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One is of course unshockable nowadays. But should the relatively small space devoted to poems each week in the LRB be filled with grotesqueries such as appeared in your issue of 24 May? Ms Pitt-Kethley’s nauseating comments on the smokers she takes to bed with her are not merely unbelievably nasty in their implications, but sick – an insult to your women readers, to the men they like and admire, and to a tradition of poetry that can accommodate John Wilmot, but prefers Andrew Marvell. By these standards Mr Mark Ford’s two banal exhibits are not poetry at all.
Elizabeth Hill charges Fiona Pitt-Kethley with insulting women, men and poetic tradition in her poem ‘No Smoking’ (Letters, 14 June). It is true that in a certain sense Ms Pitt-Kethley might be said to play the latterday Swift to her own Celia with the ribald, sometimes raunchy and always refreshing glimpses which she affords into her own (or into someone’s) experience: but such glimpses could only be said to insult a vision of women which would deny them their full humanity by placing them on a pedestal of rectitude and so-called purity.
It is furthermore true that Ms Pitt-Kethley dishes up a blow to masculine self-esteem when she depicts lover-boy fiddling with her protagonist’s tits, in that men might not like to think of the women to whom or upon whom they bestow their love-making gifts as capable of such a shrewd, lucid, lofty, wry or Olympian perspective – i.e. looking down upon them in all their puny ineffectiveness. Men prefer to think of women as swooningly lost in the face of those all-dissolving thunderbolts which they have thrown or are preparing to throw: but to say that Ms Pitt-Kethley insults men by thus exposing them is to say that men should never suffer the perhaps rude awakening of being shown to themselves as women see them.
As for the alleged insult to poetic tradition, all I can say is that in the midst of too many contemporary poems which either try to pass off their flaccid and banal domestic prosiness as verse or which try to out-Stevens Stevens in their coy, inaccessible and otiose ruminations upon something which may or may not be said to resemble a self, I am inclined to see that tradition as enhanced and revitalised by someone who can employ but at the same time wittily heighten (as in the wonderful last line of her poem) such language as men and women really use.
Franconia, New Hampshire
So, Fiona Pitt-Kethley ‘can employ but at the same time heighten … such language as men and women really use’, and that saves her from the charge of insulting women and men in her crude artless poetry? I don’t think William Guy (Letters, 26 July) is answering the question. The line ‘while lover boy is fiddling with my tits’ offends because it is unhealthy for sexual partners to spectate. Never mind the question of love, this is a recognised pathological problem. One partner will spectate, and not fully participate, in order to retain power, humiliating the responsive or giving partner. That way, you can both cash in and disparage. These are some of the worries dealt with in Ian Hamilton’s excellent ‘Soliloquy’ (LRB, 26 July). To write brutally is to start to think brutally.
Victoria University of Wellington,