Thursday, 4 June 2015

Craig Raine's shrinking violet

The anecdotal jocularity of sexual frisson has never been far from Raine's World. A review of Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years by Brian Boyd (Chatto, 783 pp, £25.00, January 1992) is perhaps symptomatic:

His private manner was utterly winning, particularly his comic mode. Boyd includes two anecdotes, both innocently revealing. In the late Sixties, Nabokov asked Alfred Appel if student unrest was disrupting his lectures. The only demonstrations were demonstrations of affection;
I told him about a nun who sat in the back row of one of my lecture courses, and who one day complained after class that a couple near her were always spooning. ‘Sister,’ I said, ‘in these troubled times we should be grateful if that’s all they were doing.’ ... ‘Ohhh,’ moaned Nabokov, mourning my lost opportunity, clapping his hand to his head in mock anguish. ‘You should have said, “Sister, be grateful that they were not forking.’ ” ["Craig Raine fondles Vladimir Nabokov" ; 14 May 1992]

And sometimes I guess you can't slip a cigarette paper between the pen, the penis and the polemic:

Is Schiele a pornographer? Of course he is. Does that mean his art isn’t art? Of course it doesn’t. It is a mystery that art and pornography are thought to be incompatible, a great either/or. Why not both?
["Provocations to Desire" in the New Statesman, 31 October 2014]

A former Faber poetry editor and an Oxford don, Craig Raine first found himself at the centre of controversy many years ago when his poem "Arsehole" faced a censorship call from self-proclaimed moral decency campaigner Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001). Yet the poem had, by 1999, settled into the literary canon, having been awarded a position in "101 Sonnets", ed. Don Paterson. (Faber and Faber):
" It is shy as a gathered eyelet
neatly worked in shrinking violet "

Perhaps the poet is now feeling like " a soiled and puckered hem" following the Twitterstorm tweeting/beating that has followed the publication of a poem called "Gatwick" in the London Review of Books.

This has also been an opportunity to throw some dynamite back at a poet-critic who has not been reluctant to demolish the work of others. The source-code joins up some of the old artillery of an establishment that has become self-divided in its litany of oblivion. As Philip Hensher wrote in the Spectator review:

'It’s important not to be too immediately dismissive of poor Craig Raine. Book reviewers and editors like him, who invent rigid literary principles and then dismiss anything that fails to embody them, have been on the decline since the 1970s. [...] The trouble is, no one is really interested any more. The day I received this book in the post, I found myself sitting at dinner next to one of Raine’s former protégés, and raised with him the curious fact that two of his recent books were entitled The Human Comedy and A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. These offerings had passed me by entirely, and one wondered what sort of person Raine was. ‘Poor old Craig,’ the protégé said, laughing merrily. ‘You see — he thinks it annoys people.’

The sexual politics of "Gatwick" has been fiercely attacked on the assumption that the poem's persona is the poet; but that aside it is difficult to find anything in the poem to celebrate or defend. If its worst crime is its banal ephemerality, there is at least the consolation that the viral controversy of the Twitterstorm will be equally short-lived. As wordsmiths everywhere came out of their closets, The Guardian summarised the popular participatory angle on the story:  

Seventy-year-old poet’s Gatwick, fantasising about a young airport worker, unleashes stream of parodies.

In the age of liquid modernity one is seldom faced with the authentic weight of a crime that cannot be redeemed by a witty riposte.

Craig has previously written a defence of TS Eliot; will fellow poets of the next generation come to his assistance. It appears unlikely. But I am also curious to read the responses of the literary establishment, whether in the London Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement . For its part, The Spectator has queried,

Can Twitter not cope with a slightly fruity poem?

Which merely served to fuel the assertions that this was not merely a problem of content and message, but the quality of the verse.

But for the moment Craig Raine has been thrown into a public arena that is bigger and bolder and noisier than anything that he, or Mary Whitehouse, dared ever dream on, when the celebrated anality of a sensational "worn mouthpiece" faced censure and censor.

But with the laughter comes the forgetting. Incidentally,  "101 Sonnets" ed. Don Paterson. (Faber and Faber) is well worth reading, and "Arsehole" deserves its place alongside other celebrated sonnets by Donne, Frost, Graves, Shakespeare, Stevens, Wordsworth, Hill, Yeats, Hardy, Rossetti, Milton ...

I picked up my copy of "101 Sonnets" in the "five-for- pound" box in a Leeds charity shop last week.  That's cheaper than bog roll, but not quite as soft. Who says we are not a nation of poetrykeepers? As Raine opines in the final line of "Arsehole":

I fed that famished mouth my ambergris.