Craig Raine hits back at 'Gatwick' critics

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Craig Raine has replied to critics of his poem, published in the London Review of Books, about admiring a young woman at Gatwick airport. Raine’s poem includes these lines:  “I want to say I like your big bust. / Which you try to disguise with a scarf. / You’d like it smaller by half. // I want to say, / you’re so young today / it’s almost painful. / For both of us.”

Writing for the New Statesman, Raine said: "I realise the purpose is to make me feel like a war criminal. Sorry, tweeters, I don’t. My poem is about border controls: the border between official and private; the border between imperious youth and docile age, apparently absolute, but actually porous because the ageing process is already in train – the young woman is already becoming her parents. Then there is the border between what one might think and what one can say. The very thing I am being pilloried for is actually one subject of my poem. My attitude to the young woman is kindly. The word “bust” is a term taken from tailoring. I like her big bust because she doesn’t. A form of redress. What I intend is joy – a kind of love for the whole world: the girl, her parents, Gatwick. The Greek word for hospitality, xenia, literally means love of strangers."

He added that the poem had been publlshed by the London Review of Books "about two years after they’d accepted it and four since I’d written it".

When the row first broke on Twitter, fellow poet Sophie Hannah leapt to Raine's defence. Hannah, writing in the Guardian, said 70-year-old Raine had been accused on Twitter of being a ”would-be molester, a twat, creepy, entitled. Raine’s ‘horrifying’, ‘depressing’, ‘grim’ poem has been found guilty of ‘perving’. One person wanted to ‘kick his dick’, another to flush it down the loo.”

Hannah, editor of The Poetry of Sex anthology, added: “There’s a cruelly ageist aspect to much of the bile … Many apparently find the sexual desire of an elderly man disgusting – why else use words like perv to describe one adult finding another adult attractive? Why do so, especially when the poet is old and perhaps sad that his sexual prime is behind him?”

A blogger on The Spectator magazine, writer and historian Mathew Lyons, took another view, saying: “Yesterday 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 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 … 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.

“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 … 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.”

Craig Raine’s 1979 collection, A Martin Sends a Postcard Home, led to the term Martian poetry, in which everyday things and human behaviour are described in a strange way, as if by a visiting Martian who does not understand them. Raine is a Fellow at New College, Oxford, and  founder and editor of the literary magazine Areté.

Sophie Hannah responded to Raine’s critics on Twitter with humour, thus : “I agree with Craig Raine: / Fancying someone at the airport and not / being able to snog them is a pain. / Also: high risk of delayed plane.” She added: “Having written a lot about Craig Raine / I then wrote about him again / For Comment is Free / (As all poets should be).”

She concluded in her Guardian article: “After this episode, many poets will nevertheless still dare to publish whatever they want to express on the subject of lust. I suspect there are as many who won’t. As a poetry lover, I find that a terrifying prospect. Given the choice, I’d far rather Raine looked at my amply padded 43-year-old bottom and put his thoughts about it – complimentary or otherwise – in a poem.”

You can read the poem in full here 



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M.C. Newberry

Sat 13th Jun 2015 16:45

This featured in a column by one of the London Evening
Standard's regular contributors and got a follow-up from
the poet himself. What fun!!

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Fri 12th Jun 2015 22:04

I sometimes think that it might be ultimately destructive to strip down a poem like this one in the way one strips down an engine , and having faced the component parts, is quite unimpressed with the result. All minds should be given due consideration. Was Hitler not a painter, and Wagner a Nazi symbol. To moralize about private feelings really lines us all up against a wall. "Let him that casts the first stone." Incidentally, I quite enjoy big busts. I'm 71. So there.

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M.C. Newberry

Sat 6th Jun 2015 01:16

JC - Claude Rains? Wasn't his most famous line about a
"beautiful friendship" - aimed at Humphrey Bogart?
We can only guess what the twits would make of that
line, given half a chance!

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John Coopey

Fri 5th Jun 2015 16:17

Oops! I was talking about Claude Rains!

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M.C. Newberry

Fri 5th Jun 2015 15:44

Twits on Twitter/ No surprise there!
The content of a poem and the way it is set out are two
separate things. The first comes within the aim of
poetry to get people thinking (even those who don't
normally indulge) - whilst the second is more subjective
and may be food for criticism according to the skill or
lack of it perceived in the presentation.
The anti-human aspect of age-ism is one of those
fashionable isms of today that appeal to those who
see no further than their own immediate little existence
and would deprive others of thought. The comment from
GS about "thought police" is well taken.
A popular song of the past told us "You can't go to jail
for what you're thinking..."
Hah! If the twits on Twitter had their way, you would!

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Graham Sherwood

Fri 5th Jun 2015 14:41

Oh no! another one for the thought police.
Perhaps he didn't disguise it well enough. Without spilling too many worms out of the can, I for one (and there must be many of us) can still muster up enough strength to notice a finely turned heel and fly off into fantasy land wishing I were forty years younger. Isn't that healthy?

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John Coopey

Fri 5th Jun 2015 11:24

I didn't like the poem much although it had nothing to do with the subject matter.
As for its "pervy" aspect, would it be permissible for a 25 year old to have these thoughts? I might have slowed down a bit now I'm in my 60.s but I'm not celibate. Aren't we being a touch ageist?

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Roy Marshall

Fri 5th Jun 2015 11:06

From what I can gather the criticism of Raine's poem had two strands. One was that it was that its subject was sexist and perhaps a bit creepy. The other was that it was thought to be an utterly rubbish piece of writing and was only published where it was because of the name attached to it. Some people didn't like it for both these reasons. So perhaps Sophie Hannah is missing one aspect of the criticism- namely that your name can get what is, in some peoples opinion, dreadful work published in esteemed magazines.

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