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“I can say these things, I say”

Last week, Craig Raine was “trending alongside Andy Coulson and Rafael Benitez”, after his poem in the London Review of Books was ridiculed on Twitter. The poet Andrea Brady, for instance, tweeted: “Not content merely to underrepresent women authors, @LRB wants to repulse those who read it”. I tweeted the photo that I took on my morning train, and was being asked for comment by a journalist after lunch.

There’s much to dislike in ‘Gatwick’: the opening reference to the holiday home travails of Sir Tom Stoppard; the plodding anecdote of the encounter at border control; the description of a “mother’s pelvis” as “large bore” (which could also describe the poem). In ‘Gatwick’, the speaker, ‘Craig Raine’, would like above all to impress upon us his status. (“Why is this/so marvellous?”) The primary drama is the speaker’s inability to express his desires, except of course via the LRB. The only memorable moment is the much-parodied, more-McGonagall-than-Martian: “She is maybe 22,/like a snake in the zoo.

The poem, like the Spectator blogs that followed, is deliberately provocative, with its jaunty, ham-fisted rhymes and its arch ‘I can say’/‘I can’t say’/‘I told you anyway’ tease. The speaker acknowledges that “these things” are unpleasant, that there may be some injunction against their expression, that they “can’t” be said, even as he rattles through them with “no shame”. The poem revels in its own imagined waggery. But when Sophie Hannah, in Raine’s defense, protests that expressions of petty male heterosexuality are commonplace, in poetry and elsewhere, she makes the main point for me: there is nothing subversive, nothing challenging, about an old man’s lust for a “big bust”, however crudely put. There is nothing inherently useful about another male voice putting another female body on view, especially when so lazily conveyed. It is not so much a provocation as a boring gloat at the disempowered. The only way to be at risk in this poem is to be the snake in captivity, who, we are told, is already feeling uncomfortable as the object of glances.

With what begins to seem like characteristic humility and grace, Raine describes the response to his poem as bad faith, as the work of the “malicious and/or stupid”. He helpfully explains that poem is about “border controls”: “the border between what one might think and what one can say”, between “official” and “private”, or between “youth” and “age”. But the experience of a border is different for, say, the poet in the aeroplane than it is for a young woman on the bus, than it is for a worker in the airport, than it is for a refugee in the boat. There are differing degrees of substance to boundaries depending on the identity of the traveler, as there are different meanings to their breach. Borders are where inequalities meet. In his pained attack on “censorious” detractors, Raine seems willfully stupid to this.