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.