This blogpost comes from reaction to Kim Moore’s poem ‘I Let a Man’, which was published in The New Statesman in March, and which elicited a surprisingly strong comment on Twitter from a male writer who called the poem “horrible, unpleasant”, and appeared to accuse it of objectifying men, then later of being part of a “liberal backlash against men” which “seeks to denigrate and reduce them at every turn” and which if taken to an extreme “will result in the annihilation of men”, the critic then referenced the SCUM Manifesto of radical feminist and would-be Warhol assassin Valerie Solana.
What horrors were awaiting within, I wondered as I clicked with a quivering finger on the New Statesman website. Never having read Moore’s work (I subsequently have) I didn’t really know what to expect but I had read interviews with the poet online, and I found it hard to believe that the poem would be quite as bad as its critic made out. I was right. It isn’t bad at all. It’s a brilliant poem which should be celebrated by men and women alike.
I want to take a look at some of the ways the poem creates a disquiet that works through its female voice to to speak of an all-pervading sense of menace which, far from contributing to men’s obliteration, should grab them by the lapels and force them to look afresh at the effect they have, through their actions, on female psychology.
But first I cannot help wondering why a poem like this should create such a negative response in a male reader. There is a clear sense of fear in such over-the-top reactions; this is expressed more or less openly in the use of a word like “eradication” – some men read their own destruction in critiques of male behaviour towards women, much as some white people fear (on various levels) increases in non-white populations. Upping the ante from the mere diminishing of power to the (il)logical extreme of entirely losing the right to exist provides a useful rhetorical hook but also smacks of panic-induced desperation.
In this angry reaction there is also a blindness (wilful or not) to the function of a poem – or at least one of the many functions – which is the fact that poems are able to break free of dominant discourses and provide both writer and reader with a vision of what lies behind such discourses. They need to be read as opportunities to look from a new perspective: I am a man; a woman has written a poem which provides a woman’s perspective on men; I can learn something new about men; I can learn something about myself. Unfortunately poetry is a medium that requires scalpel and tweezers and we live in an age of clubs and axes.
The writer has also mistakenly identified the objectification of men. We are simultaneously ‘selves’ and examples of a ‘kind’. You cannot be yourself without being one of many others who share characteristics that affect your relationship with the outside world. Asking critical questions about your own ‘kind’, (especially if the particular group you belong to is and has been the principal oppressor throughout the history of the modern world) is no more or less than the responsible thing to do.
Poetry provides the cultural space for women (and everyone for that matter) to vocalise identity without reference to hegemonic and patriarchal expectations (cf recent examples Blakemore, Collins, Tamás). If this space also presents men with the opportunity to consider critically male subjection of women, well that is not objectification, it’s a gift we should accept gratefully.
On to the poem itself.
The word “let” bears a great deal of the emotional weight here; its repetition seems to incant into existence a feeling of self-recrimination that creates the sense of a female voice speaking from within something it cannot escape. That the reader comes to the voice from the outside allows them to see the menace, coercion, bullying and abuse that the speaker does not seem able to name. It is the dissonance between what the speaker acknowledges and what the reader infers which builds into the poem an impression of a misogyny bigger and more all-pervading than either the female speaker or the various male protagonists are aware. The poem is doing many other things but it seems to me that this sits behind everything else.
The whole idea of letting a man across the threshold of a house has vampiric associations, a use of the just-out-of-view supernatural which builds on word choices such as “space”, “shadow” and “light” (three consecutive line endings) to hint towards the female speaker as filmic or literary victim of some genre-evil. The very language of the poem in this way becomes part of the culture (in both senses of the word) that traps the ‘character’ it creates.
The shadow and light also sets up a critique of the black-and-white nature of the choice imposed on women, knowingly or unknowingly, by men – once a tacit agreement for sex has taken place, there is an expectation that it will be followed through, because “a mind is not for changing”. As if a mind is for anything else. This is a false binary which is approached first through the abstracts of dark and light, then developed in the opening and closing of lift doors, simulating the jarring clash of body against body, and finally brought to its quiet ‘climax’ in the extraordinary final line “I open then I close my eyes” – the culmination of having accepted the false binaries throughout the poem, the speaker finally really only has two choices left: either to open her eyes and look at her unwanted partner during sex, which she cannot bear to do, or to close them and pretend it’s not happening, which she does.
I’m only touching on the surface of what this poem contains that is worth analysing and discussing. I would encourage anyone, and yes, I think particularly men, to read it, share it and talk about it. But don’t just write it off as man-bashing.
You can read ‘I Let a Man’ at the New Statesman, here.