The incredible unembarrassability of Craig Raine

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It’s a rare day when a poet trends on Twitter, but then the Craig Raine poem that appeared in the most recent edition of the London Review of Books was a rare piece of work. Called Gatwick, it’s a thigh-rubbing evocation of an old man’s desire for young female flesh in airports; although with lines such as “She is maybe 22,/ like a snake in the zoo” and “I want to say I like your big bust,” it’s hard not to suspect that Raine’s muse would be a happier creature by far if an overdue bout of erectile dysfunction could unchain her from the poet’s dribbling lust.

Of course, the theme itself is not an unusual one – Gatwick is more spectacular in its badness than in its crassness. Thanks to the marvel of masculine unembarrassability, I know more than I need to about the sexual tastes of many men of letters: Tess of the d’Urbervilles taught me that Hardy was a boob man, and with the help of the magnificent 1982, Janine, I could probably plan a highly successful night in for Alasdair Gray. But maybe Raine has detected that the world is not quite so hospitable to his horn as once it was, and one of the themes of Gatwick’s gammy lines is a pricking sense of shame undercutting the licence he feels he can claim as a literary figure. “I can say these things, I say,/ because I am a poet and getting old./ But of course, I can’t,/ and I won’t. I’ll be silent.”

Whether the young women of terminal 4 who must now go unpropositioned feel quite the same regret is questionable, and perhaps it would have been happier for all concerned if the LRB had tactfully made Raine’s silence a little more complete. Twitter, however, had plenty to say, some of it in verse. Padraig Reidy offered this tribute: “To be fair to Craig Raine/ most poetry’s about perving/ The trick is not not make it sound/ so unnerving.” But Gary Bainbridge found the positive in the potentially excruciating: “isn’t it just lovely that we’re all chatting about poetry?”

This is a longer version of a piece that appeared in the Guardian Review, 6 June 2015. Photo by Nathan Rupert via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons.