SOURCE: "References Back," in Times Literary Supplement, June 30, 1978, p. 728.
[In the following review, Ewart finds The Onion, Memory "intellectually so satisfying that some triviality of theme can be overlooked."]
[The Onion, Memory] is Craig Raine's first book. At the age of thirty-four he is no infant prodigy and it is clear at once that there are qualities of thought and control here which a younger writer might not have been able to command. It is also clear, from the very first poem, that metaphor and simile rule OK. A butcher "duels with himself" and offers "heart lamé-ed from the fridge, a leg of pork / like a nasty bouquet". The new customer in a barber's shop is "another piece / of sheeted furniture to sit there and be dusted". There is also some verbal trickery—"the slap and trickle of blood", "tired as a teapot" (alliteration, in my view, is a technique by no means yet exhausted; the more nonsensical the better, in a certain kind of poem). Perhaps "The Ice Cream Man" is a little too contrived; the connection between the Darwin quote and the kids watching an ice cream man is a bit tenuous. "The Tattooed Man" (not bad) is a Hugo Williams poem from start to finish. All these are in the first section, "Yellow Pages", and they establish a pedigree, Hamiltonian minimalist, with a really remarkable sensitiveness to hidden parallels (usually visual). The kennings are everywhere.
To appreciate this cleverness, very enjoyable and original, you need an education. You have to know about esse and percipi and Berkeley, and what misericords are or might be and who Casaubon is or might be (a famous Late Renaissance Classical scholar or a character in Middlemarch). Sometimes, as in "An Enquiry into Two Inches of Ivory" (otherwise very pleasing), where chess pieces are watching a man in the kitchen, the method over-reaches itself. "The giant puts a kettle on the octopus." The eight flames of a gas ring? Or its eight metal bars? If you have to puzzle too long, some of the surprise is lost.
"Houses in North Oxford" adds human emotional involvement to the ingenuity (the houses are compared, in complicated detail, to soldiers on parade or standing by their beds): "Who would guess from this the timid heart—/the wounded professor, nuns on their knees,/the dear old thing afraid of a khaki envelope?" This makes better use of the cumulative cleverness than just leaving it there to be wondered at, but these final lines also sound like a small piece of early Auden, tacked on. And in "Bed & Breakfast" the line "Tea and toast with cunty fingers" is direct (and he knows it) from Henry Green (an amorous butler's idea of perfect happiness). Also: "five pink farrow suckle at each foot". When the Meta-physicals went too far, weren't they a bit like this?
"The Book Of The Market" is sheer description, though very good description ("The raspberries are nursing nipples", carrots "each bunch an old Elizabethan gauntlet, / the tapered fingers creased with wear …"), and our final comment might still be: so what?
There is aural as well as visual felicity: "customers break / the rifles in two, nuzzle the stocks / like hungry cats and fire (miaow!)", "A helicopter comes and canes the sky". Sometimes the visual images are very beautiful—"a river is the grey silk dress, / because a mallard pulls a puckering strand". Most of these poems are unrhymed. Often the rhyme doesn't add much—"without palaver", to chime with "cadaver", cheapens the poem.
(This entire section contains 860 words.)
There is aural as well as visual felicity: "customers break / the rifles in two, nuzzle the stocks / like hungry cats and fire (miaow!)", "A helicopter comes and canes the sky". Sometimes the visual images are very beautiful—"a river is the grey silk dress, / because a mallard pulls a puckering strand". Most of these poems are unrhymed. Often the rhyme doesn't add much—"without palaver", to chime with "cadaver", cheapens the poem.
The later poems are more dramatic. "Reading Her Old Letter About A Wedding", a piece extremely exactly observed, creates a situation. So does "Invalid Convalescing", but less well. "Gethsemane" is a good idea mishandled; "and night flings back / its doors of black" isn't very helpful. "On the Perpetuum Mobile", though, where the rhymes work well, as in a [T. S.] Eliot "Prelude", is one of the best poems in the book, seeming more relaxed and human.
The rhymes in the "Rhyming Cufflinks" section are often unobtrusive. In "The Behaviour of Dogs" (a charming poem) it hardly exists at all. "Defective Story" and "Beware … The Vibes of Marx", reminding me formally of Eliot's early rhyming quatrains, are great fun; but the really large-scale metaphor of "Two Circuses Equal One Cricket Match" is not so successful.
The final sequence, "Anno Domini", is ambitious but fails, I think, because it is too disjointed; and sometimes the brilliance of language and image is a distraction, suiting some subjects and not others. From this stricture "The Corporation Gardener's Prologue", the first poem, must be strongly exempted:
Is moder add im layde in live— a nonely child an cymbal—
Translated, "His mother had him late in life—an only child and simple". The whole of this poem is in the Lewis Carroll class.
The best work here makes it obvious that Raine is a poet of more than promise; intellectually so satisfying that some triviality of theme can be overlooked. When he can twist more of his iron pokers into true love knots (something that comes with time and not with trying) he will be good indeed.
Craig Raine 1944–
English poet, critic, and editor.
The following entry presents criticism of Raine's work through 1995. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volume 32.
