Poetry as a tool of entitlement

She was sat on a bench in a public space. She’d eaten her lunch and was looking at her phone. He came and sat at the other end of the bench. I was on the grass some yards away with other people. I sort of know him, but I don’t know his name.

Next thing we know, his voice is raised and he’s reading her his poetry. She’s hunched over her phone. I watch for a while, trying to work out how uncomfortable she is and whether I should go over. He moves to reciting poetry. It was not the sort of thing I think a person would be happy to have forced on them during their lunch break, unsolicited.

He starts telling her how to find him online. This may well be because she’s still staring intently at her phone. I do not know what she said because her voice was low and she’d not said much. He’s pretty loud. My suspicion is that she was not eager to look up more of his work on the internet.

She leaves, and I am relieved. She could have left at any time, she’d not been physically cornered and it was a public space. If he’d followed her I probably would have got involved. I think she was going back to work. However, she should have been free to have her lunch, sit on her bench and play with her phone. Fair enough to ask if someone wants to hear a poem, I guess, but not fair to keep grinding them out. Everything about her body language said that she wanted him to shut up and leave her alone, but he didn’t notice that, or didn’t care.

Being alone in a public space is not an invitation for an approach. Women are socially conditioned to be polite and not cause offence and to listen to men – I could write a great deal about the mechanics of this, but that’s not for today. Women don’t always feel safe antagonising men – even in the middle of the day in public spaces. If you give a man an excuse to get angry with you it can and does turn into verbal abuse and physical assault. Anyone who has previously experienced that won’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to stand up to a pushy man who wants their attention.

Of course in theory having a man recite poetry to you is romantic. In practice, if you don’t know the man, it might instead be weird and creepy. In this case, poetry was functioning as a monologue (manalogue) – great long stretches of the man saying his thing, where it would be rude to interrupt him because it’s a poem. It wasn’t a conversation. He wanted to speak and be listened to – her only role was to listen and approve. It’s the traditional role poetry casts women in – woman as muse and audience, man as speaker and poet. Silence and applause on one side, everything else on the other. Anyone who has read The White Goddess may remember that Robert Graves was very keen on this distribution of labour.

Writing poems does not entitle anyone to attention. Claiming to be a poet does not entitle anyone to interrupt someone else’s lunch break. It was an illustration of entitlement in action. It was difficult to know how to respond. While it was all happening, I made eye contact with the victim. I hope it reassured her to know that she was seen, and I hope I managed to express concern.

One of the things that put me off intervening, was that I do sort of know the guy. He turns up at things I go to and he’s been weird with me and I don’t want to invite more of it. Solidarity-fail on my part, but at the same time, a keen awareness that it shouldn’t have to be my job to sort out the entitled behaviour of a creepy poet.

It’s the sort of behaviour that, in a film or a romance novel would have been portrayed as wild, dashing, exciting – and the woman would probably have been swept off her feet. In real life, it’s unsettling, inappropriate and she didn’t want to know. We need to stop telling stories about how women love to be the passive recipients of such advances.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

17 responses to “Poetry as a tool of entitlement

  • lornasmithers

    Most bizarre! I can’t say I’ve ever had that happen to me. Personally I wouldn’t have been bothered at all. It would have entertained me. But then I’m the kind of woman who goes into pubs alone and some men find me intimidating… I think I’d have been happier if someone recited me some poems rather than tried to show me a stupid Youtube video. However I personally wouldn’t go and inflict poems on some poor random stranger! Sounds like a very strange person. I recall you’ve blogged about him before…

  • This Poet

    He may have a social disability or other hidden condition, best not to jump to conclusions..

    • This Poet

      If he is a ‘stalker’ though, don’t give any negative attention.

    • Nimue Brown

      I’ve run into him in other contexts, which is why I’m a bit more willing to say this is all a bit creepy – for example, his social dysfunction seems very focused on younger women, rather than generalised. He’s careful around guys, he cornered me outside the loos once and only backed off when another guy showed up. Also, having dealt with a few guys who definitely were dealing with problems of their own, it isn’t any less intimidating.

