Regret Everything

I was talking to a friend about a relationship I’d been in at university and she asked if I regretted it. I replied that I did (and do) but only in the way I regret every decision preceding and following it as well. And then I thought of the poem ‘As Bad as a Mile’ by Philip Larkin:

Watching the shied core
Striking the basket, skidding across the floor,
Shows less and less of luck, and more and more

Of failure spreading back up the arm
Earlier and earlier, the unraised hand calm,
The apple unbitten in the palm.

It’s ur-Larkin (or I should say urgh-Larkin)—depressing, fatalistic, quiescent—and yet I’ve always been drawn to its depiction of failure. Each word feels grimly preordained: there’s ‘shied’, with its echo of postlapsarian shyness/shame; ‘striking’, as in out rather than lucky; ‘skidding’, which speaks for itself; ‘spreading’, which connotes illness or Larkin’s previously-sighted green leaves of grief; and ‘unbitten’ which, in this case, transforms “once bitten, twice shy” into “once bitten, forever shied”. Every note rings with disappointment.

Larkin begins with the present participle ‘watching’, as if the speaker has become a bystander to the disaster of their own life, and though a single event—a bad throw—is being described, the use of the present continuous tense hints at a larger, unbiddable chain of causation. Failure is not comprised of single actions in time; it’s written into us.

Most people think of holding on to regret as a bad thing; others temper this and say: “I regret X, but it wasn’t all bad and, hey, I learnt a lot.” We might regret moving jobs or buying a gym subscription or entering into a bad relationship—experiences that could always have turned out better or been better managed. For Larkin, this is just steam rising from the cold, hard fact of failure.

We live out of regret. By which I mean, an inbuilt sense of wrongness, of error, of hurt. The self is not a precisely stacked set of dishes, or the human manifestation of a LinkedIn profile, one shining achievement leading on inevitably from another. The self is a negative image, the shadow cast by life’s dismal glare.

Larkin’s title draws on the expression “a miss is as good as a mile,” which I interpret as meaning: the act of aiming for anything creates the expectation of loss. Or, in the words of Homer Simpson: “trying is the first step towards failure.” Once missed, always missed. Which is where delusion and habit come in, softening the blow; in our dreams, the apple core always hits the centre of the bin.

Perhaps, though, what I like about this poem is the surprisingly utopian gesture at its heart, the sense that what Larkin is really trying to do is admit failure a priori and, by doing so, overcome it. A world of total failure, after all, is the same as one in which no failure exists at all. If we could miss and regret everything, nothing (and no one) might finally be un-missed.

The Spectre of Penislessness

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The Poetry Society have kindly allowed me to reproduce the above poem, which was published in The Poetry Review, 106:4, Winter 2016. Below is some of the thinking behind it.

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In a short book called Leonardo Da Vinci And A Memory Of His Childhood, Sigmund Freud writes: “Before the child comes under the dominance of the castration-complex – at a time when he still holds women at full value – he begins to display an intense desire to look, as an erotic instinctual activity. He wants to see other people’s genitals, at first in all probability to compare them with his own.” This is surely right, our early unfettered “desire to look” – to compare genitals – only being compounded by the admonition that some parts of the body remain private or taboo. But Freud goes on: “The erotic attraction that comes from his mother soon culminates in a longing for her genital organ, which he takes to be a penis. With the discovery, which is not made till later, that women do not have a penis, this longing often turns into its opposite and gives place to a feeling of disgust which in the years of puberty can become the cause of psychical impotence, misogyny and permanent homosexuality.” 

The desire to look becomes a longing for the mother’s genital organ which – upon finding out this isn’t a penis – gives rise to feelings of disgust toward oneself and others. This, half brilliant insight, half total bullshit, gets at a large problem with Freud’s thinking. If you assume, as the castration-complex does, that the male body is the default setting for humanity (and the male mind) then the discovery that there are human-beings-without-penises will only register as a threatening lack. (Cf. Viola in Twelfth Night “A little thing would make me tell them how much I lack of a man.”) 

Freud’s analysis, rather than piercing conventional prejudice, reinforces it. Women are tellingly absent, treated as blank objects on which to project male pathologies – in this case, impotence and “permanent homosexuality”. The spectre of penislessness haunts Freud, filling him with a confusing mixture of disgust and longing. He can’t see beyond his own dick and in the very process of trying to do so is overtaken by a hate-filled form of vertigo.

As a child I sometimes had lucid dreams. One night I dreamed I kissed a classmate behind the entrance to assembly hall – a surprise to me, as we’d barely talked. Another night I found myself in our school’s cold, grey-stone toilets and looked across the row of urinals to see Justine – shy, bespectacled Justine – take out the shrivelled trunk of her penis and wee.

