The Female Poet and the Male Muse

By Clare Pollard My passion for poetry began in my early teens, when I developed a crush on three female writers – Anne Sexton, Dorothy Parker and Sylvia Plath. I devoured their poems, their prose, their lives. Apparently raw in their honesty, yet extremely artful, I learnt how each put on a performance of self calculated to shock, seduce and move. Whilst heterosexuality was at the heart of all their poetry – the psychiatric doctor, the Daddy, the Zoo-Keeper, Rumpelstiltskin, the ‘damn man’ who ‘breaks your heart in two’– it seemed clear to me that these women were their own muses. Their poetry was ‘the big strip tease’, a series of symptom recitals, suicide notes and strange, sexy self-portraits. Next to their glorious intense aliveness, the men in their work seemed crude monsters or paper-dolls. And yet, I liked men. I was always very much a father’s girl, and my closest friends have usually been male. I was perpetually in a state of unrequited love over some boy. Even as I attempted, Plath-like, to rail against Howard Buckley – a doe-eyed, gangly-limbed lad at my school who I pined for during Sixth Form – I couldn’t help but think about how lovely looking he was. And although I enjoyed attempting my own ‘strip tease’, I found my gaze repeatedly drifting away from the mirror and back to the object of my affection. Howard became my first muse, and I began to write seriously partly in a futile effort to seduce him – the result being my first collection, The Heavy-Petting Zoo. Eventually, when this strategy failed (poetry frightens teenage boys), I turned on him in The Last Love Poem – in a manoeuvre that highlights how, for all the poet’s prostration before their muse, there’s always a more complicated power-relationship at play: Did I call your eyes kind skies? They were painted sticky chlorine. Did I call your mouth perfection? It was just a splintered jut, Moles nestling below it like rooks. I take everything back. But despite renouncing him, a pattern had been set. I find my most successful poetry is intimate, addressed to a particular ‘you’ rather than to a general poetry audience. It is also often an entreaty – occasionally to be loved but, more importantly, to be understood. Finally, I think I began to realise that I am part of a new generation of feminist writers who find that the crudely cartoon versions of men as Nazis or Bastards (or chauvinistic ‘pigs’ in more recent texts such as Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife) are no longer relevant. The men we know are just as complicated and vulnerable as ourselves. Then, at university, I met my now-husband, Richard. At first, still under the influence of Plath & Co, I found this rendered my poetic voice mute. How could I write requited heterosexual love poetry? Would it not simply be sentimental slop? Does literature not end when the lovers finally kiss? After a while though, he began to figure as a character in my poems – saving my disastrous ‘Fantasy Dinner Party’ by doing the washing up; bringing me tea when I had a cold; cutting his foot on glass at a full moon party. Repeatedly, even when my subject was not romantic, I found myself directly addressing him. And at last, through studying a series of gay male writers, I began to realise that the poetry of everyday tenderness can be just as heart-

brow and penis” (a line that caused his most embarrassing encounter. and the Old Sow of Maenawr Penardd who eats her farrow. feverish and sleepy in the shade”. Look through artistic history and it would seem. when my mum told him rather loudly in a Greek restaurant that “I found that line about your penis really romantic. Swimming in Mission Beach he is “slippery as a dolphin in my arms”. Sylvia Kantaris certainly finds the idea of a male muse slightly absurd – in her poem The Tenth Muse in Dirty Washing: New and Selected Poems.stoppingly moving as the poetry of yearning. adding that this doesn’t mean women can’t write poems. with increasing frequency. In Fears of a Hypochondriac I fret obsessively over his sleeping. “Woman is not a poet: she is either muse or she is nothing”. of course. loving. There is no male equivalent of Petrarch’s Laura in the annals of literary history. simply. Her inspiration must be herself. the focus of my meditations on love. in effect. the role he has come to have in my work. serene. / Or braced. Though we joked about him being ‘my muse’ for a long time this is. I read Auden’s soft words for the “sleeping head” on his arm. who can’t play a note and keeps repeating ‘women haven’t got the knack’ in my most delicately strung. particularly Kerouac and Ginsberg) – but what has surprised me most in looking at the phenomenon is that they are almost exclusively gay. Blodeuwedd. that women do not have male muses.”) Recently. Thom Gunn waking to a hug: “the whole strength of your body set. Vincent Millay. many male muses – from the young man of Shakespeare’s sonnets to Neal Cassady (who inspired the Beats. or his “beautiful hairy chest”. Richard has become. . it reminded me of Clare’s dad. the Frank O’Hara of Steps who declares: oh god it’s wonderful to get out of bed and drink too much coffee and smoke too many cigarettes and love you so much Learning from these models. There are. suggest that being a muse requires a certain passivity that does not fit with the usual dynamic of heterosexual relationships. There are a few groundbreaking women who wrote of male beauty – Aphra Behn and Edna St. For some this is due to the muse’s position as a manifestation of the Goddess. gurgling body and “where veins thread” at his “wrists. and scented. but that the woman who chooses to do so: “must be the Muse in the complete sense: she should be in turn Arianrhod. or at least the object of a male gaze. to mine”. she mocks the idea of: this dense late-invented eunuch with no more pedigree than the Incredible Hulk. ear. loss or vulnerability. My poems admire his body: “splayed out. She should be the visible moon: impartial. wise”. For Robert Graves in The White Goddess. I have begun to research the topic further for a documentary for Radio 4. Others. and should write in each of these capacities with an antique authority. such as Francine Prose in her book The Lives of the Muses. for example – but their love objects are often transient and interchangeable.