      • This Poet

        I get the point, he’s intimidating and not responsive to normal social cues even when they are extremely clear or people backing off horrified or scared. But that is even more reason to suggest he is possibly neirodivergent or that he has a different”invisible” disability or condition. Just because you have experience of others with conditions and or problems really doesn’t mean that you can recognise when you come across people who are also struggling: individuals really are all different. A condition like PDA autism and it’s attendant social anxiety can make a sufferer try to take control when they are stressed. But because they aren’t’typically’ autistic, they are better at masking their problems and trying to fit in. Being articulate they appear on the surface to be really clever, articulate and manipulative.. but in reality they often struggle with often even simple social situations and frequently end up acting in shocking or inappropriate ways of specially when confronted, since they need help. I’m not saying that is what is happening here, or that you or anyone else has a duty to help or put up with his behaviour. But if you try a more empathic approach rather than confrontation and outrage.. you may discover a different way of dealing with this, since it does seem to be a problem for everyone.

      • Nimue Brown

        Mostly I try to avoid attracting his attention or escalating things, while keeping an eye out, because I don’t know what’s going on with him. I’ve not done any kind of confrontation, but I do reserve the right to feel how I feel – which is uncomfortable, and not perfectly safe. I’d also ask you to bear in mind that I’m speaking from personal experience of someone I’ve met, and you’re talking hypothetically.

      • This Poet

        I am responding to your post not criticising you..! I think discussion is a fantastic way to think about all manner of things and good for developing how we see ourselves and others. Yes you are entitled to your feelings, obviously. But sometimes we are scared of people and situations because we don’t have the bigger picture – and I know from my background and experience, how often autistic men and other really vulnerable groups are demonised by really nice people.. purely due to a lack of key information. Communication is so fundamental to me, and it helps me think outside the box.. there’s always new ways of looking at the world.

      • Nimue Brown

        He cornered me outside the loos, and when another chap turned up, be backed off. That’s not me miss-reading autism, that’s a guy who knows he’s not doing things he wants other guys to see him doing. I think the flip side of this is that attributing creepy behaviour to autism might be a way of demonising autistic people.

      • This Poet

        You are adding a lot more information than your post discussed. I’m not demonising autistic people, just saying it’s may be more nuanced than about sexism. After all, one might say they are individuals who are uncomfortable because an LGBTQ person shared the same public loo or an ethnic minority sat next to them on the bus.. they are entitled to their feelings but these may not be justified, in principle and discourse can help shape more informed response. Best wishes.

  • Mags

    Romanticising stuff like this is so dangerous – I don’t think people even get how much! It’s like in films, where the lead male and female are arguing and the guy grabs the girl to kiss her roughly, she pushes him away at first, then succumbs to the kiss. It’s packaged as romance, but it’s in no way romantic! This nonsense is still being fed to young girls, where if a guy forces himself on you, it must mean he reeeeeaaally likes you. Ugh!

  • dapplegrey

    Behaviour like this is just plain bad manners, and incredibly rude! It’s an intrusion of private space and private time. No-one, man or woman, has the right to just walk up to someone else and start declaiming poetry unsolicited! This person really needs to understand that his behaviour is unacceptable – but you were in an awkward position, yourself, and I totally understand your dilemma in not wanting to address him. The only thing I can offer here is that I’ve found what can work in such instances is to be disarmingly pleasant, but extremely firm. But it requires the confidence most of us would find hard to summon. Incidentally you describe it so well – it’s a delightfully vivid thumbnail. If ever this happened to me I’d more than likely whip out a sketchbook and start drawing, as a form of retaliation (interesting choice of duelling weapons, poetry book versus sketchpad) – drawing puts me in a frame of mind where I can blithely tolerate things that would normally upset me dreadfully. Odd, but true.

  • Identifying Predators | Druid Life

    […] week I blogged about a very uncomfortable situation involving a poet. On that post, there’s a long conversation with someone who wanted to make […]

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