It seemed perfectly natural that Justine would have a penis. We can’t help but universalise our experience until such a point as experience proves us wrong. I was shameless, in the sense of being without shame. I didn’t respond to Justine’s penis with any particular longing, disgust or disappointment, but with curiosity – that early, proto-sexual desire to compare.

A certain kind of thinking purports to draw away the veil, to show the world as it really is. More often than not, the old assumptions end up being reasserted in a new guise. With Freud, the unconscious – which should have been revelatory, revolting, revolutionary – often became a tool for restating a too-familiar set of binary assumptions: what’s masculine is defined by presence, wholeness, virility; what’s feminine by absence, mutilation, threat.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Freud, writing at the end of a century in which scientific racism reached its apogee, would order the unconscious mind around his own (unconscious) prejudices. Of course, I’m as much the product of a still-hateful, patriarchal society. Much as I’d like to believe otherwise, my own longings can slip easily into disgust, my efforts at compassion shade into resentment. But the effort is what matters, of trying to see through – to trace out the shadow of – longing.

The castration-complex implies a longing for the stability represented by the white, heterosexual male. Inasmuch as it’s at all conscious, I think about writing as a way of addressing race, gender, history which might embrace mixedness and confusion, which might unsettle. Put more concretely, it means thinking beyond one’s dick, rather than with it; rejecting claims to have unveiled anything; exploring – with candidness and curiosity – the texture of the flawed, shameful unreality that structures our experience of the world.

In John Berger’s essay ‘Lost off Cape Wrath’, he says: “Authenticity comes from a single faithfulness: that to the ambiguity of experience.” Maybe the world would be a better place if we were less committed to authenticity than to (honest) ambiguity.

On Identity Politics

Society doesn’t have a voice, but people do. And when a system designed to represent a society ends up excluding large swathes of it, people organise. In the late-1960s, “identity politics” arose in response to the failure of existing political structures to represent the needs of ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and the LGBT community.

Since then, among some, identity politics has become a byword for putting the interests of a particular group over those of the wider community. What’s implied is that political decisions shouldn’t be based on accommodating the needs of vying groups, but should be taken from an impartial, objective vantage point—the so-called “view from nowhere.” Power should operate invisibly.

There’s a corollary in literature. Some people believe that the best writing—the best poetry, novels and criticism—should assume a “view from nowhere,” free of the constraints of identity, of background. The rise of identity politics is seen as having compromised the purer aesthetic criteria by which we once judged art, muddying the waters with moral and political concerns.

Take the case of Peter Riley. In a long career spent sucking at the teat of modernism, he’s studiously sought to avoid using personal pronouns in his poetry—especially the dreaded first-person!—and, in his criticism, berated writers for not trying hard enough to escape their personalities.

In a recent review of Vahni Capildeo’s collection Measures of Expatriation, he makes identity politics a shorthand for everything he aesthetically (and, no doubt, politically) sets himself against:

In practice “identity politics” seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there. But its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict… The self in the poem is entirely defined (identified) by sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity etc. etc. He/she acts, speaks and breathes as that member. The only voice is the authentic voice of the author or reporter of factual detail.

I’d feel some sympathy for Riley if he paid any attention to the marketing and reception of texts by non-white authors—which very often does make a fetish of alterity, so keeping even successful authors on the margins—but he targets poets themselves. And his argument is so simple-minded it feels almost degrading—worse, boring—to respond to. But, being symptomatic of wider mis-thinking, it demands a response.

The phrase “existential realities” should have anyone’s bullshit alarm going “dilly ding, dilly dong.” Apparently, a poem dictated by the unspoken (but, we can only assume, universally agreed-on) rules of identity politics, rejects “existential realities” in favour of “personal experience”. This is what’s called a dichotomy: a favourite rhetorical device of the disingenuous. Most are false and, in this case—one of the terms being made-up and vague and the other an unspecific caricature of “modern poetry”—of absolutely no use.

Before you try and get your head around it, anyway, Riley immediately contradicts himself. Though the identity politics-poem is based on personal experience its “admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group”. It both is and isn’t based on experience then? So if you’re a part of the “group,” then, you could get away with writing a collage poem about the excavation of Sutton Hoo and it would still be personal and, indeed, admissible—though Riley doesn’t say where…

(It’s easy to take the rantings of an old white men like Riley on good faith—to assume that because they toss out phrases like “existential realities” they know what they’re talking about—when, really, we should be asking what this guy’s been smoking.)

