David Kennedy: Boys' Zone: Aspects of masculinity in some recent British poetry

In The Inward Gaze: Masculinity and Subjectivity in Modern Culture (1), Peter Middleton argues that

Modern men writers have revelled in masculinity without ever quite naming it, in works as different as James Joyce's Ulysses, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Yeats's poetry or Charles Olson's Maximus Poems; manhood fascinates modern men writers even if they don't quite own up to it. {3}

If this seems an obvious point to make about the cultural products of a male-dominated tradition and discourse, it is worth considering Michael Kimmel's observation - which Middleton quotes - that `gender is invisible to me because that is where I am privileged. I am the norm. I believe that most men do not know they have a gender.' {11} In what follows, I shall explore masculinity and masculine subjectivity as it is manifested in some examples of recent British poetry that does not seem to know that it has a gender and that, in Middleton's terms, revels in masculinity without ever quite naming it. The poets whose work I examine are Andrew Motion and Craig Raine, two important writers who came to prominence in the 1970s and early 1980s and whose exploitation of, respectively, narrative and metaphorical strategies has been highly influential.

However, I think it is important to enter two caveats before proceeding. It can be argued that a male critic discussing masculinity may serve to reinforce and revalidate the privileged position masculinity already holds. My defence is that this essay seeks to contribute to a wider debate about and understanding of what Peter Middleton - quoting Genevieve Lloyd - calls `the possibly masculine character of many [...] "cultural ideals of reason"'. {11} Second, lack of space precludes me from laying down a detailed theoretical account of masculinity and masculinity subjectivity. I shall examine them as they are manifested in the poetry I discuss and, at the same time, I shall draw, as appropriate, on ideas from a number of writers on gender, language and writing.

Andrew Motion is acknowledged as one of the founders of the so-called `new narrative' or `secret narrative' school of poetry prominent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A poetry which, in the words of Motion's poem `Open Secrets', revolves around `hiding/in fictions which say what we cannot admit to ourselves' (2) could be seen as a characteristically male strategy for avoiding self-examination, a kind of deflected inwardness. However, what I want to focus on is not `new narrative' per se but Motion's 1991 collection Love In A Life. (3) The book's colloquial language and its focus on marriage and relationships seem to promise something that is at once more intimate and less oblique than `new narrative'. The book is in three parts. Accounts of two marriages sit either side of a group of poems which can be said to deal with aspects of male experience and male subjectivity; and the book ends with a description of a thunderstorm and its aftermath which may be read as an update of the Romantic sublime.

Love In A Life is a skeletal novel but its defining concern seems to be not the marriages it anatomises but death; and what animates its subjectivity is not love or passion but intellect. Many poems place the reader in the presence of a cool, dissecting `I', restlessly awake, confronting memories, dreams and reflections of death or visions of freezing and petrification. The accents at work in `Cutting' {17} might be taken as characteristic of the voice of an intellectually narcissistic morbidity

Then the ice floes collapse
and here comes the sea.
I am dead to the world.
It is all as I thought.
And who might you be?

If these lines suggest a masculine faith in the intellect which, in its turn, assumes an irrevocable separation from the feminine principle then this is further underlined by Love In A Life's portrayal of women. Women have limited roles: they are either passive, silent, weeping or dead. Indeed, dead or dying young women, together with the poet's dying mother, feature at least eight times; and the only time we hear a woman's voice it is talking about murder and then remembering the death of a woman friend. Love In A Life gives us a version of what Julia Kristeva has defined as the `ab-ject':

[T]he autonomy or substance of the subject is called into question, endangered. I am solicited by the other in such a way that I collapse. This solicitation can be the result of fascination, but also suffering the other disgusts me, I abhor it, it is - we are - waste, excrement, a corpse: it threatens me. (4)

In this context, a line from Love In A Life might best describe its own portrayal of women: `None of this has much to do with girls.' {37} Paradoxically, however, if women are portrayed in death to protect the male subject from dangerous solicitation, they are also portrayed as the carriers of both articulacy, consciousness and the life force. The paradox is made most explicit in what is perhaps Love In A Life's most startling and vivid image, a dream in which

[...] in the Black Museum

[...]I met a woman six inches high,
hollow, white tunic, blue-green sash at the waist,

holding a basket of flames.
Her china face
had its features kissed away,
but the eyes were yours.


