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-stoppingly moving as the poetry of yearning. I read Auden’s soft words for the “sleeping head” on his arm; Thom Gunn waking to a hug: “the whole strength of your body set, / Or braced, to mine”; 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, Richard has become, with increasing frequency, the focus of my meditations on love, loss or vulnerability. Though we joked about him being ‘my muse’ for a long time this is, in effect, the role he has come to have in my work. My poems admire his body: “splayed out, feverish and sleepy in the shade”, or his “beautiful hairy chest”. Swimming in Mission Beach he is “slippery as a dolphin in my arms”. In Fears of a Hypochondriac I fret obsessively over his sleeping, gurgling body and “where veins thread” at his “wrists, brow and penis” (a line that caused his most embarrassing encounter, when my mum told him rather loudly in a Greek restaurant that “I found that line about your penis really romantic, it reminded me of Clare’s dad.”)
Recently, I have begun to research the topic further for a documentary for Radio 4. There are, of course, many male muses – from the young man of Shakespeare’s sonnets to Neal Cassady (who inspired the Beats, particularly Kerouac and Ginsberg) – but what has surprised me most in looking at the phenomenon is that they are almost exclusively gay, or at least the object of a male gaze. Look through artistic history and it would seem, simply, that women do not have male muses. There are a few groundbreaking women who wrote of male beauty – Aphra Behn and Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example – but their love objects are often transient and interchangeable. There is no male equivalent of Petrarch’s Laura in the annals of literary history.
For some this is due to the muse’s position as a manifestation of the Goddess. For Robert Graves in The White Goddess, “Woman is not a poet: she is either muse or she is nothing”, adding that this doesn’t mean women can’t write poems, but that the woman who chooses to do so: “must be the Muse in the complete sense: she should be in turn Arianrhod, Blodeuwedd, and the Old Sow of Maenawr Penardd who eats her farrow, and should write in each of these capacities with an antique authority. She should be the visible moon: impartial, loving, serene, wise”. Her inspiration must be herself. Others, such as Francine Prose in her book The Lives of the Muses, suggest that being a muse requires a certain passivity that does not fit with the usual dynamic of heterosexual relationships. 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, she mocks the idea of:
with no more pedigree than the Incredible Hulk,
who can’t play a note
and keeps repeating ‘women
haven’t got the knack’
in my most delicately strung, and scented, ear.
This poem is a bravura performance, but very negative in its portrayal of masculinity, equating the male muse to some kind of dense, sexist ‘Chippendale’ figure.
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, as we do in the beauty of the world? For Laura Mulvey, in the seminal article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, it is because the very act of viewing is ‘masculine’, and women who view men as erotic objects are ‘transvestites’ who have adopted a manly habit. There is an issue not only with men’s capacity to be muses, but with whether the very act of looking at a man feels illegitimate. Muses are love objects to be wooed, and on which fantasies are projected. If poets attempt to seduce their muses, then perhaps the female-poet/male-muse dynamic is so rare because it both ‘feminises’ the man, and makes the woman the active partner. Far from seducing the love object, it might leave him feeling intimidated and impotent (perhaps explaining my lack of success with Howard Buckley). Even in our current culture, where Beckham’s prettiness and Johnny Depp’s beauty are celebrated and fetishised by the mainstream, such a relationship risks both the man being mocked as a ‘himbo’, and the woman being perceived as mannish.
Interestingly though, there are a new generation of female poets emerging who are allowing themselves to be inspired by male muses, and exploring the complexities and political connotations of this. Selima Hill’s book Portrait of my Lover as a Horse, is an intriguing case in point, exposing and undermining the gendered language of love. She playfully addresses herlover “O Lord”, whilst simultaneously describing him, in a hundred poems, in surprisingly androgynous terms – he becomes a virburnum or a sugarmouse. Ruth Padel’s collection Voodoo Shop is also a fascinating example – a love story told in a series of poems addressed to “you”, that feel like overheard love letters. Whilst her lover is clearly not unmanly, 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, charm me too with your aplomb
at passing the long white
hours we’re apart.
Polly Clark’s Take me with You, dedicated to her husband Julian, features the beautiful My America, 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”.
Some critics – probably recalling the sad stories of Lizzie Siddal, or Robert Graves’ entourage of ‘muses’– have dismissed the whole concept of the muse as sexist and dated, and called for it to be dismissed entirely. Yet love and beauty are eternal sources of inspiration, and these contemporary female poets are showing that it is possible to reimagine the concept for our times. James Fenton recently called the love poem “the little black cocktail dress” of poetry, which no collection should be without. Too often in heterosexual women’s poetry, this black dress has looked suspiciously like a dress of mourning. Spurned, incandescent with rage or grief, we have become maenads and our own muses. But a new female poetry may finally be emerging, that embraces men as our equals and partners, and is capable of both acknowledging and enjoying our own desires. For the modern female poet, seeking out a male muse is one way in which we can learn to write a richer, more joyful love poetry – one that celebrates both the men we share our lives with and our own sexuality.
I knew then, if I hadn’t known before –
seeing you at that hippie bash in pink,
drawn to the rolling strut and thrust of your
tight hipsters, glancing at the strip of skin
under the shrunk-down tee – how anyone
might have that shock, as feelings pressure up
from some persistent spring, thought to be long
defunct. I squeezed my arms into the hug,
and sensed your breath, its feather on my neck.
There was no shame. We both knew some things live
quite happily in shadow, and unsaid,
their insubstantiality their gift.
We eyed the women, did the weigh-up talk;
the way men do, like bloodied fighting cocks.
Gandhi’s Statue, Tavistock Square
She was telling how, on the famine memory march,
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. I’ll list the things
that stop me from being with you – marriage, children,
work, the opinion of friends – all that makes sure
we never touch in public. Now comes the breathlessness
the senseless throttling rage that makes me want to
shout at bus stops I love him! See, I’m holding him!
But you – you are anchored in yourself
you turn your rage to concentration
lifting the weights, 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?
The road was closed till they washed the blood from the
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