In the second half of the paragraph, Riley says that the “self in the poem is entirely defined (identified) by sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity etc. etc.” As one who scorns the first-person and writes from the (invisible, incontestable) perspective of nowhere, he can’t stand the fact that some people choose to write from positions that might be called queer, feminist or mixed-race.

That dismissive “etc. etc.” speaks volumes. “[S]exual orientation, gender, ethnicity” represent three co-ordinates in the endlessly intersecting matrix of identity. But Riley can’t admit the self to be as complicated as all that, for that would suggest even a “gay” or a “black” writer might still be capable of adopting—or performing—several perspectives at once.

This is characteristic, as Edward Said points out, of imperial thinking. At the end of Culture and Imperialism, Said says, “No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.” But Riley can’t leave them behind. And he contemptuously restricts identity to “one thing” when he claims that the self which forms part of a (non-white, non-cishetero) group “acts, speaks and breathes as that member.”

If he were to read—actually readthe kind of poetry he attacks (which he cites no examples of), he’d see how many poets, by delving into actual “personal experience,” don’t just assert their membership of a group but complicate the boundaries between a whole variety of different, sometimes conflicting groups. They reject invisibility, but not so as to become authentic “reporter[s] of factual detail”. Their aim is to attain—and often create for the first time—a more complex (existential) reality.

It should go without saying that no artist wants to be known solely as a member of a particular ethnic group or for having a certain skin tone or disability. And obviously no one would want to think that any success they achieve—very much against the odds—might be put down to that (especially given such group-membership isn’t chosen).

When Kei Miller won the Forward Prize for Poetry in 2014, every newspaper report foregrounded his identity. Either he was a “Jamaican poet” or just a “Jamaican”. The assumption in such reports was that Miller had won for extra-literary reasons, because of his race. Riley makes the same insinuations more explicitly when he says that recent “big prize-winning results” have ignored “aesthetic criteria”. The alterity of the non-white artist is made both cause and effect of any success achieved. Success is pre-emptively debased.

Kayo Chingonyi writes of the “double bind” writers of colour are in: “either they imitate the—predominantly white—canonical writers of the literary establishment, doing a violence to a part of themselves, or they write into or through their heritage and encourage a critical reading that privileges their identity.” Hounded by sneering journalists and dim-witted critics, the third way—as impersonally scouted by Riley—comes to seem the only option: become invisible.

As a teenager, I remember reading Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and being obsessed, in particular, with Stephen Dedalus’s speech to Lynch about aesthetics. In it, he describes the progress of literature as following three main stages: first, there’s the lyrical—the “simplest verbal vesture of an instant of emotion”—then there’s the epical, where the narrative is “no longer purely personal,” and finally the dramatic, at which point the artist fills every character “with such vital force that he or she assumes a proper and intangible esthetic life.” The higher the art, the more impersonal the artist:

The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails. 

This, I imagine, is how Riley likes to think of himself: “refined out of existence”. But, ultimately, Stephen’s words are those of a young man barely out of adolescence, and laced with parody. The effeminate image of God “paring his fingernails,” for example, recalls a schoolmate of Stephen’s called Boyle who earns the nickname “Lady Boyle” because he’s always paring his nails. It also puts the onus on the artist-God’s indifference rather than invisibility (if you were truly invisible you wouldn’t need to pare your nails).

As it begins to rain, Lynch undercuts Stephen by suggesting that in Ireland, this “Godforsaken island,” it makes sense for the artist to want to retire “within or behind his handiwork”. Even the desire to impersonalise oneself is framed by a specific local context. As Raymond Williams says, after describing the period during which William Blake lived as one of “hunger, suffering, conflict, dislocation”: this stuff wasn’t “background… it was, rather, the mould in which general experience was cast.” There is no such thing as pure background. Even the desire to escape from one’s experience has to be put in context.

Stephen wants to “fly by the nets of nationality, language, religion” but that won’t change his background, the fact his experience has been cast in an English-speaking, Irish Catholic mould (does “fly by” mean he’s flying past or with the help of those nets?).  Like his namesake, he knows that a straightforward bid for freedom risks disaster, is hubristic even. The only way out is through. He discovers his identity as a writer by delving further into his nationality and language and religion, by struggling with those things. Which means not being cowed by those who seek to class him as “one thing,” or who would dismiss any such discussion outright as identity politics.

The Real Problem with Calvin Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?’

Trillin’s verse doesn’t give us enough reason to think its parodic heart is any more honorable than its bigoted tongue.

Or so says Katy Waldman in the latest salvo against Calvin Trillin’s ‘Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?‘. But is it really a feature of effective satire that you know it’s the work of an honourable heart?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s racist – as Timothy Yu’s piece in the New Republic definitively shows – and Trillin’s heart may well be rotten to the core, but I was hoping Waldman was finally going to shred it for another reason: for being not just a work of bad but of obviously misplaced satire.

