Felix Dennis is doing it. Tom Waits is doing it. Jack Palance, Leonard Nimoy and others have done it too. (In fact, Dennis does it a lot to female-only groups.) Valentine’s Day is when everyone does it. So I shouldn’t have been so surprised when male friends came out in a rash of poetry that they just had to show me – or worse, read to me. True, some of them are published proper poets. But there’s something fishy going on when you’re asked, in the middle of Slovakia by a middle-aged man who is about to give you a book of his own self-published verse, “Do you like poetry?”
The answer is no. Well, anyway, not yours. It’s not that I dislike poetry as an art form. Every culture has poetry; we need it as a form of self-expression. It is also a useful around Valentine’s Day, when fancy turns to something more baldly stated.
But this most mighty art is also misused as a tool of courtship. Showing a poem to someone who really doesn’t want to read it, or hear it read aloud is poetry abuse. When a strange man wants me to read what his poetry, it isn’t about ponies or flowers, I get nervous.
Poetry may beckon a soul mate to further intimacy – but sometimes that other soul doesn’t want to go. It’s like I’m back in high school and Kyle Bussen is singing the terrible song he wrote for me. Or I am back in graduate school where Robert Gordon reads me his awful self-penned poems when he should be teaching me Ancient Greek. These are uncomfortable places I do not wish to revisit. For one, I can never again be that polite to a nincompoop.
Nor am I alone in this feast (or infestation?) of male poetry. My friends are experiencing an onslaught of impulse poetry. Therese, who started dating after her divorce a few years ago, was plied with bad poetry on the third date:
Your body is slender and fine
a slinky beautiful line
your navel is sweet
and so are your feet
But all I want is you to be mine!
“I don’t know if you could call something so mawkish poetry,” she says, “It did show me that he probably couldn’t communicate as an adult. I suppose he thought it was amusing and sexy but it had the opposite effect. He hadn’t even seen my navel at that point.” She turned down further dates.
Elizabeth Speller is a prize-winning poet and author of the recent Return of Captain John Emmett (Virago, 2010). Even she has been the object of bad poetry. “It is a complete and utter deal breaker,” she says. “You can be insanely in love and then a naff poem arrives and it is simply not negotiable. You can’t see them in that light again. It’s a bit like discovering they want to do adult baby stuff. A bad poem is a love torpedo.”
The poetry Speller has received has been so awful that she couldn’t keep it on her computer. “I have had ones which, failing to find suitable rhyme for Elizabeth, remade my name to something less technically challenging – not even Lizzie which rhymes with dizzy, fizzy, etc. – but Beth and even Eliza, neither of which I use.”
Perhaps men turn to poetry if they feel they have nothing left to prove – or nothing left to lose. As age robs us all eventually, so too can divorce, downsizing and depression. There is nothing wrong with using poetry in private situations where one analyses one’s self in Iambic pentameter. But to thrust your personal, remedial poetry forward as a way of making new friends, of gaining approval or seeking love is cruising for a bruising. The risk is too great. Poetry, like painting, drawing, music and dance, is an art form that is actually quite difficult to do well.
According to Katy Evans-Bush, a poet and blogger who teaches poetry and whose second volume of verse Egg Printing Explained (Salt Publishing) is out next year, there are reasons for this poetic splurge. “I think it is a mid-life bid to return to some deeper spiritual values,” she says. “The recession is challenging our shopaholic quest for meaning and sending people back to more eternal truths, what is really important in life.”
“I think too that writing poetry might be something successful men – especially successful creative men – go “back” to after they’ve become successful at something else,” she says. “Poetry is an important art that is common to all cultures which makes midlife lotharios even more lame. To them it is just self-expression, which is why their poetry is so bad.”
Described as the greatest love poet of his generation, Ian Parks blames Lord Byron for this sudden flood of courtship verse from men who’ve hardly held a pen. “All our preconceptions about what a Romantic poet should be can be traced back to him,” says Parks, whose Love Poems 1979-2009 were published by Rack Press in 2010. “Women swooned when he walked into a ballroom and the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ tag stuck. It’s also stuck with male poets to this day. There is an intimate connection that exists between poetry and love. Some of our greatest poets have been love poets – Shakespeare, Donne, Hardy and Graves.”
“Men who never read or write poetry feel compelled to present their verses to a women they want to date because putting something into writing fixes it and preserves it; it also intensifies it. And it’s this intensity, I think, that explains the connection between poetry and love.”
Parks also thinks that there is also a manliness and a unique sincerity to poetry that has nothing to do with cheap seduction. “My father was a miner in the South Yorkshire coal fields. There were no poetry books in our house when I was growing up – but I heard lots of it as he used to recite reams and reams of it by heart as he was getting ready to go to the pub, all learned at school,” he says. “Poetry is something he never would have admitted to among his mates at work. Most men think poetry isn’t for them but are quite willing to reach for it when wooing a woman. I think men recognise that there are times when only poetry can say it. Often the poetry is bad but that doesn’t seem to matter.”
But bad courtship poetry matters, at least to me. So, what’s a man to do when he feels he cannot help but show the object of his affections the verses he has slaved over? According to Speller, he should either write, “a genius poem – or send a real, beautifully chosen poem by a poet. There are so many superb love poems, a lover would do better to bring some twigs of apple blossom, some home made bread or an old book than set a hand to verse.”
Or he can, as one chap did with Parks, ask a real poet to write a proper verse, much like a modern Cyrano de Bergerac because the right poem by the right poet might get you into bed in a minute. Do the wrong thing, and the door will slam in your poetic face. This is because there is a division between poetry written as therapy and that written as art: rarely the twains meet. As for me, if you’ve written poetry as a way of telling me about your feelings, maybe you should opt for an interpretive dance instead? At least then it’s okay for me to laugh.