Thursday, June 04, 2015

Why do we only talk about bad poems?

I think the last time I remember a deep, argumentative discussion about a poem was when a pop star or film star wrote one (I can't remember who, its all a bit hazy). Yet, "Gatwick", a poem that Craig Raine has published in the LRB this week has caused plenty of discussion. In this poem (not online), a first person Raine is recognised by a young woman at airport security and then on the plane lusts after another woman. (NB. Changed this after comment below). Old man fancying younger woman is hardly news. Twitter and Facebook were full of discussion. On one twitter feed it seemed that this was just too good a chance to parody one of the doyennes of English poetry.

Charles Whalley, a regular reviewer, tweeted "jesus wept this is fucking grim." The poem's first lines (a first section of 3) go -:

Tom Stoppard sold his house in France. "I was sick
of spending so much time at Gatwick."

This, I suspect, is a found line, from which Raine weaves his poem, for he is also at Gatwick. There's hubris here, I think, after all, most of us might wonder why Stoppard's very first world problem deserves a poem; but here is Raine, being recognised by the girl at security. So far, so anecdotal. But in the third bit of the poem, "I want to say I like your bust" he says, before, apropos of nothing, having a go at her imagined mother. He then apologises, that he can't say these things, but he has done anyway.

I guess this is candour of a sort, though the poem sounds tossed off, in more ways than one. Apparently social media has been outraged at Raine's subject, yet when I first read it, I thought the humour being thrown in parodies of that first line in particular, were because it was such a patently bad poem. According to Facebook, even this is under discussion - and the outrage is outrage at the subject matter.

Having written about male lust for a younger woman, about desire late in life, and er... of hanging around in airports, I can hardly moan about the subject matter; but of course I don't think its likely I'll ever get a poem in the LRB (or would necessarily want one there) or be discussed in detail. I guess we only really talk about bad poems, and if this poem has any merit its because its just good enough to instil doubt, whilst being just bad enough to inspire parody. Its a long time since any Craig Raine poem has had any attention, so that's an appreciation of sorts; but it does make me wonder about how bankrupt our literary culture has become - that such nonsense can get published, and that having been published its the first poem for years that has been discussed at length.

Bizarrely, Sophie Hannah writes a riposte in the Guardian, that ignores the poem's quality in terms only of comments on its contents  when surely the two are linked? There is a serious discussion to be had about what subjects are not allowed in our strangely illiberal new media world. When Don Paterson wrote a prize winning poem about his love for an East European techno artist, there wasn't scorn, for it was a stunningly inventive poem, made the more so by its subject matter. Raine's poem seems off the beat in so many ways, that my real shock is that it has its defenders. Clearly, despite his poetry reputation being almost non-existent these days, Raine's profile as a man of letters still holds sway.

(For what its worth I quite like early Raine, but if anyone thinks this would have been published in the LRB without it being by a famous name, they're deluded.)


charles said...

All kinds of issues here. Why should a Stoppard first-world little problem be less worthy of being written about than than any other problem? This subscribes to the ludicrous notion that only a certain band of people have 'real' lives, and the rich and famous don't. Why exactly would you not be keen on having a poem in the LRB (they pay)? The third part of the poem is very clearly not about the same woman as the second part, and I seriously cannot think why any reader wouldn't get this. Any suggestion that the poem wouldn't have been have been published if it hadn't been written by 'a famous name' is bizarre: the whole second part springs off from Raine being recognised (small fame) as a published poet, one who is 'studied'. That's one of the points, recognition yet distance. Seems to me that why this poem has attracted such absurd attention is the peripherals, which everyone wants to sound off about: privilege, male gaze, etc. The poem itself is fine: clever, light, joyful, troubled.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Having only read it in a screenshot its hard to have gone too deeply into it, and this is what worries me of any criticism of a poem, that you then have to spend time on a poem that is hardly worth the attention (my view). The first line seems to me - like I said - something from a newspaper headline, but its ripe for the parody that it received, you must see that? Yes, reading it again now, its clearly a different woman (one of the family of Swedes) but most of the commentary about it seems to have conflated the two to some extent? My mistake. But again, seems part of what I find lazy about the poem - a chance encounter at the security, makes Raine horny? Then he spends the flight lusting after a girl who is with her parents? There's plenty of idle time in airports and on planes (the reason Stoppard sold his house?) so fair enough. Re: the LRB, its not a place I go looking for poems, to be honest. The poem is certainly light, but it seems a weak piece of writing - hence my title. I've been meaning to write somethng about the kneejerk reactions about privilege for a long time - in that I do agree with Sophie Hannah's defence - that the illiberal social media storm will silence voices, because, at the end of the day, nothing can ever be enough for certain people. Its a shame this has received so much of people's time, and here I am adding to it. Suspect the poem, LRB and Raine will survive the unwarranted attention.

Dan Holloway said...

I found the Guardian piece strange too because the *quality* of the poem is precisely why its contents matter. The central thrust of "there is no editorial sexism" has always been "we just choose the best poems". That in itself is, of course, pusillanimous, but this poem is important because it is so bad that "we just choose the best poems" can no longer ever plausibly be used by LRB again. There has to be another reason they chose to include a poem on this subject, be that laziness, nepotism, or something more overt.

sarah said...

here it is