Bad Tenderness by Andrew Spragg
Part of a continued essay series about notions of tenderness, radical or otherwise, by Andy Spragg. The series is being compiled here:
“Party people, in the place to be
From the same man, who brought you Da Bichez
(Da Bichez, Da Bichez, Da Bichez)
We were misunderstood, last time we brought you
Da Bichez (Da Bichez Da Bichez)
Now we gonna clear it up and let you make up your own mind
like this...” – Jeru The Damaja, ‘Me or the Papes’
“"Hey, well i hate you with a crush oh baby yeah (but call me)
Well you know my hate's everlastin' baby yeah yeah (but call me)
do you, do you, do you, do you, do you, do you, do you, do you,
do you know why i hate you baby? Huh, do you know? (but call me)” – The Monks, ‘I hate you’
What does it mean to have tenderness go wrong? What would we term ‘bad tenderness’? It is a discussion with significant contemporary relevance, and it is a gendered question, in as much as it is frequently about dynamics of patriarchal and social power and abuses thereof. Frequently the apologies of men who have abused their positions, abused women, feature some suggestion that they somehow got tenderness wrong, or that the scales have fallen suddenly from their eyes as to the impact of their actions. It’s rare to see them admit they did it because they knew they were free to do so without recrimination, and now they are sorry that they got caught.
This essay isn’t necessarily about those men, but it is about a form of bad tenderness. By examining two different examples of bad tenderness in poetry, this essay intends to explore some of the structural dynamics that create an environment where those men might exist. It is not necessarily an easy essay to write, for a number of reasons, most significant of which is that I wonder what presumptions I have made in conducting this analysis, and how I have practiced bad tenderness in my own life.
The other reason this might be difficult to write is the two poets I have selected are living. One I would consider a contemporary, of a sort, and the poem was one written a comparatively long time ago (2011 – 2012). I do not make any claims about the sexual politics these men practice in their own lives. I want to think about their work on its own terms, and find a form of words that articulates my discomfort in encountering their poems. It’s also a discomfort with the ease with which these behaviours can be identified in friends, family and myself. These are structural reflexes acquired over long repeated behaviours, patterns of power and patriarchy that continue to make these behaviours the lines of least resistance. In singling these two poets out, I offer a tender hand, I tender a pre-emptive apology. They are not unique in writing like this, but they do serve as instructive examples.
A note on terms
I prefer the term “bad tenderness” because it is less implicitly about an error, and more about how one might have chosen to adopt a particular form of ethics. We can get things wrong and not know it, like a child playing badly with others. It is only when we see the effect it has on others than we begin to realise how we might have got things wrong, and hopefully look to make amends. We are bad when we know we are being bad, even if we refuse to admit it to ourselves or others.
There is a further difficulty here. Terms like “wrong” or “bad” imply moral judgement, and the inherent risk that what society categorises as wrong or bad is as result of historic, structural oppressions. There are times when queer desire has been seen in these terms, and it pays to be cautious about applying these words without interrogating what assumptions are made in their usage. This is important not least because often the defence of men practicing bad tenderness is that somehow society has imposed a judgement on them that they feel is unwarranted. I want to be unequivocal about this, in the examples below the bad tenderness is so termed because it is repulsive, it is something to be repulsed by. What follows is not a condemnation of feeling a particular form of desire, it is about the poor choices people make in expressing it, and what aggressions (micro and macro) come into play by doing so.
Craig Raine, ‘Gatwick’
The first of these examples is the most straight-forward. In short, the Poet Craig Raine is recognised as the Poet Craig Raine by a women who “did an MA in poetry” and now works for “the immigration service”. He proceeds to appraise her physical attributes, including her “moles” and “big bust”. There are some vague gestures to a very narrow form of internationalism, or something like it, by talking about France, a family of Swedes and Oxford. The Poet Craig Raine then concludes:
I can say these things, I say,
because I am a poet and getting old.
But of course, I can’t,
and I won’t. I’ll be silent.
Nothing said, but thought and told.
A lot was written and said about ‘Gatwick’ on social media, and, like a stray dog that follows the plague cart, the comments sections of major newspapers and periodicals. Most of the criticism, and subsequent ripostes, focussed on Raine’s lechery of the younger woman. Some argued it was inappropriate, even perverse, while others made counter claims that the Poet Craig Raine should be able to write and think whatever he pleases, as should all the Great Poets. It is this argument against saying and not saying that Raine makes in his closing stanzas, though it is made in bad faith given that the poem first appeared in the London Review of Books. One could hardly assert that Raine was being censored. Like the Goulston Street graffito, "The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing", it claims one narrative while simultaneously demonstrating another. Raine, by virtue of his position, can enjoy the freedom to do and say as he pleases, all the more in the name of what he believes is tenderness. Coming to his own defence, he wrote in The New Statesman:
“I realise the purpose is to make me feel like a war criminal. Sorry, tweeters, I don’t. My poem is about border controls: the border between official and private; the border between imperious youth and docile age, apparently absolute, but actually porous because the ageing process is already in train – the young woman is already becoming her parents. Then there is the border between what one might think and what one can say. The very thing I am being pilloried for is actually one subject of my poem. My attitude to the young woman is kindly.”
