Opinion: Craig Raine’s Gatwick – in defense of the poem
We might not like the content of the poem, but that’s OK, argues Rebecca Monks
For those who haven’t read Craig Raine’s poem Gatwick (read: those who didn’t spend Wednesday afternoon wondering how on earth a poet was trending on Twitter), allow us to summarise it for you: it’s terrible. Truly, terrible. Better rhymes have been found in Eurovision song lyrics (Gatwick and sick, frowns and down all appearing in the first two verses), and the general subject matter is unappealing at best and offensive at worst, as it explores his lust over a young woman: ‘I want to say I like your big bust / Which you try to disguise with a scarf’.
In short, it would appear that Raine likes big busts and he cannot lie. The question is: why should he? According to the Twitterstorm that was unleashed after the poem’s publication in the much-respected London Review of Books, there are many reasons. Some claim it is sexist, some are troubled by the idea of a middle aged man feeling entitled to express his lust just because, while others simply found it, well, creepy: ‘Raine, Raine, Go Away, Creep us out another day’, being a perfect poetic response.
But at the heart of the poem lies something of a paradox: the narrator is conflicted between his desire to express these feelings: ‘I can say these things, I say / because I am a poet and getting old’, and the knowledge that he shouldn’t: ‘But of course, I can’t, and I won’t. I’ll be silent.’ To further complicate matters, there’s the obvious point to be made here: Raine, you may not have said it aloud, but you did publish it in a prominent literary journal. Yes, it has been said, and now we have to deal with it.
As a feminist, a writer and a general human being, I find the subject matter unappealing. Of course I do. I am roughly the same age as the girl in the poem, and like her, I am frequently lost in a kindle. I don’t think I would enjoy being observed and described as ‘like a snake in the zoo / shifting, tightening, dwindling / stretching’. If anything, I’m like a bear, everyone knows that. But as uncomfortable as I felt reading the poem, the point is that I felt something at all, and that is the purpose of literature – to make readers feel, react and respond.
When Simon Armitage wrote Hitcher, a first-person dramatic monologue which deals with the cold-blooded murder of a hitchhiker, there wasn’t an online campaign to have an apology or retraction printed. It was critically acclaimed, taught in schools and printed in anthologies. Yes, this poem was written from the point of view of a character, not the poet himself, but it deals with a far more unsavoury thought process and subject matter than Raine’s poem does.
For that matter, how many poems deal with murder, rape and other crimes, and comparatively, how many times has Twitter exploded? Gatwick, however uninspiring it may be, is a poetic work about an impure thought process. At no point does it advocate forcing himself on the woman, nor does it suggest that the thought process was a good one. It simply explores the fact those thoughts ran through his head, and is a self-reflective meditation on the issue of lust.
Literature is a way to express thoughts, not condone them – and express them is all Raine did. It isn't only writing about the best aspects of people, but exploring all of them, and the moment we censor poets from writing about the darker side of life is the moment we lose touch with that.
Gatwick ends with: ‘Nothing said, but thought and told’, which summarises the point perfectly: the thoughts of this poet, as uncomfortable as they are to read, have been recounted for us to react to, engage with and yes, to express our outrage at. Nobody’s saying that objectification is right, but his portrayal of it is important, as it encourages people to identify the subject matter as problematic. Gatwick deals with an imperfect thought process, and many readers, myself included, have identified it as such. The writing of a poem doesn’t justify its content, it simply starts the discussion. And for those that want it removed, ask yourselves: when was the last time a living poet’s work was trending on Twitter?