Widely regarded as among the foremost of England's contemporary poets, Raine writes allusive, erudite poetry stylistically characterized by dazzling wordplay, startling imagery, and strange metaphors. Many critics believe that he has revitalized modern British verse by leading the so-called "Martian" school of poets, a loose literary movement which takes its name from the title of Raine's book of poetry, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979). Martian poetry, like Raine's early verse, features unexpected imagery, unique and metaphoric language, and an emphasis on an alien point of view that makes the familiar, everyday world seem fresh, newly discovered, and sometimes humorous. Thomas Lux has declared Raine "a poet of rare wit, originality, and humanity."
Raine was born December 3, 1944, in Shildon, County Durham, to working-class parents. He attended Exeter College at Oxford University, where he earned an honors degree in English language and literature in 1965 and a bachelor's degree in nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies in 1968. Raine attempted to write a doctoral dissertation about English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poetic philosophy, but abandoned the project in 1971 when he received a one-year appointment as lecturer at Exeter. After his 1972 marriage to Ann Pasternak Slater, the grand-niece of Russian author Boris Pasternak, Raine continued to lecture at various colleges at Oxford until 1979. During the late 1970s, poems that Raine submitted to English periodicals began attracting attention: he twice took the Cheltenham Poetry Prize and received second prize in the 1978 National Poetry Competition. The publication of his first poetry collection, The Onion, Memory (1978), generated such controversy in the English poetry establishment that Raine promptly published A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, which includes the award-winning title poem. From 1981 to 1991, Raine served as poetry editor at Faber & Faber publishers, which made him the first poetry editor for that firm since T. S. Eliot to publish his own works, including the poetry collection Rich (1984), the never-performed libretto The Electrification of the Soviet Union (1986), and a collection of astute critical essays, Haydn and the ValveTrumpet (1990). Since 1991, Raine has taught as a fellow at New College, Oxford, and has completed the epic poem History: The Home Movie (1994).
Possessing deep affinities with early twentieth-century modernist and imagist poetics, Raine's poetry represents a continuous but often witty questioning about "whether seeing is believing," according to Michael Hulse, but his later verse expands to include personal, autobiographical observations about the human condition. The poems—some have called them conceits—in The Onion, Memory feature the poet's intensely metaphoric descriptions of daily, ordinary objects and phenomena: animals, insects, gardens, vegetation, butchers, barbers, grocers. Similarly, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home contains the eyewitness accounts of an imagined visitor from Mars who describes various things used every day on Earth and amusingly reveals his incomprehension of their purpose. Rich marks Raine's movement toward a more narrative style in his poetry and furthers his experimentation with wordplay. Divided into three sections—the second consisting of a prose memoir of his father and his family background through age sixteen—the poems in Rich depict episodes in the lives of his parents, himself, and his young daughter. This volume also displays Raine's personal, autobiographical impulses and presents several poems about love and sex. History, identified by the publishers as "a novel in verse," chronicles the history of most of the twentieth century in Europe through events selected from the family histories of the Raines and the Pasternaks. Comprising dozens of individual parts written in three-line stanzas, the poem makes use of riddling metaphors, graphic sexual language, and violence.
Reactions to Raine's first two poetry collections initially polarized the English critical community, represented equally well by the extremes of infatuated enthusiasm and near-hysterical dismissal. Most critics have marveled at "Raine's odd Tightness of perception," as Lux put it, but others have claimed that his poetry is "superficial and escapist … [seeming] slickly clever rather than artistically accomplished," according to Martin Booth. John Bayley has observed that Raine's poems "frequently pull off the really difficult feat of not sounding like 'poetry' at all, but just seeming a very clever way of saying something arresting." Although most critics immediately recognized Raine's enlivening and significant impact on English poetry, some have faulted his earlier work for not addressing human emotions or concerns. Since Rich, however, commentators have detected a humane, more personal approach in Raine's writings, and they have continued to comment on his linguistic and metaphoric pyrotechnics, often mentioning the influence of Pound, Lowell, or Stevens along the way. Once relatively unknown in the United States, Raine has gained a growing audience since the publication of History. Hulse has suggested that "Raine's future development must be of great interest to anyone seriously concerned with the future development of the poetic imagination."
SOURCE: "Making It Strange," in Times Literary Supplement, January 4, 1980.
[In the following review of A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, Bayley detects similarities between Raine's poetic technique and that of the Russian formalists.]
Who but Donne would have thought a good man like a telescope? asked Dr. Johnson, and who but Craig Raine would want to wipe away the sorrows of a new laid egg?—and in so doing sympathize even with the bowl into which it has been shoved.
To want to wipe away From this one smudged face the mucus and the excrement, so many final straws and the dirt of all dried tears? Cold beyond comfort, it rocks in a kitchen bowl. And what about the kitchen bowl? Poor dogsbody, its hard enamel is chipped like a dalmation …
As the last word of the poem shows, spelling is not important in the world of conceits—Donne and his friends would not have been particular about that, however exquisite their sense of connection. In fact both Donne and Raine produce in their different ways popular and highly individualized versions of poetry's most ancient device for turning the unforgiving facts of existence to favour and to prettiness—the riddle.
