This morning I slightly misunderstood the topic of a student’s dissertation, which I misheard as ‘Poetry and the New Man’. It sounded interesting, as I had vague memories of the New Man (caps or not? – no pun intended). A recent BBC online news mag asked ‘Whatever happened to the term New Man?, and defined it as ‘a once radical way to describe a male who wholeheartedly accepted equality in domestic life’, asking ‘But 30 years on, what has happened to the term?’
Lots of students want to do dissertations on ‘the changing role of women’, and the gender switch seemed a refreshing notion. So I was ready to suggest three representative poetry collections by men through which the changing ‘role’ of men would be evident across the contemporary period, meaning from roughly 1970 till now.
These are the three I came up with, with a gap of about twenty years between each one: firstly, Douglas Dunn’s Terry Street (Faber, 1969), in which the male speaker is a student lodger in a working-class street in Hull, observing family life in a detached way (men going off early to work, women pushing prams, going to the shops, coming back from a night out, and so on).
Secondly, Don Paterson’s Nil Nil (Faber,1993), in which the persona clings to the Dundee working-class roots which his education pulls him away from, and writes with fierce and angry tenderness about his father teaching him how to drink a bottle of pop (in ‘Heliographer’) or being patronised by a Hi-Fi salesman (in ‘An Elliptical Stylus’).
And thirdly, one of our ‘Devolved Voices’ poets, Jonathan Edwards’, My Family and other Superheroes (Seren, 2014), which recently won the Costa Poetry Prize. In this book the family is embraced, celebrated, and choreographed as a kind of limitless resource of chaotic and surreal energies, and the father poems are tender without the angst, as this poet too learns how to handle fizzy drinks while cozied up in the dark of the cinema with his father – ‘I sit here in the darkness with my father/ slurping Pepsi’ (the opening of ‘The Death of Doc Emmett Brown in Back to the Future’). Certainly the ‘role(s)’ of men have been changed and pluralized, and, yes, it’s there in the poetry. Two questions: (1) is it a coincidence that all these books are debut collections? And (2) What would be your three poetry collections from the same period on this topic?
Masculinity in poetry in this period is complicated by the strange but dominating presence of the psychobiological input from Ted Hughes which gets taken up by Seamus Heaney – the most feared and respected poets during that time. This is extremely conservative in its premises and equates gender for the most part with hormones. It takes its most conspicuous form, though, poetically, in the obsession with the Muse, the idealised feminine figure who dominates the ideology of Crow and Heaney’s bog people poems. The male poet is represented as having a sado-masochistic relationship with this transcendent feminine figure, and the result is a very unfortunate gender sickness, which may have played a role in the growing unpopularity of poetry. It’s connected, on the one hand, to an assumption that male violence is inevitable (as in Hughes’s poem ‘A Motorbike’ where men are shown finding the peace after the Second World War as terribly boring, and in which war is depicted as like an erection and peace as like detumescence (they hang around ‘limply’).
A much better gender role model is in Paul Muldoon who often, at the start of his career, parodies the father-son relationship that obsessed Heaney, as when, in ‘Mules’ he rhymes ‘father’ and ‘other’. Muldoon crucially introduces the metaphor of the hybrid, as in his ‘mule’ motif, which also slyly undermines traditional gender assumptions.