June 3rd was a strange day on Twitter. For most of it, a living poet was trending.
Unfortunately for Craig Raine, the poet in question, he was trending because a long poem of his entitled ‘Gatwick’ had appeared in the LRB and Twitter didn’t like it.
Most comments ranged from amused contempt to, well, just plain old contempt. But it wasn’t only angry feminists, as some suggested, who leapt into action. Indeed, I saw much more ridicule than anger. Many of us were merely enjoying mocking what is by no means a good poem.
Which is the point, really. Certainly there is no shortage of bad poetry in the world. I have written some of it myself. But most of it doesn’t end up in the LRB.
For those who haven’t read the poem, it falls into three sections. The first comprises just two lines, name-drops Tom Stoppard for no apparent reason, and rhymes “Gatwick” with “sick”. The second muses on an encounter at immigration control between Raine and a young woman with an MA in English poetry who Raine is delighted to find recognises him. The third involves Raine eyeing up a young Swedish woman on the bus. He notes her trainers, the size of her breasts – they are big and he likes them that way – the moles on her face, and the likelihood of her inheriting her mother’s hips.
The ‘old man looking longingly at a young woman’ genre is a well-established one but Raine adds little to it. Some of the writing has a distinct EJ Thribbish quality. One stanza in its entirety runs: “I want to say, hey / I like your moles.”
Some of it is worse.
“She glances, she frowns
she turns it upside down
so it can be read by a machine.
She stares at a screen.”
Raine made his reputation in the 1970s with poetry of acute observation and inventive, even outlandish metaphor. There is precious little of that energy here. He is nothing if not a cerebral writer, but artful banality is still banality. And sadly it is not just the writing that is banal, but also the thought. The point of the poem seems to be that Raine, as a poet and and old man to boot, can say things in writing that ordinary people would think inappropriate to say in real life.
But what does he actually have to say that is worth breaching that taboo? The things that might be interesting about these encounters – a poetry graduate working in border control, how it feels to be confronted with the beauty of youth in old age, how both propriety and time guard the borders between the young and the elderly – go unexplored.
Rather, he seems to be straying into the territory of the pensioner who feels their age entitles them to share their opinions of you and your children whether you wish to hear them or not.
But at least Raine has got people discussing poetry. If for nothing else, he is to be commended for that.
Please note that this piece first appeared in The Spectator online.