seeking out a male muse is one way in which we can learn to write a richer. Even in our current culture. this black dress has looked suspiciously like a dress of mourning. is an intriguing case in point. the role-reversal that this poetic act entails is startlingly highlighted in Geisha as: I watch you lay out the geisha arts to do the giggle.This poem is a bravura performance. Selima Hill’s book Portrait of my Lover as a Horse. For the modern female poet. in a hundred poems. Interestingly though. James Fenton recently called the love poem “the little black cocktail dress” of poetry. and is capable of both acknowledging and enjoying our own desires. it might leave him feeling intimidated and impotent (perhaps explaining my lack of success with Howard Buckley). and makes the woman the active partner. in surprisingly androgynous terms – he becomes a virburnum or a sugarmouse. incandescent with rage or grief. and on which fantasies are projected. Some critics – probably recalling the sad stories of Lizzie Siddal. Muses are love objects to be wooed. dedicated to her husband Julian. in the seminal article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. features the beautiful My America. such a relationship risks both the man being mocked as a ‘himbo’. She playfully addresses herlover “O Lord”. and called for it to be dismissed entirely. but with whether the very act of looking at a man feels illegitimate. more joyful love poetry – one that celebrates both the men we share our lives with and our own sexuality. whilst simultaneously describing him. Far from seducing the love object. and exploring the complexities and political connotations of this. charm me too with your aplomb at passing the long white hours we’re apart. If poets attempt to seduce their muses. Whilst her lover is clearly not unmanly. and these contemporary female poets are showing that it is possible to reimagine the concept for our times. or Robert Graves’ entourage of ‘muses’– have dismissed the whole concept of the muse as sexist and dated. Ruth Padel’s collection Voodoo Shop is also a fascinating example – a love story told in a series of poems addressed to “you”. equating the male muse to some kind of dense. that feel like overheard love letters. that embraces men as our equals and partners. and women who view men as erotic objects are ‘transvestites’ who have adopted a manly habit. Alan Buckley . Spurned. Polly Clark’s Take me with You. as we do in the beauty of the world? For Laura Mulvey. we have become maenads and our own muses. There is an issue not only with men’s capacity to be muses. where she reverses Donne’s lyric – where the female muse was a conquered virgin country – and highlights her own role as active: “I set sail for you”. exposing and undermining the gendered language of love. then perhaps the female-poet/male-muse dynamic is so rare because it both ‘feminises’ the man. Yet love and beauty are eternal sources of inspiration. Why is it so preposterous for us to find inspiration in the men we love? Why are we not allowed to find nourishment in male beauty. which no collection should be without. where Beckham’s prettiness and Johnny Depp’s beauty are celebrated and fetishised by the mainstream. but very negative in its portrayal of masculinity. and the woman being perceived as mannish. sexist ‘Chippendale’ figure. Too often in heterosexual women’s poetry. it is because the very act of viewing is ‘masculine’. there are a new generation of female poets emerging who are allowing themselves to be inspired by male muses. But a new female poetry may finally be emerging.

Now comes the breathlessness the senseless throttling rage that makes me want to shout at bus stops I love him! See. I’ll list the things that stop me from being with you – marriage. on the famine memory march. working sets of push-ups and working me till I can hardly breathe – and even at the end you breathe lightly calmly your blood in its labyrinth quietly moving Yesterday you taught me faz cafuné gently to stroke someone’s hair I look past Gandhi to the road where in July the bus blew apart What rage to that? . like bloodied fighting cocks. did the weigh-up talk. as feelings pressure up from some persistent spring. and unsaid. Steven Lorimer Gandhi’s Statue. its feather on my neck. and sensed your breath. There was no shame. Tavistock Square She was telling how. glancing at the strip of skin under the shrunk-down tee – how anyone might have that shock. their insubstantiality their gift. she walked one year with Gandhi’s grandson who said Gandhi advised him to keep an anger diary and one day squeezed his head against his chest so hard he couldn’t breathe This is my anger diary. the opinion of friends – all that makes sure we never touch in public. drawn to the rolling strut and thrust of your tight hipsters. I squeezed my arms into the hug. I’m holding him! But you – you are anchored in yourself you turn your rage to concentration lifting the weights. children. thought to be long defunct. work.The gift I knew then. We eyed the women. the way men do. We both knew some things live quite happily in shadow. if I hadn’t known before – seeing you at that hippie bash in pink.

The road was closed till they washed the blood from the doctors’ building When I told you how in that terror I phoned my wife and daughters first you said Any married guy would do that You even like the bit of me that’s straight You get off the bus and cross the garden to me the slightly hunched Heath Ledger walk but with a grin and I know now under sharia we’d both be for the chop – but if they’d let us kneel in arm’s length of each other amid that public howl. as the scimitars go up I’ll hold your hand « Back to Magma 37 Supported by Arts Council • • • • • • • • • • Home Opportunities at Magma About Magma Buy Magma Magma Competition 2012 Digital Versions Authors chosen by editors for homepage Archive Contributions Newsletters .

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