Such poetry can always and effortlessly go back to childhood, making us purr or cringe with forgotten animisms (Donne on the way to an amorous appointment disciplines his whispering clothes—best silk suit no doubt—like children, and imagines his shoes as dumb even under the torture of being walked on). But in such ploys begin responsibilities. Donne's conceits are cerebral—good men do not actually remind us of telescopes—yet out of the boxes of such ingenuity a world of absolute resemblance and meaning is crouching to jump, for the language of poetry does not distinguish between the physical and the metaphysical, good conceits leaping like electricity across what F. W. Bateson called the "semantic gap" between the one and the other. Raine's stunned trout executed on their mechanized farm, become "rigidly ridiculous" "shocked as a Bateman cartoon / when some bounder mentions death".
If ingenuity comes off in such poetry it is automatically a part of the moral world in which all good art has its natural being. Shakespeare's Isabella imagines "the poor beetle that we tread upon" finding "a pang as great as when a giant dies", and the predicament of Raine's insect equally forces us to identify.
a glinting beetle on its back struggled like an orchestra with Beethoven.
The real world is always saving Raine's talent from the concentration of comparison, rather as it appears over the shoulder of a child whose tongue protrudes as he draws it. His is the funniest version of what might be called the New Animism in English poetry. "The New Hospital" is a space ship "invented for nothing / but the longest journey / to a different world", but it is also alive in the ancient terms of legend and bodily function, which intermingle without hygienic pieties in the acceptance of terminal meaninglessness.
Even the lavatories create a myth of peace— porcelain pelicans repeat to infinity, glittering mermaids sit side-saddle on basins and each urinal calmly sucks its peppermint
(An odd thought that the full beauty of that comparison can only be appreciated by one half of the poetry reading public.)
"Flying to Belfast 1977", the best poem in A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, creates a whole climate of feeling out of the simplest possible repetitions and connections. The sea is dark linen, the ships faults in it; the town, looked at from above, a transistor with its back taken off; the plane's windows like drops of solder and everything "wired up". A faceless, imagined bride at the end is laughing
at the sense of event, only half afraid of an empty house with its curtains boiling from the bedroom window.
Haiku-like, the verb recalls mutely its equally unexpected fellow in the first stanza, where jet engines "whistled to the boil".
Raine has far too tight a grip of things to need to display feeling: it would be the most unfortunate thing if he felt he had to go on to do so, in the same way that every novelist today is required to be "compassionate" as well as clever. Some of the poems which do not come off, for example one about an ex-guard from a concentration camp, show that he may have qualms about this. One can only hope that he suppresses them firmly. The blurb observes with careful piety that "guileless comic vision" is "finally displaced by a sombre view of commonplace human tragedy", which in the context of the actual poems means absolutely nothing whatever. But readers appear to find it irresistible that the poet should deepen and develop a heart. Most poetic talent has an obstacle race before it, not a Pilgrim's progress, and this seems specially true of Raine.
Manipulation of comparisons and verbal echoes is of course a stock-in-trade, especially of poetic coteries, as much today as in Donne's and Shirley's time. But there is an exoticism in the way Craig Raine does it that is decidedly intriguing. His poems don't sound like those of any contemporary, even those who use the same tricks, and they frequently pull off the really difficult feat of not sounding like "poetry" at all, but just seeming a very clear way of saying something arresting.
The absence of the poetic goes with the absence of sentiment, and both with the odd fact that English does not seem the wholly necessary language for these poems: they could be literal translations from some other tongue, possibly the Martian in which the hero of the title poem sends his postcard home. "Mist is when the sky is tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on ground" or "the lighthouse stands / like a salt cellar by Magritte" could go equally strikingly into another language. But which? The clue is in the particular way these theses "make things strange", the recipe of the Russian formalists, and the closest parallel to Raine's kind of inspiration seems to me the youthful [Boris] Pasternak, who in My Sister, Life and other early collections verbalized perception with the same style of lens and focus. It depends on an individual domestication of "strangeness" rather than on any specific linguistic idiom, and poems of Raine's like "The Meterological Lighthouse at O" and "Mother Dressmaking" could go into another language without losing so very much of their special dimension of seeing and meaning. Pasternak's very early poems made it strange in a manner equally accessible internationally.
It is an interesting singularity that while it is virtually impossible to borrow or to imitate inside one's own tradition of poetry, and still appear original, it can be done by learning from a foreigner. The French poets—incredibly—learnt from Poe, Housman from Heine, Pound and Empson from translations of Chinese and Japanese, Charles Johnston, the admirable translator of Eugene Onegin, has also in his own poetry been a judicious student of Russian models. Raine's poems are very much his own, but part of the electricity of connection is this affinity, whether conscious or not with that related brand of acuteness and innocence of which the first couplet of "Karma" is a good example.
Rubbish smokes at the end of the garden cracking its knuckles to pass the time.