There is nothing wrong with feeling desire, and sometimes even expressing that desire, no matter how misplaced or misjudged. There is a place for all sorts of “wrong” tenderness, and there is a diverse body of writing that explores such themes. No one has disputed the Poet Craig Raine’s right to say these things, they were disputing his failure to reflect on how his own privileges come into play in the situation he describes. It says a lot about the Poet Craig Raine that the most traumatic experience he can conceive in respect to a border crossing is that he might be recognised and unable to act exactly as he wishes. It says a lot about the Poet Craig Raine that the most transgressive experience he can conceive at a border check is the opportunity to desire a young woman’s “bust”.
Raine’s critical error is to assume that his “kindly” attitude, his tenderness, is somehow complimentary. This assertion recalls the false notion that the catcalled woman should be “grateful” for the attention. By the same bad logic, he suggests a societal prohibition whereby a man his age cannot express desire towards a stranger. A cursory discussion with any young women would have demonstrated this to be far from the case, as much in 2015 when the poem was published as now. Plenty of men are able to express what they believe to be tenderness to those they view as subordinate, whether service professionals, waitresses, shop staff, secretaries, teaching assistants, bus drivers and so on (frequently just women in general), and equally able to claim injury when their efforts are criticised. This is a keystone in bad tenderness, the right to say and feel what one wants, even going so far as to think of it as “well meant” or “a compliment”, with a concurrent ability to claim injury when someone dare suggest it is inappropriate.
This is all borne out through the bad logic of Raine’s defence. Preceding the above extract he claims not to care about “the misreadings of malicious and/or stupid people” – or even “bad readers” – before then devoting a paragraph or so to a close explanation of how his poem should be read. He states that people want to make him feel like a war criminal, before defiantly saying he doesn’t. Whatever one might feel about the Poet Craig Raine and his poetry, it would be difficult to make a valid claim that his bad poem, his bad attempt at tenderness, makes him a war criminal. It is only the Poet Craig Raine that makes himself out to be the War Criminal Craig Raine. Just as Jeru the Damaja opens ‘Me and the Papes’ by saying he was misunderstood for writing an earlier song, before delivering verse after verse of equally questionable sexual politics, Raine wilfully misunderstands his own critics, offering further evidence of his own privilege and relative power. He is the man with the loudest voice, complaining that he is being silenced. Such is the first condition of a poet of bad tenderness.
There is something queasy about Best’s prose piece. A list of women’s names, each accompanied by a vignette in which the narrator recounts a date where he fails to have sex with the women in question. However, this is not quite true, as several of the encounters resolve into some form of sexual activity, though the absence of penetrative sex seems to be the qualifying element in this this unfortunate taxonomy. The title is questionable, a riff on a Megan Boyle piece ‘Everyone I’ve Had Sex With’, and its reversal moves the confessional gesture of the original towards one of revenge.
The male protagonist’s perspective is overwhelming, and the work has chosen, or is unable, to articulate any interiority on the part of the women described. They are confined to a series of reactions, often visibly of an emotional nature, and this is frequently cosseted by the narrator trying to downplay the moment. In response to a woman he is attracted to singing at a party, he exchanges several embarrassed texts with a friend. A woman bursts into tears when faced by his departure, and he tells her she looks nice. One could almost imagine Dostoevsky or Thomas Bernhard writing something rich in comic bathos in such circumstances, but Best’s flat affect, the stylised stylelessness of his writing renders it trivial to the point of boredom. Women’s expressions of desire are seen as embarrassing, something to be avoided. At one point he receives a hand job, and then complains it has made him feel childish. It could most generously be described as being poorly written, at worst it is an attempt to place any sincere emotional reaction at arms-length. The women in the stories are repositories for the narrator’s desires, avatars for the writer’s anxiety about a lack of connection in a contemporary, digital world. Best is not unique in this regard – poetry is populated by male writers who see the women they describe as a proxy for their own fragile, often awful, emotions. However, the work is self-reflexive enough to know its own queasiness, or to at least cover its attempt to portray a fairly limited form of contemporary male desire in layers of irony. What have these women done to deserve the narrator’s contempt and detachment?
Returning to Boyle’s piece, there are significant similarities in how the two deliver their confessional narrative through a language of dry affect. However, Best’s writing does not stand a favourable comparison to the original prose. ‘Everyone I’ve Had Sex With’ throws a number of things about early sexual experience into stark light:
“He followed me home from this party one night and we had sex in my creaky loft bed. I didn’t want to have sex. I had my period. I was drunk. He was persistent and I think I was really bored the whole time.”
Here the simplicity amplifies the experience. By articulating it in this mundane language, the piece detaches itself from the unpleasantness of some of the situations described. By making them seem mundane, common place, we are immediately less comfortable, and more aware of how close to our own lives these events might be. The good, loving relationships are described in the same language as the unpleasant ones. There is little to them other than the plainly descriptive, articulating something direct and unflinching about her experience of sex. It causes us to reflect more closely through the detachment, like we are having to bridge the absence using our own experiences. The final audit notes a range of emotions, not least “surprised at how passive I’ve been, detached from myself, angry at myself a little bit, self-pity a little bit”.
