When at my first advertising agency I worked in Media. Back then weekly women’s magazines sold in tens of thousands and, knitting and cookery apart, majored on short stories and romantic serials. The formulae were predictable: the serial would be a heavy-duty drama (often period) modelled on the Brontës, today’s equivalent being Poldark. Short stories would feature some contemporary drama of love, betrayal and redemption. It was chicklit, but not as we know it now.
Being male, with a long memory and maybe too much reference, I’m possibly a less friendly critic of to-day’s romantic fiction than my female counterpart might be. I accept that romance is not dead. I enjoyed Bridget Jones and Love Actually, though today these seem wildly sophisticated beside the horrific, though hugely successful, Love Island. But romance could be on the way out if we are to regard Ms Reinelt’s book as a ‘romantic’ novel – albeit with (not very) comedic undertones. And, if based on her own life experiences, I can only hope she doesn’t regret the procession of sorry events and unpleasant men with whom she has ‘been heels over head’.
My favourite restaurant critic Jay Rayner occasionally explains why he gives bad reviews. It is because he is incensed by pretension and poor quality. Alright, this book is not badly written. It zips along fluently enough, but the clichés and weak cultural references are piled as high as a stack of flabby pancakes. The author is real. Her prose isn’t the result of some AI programme churning out pabulum for undiscriminating, love-hungry teens. So I just wish she had devoted her literary competence to something more intelligent. Reinelt’s heroine could have featured in those above-mentioned women’s magazines – seeking reassurance in the arms of a chisel-jawed man – although she’s certainly less dated in her relentless search for self-gratification. Ok, so it’s just escapism – and not my sort of escapism, it’s true. But in an era of female empowerment, are women so bereft of ideas and role models that they need this?
Poetry is an odd literary form and erotic poetry even more so. Circumscribe it with a specific discipline as, say, a sonnet, you are giving yourself – and possibly the reader – a serious test. I know this, having tried it.
Starting with poetry, its oddness is that apparently anyone can write it, but few are admitted to the Society of Poets. This is a closed world filled with dialectics and induction rites akin to those of the Communist Party or the Freemasons. As a sonneteer you are also up against exponents of the form such as William Shakespeare, which is pretty tough. And poetry has an even harder task than prose to balance the erotic and the pornographic. Even Ovid might agree.
Only John Betjeman has ever managed to successfully convey the essential humanity of the erotic imagination in poetic form. Leaving aside the delightful but obvious Joan Hunter Dunn, think of The Licorice Fields of Pontefract in which:
I was her captive slave and she
My red-haired robber chief
Oh love, for love I could not speak
It left me winded, wilting, weak
And held in brown arms strong and bare
And wound with flaming ropes of hair.
Or, perhaps later in life, Senex wherein he writes of observing lovers’ trysts on his tricycle-borne dogging expedition. He tours
…the Borough’s edge
And icy as an icicle
See bicycle by bicycle
Stacked waiting in the hedge.
Get down from me! I thunder there,
You spaniels! Shut your jaws!
Your teeth are stuffed with underwear
Suspenders torn asunder there
And buttocks in your paws!
This reference to spaniels brilliantly evokes a Tudor symbol of concupiscence.
And here’s the issue. In general, poetry has a particularly personal wellspring. It is more like a letter to another person, prompted by some encounter or experience of mutual interest, than a carefully considered (however sincerely felt) essay for an unknown audience. Of course, poets hope their words and the feelings they represent will have meaning for others; often they do, although too often it seems the audience must struggle to comprehend. Is this why poetry is now frequently heard in a performance and group-absorption context and begins to blur with music forms such as rap? It’s true, the best poetry has long been conveyed through songs.
So, what of a modern version of an old form, as in Christopher Dalton’s Of His Lover? Were I Mr Dalton’s lover I would be gratified indeed. It wouldn’t occur to me to count the syllables or check the iambic pentameter (everything seemed fine to me, but then I’m not the Poetry Society). I think I might keep the sonnets to myself – or maybe hint that I’d like a slim, stylishly designed and privately printed volume, dedicated to me and for posterity. I would be glad he hadn’t waxed too explicitly lyrical about my person (or his engagement with it).
Dalton’s verse is full of feeling, elegantly expressed: a fine model for other lyrically-minded lovers. It deserves to be well received by its subject.