All ingenuity in poetry is a hit-or-miss affair. When Raine's works, it puts us in new touch with life as unexpectedly and joyfully as the early Pasternak did, or the young Betjeman, but when it does not quite come off it seems like a closed circuit on a cassette, fixed up for the private pleasure of cronies. The Metaphysicals are just the same. Conceits can be worth the carriage, as Johnson observed, but only if they fetch us far enough into a new dimension of awareness. Raine's aperçus are frequently too pleased with themselves, as in "Facts of Life".
Wasps with Donald McGill bathing suits were learning to swim in my cider glass … yards away, on the cellar steps, a thrush jiggled a snail in its pram
But at their best they draw attention not to themselves but to an unfamiliar pleasure of familiar consciousness.
The Onion, Memory (poetry) 1978A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (poetry) 1979A Journey to Greece (poetry) 1979 ∗A Free Translation (poetry) 1981Rich (poetry and prose) 1984 ∗∗The Electrification of the Soviet Union (libretto) 1986Haydn and the Valve Trumpet (essays) 19901953: A Version of Racine's 'Andromaque' (verse drama) 1990History: The Home Movie (poetry) 1994
∗This work was published as a pamphlet containing six poems, which were later included in Rich.
∗∗This work is based on Boris Pasternak's novella The Last Summer.
SOURCE: "Craig Raine & Co.: Martians and Story-Tellers," in The Antigonish Review, Vol. 59, Autumn, 1984, pp. 21-30.
[In the following essay, Hulse provides an overview of the so-called "Martian" poets, discussing the different emphases on imagery and narrative technique of individual members.]
John Fuller, to whom I devoted the first article in this series, has a good title to be considered the father of that movement in poetry which has dominated the British scene since the end of the 70s: the Martian school. In The Mountain in the Sea (1975), Fuller's parlour-game approach to verse at times produced witty results that anticipate the riddle-making fecundity of the Martians, as in these lines from 'Thing from Inner Space':
Lumbering, dreamy, pig-headed: like a smooth Cauliflower or ribbed egg it would offend If not armoured and decently hidden.
After a moment's pause we think: of course, the brain! The aha!-effect is typical of the reading experience we have come to associate with Craig Raine and Christopher Reid's work, as is also Fuller's reference in the same poem to "the daily theatre of objects": Raine's poem 'An Enquiry into Two Inches of Ivory' programmatically posits "Daily things. Objects / in the museum of ordinary art" as his subject matter, at the same time ostentatiously appropriating to himself something of Jane Austen's modesty (her letter of 16th December, 1816, is alluded to in Raine's title—Austen suspects she "produces little effect after much labour").
Daily things, but daily things seen anew, from a new and unexpected angle, fitted into new patterns, yoked into new relationships: this is the core of the Martian method. The inventiveness of Craig Raine's imagination is more than equal to Fuller's when he writes that the barber's "scissors scandal-monger round the ears," that fields are "ploughed neatly as a fingerprint," that foliage in autumn is "full of broken windows," that the snakes at the zoo "endlessly finish spaghetti," or that dogs "pee like hurdlers, / shit like weightlifters, and relax / by giving each other piggy-backs …" These playful images, by the zestful emphasis they place on the values of poetry as sheer fun, might alone identify Raine as an Oxford poet of the Fuller class, and indeed Raine taught there at various colleges after completing his first degree (a doctoral dissertation on Coleridge was abandoned) and in his poetry at times betrays a lightly-worn donnishness, as well as a love of Oxford localities.
Craig Raine was born in Co. Durham in 1944, but it was not until the second half of the 70s, after Fuller's The Mountain in the Sea, that his poetry began attracting attention. He twice took the Cheltenham Poetry Prize and his work was promoted by Martin Amis, then literary editor of the New Statesman, and in 1978 a first volume appeared, The Onion, Memory. Reactions to this collection—from which all my Raine quotations have come so far—polarized the poetry established in Britain, with the extremes of infatuated enthusiasm and near-hysterical dismissal equally well represented. Swift to capitalize on the sales value of controversy, Raine brought out a second book in 1979, and it is from this collection—something of a best-seller, as far as poetry is capable of such a thing—that the school takes its name: A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.
The title poem—to which Walker Percy's Martian in The Message in the Bottle may well have stood godfather, rather than any science fiction reminiscence—exemplifies both Raine's imaginative vigour and the flashiness to which he is often prone. His Martian has difficulty interpreting the signs on our planet:
Model T is a room with the lock inside— a key is turned to free the world for movement, so quick there is a film to watch for anything missed. But time is tied to the wrist or kept in a box, ticking with impatience. In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps, that snores when you pick it up. If the ghost cries, they carry it to their lips and soothe it to sleep with sounds. And yet, they wake it up deliberately, by tickling with a finger.
