Like a Snake in a Zoo

Like a snake in a zoo.

The reaction to the publication of Craig Raine’s shambolic poem ‘Gatwick’ in the London Review of Books has followed a pattern we have seen before, notably when the Paris Review published Frederick Seidel’s ‘The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri’ last November.

Briefly, the reaction follows this trajectory:

Someone discovers the poem and points it out on social media. There is initial surprise and disbelief as readers realise that a well-known poet has produced such a journeyman’s knick-knack. Then, something about the poem becomes the object of general outrage. In the case of Seidel’s poem, it was that he had spoken about the black experience without having the authority to do so. His was a hollow empathy (‘I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County’). With ‘Gatwick’ it is that an older male poet of the establishment has once again expressed lust for the bodies of younger women and nothing else about them (‘I want to say I like your big bust. / Which you try to disguise with a scarf.’). The end of the reaction comes when it is agreed that we can properly despair about the state of literature and the system that it exists in and reflects. In the present instance, the fact that ‘Gatwick’ appeared in the LRB, with its dismal VIDA numbers, is held up as evidence that things are not getting better. As one person on Twitter put it: ‘I just read the Craig Raine poem and had to buy 60 quid’s worth of books by women, about women to counter its effect.’

So far, this reads like a condensed version of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief, consisting solely of denial, anger, and depression. But we haven’t reached the last, vital stage—acceptance.

Or we didn’t with Seidel. But at least one wise and calm response to ‘Gatwick’ has appeared; Sophie Hannah has defended Craig Raine’s right to compose a bad poem with the argument, as paraphrased by a very gifted Guardian subeditor, ‘Craig Raine should be free to express a fleeting moment of horniness.’ And there is also another type of acceptance that has popped up around ‘Gatwick’—parody.

It may be down to some trans-Atlantic difference, or possibly it’s just because Raine’s poem is so exquisitely risible, but ‘Gatwick’ has been parodied in a way that ‘The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri’ was not. (And don’t forget, Seidel’s poem contained howlers like ‘Skin color is the name. / Skin color is the game.’) It was Alex MacDonald who first highlighted the poem’s standout lines:

Soon, the poets of Twitter realised that they had been given a jewel beyond compare. ‘Like a snake in a zoo’ began to appear in the unlikeliest places, in some of the best-known poems in English.

John Goodby thought of Auden:

More than one person believed that Larkin had the answer:

The Spectator’s Sam Leith took a hard sideways look and found Leonard Cohen:

Or were the rhythms of nursery rhymes underneath it all?

Ian Duhig brought Plath to bear on the problem:

Keston Sutherland came up!

And even I got in on the act, as I smuggled a snake into Pope:

It got so that the Scottish Poetry Library speculated that ‘like a snake in a zoo’ might be the next ‘thing’:

But let’s face it: ‘like a snake in a zoo’ isn’t really going to become a meme. Nevertheless, I think it’s healthy to deal with difficult moments in literary life by engaging closely with them, as the body filters out toxins by concentrating them. Or, to use another medical analogy, it’s nice to face the new and strange by juxtaposing it with something familiar, like when you bring a friend with you to go to the doctor.

Another thing that’s better to do with a friend is laughing. And surely when confronted with bad art it’s better to laugh than inveigh. The most dignified and democratic critical reaction is mockery. A leading periodical may have published a poem that makes you scratch halfway into your head, and the establishment, with its male gaze, may appear to be smugly unchallenged, yet, in some small way, the people have won.

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