In Which I Tell a Tale of Spunk and Reclaim the Word ‘vulgar’.

My sonnet, ‘Spunk’, inspired by Jacob Epstein’s monumental statue of Adam, was first published in ‘Binders Full of Women’, a ground-breaking Limited Edition chapbook created in 2013. I had tried to find a home for the poem before that, but funnily enough, magazine editors didn’t seem to like it much. I haven’t published the sonnet on this blog, but you can listen to it here at the TS Eliot Prize readings, about six minutes and 45 seconds in.

I first came across the sculpture at an exhibition of Modern British Sculpture at the Royal Academy, was simultaneously awed and shaken by it. I wrote ‘Spunk’ as a response. The original title was ‘Adam’, but my friend the wonderful poet Penelope Shuttle said the title was far too weak. ‘Why not call it ‘Spunk? she said, and so I did. Those were the those doldrum years for feminism, before the exposure of Harvey Weinstein and all the others like him, before the Me Too campaign. Of course we have always known (and tried to avoid) men like him and we have always understood what they are capable of; it’s just that we’ve been rather quiet about it until recently. In other words, my poem was not prescient in any way – although expressing the view at all in a poem, and especially in the form of a sonnet and taking up the story of Genesis from another perspective is perhaps a little iconoclastic. When I took ‘Spunk’ to an early draft to a workshop, my tutor, whom I deeply respected, felt so strongly that I’d misjudged the intention and mood of the sculpture, he immediately wrote a riposte sonnet (a really good one as it happens). The Adam he saw was innocent and vulnerable, nothing like the rampaging rapist I portray in the poem.

The poem was late addition to my collection Nine Arches collection,  ‘All My Mad Mothers’. Late, because I’d been nervous about what it was saying and the language used. It was my brilliant and fearless editor, Jane Commane, who believed in the poem and helped me find the courage to put it in the book.

In fact the sculpture itself has a strange history. It caused outrage when it was first exhibited in the 1930s (although not for the reasons it caused outrage for me). Decades before ‘Adam’ was recognised as a work of art, a showman bought it and toured it round fairgrounds in the USA as a ‘freak object’. It was also displayed, along with other Epstein sculptures, behind a red velvet curtain in an old draper’s shop before being given a home in the anatomical curiosities section of Louis Tussaud’s waxworks in Blackpool.

I used to avoid reading ‘Spunk’ at readings, afraid of offending people. Feminism was out of fashion for a couple of decades, but many of us were just biding our time and now that we’re out of the ladies’ powder room again – hurrah, it’s great to be allowed to stop powdering my nose – I’ve been proudly and loudly performing this poem at readings on a regular basis. Audiences are, on the whole, both delighted and relieved that I’m addressing, amongst other things, the ‘Why didn’t she just say no?’ argument:

‘Drunk on lust, pumped up with blood, he stands
broad on his plinth and howls for cunt. Who’d dare
to leave that call unanswered?’

I’m not usually one to write an analysis of  my own work, but don’t these lines speak of fear, power and the abuse of it, of historically institutional male dominance;  don’t they speak of women who feel confused, alone and undefended?

But what really galvanised me to blog about ‘Spunk’ was a comment overheard: a single word used by a well-known and respected older poet and editor – let us call him Richard – in the foyer of the Festival Hall. I had made the decision to read the poem as part of my set at the T.S. Eliot Prize readings in January. In the poem (you can listen to it here about 6 minutes and 45 seconds in), I use the correct nouns for both male and female genitalia; the title itself creates a strange kind of stillness in the audience.

Richard, the editor in question was overheard saying that he found my poem ‘vulgar’. The judgement contained in that word really struck me. I looked it up of course: lacking sophistication or good taste: a vulgar check suitmaking explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions; coarse and rude: a vulgar jokedated characteristic of or belonging to ordinary people. Yes, that last part is is where it gets interesting, and it goes on, it goes on! ‘From the Latin ‘vulgaris’, from ‘vulgus’ ‘common people … in ordinary use, used by the people’.

Common people, eh Richard? I’m happy to be one of those. But if I take what I think he actually meant, which is a direct comment on my subject matter and use of language, the nouns I’ve chosen to use in the poem : spunk, cock, cunt – it still leaves that word ‘vulgar’ hanging about and unsettling me.

It set me thinking about other poets writing around this subject (although I can only aspire to the brilliance of these gifted women poets):

Consider Anne Sexton’s ‘The Ballad of the Lonely Masturbator’ , its sexually explicit, emotionally vulnerable, terrifying intensity.

or Patti Smith’s devastating ‘Rape’

Or Salena Godden’s exuberant, furious, funny ‘My tits are more feminist than your tits’,

Or Patricia Lockwood’s viral poem ‘The Rape Joke’ 

or Sharon Olds’ ‘Satan says’

And compare those to to this ahem- beauty – from Alan Dugan published in 1967.

Even Yeats’ glorious ‘Leda and the Swan’ fills me with unease and I can’t help feeling the poet takes some prurient pleasure in some of the detail in the first half.

And what about Don Paterson’s Imperial? Can’t say I’m with Ruth Padel’s rather generous view of the poem as ‘brilliantly self-mocking, part-guilty part-jokey part-helplessly gleeful acceptance of male supremacy?’, even though it’s from the supposedly ironically titled collection ‘God’s Gift to Women’. The poem seems to glory too much in the astonished virgin woman’s deflowering and the man’s massive member.

As I said, poems dealing with the subject of sex and subjugation are not new. But increasingly, we are hearing the woman’s perspective and it’s about bloody time.

Surely, perhaps you’re thinking, there is space for women to write explicit, political poems without the being squashed under the heel of judgement by powerful older male editors? Well, no. That is precisely the problem. Richard the eponymous editor’s single comment carries the backwash of history with it and power of patriarchy in all its terrified and terrifying glory – and it was precisely that history that made me reticent about performing the poem for so many years. But I’m not reticent anymore and neither should you be. Write what you mean, use whatever words you like, get it out there and don’t be frightened. There are millions of us standing behind you and we have big voices. Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day and I’m reading some brilliant, courageous poems by women from the ME Too Anthology, brainchild of the incredible Deborah Alma, at the London launch  at Waterstone’s Tottenham Court Road at 7pm. I’m proud to be sharing their words.

Henceforth I reclaim Richard’s word ‘vulgar’. Let me be one of the common people, let me one of the common women.  My next book, out in Autumn 2019 is about fathers and believe me, there’s going to be plenty more vulgar poetry in that.

 

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