The car with its ignition and rear-view mirror, the wrist-watch, the telephone: here again a riddle-maker's fancy is being brought to bear upon the everyday, and throughout his second volume Raine again exhibits an unsurpassed fertility in simile and metaphor. Thus "a glinting beetle on its back / struggled like an orchestra / with Beethoven." "Dolphins dam the sea." "Mosquitoes drift with paraplegic legs." In Athens he views "weatherworn / lions vague as Thurber dogs." And in a public toilet "each urinal calmly / sucks its peppermint"—an image the full Tightness of which, as has been pointed out, can only be appreciated by half the population …
A similar imaginative drive can be seen in the poetry of Christopher Reid (born 1949) and of a third member of the school, David Sweetman (born 1943). Reid's Arcadia was published in 1979—the year can be seen as the Martians' annus mirabilis—and is as abundantly sprinkled with simile and metaphor as Raine's work. His "smutty pigeon on a parapet / pecks for crumbs like a sewing-machine." His weightlifter "carries his pregnant belly / in the hammock of his leotard / like a melon wedged in a shopping-bag." "Your hair is Japanese / with heated rollers." Ginger-root is "arthritic" and chilies are "red leather winklepickers." So too with David Sweetman, who in 'Coasting' writes: "A lazy length of hawser can't spell / even one of the names of Allah correctly." Elsewhere he observes "the thatched huts lying as still as shells / clustered in an abandoned rockpool."
Clearly, then, these three poets share their most distinctive characteristic of image-making vitality, and it is this which has won them the widest readership enjoyed by any poets in Britain since the much-derided Liverpool poets pushed their pop products—this, and the fact that they (and Raine in particular) have been courted by the media. Ample newspaper features and a half-hour film on television's arts programme The South Bank Show have probably done more to make Craig Raine's name nationally familiar than his inclusion in John Haffenden's Viewpoints, a collection often interviews with established poets, or in The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse (1982). Reid and Sweetman were also included in the Penguin anthology, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion; the Penguin, indeed, was conceived largely in the belief that—primarily through the Martians—"a new confidence in the poetic imagination" had come into being, that "a body of work has been created which demands, for its appreciation, a reformation of poetic taste." I shall have more to say about the Penguin anthology presently.
But Craig Raine, Christopher Reid, and David Sweetman, though closely linked both by qualities of imagination and by the love the media bear them, prove on closer inspection to be writers with distinct tones of their own. David Sweetman's only collection to date, Looking into the Deep End (1981), reveals a more sombre, morally intense cast of mind than Raine's or Reid's. Historical and political factors determine Sweetman's conceptual range, whether he is looking back to Nazi Germany ('The Unhappy Inventor') or the Hiroshima bomb ('The Art of Pottery, 1945'), or writing of more contemporary evils, whether the suffering in South East Asia ('Love in Asia') or our fears of a nuclear holocaust ('0900hrs 23/10/4004 BC'). The economy, the anger, and the compassion of 'Stories to frighten children with,' which I quote in full, are all equally beyond the scope of Raine and Reid:
Remember the Spartan boy, a snapping fox in his lap curled as if his own guts had spilled out, grown hairy? Today it shines in metal coils, sprouts wires, is hugged by a lad in black nourishing a foetal terror silently. But others speak, myths are made—in an Asian city, tarts wound themselves with lipstick, impatient for the crew shooting a recent war. Away on location, a make-up girl squints at a photograph before painting the acne of napalm on a child's face.
David Sweetman is uneven, but in such work he achieves poetry of a high order.
Christopher Reid too is uneven, and his writing is as complete a contrast to Sweetman's as we could wish. In his first book, Arcadia, the prevalent note was that inventive playfulness which—as in Fuller and Raine—is his most evidently Oxonian characteristic, as in 'Strange Vibes':
That seven-octave smile, those ten chomping cigars, one with a golden band; nicotined eyes, and someone's squiggly hookah, fendered in levers, wheezing the blues; those three hypodermics pumping in a row; men groaning and swooning: well, it all went to show we'd stumbled by chance on an opium-den. Only the front man kept his cool, stiff as a waiter and stooping to lay such infinite knives and forks on a dazzling table.
No need to mention that a big band is being described: the reader's enjoyment of the riddle-making would be impaired by anything so specific. But Reid's poems, perhaps more than Raine's, have seemed open to the charge that merely to concentrate on attractive imagery is somehow to sell poetry short and trivialize it, and it was with relief that one found Arcadia also contained a poem like 'The Life of the Mind', a mock-metaphysical account of the passage of a thought or idea through the mind:
Samuel heard the voice of God at night, but I used to see an Edwardian bicyclist, a roly-poly man with a walrus moustache. Since it was always summer, he wore a blazer with Neapolitan ice-cream stripes, a yellow boater, made of the crispiest wafer, and plimsolls, marshmallow-white. The rules of the game were easy: to set the man on his bicycle-seat, and let him balance there, without moving forward. He never remained for long, and every time his fall was as terrible as the fall of Eli.
This seemed to promise development along Empson/Wilbur lines, with a dab of Marvell, so Reid's second collection, Pea Soup (1982), came as a disappointment. Rather too happy to remain in a world of brand-new discoveries, in which daily things were insistently seen afresh, Reid continued to exclaim that "everything was bogus" or "the galaxy reads like a rebus," or that he found himself in a "playground of impromptu metaphors."
