely worth getting to. If not, but you’re interested in the history of spoken word or political poetry you will get lost for hours on this site.
  2. Josephine Corcoran’s piece on finding poems written in adolescence (and sensibly not publishing them online). The reason we write bad poetry as teenagers is a combination of not having read enough, and not having lived enough. The latter will sort itself out; the former requires a bit more effort.
  3. Earlier in the week I confessed my ignorance about the post of US Poet Laureate. Here is an interview with the new USPoLo, Juan Felipe Herrera, on the Slate Culture Gabfest (starts about 31.30).
  4. Nine Arches are looking for submissions to an anthology of poetry by UK disabled poets. If you are worried about the potential for it to be awful, this quote should reassure you, and perhaps encourage you to submit: “We’re not looking for ‘inspiration porn’, work whose primary purpose is therapeutic, and definitely not work which perpetuates ableist tropes or rhetoric in any way.”
  5. I looked for a while for a good piece on the recent Craig Raine debacle – here are three of the better ones from Charles Whalley, Mathew Lyons, and David Clarke, who will be writing a guest blog here tomorrow – but this clip from a twenty year old comedy show seems the most appropriate illustration:

There’s been a mass debate about Raine’s poem, ‘Gatwick’, and the London Review of Books’s decision to publish it. Most people have downplayed a major point, though, which is that the poem isn’t really very good. I feel this is something of a boner. It may not seem like the most important issue in a discussion about the male gaze, freedom of expression, privilege and so on, but actually it illustrates it rather nicely. The fact that an elderly, white, male member of the literary establishment can toss off a not very good poem to one of the world’s leading literary periodicals in the knowledge it will almost certainly end up splashed across its sheets without question makes it difficult for any ensuing defence of the poem on the grounds of freedom of expression to be taken seriously, especially in a journal (and a sector) which is notoriously underrepresentative of female viewpoints.

The justification used by Raine’s supporters for the actual content of the poem is that these are real emotions that real people have. There are a few responses to that. One might be that yes, it is perhaps an accurate reflection of the thoughts of a certain subset of privileged middle-aged men, brought up in an era when the objectification of women was second nature – and good, isn’t it about time these people were represented?

Another might be that while one might have these thoughts, there is an argument for attempting to be better than ourselves, or at least acknowledging that we haven’t managed to be so. Many people are racist, xenophobic, homophobic, or have other thoughts which – as a society – we consider unacceptable. If the LRB published a poem in which one of these viewpoints was adopted by the author, with every appearance of being the author’s own, and with no sign of the author reflecting upon their views, we would not be having a debate, we’d be having a rally. And for anyone who might be thinking “Well, Raine’s poem was only a little bit sexist”, replace the word “sexist” in that statement with the word “racist” or “homophobic”, etc., and see how far you get.

Another might be, okay, so the narrator is a real person (even if we were to say he is a character created by the poet, he is being defended on the merits of the “realness” of his emotions. That said, it is interesting how all sides have worked on the basis that everything in the poem is based on a real event. On another occasion I’d make a point about the reader’s assumptions, but here Raine’s obvious solipsism makes the objection pointless.), but so are the women he is objectifying: what do you suppose their thoughts might be if they ever read this poem? And at least one of them, with an MA in Poetry, might very well do so. Normally I do not much care if the subject of a poem is real or imagined, but in this case it actually is a problem. Anyone who has spent much time going to open mic nights has probably witnessed a poet (not necessarily, but usually, male) “dedicating” an overtly sexual poem to some individual in the audience. Hopefully you have then witnessed someone else tell the poet that that is really not okay. Because it isn’t, and doing it through the pages of the LRB rather than in the back room of a pub in front of five other people doesn’t make it any better.

And again, even if these women aren’t “real” (although I suspect that Raine, at this point in his career, doesn’t possess the energy to create a fictional character), how is any other young woman (or indeed anyone brought up after women’s lib) likely to feel upon reading it?

This goes back to the question of not merely what is in the poem, but where the poem was printed. Say you don’t read much poetry but are interested in literature more broadly. You know the LRB is one of the most respected lit mags. It would not be unreasonable for you to assume that any poem published therein must be representative of the very best of current poetry in English (it would be incorrect, but not unreasonable). And it turns out that the best of British poetry is an old chap at half mast. It’s unlikely it would send you scrambling to take out a subscription to Areté. But in any case, if the “reality” of the poem is the main point in its favour, where are the women’s realities – even if they are fictions, they ought to have realities within the world of the poem? But they are cyphers – there is no acknowledgement that they may have thoughts, hopes, wants or needs, or exist in any other form than as a pair of tits or a potentially sagging arse.


2 thoughts on “Five Things for Friday

  1. I folllowed the link to Craig Raine’s poem, which I judged to be a fictitious anecdote, or at least with a lot of embellishment. I also thought, Sad old git! It is not worth getting on one’s high horse over this dirty-old-man poem, even if it has appeared in a well-known journal. I thought Raine came from Mars anyway, which is even further off than the moon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s