It is possible to interpret this dream in terms of Jungian symbols. (5) The image of a featureless doll-woman suggests that, in the male subjectivity of Love In A Life, woman has an inadequate or underdeveloped consciousness of her own. However, the doll may also stand for an inadequate relation between the conscious and the unconscious which would certainly fit with the book's overall emphasis on intellect and rationality. More problematically, Jungian psychology often reads fire as a symbol of unrealized consciousness and the image of the doll-woman, identified as the protagonist's partner, holding the basket of flames therefore suggests woman as the keeper of man's unexamined and largely untransacted consciousness. The symbology of the dream would seem to confirm Love In A Life's more generalised confusion about women and about an integrated subjectivity.

Love In A Life can also be read in the context of Peter Middleton's analysis of the complex position of violence in masculine subjectivity. He argues that violence between males - especially in boyhood, adolescence and early manhood - destroys `their ability to use emotion as a language as well as their ability to articulate their feelings.' {120} He also notes that violence is represented culturally as an `erotic physical display' of `hypermasculinity'. {40}

Motion's poem `A Blow to the Head' {28-31} portrays various acts of violence involving men. The narrator's wife is slapped by a youth on the Paris metro and spends the rest of the journey weeping `through every station into Paris,/ her head on my shoulder like love at the start of its life.' {28} To quote from Middleton again, each blow does indeed seem what he terms `a species of caress' {40} Later in the poem, the narrator recalls being slapped as a child so hard `it opened a roof in my head' {29-30} which implies that masculine subjectivity responds to the loss of self and of rational response that violence allows, a loss that Middleton argues is akin to the experience of the sublime. The poem ends with another childhood memory of trying to pet a neglected and abused dog which misinterprets the poet's `opening hand' as a threat {31} This suggests not only that male behaviour always involves the possibility of violence but also that the male expression of tenderness is somehow inextricable from violence.

The possible links between emotional display and violence are also relevant to the relationships between fathers and sons. Middleton refers throughout The Inward Gaze to the difficulty that males of different ages have in articulating their relations with one another and to the way that relations are often displaced into fetishized objects or stories. Motion's poem `The Bone Elephant' {40-43} seeks a continuity between the narrator and his father in precisely this way. Both men have been present in Europe at momentous historical occasions: the father at the D-Day landings in World War II and the subsequent liberation of Europe; the son at the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The poem describes the poet buying a hat from a trader in Wenceslas Square despite it being too tight; the miniature elephant the poet's father carried undamaged throughout the war until he fell `down drunk/ and snapped one [of its legs]/ when peace descended {42}; and ends with the poet watching celebrations of the end of communism in Berlin and Prague on t v.

The poem not only shows how the male inward gaze is displaced outwards but would also seem to support Middleton's contention that one goal of masculine subjectivity is `unacknowledged intimacy with another man'. {9} This intimacy is only available, it would seem, under cover of the shared experience of collective action, an experience which cannot be described openly but only fetishized in the elaphant's broken leg and the uncomfortable hat. Similarly, the true nature of male experience can only be communicated in a displaced manner. Middleton recounts how his grandfather would never drink condensed milk having had to survive on it for two weeks during the war when stranded without food. {232} The broken leg of the elephant works in a similar manner, standing for the effect of the experience of war on the individual which can never be openly articulated. The hat seller is made to say

We are used to talking in circles
(my generation, my father's) -

We cannot take a straight line
or rise on each other's shoulders.