Craig Raine has been less prone to the potential pitfalls of self-parody. The manifesto-like statement in 'Shallots' in the second volume—"images provide / a kind of sustenance, / alms for every beggared sense"—has a wholer, more human tenor than Reid's pedantic maxim, in 'The Ambassador' (Pea Soup), that "through a studious / reading of chaos we may / arrive at a grammar of civilization." Raine's poetry has wrongly been accused of lacking either human warmth or a moral centre, but in fact it demonstrably has both: in Raine more than in Reid or Sweetman, the image is the instance of human experience, as in these lines from 'Flying to Belfast, 1977':
I thought of wedding presents, white tea things grouped on a dresser, as we entered the cloud and were nowhere— a bride in a veil, laughing at the sense of event, only half afraid of an empty house with its curtains boiling from the bedroom window.
'In the Dark,' one of Raine's finest poems to date, is a narrative of a girl and her unwanted child: his images succinctly present the familial and religious pressures which are brought to bear on the girl and ultimately lead to tragedy:
God danced on his cross at the foot of her bed like Nijinsky having a heart attack …
A pamphlet of six poems, A Free Translation (1981), showed Raine writing powerfully, with no slackening of his image-making fecundity but with a notable advance in his readiness to confront the recurring facts of human existence, particularly in 'A Walk in the Country,' from which these lines come:
They are burning the stubble in the fields ahead, which is why the graveyard seems ringed with fire and somehow forbidden. Is it fear halting my child so that her thumb, withdrawn for a second, smokes in the air?
Of the three writers of the Martian group, Craig Raine has the most substance. I have shown elsewhere (Critical Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 4) that his method has affinities both to that of the Imagists and of the Rilke of the Neue Gedichte. Beyond both there is in Raine an affection for the French symbolists, as also for Joyce. His writing is intelligent, witty and rewarding, and his forthcoming collection (Rich, due at the end of 1984) will be essential reading for anyone concerned with current British poetry.
Raine's 'In the Dark' tells a story: the girl, after two suicide attempts, kills her child, and is found by the police with a shoe-box under her arm. John Fuller published The Illusionists, a long verse tale, in 1980, and a first novel, Flying to Nowhere, in 1983. James Fenton and David Sweetman often have a strongly implied narrative background in their work, and the Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon, whose strongest work of the 70s was in shorter vignettes of Irish life, included a long Chandleresque narrative poem, 'Immram,' in his 1980 collection Why Brownlee Left. D. M. Thomas, who first made his name as a poet, is now better known for fiction. Geoffrey Hill turned to narrative in his recent long poem 'The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy.' Among less established but clearly important writers, Jeffrey Wainwright, Andrew Motion and Michael Hofmann all have a strong narrative content in their poetry. The trend to story-telling in British poetry has in fact been visible for some years now and across a wide spectrum of talent, so that Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion, in their introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, were able plausibly to identify narrative as an important component in what they termed the extension of the imaginative franchise.
Anthology introductions, by virtue of their need to sell the new, are often one-sidedly propagandist, and Morrison/Motion's Penguin introduction is no exception: both their choice of poems and poets and their view of developments in poetry have very properly been found deficient by critics of the anthology. However, it is interesting to consider their argument for seeing the narrative trend as more than a brief fashion. "Where other poets make the familiar strange again through linguistic and metaphoric play," they write, alluding to the Martians, "the young narrative poets perform a similar function by drawing attention to the problem of perception." They claim that the "fact of fictionalizing," and the "artifice and autonomy" of the text, are central to the strategies of the new narrative poetry, which they say exhibits "something of the spirit of post-modernism." And so on.
Though there is some truth to this, I can't help feeling we'd be disappointed indeed if it were the whole truth, since it would mean no more than that a worn-out perception of self-reflexive prose fiction had been imported into poetry. But I don't think this is the case. Rather, the new narrative can most persuasively be seen as sharing more with modernist (or even pre-modernist) than post-modernist practice, and as being more endearingly tainted with trust and confidence than anything we have seen since Eliot. Andrew Motion's own poetry, which has been widely praised, demonstrates this point. Motion (born 1952) published his first book, The Pleasure Steamers, in 1978, and took the Arvon/Observer poetry prize in 1981, but it was only with Independence (1981) and Secret Narratives (1983) that his work achieved a larger maturity of narrative power. The title of his most recent collection, like John Fuller's Lies and Secrets or John Hartley Williams' Hidden Identities, seems rather self-consciously intent on mystery, but in fact there is nothing secret about Motion's narratives at all, and their modernity is that of the first quarter of our century, as in these lines from 'One Life':
Up country, her husband is working late on a high cool veranda. His radio plays World Service News, but he does not listen, and does not notice how moonlight fills the plain below, with its ridge of trees and shallow river twisting to Lagos a whole night's journey south. What holds him instead are these prizes that patience and stealthy love have caught: papiliodardanus—each with the blacks and whites of simple absolutes he cannot match.
It is their openness rather than any mystery that makes such lines so attractive; reading them is like being returned to an Edwardian world of confident sequence and understood tempo. The best poems in Secret Narratives—'Anne Frank Huis,' 'West 23rd,' 'On Dry Land'—could be read with scarcely any loss by the naivest of readers.
