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Kingsley and Hillary Amis

Between the Gardening and the Cookery
Comes the brief Poetry shelf;
By the Nonesuch Donne, a thin anthology
Offers itself.

Critical, and with nothing else to do,
I scan the Contents page,
Relieved to find the names are mostly new;
No one my age.

Like all strangers, they divide by sex:
Landscape Near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.

“I travel, you see”, “I think” and “I can read’
These titles seem to say;
But I Remember You, Love is My Creed,
Poem for J.,

The ladies’ choice, discountenance my patter
For several seconds;
From somewhere in this (as in any) matter
A moral beckons.

Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Girls aren’t like that.

We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff
Can get by without it.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.

And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.

Deciding this, we can forget those times
We stayed up half the night
Chock-full of love, crammed with bright thoughts, names, rhymes,
And couldn’t write.


“Something Nasty in the Bookshop” by Kingsley Amis.

The Austrian satirist Carl Kraus made the impeccable observation that a girl’s sexuality is to a guy’s as an epic is to an epigram. And that’s basically what Kingsley Amis is saying here: love is, for a woman, a deep and lasting emotional experience, and for guys it’s, well, more of an intense, spasmodic event.

Hence, when approaching a bookshelf — as Kingsley is doing in this scene — guys go for Landscape Near Parma, The Double Vortex, and Buddha, because, after all, “our stuff can get by without it.” Girls, on the other hand, don’t think that’s good enough; they’re drawn to I Remember You, Poem For J. or Love is My Creed. So a man’s love is of his life a thing apart, but girls aren’t like that.

Still, a man’s desire to communicate “I travel,” “I think,” and “I can read” through what he picks up off the shelf has an essential role to play in romance. As the great wit and womanizer Clive James said in a recent interview: “I don’t think that if you use sex as a cure for your solitude you’re going to end up very well. You have to be capable of self-sufficiency. In order even to be interesting to the woman you desire. I have found it very common in relationships that if one person is fulfilling themselves through the other, then the writing is already on the wall. They both need to be fulfilled. Two interesting people can be together or apart or in constant contact, and it will last. But if one person is living through the other, then the whole thing is heading towards a collision.”