This clearly refers to life under communism but it can also be said to refer to an essential component in the performance of traditional masculinity and the difficulty of a straightforward transaction between different generations. The bone elephant which the poet took from his father when he `left home for good' now

lives on the plain
of my mantelpiece,
up to its ears
in postcards and junk,
one eye fixed

on the way to escape,
and one eye on me
as I drink up the news.


The image of the two eyes looking in opposite directions can be read as the desire for intimacy between generations and the simultaneous inability and unwillingness to acknowledge it. The hat which is too tight but is bought anyway might almost be said to function as a species of sado-masochistic initiation object by which the poet tries to understand his father's experience of Europe on D-Day:

[...] my father
reached dry land
by crushing the head
of a man who drowned
and was also his friend.

{40 - emphasis added}

The poem ends with images from t v - a man throwing his hat into the air, a man climbing on another's shoulders and spreading his arms - which function as ways of articulating the immensity and intensity of masculine experience which cannot be put into words. The final lines of the poem in which a demonstrator spreads

his arms
above Wenceslas Square
like a fisherman showing
the largest fish
his heart could desire


manages to turn a cliched gesture of male boasting into a poignant image of yearning. The gesture not only expresses the extent of the desire: it also states its accomplishment and enacts the accomplishment of the desire at the very place of expression. The demonstrator is free of the past, free of the Europe of corrupt, totalitarian regimes. The poet's parallel yearning to be free of traditional masculinity remains unfulfilled, an impossibility while the poet is forced to sit transfixed, like Coleridge's Wedding-Guest, by one eye of his father's fetish. He is a younger man disabled by the previous generation's untransacted experience subjectivity. Both things are untransacted because they are transmitted not as understanding but as displaced neurosis.

The disabling power of the inheritance is underlined by the contrast between the father's actions at the beginning of the poem and the demonstrator's at the end. The father saved himself by crushing a dead comrade's head. In his attempt to rise he disfigured another and the nightmarish description of French battlefields suggests he underwent a fall which resulted in a season in hell. The demonstrator, on the other hand, achieves a joyful apotheosis with the aid of his fellows. The final verses of `The Bone Elephant' imply two things. First, that relations between men are very different at the end of the twentieth century; and, second, that the poet is excluded because of the inherited neuroses of conventional masculinity.

Motion's poetry is anti-modernist in a manner traceable from Hardy or Thomas through to Larkin. Nevertheless, Love In A Life contains distinct echoes of the work of Craig Raine whose `martian' or `metaphor' poetry leads back to Joyce and other modernists. Motion's `Tamworth' {59-62} in which a young couple tour England's cathedral cities in a battered estate car owes a clear debt to Raine's `Gethsemane' in which lovers sleep out in a `rusted ninth-grade/ Morris van' (6). Likewise, Raine's poem `The Train Set' (7) in which a German toy connects the poet with the Holocaust may be discerned behind similar strategies in Motion's `The Bone Elephant'. This does not, however, describe a belated literary rapprochement but, rather, hints at a shared subjectivity.

First, there is Raine's emphasis on looking which John Carey has described as `a mammoth task of visual retrieval' (8) and Neil Corcoran has termed `perpetual revision'. (9) The poetry is relentlessly scopic and abounds in references to spectacles, windows, mirrors and monocles. The concern with looking as `re-visioning' allies Raine's poetry with some of the dominant strategies of male modernism - literary and otherwise - which Peter Middleton types as obsessed with `telescopic vision' used to reveal strange landscapes. {43} This is precisely what happens in `The Meteorological Lighthouse at O-' (10) where a lighthouse keeper's telescope shows the poet

a garden [...]
wearing its greenhouse
like an engagement ring

Second, Raine's published oeuvre begins with a sequence called `Yellow Pages' (11) which describes, in turn, six tradesmen and a tattooed man. What is interesting about the group is the way it suggests that being an adult male means participating in a system of economic exchange and valuation that is synonymous with the power to know and own `bad' things: dirt, blood, scandal. The suggestion is not simply that masculinity is defined by the power to know and own these things but rather that masculinity is defined by making power, knowledge and ownership into a visible performance. The poems also share an imagery of cutting and separation which also suggests that maleness is about the power to divide and parcel up the world.