I don’t know about Brooklyn, but hipster food trends in London, as far as I’m aware, don’t really revolve around different provincial Chinese cuisines (though I’d love to find a Fukien or Uighur place!). They’re more about taking a particular dish, removing it from its geo-culinary context and whacking some sweet potato fries on the side.

Hence the “bao” place which just opened up around the corner from us in Peckham that serves deep-fried bao s’mores and, on weekends, “Bao Benedicts” replete with ethically-sourced bacon, wilted spinach and hollandaise sauce (it also does a pulled chicken bun called “Bao Diddley”…).

If Trillin had, as he maintains, actually wanted to lampoon the “food-obsessed bourgeoisie” this might have been a better – or at least more recognisable – place to start: the appropriation/decontextualisation of non-western “street food”; the garnishing of the recognisable with the superficial condiment of the Other.

As it is, it just seems like Trillin has a weirdly crotchety dislike of diasporic groups setting up restaurants that don’t reflect his own (peculiarly westernised) view of what Chinese food should look like, i.e. chow mein.

Satire doesn’t have to be honourable – far from it. But it should have a recognisable target, a point. When I first read Trillin’s poem in The New Yorker, nestled appropriately in the middle of a long piece about the Stateside boom in mezcal (a Mexican spirit made by distilling agave plants), I wasn’t so much offended as bored. What struck me most was its badness. Its pointlessness. And that should be held as the first – perhaps most damning – mark against it.

Stumbling on Racism

One of the main reasons for starting this blog was to comment on examples of misguided racial thinking in politics, journalism, poems, books, films, conversation—anywhere, really. The point? I’m not a fan of just calling people out for the sake of it, but if it can serve a higher purpose—getting people to think more imaginatively about their identity, their assumptions, their uses of language—then maybe it’s ok. The first post was about the Hilary Benn; this second one is about an article in the Observer.


In the Observer’s 2015 Poetry Books of the Year, Kate Kellaway says that finding a “poem that works” is like “stumbling upon a pearl”. On one level, I know she’s just deploying a tired cliché: it’s difficult finding good poems and, when you do, it feels kind of miraculous. But I can’t help finding it bizarre.

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The pearly queen herself, Elizabeth I, fingers dangling ominously over the Americas.

Pearl diving, for most of its history, has been a hazardous activity. So much so that, after conquering large swathes of modern-day Venezuela, the Spanish refused to get their feet wet, instead forcing slaves to dive depths of over a hundred feet, in sharky waters, to gather them. As the pearls started flowing back to Europe, they became synonymous with wealth and power in the 16th century (see right).

So how do you just stumble upon a pearl? Well, it means not stopping to think how it got there, let alone reflecting on the (probably) enslaved peoples who risked death to prise it from the seabed. It means shutting your eyes to centuries of colonial violence and subjugation. I guess what I’m trying to say is: it means writing like Kate Kellaway.

Is that unfair? It’s a throwaway line from a piece of classically breezy, end-of-year journalism, no doubt composed in the time it takes to polish off a cappuccino. Her last piece was an interview with Simon Callow, and it wasn’t for the International Journal of Postcolonial Studies.

So yes, I’m probably being unfair. But it immediately reminded me of the extent to which white writers are afforded the freedom to shut their eyes to history, and to write—and have published—whatever they want.

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Kellaway next goes through some of her favourite collections of the year, singling out Australian poet Les Murray’s “wry, subtle, matchless voice” (yawn) and the work of Andrew McMillan, whose “homoerotic… febrile, tender” poems refuse “to be ignored” (for those not in the know, the OED defines “febrile” as an adjective ‘that, being basically meaningless, was invented for the use of poetry reviewers’).

I don’t want to sound too negative. Kellaway’s description of Sean Borodale (his latest collection a profound meditation on stewing apples and making damson ice-cream) is both pithy and definitive: “He is a marvellous poet,” she says, “a man who knows his artichokes”.

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a favourite of many this year, gets three excruciating sentences. Despite the fact that (take note) “polemical poems seldom work”, Rankine’s “eloquent militancy about racism is arresting”. Minority groups with the temerity to hold dissenting views—or just opinions—have long been dismissed as militant, so this sounds awfully patronising. I also hate the jangling military metaphor placed alongside a policing one (“arresting”) which, again, seems to reinforce the impression that this piece was less conceived and written than excreted, in one vowel movement, onto the page.

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The two sentences of lavish praise for Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade are what stay with me, though. This is what Kellaway says, in full:

And Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade—a volume that slipped through my net—has oriental poise, reach and artistic precision. A poet to watch in 2016.

