Christina Patterson: The poetic tendency to licentiousness

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The Independent Online

If most poets can't quite match the sexual exploits of Byron - dubbed even by his doting lover as "mad, bad and dangerous to know" - an alarming proportion of them have a damn good go. The latest example to crawl out of the literary woodwork is the poet and critic William Empson. In the second volume of his biography, published by that purveyor of celebrity sleaze, Oxford University Press, John Haffenden reveals that the man who anatomised the philosophy of the Metaphysicals and "the complex structure of words" managed rather more than seven types of ambiguity in the sack.

Refusing to confine himself to the odd discreet dalliance, Empson chose instead to go the whole Bohemian hog. In addition to boyfriends, lovers and mistresses, he turned his Hampstead home into an official ménage à trois, sharing his glamorous wife, Hetta, with a young poet and BBC producer, Peter Duval Smith. The "vision of love that was pressing", according to his poem "The Wife is Praised", was "always a love with three corners" - a love in which "young men,/ Your arousers and foils and adorners" would, out of gratitude for his tolerance, presumably, "yield to me then".

Kingsley Amis - a poet, let us remember, as well as a novelist - was less organised than Empson but, according to a new biography by Zachary Leader, no less energetic. "One Fat Englishman. I Fuck Anything" wrote his first wife, Hilary Bardwell, one day on the swelling belly of her husband, spreadeagled on the beach. Leader's 900-page biography fills in the detail - the seductions, the one-night stands, the wife-swappings and the drunken orgies - ad nauseam. The Old Devil might have aspired to poetry, but his true metier, you can't help thinking, was farce.

Fellow fatty Dylan Thomas managed to sow quite a few wild oats before drinking himself to death at the age of 39. On a lesser scale, so did John Betjeman and so did Philip Larkin. Looking like a librarian, or an owl, or a becorduroyed buffer, has proved no barrier in the great poetic enterprise to copulate with anything that moves. The prey, too, is wide-ranging. Bimbos are always popular, but matronly types and the occasional man will do. Poets are, it seems, nothing if not versatile.

It would be nice to say that this poetic priapism was a relic from the past that died out with clackety typewriters and trips to the Coach and Horses. It isn't. The poets currently jostling for a place in posterity are as tireless as their forbears in their pursuit of beauty, truth and twenty-something blondes. These not-so-young Turks are pushing 50. Many can't drive. Some have only the haziest of understandings of the crude mechanisms of running households and paying bills. That, of course, is a job for the wife.

The poet needs to be alone with the muse, but the muse doesn't stroke his balding head and tell him he is gorgeous. The muse can't wipe out those painful memories of the bookish wimp who could never pull. When the poet became a poet, he discovered that the pen is (initially at least) more powerful than the penis. He learnt that his ineptitude was heart-warming vulnerability, his lack of social skills, raffish charm. He learnt, in fact, that the very word "poet" was a passport to sexual paradise.

Take a hefty dose of narcissism, mix with loneliness and insecurity. Place in a silent room with a blank page or screen. Add large doses of alcohol and leave to brood. The resulting cocktail may not be lethal, but it should certainly be handled with care.

The Ayran Arab from Grantham

So, the grocer's daughter from Grantham, that ice-queen Aryan with "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe" may have been part Arab. According to tests taken for a Channel 4 programme, daughter Carol can boast that nearly a quarter of her DNA is from the Middle East. It's not yet known whether this is from the Roberts or the Thatcher branch of the family, but it certainly casts the former prime minister in a new light.

It also puts her in interesting company. Not just Osama bin Laden but also, according to recent analysis of his fingerprints, Leonardo Da Vinci. Time, perhaps, for Bush to bite the bullet and find out if he's been blowing up his brothers. Blood is thicker than water, of course, but oil is thicker than both.

* The increasing use of DNA for prosecutory purposes is, no doubt, a terrible infringement of civil liberties, etc etc, but it can certainly come in handy. Last year, a friend of mine set off for work to find that his van had vanished.

He mentioned it to his upstairs neighbour, who said that he had seen "a white guy" lurking around in the early morning. Since the neighbour rarely rises before midday, my friend was a bit surprised.

A few days later, the van was found abandoned in the Lea Bridge Road. "They only put diesel in it, didn't they?" my friend told his neighbour cheerily. "Oh, and they left their crack tins behind!"

The neighbour looked a little uneasy. Two months later, thanks to the DNA database, he was convicted of theft.

After a short spell at Her Majesty's pleasure, he still greets my friend politely. Van returned, crime solved and manners intact.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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