The `Yellow Pages' sequence is also highly suggestive in what it says about the relationship of boyhood to manhood. The poem about a boyhood ice cream man {6} portrays him with a `circumcised bottle' of raspberry sauce which looks like `monkey's blood' and ends

He converted us. We came like savages
and left like a procession at Lourdes.

Middleton's discussion of the relationship between boys and men in the context of comic books is illuminating here. He observes that men are largely absent from the home which means that `the defining activities of manhood are largely invisible.' This, in turn, has the result that `Men's work is a mystery and mysteries create awe and longing (as many religious leaders have known).' {41} The direct consequence of this is that `Boys trade their belief. In return for admission to the picture palace of men's exploits, they provide the credence which makes it possible [...] this is the inner secret of manhood's relation to boyhood.' {42} Both of these elements are present in the poem. Raine manages to evoke a combination of primitive initiation ceremonies, transubstantiation and religious mystery that is both disturbing and grotesquely comic. The ice cream man heals the boys' longing for blood, for the violent mysteries of masculinity. The comic book is not overtly present but `Yellow Pages' as a whole has the feeling of a series of cartoon portraits or caricatures. In the context of the sequence as a whole, the poem about the ice cream man underlines a particular transaction between boyhood and manhood in which boys learn that a key part of masculinity is the translation of death and violence into socialized and universalized forms.

Significantly, perhaps, the most restrained and tender poem in the sequence is `The Tattooed Man' {7} which describes a man with, apparently, no inner life: it is all literally on the outside. The phrase `the bruised names of love' writes an interesting convergence with Middleton's `every blow is a caress'. {40} In this context, we might also note that the phrase which spans Raine's work from The Onion, Memory to Rich (12) is `Without thinking'. (13) This points to two possibilities: that `martian' poetry is somehow a species of automatic and, therefore, irresponsible writing; (14) and that it is a way for masculine subjectivity to focus attention on outward appearance and to substitute this for inner life.

The defining play of masculinity in Raine's poetry is perhaps made most explicit by reading his early poetry `backwards' from Rich. The autobiographical prose piece `A Silver Plate' {41-64} describes the difference between Raine's father and mother in terms of different narrative styles and subjectivities. The father's violent boxing anecdotes are `finished works of art', `worked and practised'. {46} Raine's mother, in contrast, produces `spontaneous memories' and `can remember the trivial in a way I find exciting'. {47} However, it is quite clearly Raine's father who excites him artistically and who can be detected behind the assertion in `Gethsemane' (15) that `Everything seems planned,/ arranged somehow, a work of art.'

Like his father's boxing stories, Raine's poetry often seems to have an element of men behaving badly about it, of deliberate bad taste and sensationalism. (16) As I suggested above, if `martian' poetry is automatic writing then, like other forms of automatic writing such as spirit dictation, it is also irresponsible writing. This irresponsibility is apparent, for example, in the descriptions of mosquitoes that have `paraplegic legs' and of cows whose eyes remind the poet of `some negro pianist/ muddy with dope'. (17) Raine has remarked in an interview with John Haffenden that he prefers a poet like Berryman, who has written about diarrhoea, to those who `limit themselves to the great safe themes.' (18) And yet, it is the female who, as in the poetry of Andrew Motion, is just discernible as the fount of articulacy, consciousness and life - quite literally in the case of Raine's mother who is the only person able to revive his father after one of his periodic epileptic seizures. (19) Similarly, in the poem about a Nazi officer, `Oberfeldwebel Beckstadt', it is the officer's wife who has the power to make him weep at the enormity of his crimes. (20)