What’s wrong with that? you might ask. So she says “oriental”, which is a bit like something your granddad might say, but it’s clearly meant well. She’s complimenting her!

At this point, I should say something about racism—not least what it is. You might think this is somehow obvious or beyond asking. I disagree. Racism is often discussed in terms of how it operates—hate speech, violence, cultural appropriation—with the aim of various campaigns (like UEFA’s “No to Racism” campaign) being to get people not to say or do racist things. There’s nothing wrong with this (and much that’s good) but the assumption, as with telling a child not to stick their fingers in shit, is that explaining the reasons why will only take too long or prove unpersuasive. It’s a lot easier just to say Don’t do it!

The problem is, a person can avoid saying or doing “racist” things without coming any closer to understanding—or believing in—the point of it. Hence a community that appears peaceful and tolerant one day can descend into violent conflict the next. This occurs with painful frequency in Indonesia, where my mum is from; in a country spanning almost 14,000 islands, with around 360 ethnic groups speaking over 700 languages, the unity suggested by shared nationhood is often nominal. Everyone pays lip service to the shared principles of Pancasila (emphasising the “just and civilized humanity” of all Indonesians) but when times get tough heads are liable to roll.

Rather than just telling people not to be racist, then, it might be better to say that oppression and discrimination imply (perhaps rely on) a generally accepted idea of what race is. This doesn’t exist. “Blacks”, “Asians” and “Orientals” aren’t delineated, homogenous groups. Racism happens when people refuse to acknowledge this, when they ignore the intersecting matrix of language, religion and tradition in favour of an abstract belief in ethnic clarity. Our response, the only one, has to be a wholesale change in attitudes: a move to see race as something constructed, on a person-by-person basis, out of endlessly variable stuff (that’s right, not skin tone or skull size or how good you are at chemistry but vague, non-specific stuff).

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To get back to Kellaway: what galls me about her line on Howe isn’t just her choice of words, but that she even thought of them. What if a sub-editor had picked up on her dicey use of “oriental” and taken it out? No matter. Those three remaining adjectives—“poise, reach and… precision”—would have still been there, settling like a fine silk robe around the invisible contours of her prejudice.

In case it’s not obvious, Howe is of partly East Asian descent—this is obvious, of course, because no white (male) writer would ever be referred to as having “oriental poise”. A white writer is free to shut their eyes to history; a non-white writer has to always be seen as its product.

In Loop of Jade, Howe writes about the journey she made from England to China in her mid-twenties. Being for the most part raised and educated in Britain, her knowledge of China—and of Mandarin—was, at first, fragmentary and intimate (likewise, the only bits of Indonesian I know are those phrases my mum would say while tucking me in or waking me up). Her perspective was less “oriental” than occidental, you could say, like that of anyone brought up within a Western cultural framework throwing themselves into an altogether non-Western one. But the poems dissolve such simple binaries; they’re about what it feels like to be in two—or several—places at once, trying to create an identity out of multiple, conflicting heritages. They escape, in other words, the nylon mesh of Kellaway’s cliché net.

In the last poem in the collection, ‘Yangtze’, Howe describes—or imagines describing—the submerged world created by the building of the Three Gorges Dam: underwater cities; a “ghost forest” with “water for sky”. I don’t think the fact I’m also mixed race gives me a special insight into this poem, or any other. The metaphor is blatant: it’s a floating city, unmoored, full of roots that won’t take hold. And the empty houses, she asks, “what is it/ they fill with?” Not memories or possessions anymore, certainly not pearls, but more of nothing. Howe’s book won’t end with a character looking into the sunset and saying, with sudden resolve, “I think everything’s going to be just fine.” No amount of “poise” can reconcile East and West, the warring parts of the self. As she says in the same poem, “journeying is hard”, but when we accept a lack of obvious resolution we’re forced to exist in uncertainties, to become truer versions of ourselves. Howe thus comes to see herself as both English and Chinese, or as both separately, or as a whole new thing: herself.

Lazy journalism like Kellaway’s doesn’t simply pander to orientalist stereotypes but narrows the scope of what it means to be a person. Just as our “molecules are shuttled to and fro,” says Stephen Dedalus, “so does the artist weave and unweave his image.” Those besotted with ethnic clarity would rather people’s images stay put, or, if absolutely necessary, they’d reserve this kind of shape-shifting for white artists alone. It’s for them to stumble upon and later dispense pearls of wisdom. But Howe’s work won’t be fixed; it concerns the hard, universal work of weaving and unweaving the self. It raises the kinds of questions about identity everyone should ask.