Best’s own flat affect is disingenuous by comparison, its detachment serves to place the narrator at one ironic remove from the circumstances he finds himself in. It feels frequently vindictive or superior. In several of the experiences the narrator is reassuring the women he is interested in that he is not a rapist, not a murderer. It is rendered in a way that trivialises the questions, makes light of it. The flatness of the descriptions is a writerly device, as much as may contrive not to appear so. Best, or his narrator, wants to place himself at a distance from those “other guys” – the ones that would be capable of rape, of murder -- without interrogating why a woman might feel the need to be reassured in such circumstances. Male desire is framed through this distancing technique, even the basic act of desiring someone:
“I sent her a series of hyperlinks such as: https://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&q=what+to+do+in+london+on+march+9th+with+a+very+cute+girl+if+you%27re+a+dork&meta”
This holding out of attraction at arms’ length, like the declarations of the Poet Craig Raine, does one thing while pretending to do another. It models desire as tongue in cheek, something that can be undercut with a savvy and knowing wink. It is the tenderness of sharing a knowing joke with someone, the kind that they will feel obliged to laugh at, even if it is not funny or just tasteless. It is smart enough to demonstrate its own self-awareness, while also managing to deliver its juvenile message. It gives the protagonist enough elbow room to make a joke of it if required. As a tone, it is prevalent throughout:
“At the bar, during a lull in conversation, I said “Crispin is typing dot dot dot” and felt good. Sometimes — while I was talking — Annie would suddenly reach over and cover my mouth, or calmly punch me in the head and it was nice. We left the bar and Annie was the same height as me and for two minutes I didn’t know what to do with my arms.”
The piece is dotted with these understated lines, its protagonist’s interior life reduced to assertions like “it was nice”. Later in the piece, he declares “The poetry was good and I felt like a smart kid for having brought her there.”, then even later, “In the morning, the weather was nice and we went to buy food for a picnic.” Taken in isolation this is all relatively inoffensive, sometimes tedious, however the cumulative effect raises the question about what intention lies behind them.
The New Inquiry piece on Alt-Lit, ‘The New Grooming Style’, is striking for the critique writer Alpha Goddess Ashley Olson gives regarding the prevalence of this faux-juvenile tone in male contemporary writers’ work:
“The Alt Lit voice is also a teenage imaginary: how these adult writers (many of whom were at a point of existential crisis in their lives age-wise and in turn developed a fetishistic nostalgia for youth) imagine, or wish for, the way a teenager would speak, think, and be. Alt Lit grooms because it is something on a surface level that youth could relate to, media that appears at first glance to be tailored for them. Alt Lit mimics a teenaged affect, establishes a more infantile or youthful voice to use as a vehicle for sometimes very violent or disturbing ideas, and presents these ideas alongside ones that are relatable to adolescents with total indifference.”
Best’s work make vague efforts to articulate the tentative, often ambiguous nature of pursuing relationships in the digital age, and most of these hook-ups are the result a connection through social media or more tailored dating sites. This is the most palatable element of the work, and there is something entirely spurious and yet familiar in the following: “I saw a number of Nikki’s tweets retweeted on Twitter and enjoyed them and so followed her. I added her on Gchat. She was good to talk to and we videochatted a few times.” It is striking about how alien this set of sentences would have sounded even fifteen years ago, how alien they might sound in the mouth of the Poet Craig Raine, and it serves to emphasise how significantly our forms of connection have changed, in that time. It may well be a new form of tenderness, or at least a new way of being tender with one another. It can also be the worst forms of tenderness, the kind of passive aggressive (or just plain aggressive) discourse that seems a consistent feature of internet exchanges with relative strangers. This is how Best’s narrator appears to me. He can be persistent, vulnerable or unpleasant, free of any real consequence, any real need to worry how he might be perceived. He is presenting the narrative as he wishes, emphasising some details, omitting others. He can demonstrate a degree of detachment and still be “a nice guy”. While the sexism may not be as overt as Raine’s piece, the nature of the discourse different, there are some troubling aspects to Best’s piece. It takes a work by a woman writer and an idea that it subverts (unacknowledged in its original publication), and, like Raine, Best does not engage with how the narrator’s gender, his privileges, might affect the dynamic within the situations he has chosen to portray. For all their self-reflexive gestures, neither of these poems considers what it might be like to be on receiving end, to be the subject and not the author of these poems, to be the recipient of such bad tenderness.
Andrew Spragg was born in London and lives there. He has written critical pieces for Bonafide, Hix Eros, The Quietus, Poetry London and PN Review. Recent poetry books include Tether//Replica(Sprialbound/Susak Press, 2015), OBJECTS (Red Ceiling Press, 2014), A Treatise on Disaster (Contraband Books, 2013),To Blart & Kid (Like This Press, 2013) and Now Too How Soon (Contraband Books, 2017). A collaborative book, Dogtown, with the artist Beth Hopkins, was published by Litmus in winter 2018.