To return to Raine's father and mother, we might say that his poetry enacts a process whereby the feminine - which is spontaneous and trivial - needs to be transmuted into the masculine, that is controllable and significant. Edward Larrissy, in Reading Twentieth-Century Poetry: The Language of Gender and Objects {159-170}, offers a persuasive argument that Raine's poetry makes an aesthetic virtue out of contemporary alienation. It might be more pertinent, however, to consider Raine's poetry in terms coined by Helene Cixous and say that it stands as an example of the `masculine libidinal economy' manifested in an obsession with `the realm of the proper'. For Cixous, the `proper' is `property, that which is not separable from me.' (21) A universe that is exciting in its spontaneity and triviality is also, necessarily, elusive and threatening to run away from the self. Raine's poetic counters this by fixing it with the work and practise of his metaphors.

The overt alienation that does occur in Raine's work is a textually momentary but nonetheless significant alienation from his father that is described at the end of `A Silver Plate'. The experience of being a scholarship boy at a public school confronts him with what he terms his `relative poverty', {64} a wonderfully alert pun which describes his family's economic situation and his specific embarrassment at his father's employment and unusual personality. However, by the time he enters the sixth form, he has overcome his embarrassment and is inviting schoolfriends home and finding that they are transfixed by his father's dirty jokes and bloody anecdotes. The young Raine feels `rich again' {64} He has been able to claim conventional masculinity like the magic treasure of a childhood fairytale. Like the boys at the ice cream van, he has been converted and healed.

In conclusion, a reading of some recent British poetry in terms of masculinity and masculine subjectivity can be said to be fruitful in a number of ways. First, it provides a defamiliarising perspective which enables poets to be seen in a different light. Second, in terms of poetry by older poets in which gender is an unacknowledged subject, it enables one to see how a masculine subjectivity might begin to be described, and, in the context of the wide influence of particular schools of poetry, how a male dominated discourse works to universalise masculine attitudes. In both areas, we are afforded an insight into the wider cultural performance which Peter Middleton calls `the reality of modern men's lives - struggles to articulate themselves and love others in ways that often seem to negate those intentions.' {232}


My thanks to Ian Gregson of University of Wales, Bangor and to Matt Campbell, Jackie Labbé and other members of the University of Sheffield English Literature Graduate Seminar 1996 for thoughts on an earlier draft of this piece.

1. (London: Routledge, 1992)
2. Andrew Motion, Dangerous Play: Poems 1974-1984 (Edinburgh: The Salamander Press, 1984), p.11.
3. (London: Faber and Faber).
4. Julia Kristeva, `Interview: Of Word and Flesh', with Charles Penwarden, in Stuart Morgan and Frances Morris, eds, rites of passage: an art for the end of the century (London: Tate Gallery Publications, 1995), p.22.
5. This reading of Motion's dream sequence is indebted to the following: Marie-Louise von Franz, Shadow and Evil in Fairytales (Dallas: Texas: Spring Publications, 1986) and Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (London: Routledge, 1989). Both volumes contain useful indices of archetypal images and dream symbols.
6. The Onion, Memory (Oxford: OUP, 1978), pp.38-9. Henceforth Onion.
7. A Martian Sends A Postcard Home (Oxford: OUP, 1979), pp.44-6, Henceforth Martian.
8. Quoted on the back cover of Onion.
9. English Poetry since 1940 (Harlow: Longman, 1993), p.236.
10. Martian, pp.34-5.
11. Onion,pp.2-8.
12. (London: Faber and Faber, 1984).
13. Onion,p.11 and Rich,p.69.
14. I am indebted to Diana Basham, The Trial of Woman: Feminism and the Occult Sciences in Victorian Literature and Society (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), for this concept.
15. Onion, pp.38-9.
16. Raine recounts some of these boxing stories in John Haffenden, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp.174-5.
17. Respectively, Martian, p.17 and Onion, p.23.
18. John Haffenden, Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), pp. 180-1.
19. Rich, pp48-9.
20. Martian, pp.22-3.
21. See Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London: Routledge, 1985), pp 102-126, for a useful introduction to and summary of Cixous's ideas.