"Of course, the stupid are always with us": Craig Raine defends his Gatwick poem

I realise the purpose is to make me feel like a war criminal. Sorry, tweeters, I don’t.

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The most shocking thing that happened to me this past week was an email from the senior permissions manager at Simon & Schuster, asking $900 for quoting 31 words of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. There is a concept called “fair dealing”, which allows you to quote short extracts without incurring a fee. You do the maths. Simon & Schuster is charging nearly $30 a word – certainly more than the New Yorker pays, in my experience, for original fiction, and undoubtedly a lot more than Hemingway was paid in the first place.

For some reason, permission fees apply only to books. I can quote the Hemingway here with impunity: “She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair black as a crow’s wing . . .” Not even well written. If I dropped the “and” I could save 30 bucks.

 

Trolls and tribulations

The second mildly shocking thing was to find myself part of a Twitter storm about a poem, “Gatwick”, published by the London Review of Books about two years after they’d accepted it and four since I’d written it. I don’t know how to access Twitter. Wise, by all accounts. When you write a piece for, say, the New Statesman, it’s always a mistake to look at the comments. They come to bury geezers, not to praise them. Why? Well, it’s partly cognate with the graffiti artist: you want to leave a mark on a world which is ignoring you. If possible in the form of a wound or a lasting scar. The internet troll can be anyone – a middling novelist, an obscure lecturer, anyone poisoned by a sense of injustice, the sheer unfairness of invisibility. What you want, I gather, is “followers”. Enter the righteous mob.

 

My life as an irritant

But I concede that there must be something about me that encourages this opprobrium. Last week a reviewer in the Independent, writing about Milan Kundera’s new novel, stepped aside to swat my two novels (2010 and 2012) as “practically bankrupt”. Fair enough, you might think, because in my afterword to The Divine Comedy, I acknow­ledge that I am using a novel novel-form invented by Milan Kundera. But odd to be arraigned for something I freely concede. And strange, too, that the same reviewer should single me out again this week in the course of reviewing Christopher Reid’s new book of poetry, The Curiosities. Every poem title here begins with the letter C. Apparently, I could write 73 poems on the subject of the C-word “in the blink of an eye”.

I seem to have a genius for irritating, a gift for getting under the skin. Christopher Reid told me that Christopher Ricks once asked him how he could bear to have the same initials as me. (Forty years ago, Harry Evans, the editor of the Sunday Times, telephoned me to say I’d won a poetry competition – anonymous entry – judged by Christopher Ricks. I had written a pastiche Ted Hughes poem about a ram. Within 20 minutes Harry was back on the phone: I hadn’t won, after all. I’d lost.)

 

The sky’s not the limit

Because I don’t follow Twitter, my first inkling of the fuss was when the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary emailed, asking two questions. First, Border Control at Gatwick was a surprising place to find an admirer: were there places where I would be even more surprised to find myself praised? My reply: the Observer (when Robert McCrum was literary editor), PN Review (never been reviewed there), the TLS. Second, would I consider the post of Gatwick Laureate? Reply: I am already the laureate (unsalaried) of Thornhill Park and Ride in Oxford and I can’t take on any more commitments for the foreseeable future.

 

Borderline bolshie

Next thing, Newsnight. My reply: “Thank you, but no thank you. I don’t think my poem needs defending from the misreadings of malicious and/or stupid people. If I worried about bad readers, I’d have given up writing poetry long ago. This furore is an example of what Bellow, after Wyndham Lewis, called the Moronic Inferno.”

Which isn’t quite accurate. Of course, the stupid are always with us. I gather that several tweeters conflated the woman in Border Control with the young woman on the Gatwick-to-Oxford bus – an error that is practically impossible unless you are reading the poem through red mist. More depressing was the ironic spectacle of intelligent people, people readily contemptuous of Joyce’s moralising detractors, taking up the censorious position. They might have been the baying audience at The Playboy of the Western World, denouncing the word “shift”. I can only explain it as mauvaise foi.

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.

 

The fame game

At Karl Miller’s memorial service, Andrew O’Hagan remembered whining to Karl about a disobliging piece in the Londoner’s Diary. Ian Hamilton, a frequent target in Private Eye, was there. Karl: “Talk to Ian. [Pause] He knows what it’s like to be sodomised by fame.” Now I know. It’s not so bad. I could get used to it. I may have to.

Craig Raine’s “More Dynamite: Essays 1990-2012” is published by Atlantic Books. He is a New Statesman art critic

This article appears in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?