The world of Motion's narratives is a product of that nostalgia which has given the British The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Siege of Krishnapur and The Raj Quartet, or—in poetry—Thwaite's Victorian Voices, Raine's 'In the Kalahari Desert,' or Hill's 'The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy.' It is an ironized, fictionalized world which paradoxically reinforces its own safe knowledge of itself through the very reflex of doubt. The irony is a gesture the sophisticated writer makes to legitimize his own newfound trust in the Real World beyond himself; what results is often attractive, intelligent and even charming in ways that no longer depend on irony. Implicitly, the writing of narrative poets like Andrew Motion, as also the writing of Craig Raine or John Fuller, panders to that right-wing, nostalgia-oriented readership which in Margaret Thatcher's Britain is if anything still growing, and it panders to this readership even at moments of the greatest irony. This is perhaps the greatest shortcoming of what has been the most zestfully imaginative twin movement British poetry has seen in many years; but there are signs, in the work of John Ash, Michael Hofmann and other new writers, that this amiable if complacent guard is about to be changed.
Since this article was written, Craig Raine's Rich has been published, and indeed fulfills the promise of Raine's earlier work. Rich is divided into three sections: 'Rich', 'A Silver Plate', and 'Poor'. The middle of these is a twenty-page prose memoir mainly concerned with the poet's father, an ex-boxer turned faith healer and a colourful character who had had brain surgery, could peel an apple with the skin in one piece, and had other qualifications for winning a son's hero-worship. Raine senior appears in two of the poems here, in the third part: 'Plain Song' and 'A Hungry Fighter'. Critics who have accused Raine of writing with too impersonal a remove from human reality might do well to attend to the noticeable autobiographical content not only in this new book: earlier poems such as 'Listen with Mother' or 'Mother Dressmaking' drew upon the poet's family life and childhood too, with fondness and a nice judgement in recreating mood.
'Poor', that third section of the new book, looks back to Raine's earlier life and to fictionalized lives of others (in poems such as 'The Season in Scarborough 1923' or 'The Man Who Invented Pain'), but 'Rich' focusses more directly upon his present life, as city editor, married man and father. Raine recreates perspectives of the very young child in 'Inca' or 'In Modern Dress', or writes persuasive love poems ('Rich', 'A Free Translation', 'Words on the Page'); at the same time he permits himself Joycean word games in 'Gauguin', or adapts Rimbaud in the once controversial poem 'Arsehole' (see The Observer of 10th and 17th April, 1983). Raine has extended his range and his ability to unite a poem around one complex of related imagery; the earlier ingenuity which won him his wide readership is undiminished, as he writes of "the bidet / and its replica, / the avocado" or "eggshells / cracked on the kitchen table / like an umpire's snail / of cricketers' caps".
SOURCE: "Tricks and Treats," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4255, October 19, 1984, p. 1193.
[In the following review of Rich, Bromwich considers the autobiographical aspects of the poetry reminiscent of the confessional poets' technique, but reserves his highest praise for the prose section.]
Craig Raine's early poems belonged to a subgenre that the Germans call "thing-poems". They dealt with such things as "Misericords", "Houses in North Oxford" and, making allowances for compound entities, "The Fair in St. Giles" and "Demolition with Tobacco Speck". Other poems, close to these in simplicity, made up a sequence on tradesmen, including "The Butcher", "The Barber" and "The Ice Cream Man". A second sequence took as its subjects Pre-Raphaelite paintings with self-explanatory titles: "The Horse", "Sports Day in the Park", "The Home for the Elderly" and so forth. The mode that Raine adopted for these flat-sounding topics was not quite naturalistic. And yet, one never came to know the poet himself through the traits or associations of the things he described. The preferred tone was abstract, with an occasional reassuring touch of intimacy; and when a poem reached a climax of some sort, it gave notice with a mildly out-of-place simile: the barber who "massages the scalp like a concert pianist"; the grocer who "smiles like a modest quattrocento Christ". Elsewhere the same effect was produced with a more self-conscious air: "the cobs of corn / are similes for nooses neatly tied"—which is very like saying, "Look, this is how poetry gets written".
From other poems in his first book, The Onion, Memory, it appeared that Raine was also a confessional poet. But, though in certain respects his work was modelled on Lowell's and Plath's—in diction, cadence and the routine use of hyperbolic figures—it adapted their procedure to essentially different ends. Plath aimed to be a repulsive writer: "I am a lantern—/My head a moon / Of Japanese paper". Whatever one made of the style, it had a motive. The "I" claimed attention as a special case. Yet here is Raine, in what seems to be a similar key: "Bread develops slowly under the grill, / a Polaroid picture of desert: / above it, the air is almost in tears". He has taken over the sensitive-heartless style, but without the motive: for him it is a way of being clever about a piece of toast. Indeed, Raine's poetry from the start affected to be affectless. But the title poem of his second book, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, offered a new set of credentials for his usual practices, by presenting a fair specimen of the author's own voice as an interplanetary monologue. In this way the slightly strange borrowed the gravity of the estranged. The "Postcard", however, was only the earlier "Enquiry into Two Inches of Ivory", under a gimmicky wrapping. Thus between his first two books, Raine's chief advance was a deepening facility. In both "I" was mostly absent. When he did appear—"It is the onion, memory / that makes me cry"—he was apt to sink into bathos.
