This is, I realize, a post I would do better not to write, given the outrage surrounding this issue. But something has disturbed me about the recent kerfuffle over Craig Raine's poem Gatwick, published in the London Review of Books. I would not say it is an excellent or even a good poem, but it is a poem about desire, and about a kind of desire that many find unpalatable.
At about the same time as the controversy emerged, I was reviewing a pamphlet by a young male poet. It features a poem about a young man looking at a beautiful woman at a bus stop and fantasizing about her being drenched in milk from one of the bottles in her shopping bag. It is certainly a poem in which the 'male gaze' is the organizing element, but - given the fact that the poet and the poem are not well known - I think it is unlikely that it will cause a stir. The poem in question is probably no more voyeuristic than Raine's, but the poet does not have, or is not perceived to have Raine's power.
In the on-line debate, much has been made of the fact that the poem was published by LRB, one of the country's most prestigious literary outlets. Raine once had a well-paid academic position in an Oxford college and is now an emeritus professor. He has edited poetry for Faber and Faber and The New Statesman and published his own collections with major publishers. We do have to overlook the fact that he comes from a background that was far from privileged, but it is certainly easy to see him as a member of the male-dominated cultural establishment. The chummy reference to Tom Stoppard's sale of a holiday home in France in the poem's opening stanza doesn't help, let's face it.
The on-line criticism of Raine, as opposed to the articles in the mainstream press (including this one by Sophie Hannah), focuses sharply on his position of power as an older man within the literature industry who is perpetuating disempowering images of women in a privileged outlet that would not be available to, say, the young woman in the poem. This is especially poignant given that, from the little we know of her, she may well have literary ambitions of her own. While she is condemned to a life of drudgery in passport control, Raine gets to ogle her, publish his bad poem about the ogling, and get paid for it. It would certainly have been a better poem if Raine had been able to see and address this uncomfortable reality. Charles Whalley is right, therefore, to conclude that there is nothing 'subversive' about it.
|Gatwick Aiport (Image: Wikipedia)|
He falls short here in comparison with a poet like Frederick Seidel: Seidel is economically and culturally privileged by anyone's standards, and is unflinching in his depictions of his own lifestyle, which seems to feature a lot of recreational sex and very expensive motorbikes. However, his poetry is, it seems to me, driven my an over-riding impulse to see things and show things as they are. Seidel says to the reader, Look at this!, and has no comforting moral resolution for us to take away with us.
There is something of this impulse in Raine's poem, I think. He does reflect upon his own position as a particular kind of desiring subject in a particular social position, and to an extent contrasts this with that of the young woman at passport control. However, as Matthew Lyons suggests, he doesn't go nearly far enough in exposing the dynamics of that social and economic relationship. He is too eager to return to ruminations on his own desire and the sayability or unsayability of that desire. Given the poem's place of publication, as many have pointed out, this doesn't look like a particularly compelling question, and leaves aside the ultimately more interesting ideas he fails to fully develop.
So, why does the negative reaction to Raine worry me? It worries me because, alongside the pertinent criticism that has certainly been formulated, there seems to be an underlying implication that people like Raine should not talk about this sort of thing. There seems to be a suggestion in some of the contributions that only the (relatively) powerless can talk about desire, and that an educated, prosperous and established poet doing so is inherently 'pervy' or 'creepy'. We may well have heard enough about this kind of male desire: that would be a fair point. However, poetry should be able to talk about anything, honestly and at times uncomfortably, whoever is writing it. We can certainly criticize Raine for failing to see clearly the situation he seeks to explore in all of its disturbing ramifications, but we should be careful before we start ruling particular subject matter off-limits for anyone.