Our quarterly journal The Poetry Review woke me up recently with a discussion of offensiveness in poetry. It began with three essays in their summer edition and continued this autumn.
The writers are debating poems that invoke attitudes on race, gender, sexuality and so on. Coarse language is covered but their primary target is whether poets are justified in giving voice to values that will be deeply offensive. This is a longstanding debate in literature but it parallels the dispute in academic circles today about whether lecturers should be allowed on campus if their views might upset anyone. Looking further afield, there are religious groups who extend their notion of heresy to condemn the free expression of views from others.
So, how far may poets go in treading on sensitivities?
Let’s deal quickly with sex. There have always been poems in bad taste. The writers quote some famously crude Latin poems. Two of the essays mention a poem that became notorious a couple of years ago: Keats is Dead so....... I recoil from quoting even the title. Look it up on the internet. Written by a young New Zealand woman,
Hera Lindsay Bird, it is less about sex than death and an affirmation of life. However, even though the crude language may shock, that’s not really the issue.
The focus becomes clearer with the discussion of a poem by a young male writer, Bobby Parker, published in The Best British Poetry 2015 (Salt). Again, I’ll spare you the title but you could Google “thank you for ...”. This poem also was not primarily about sex but it caused great offence to those who felt it treated women as mere objects. It’s misogyny that is at issue: ten thousand years of it.
The Poetry Review debate includes two poems by older male poets which portray an elderly man’s sexual interest in young women while cruelly disparaging women their own age. Both raised a storm of criticism: Climbing Everest by Frederick Seidel, who is described as ‘the moustache-twirling villain of American poetry’ but who has a substantial following, and Gatwick from Craig Raine who became famous with A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. They are established poets with distinguished reputations, here seen taking risks. Seidel was more readily forgiven, possibly because his poem turns unambiguously against the speaker, confessing the helplessness of an old man dependent upon a female carer.
The essayists spend time considering whether these poems are well written. There is an implied message about “art redeeming crudity”, as one contributor puts it – the defense in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. That might excuse simple bad taste, but the main question is about the moral responsibility of writers to others.
This is most evident in their consideration of racial attitudes. There is no reference to the well-trodden debate over TS Eliot and anti-Semitism. Their test case is a controversial modern poem called The Change by Tony Hoagland. In this the speaker is a white male who remembers an occasion when he hoped that a white tennis player would defeat “a big black girl from Alabama” The description of the black player stings with racial stereotyping and the speaker’s instinctive preference for the white player is transparent:
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips.
If we confine ourselves to close reading of the text we might conclude that Hoagland was celebrating a historic change in racial attitudes in America. The poem’s title is the first clue. Halfway through we read:
There are moments when history
passes you so close
you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
and touch it on its flank.
Moreover, at the close we find:
and in fact everything had already changed—
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.
One who could not excuse this poem’s racial stereotyping was Claudia Rankine. She was angry. In her book Citizen: An American Lyric, she spelt out the numerous and daily micro-aggressions that black people encounter, in addition to major injustices that are better known. Understanding this puts the Hoagland poem in an entirely different context, one in which racial stereotyping and tribal loyalty come smartly to the foreground.
What should we say then of the poet’s rights and duties?
It was Shelley who wrote about poets being “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. In A Defence of Poetry, he considered the effects of poetry upon society. It brings pleasure. It can awake an ambition of becoming like Achilles, Hector, and Ulysses. Poetry “lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world”. He argued that, to be good, people must imaginatively put themselves in the place of others – and that poetry enlarges the imagination. More: “Poetry redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man”.
He overstated his case even then, and today cinema and television have far more reach than literature. But he was surely right that works of imagination can shape minds and consequently shape society. Why else would totalitarian regimes seek to control writers? Let’s acknowledge that writers have responsibilities to society but that literature should be a place in which established thought – even taboos – may safely be challenged.
And now a postscript: I’ve just read CS Lakshmi’s piece in The Wagon Magazine (Sept 2017) on the death of HG Razool. She regrets how little support he received from fellow writers when he was forced by religious authorities to apologise for a book of poems, Mailanji, which “according to him, was a way of asserting that there is no such thing as one Islamic way of life with which all Muslims, from whatever region and whatever gender, can identify themselves”.
CS Lakshmi ended with the image of the hoopoe or hudhud bird which, though its wings be broken, flies forever in the search for truth.