In avoiding, as far as possible, the risks of confessional poetry, Raine up to now has avoided most of its vices and virtues. One is therefore surprised to find that the longest single item in Rich is a prose memoir of his childhood and family. The pattern for this, in a fairly obvious but unimportant way, is Lowell's memoir in Life Studies. Yet here the differences all work in Raine's favour. He writes from a steadier attachment than Lowell, and his prose is much less mannered. He is able to treat his parents, not as queer obstacles to his development, who must accordingly somehow be talked about, but rather as persons altogether discrete from himself, whose uniqueness he comes to feel the more strongly as he writes. His father was a boxer when young, and then a bomb armourer for the RAF, before being invalided out with epilepsy ("the result, we think, of an explosion in a munitions factory"). The description of a fit is vivid, without either callousness or sentimentality:
I was never aware of being frightened as a child because I saw his fits many times. My mother would take the three heavy cushions from the hide sofa and lay them on the floor. Then, her arms under his and locked on his chest, she'd drag my father's dead weight from wherever he'd fallen over to the cushions. She'd take off his shoes and his tie, open his shirt and loosen his waistband. Then we'd wait. For ten to twenty minutes he would lie there without moving, except for one eyebrow which jigged up and down while his mouth twitched sideways. Suddenly he'd arch his back like a twig in a furnace, scraping his stockinged feet for purchase, then take his head in both hands and try to smash it on the floor, only prevented by the cushions. And he would scream. The screams were the worst part. A priest who happened to be visiting my mother volunteered to stay on one of these occasions, but the screams drove him out.
When he subsided after five minutes, he'd lie with his eyes wide open but unfocused, weeping. My mother would hitch up her skirt and straddle his chest. With her face close to his, she's say, "Knobser, Knobser, Knobser, Knobser," in a gentle voice until his eyes focused and he came back to her with a groan of recognition. "Knobser" was my father's fighting name. "Young 'un", he'd say, and she'd go off to make him a cup of tea.
The writing is sustained like this, calm, disciplined and free of cliche, for twenty-two pages.
The memoir comes to a stop arbitrarily, in the middle of Raine's school days, but it ends with a recognition. His father had protected him throughout childhood from every outside assault, with the result that he felt answerable only to his family, and looked on his father as a hero. But among other tricks, "my father had taught me to do a proper somersault", and, away in boarding school, he broke the frame of a bed. The bursar told him that he must be careful thereafter: he was different from the other boys, for his parents could not afford to pay for a new bed. He then took to replying to questions about his father by calling him a football manager, or a brain surgeon: "I was at school for seven years. It wasn't until my second year that I told anything like the truth about my father." In its less abrupt fashion, the memoir itself is a delayed effort to come to grips with the truth. It has perhaps two false touches: an allusion to the town Raine grew up in as "a typical, ugly small town in the north of England" (a judgment more stereotyped than even the town can have been); and an assertion that his father's good stories were "useless as raw material" for poetry (a rather stiff answer to a question nobody asked). Still, the prose that takes up Part II of Rich is a success in a venture that simply defeats many writers, and it contains the best work of any kind that Raine has done.
By contrast, Parts I ("Rich") and III ("Poor") for the most part confirm the methods of his earlier poetry. The exceptions are autobiographical pieces, some covering, at a lower intensity, the incidents sketched in the memoir, and some extending the narrative to include Raine's own activities as a father:
Washing hair, I kneel to supervise a second rinse and act the courtier: tiny seed pearls, tingling into sight, confer a kind of majesty. And I am author of this toga'd tribune on my aproned lap.
It is a pleasing picture. But "confer a kind of majesty" is at once vague and a little hackneyed; and in this instance, the corresponding passage in Lowell does qualify one's esteem for the later poem: "After thirteen weeks / my child still dabs her cheeks / to start me shaving…. Dearest, I cannot loiter here." At any rate, the more personal poems stay clear of the carefully extravagant phrases that have been planted at regular intervals elsewhere. These need as a rule to be decoded rather than imagined: a "trout / tortured with asthma", for example, is nothing more than a trout gasping out of the water. Once we have seen that, its interest is exhausted.
There is other evidence here that Raine still associates seriousness with the on-purpose effects of difficulty. His preface sounds a note of high candour about this, copied from the preface to Lowell's Imitations: "As most readers will realize, I have freely adapted to my own purpose work by Dante, Marina Tsvetayeva, Rimbaud, the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet of 'Wulf and Eadwacer' and Ford Madox Ford. My debt to these authors is very general: they were inspirations, not detailed models." That "work by Dante" is good (as "mobled queen" was good). In fact, the allusions are scarcely audible, and certainly less imposing than this makes them sound. At times, Raine seems to believe that a poem is a moderately fanciful, moderately stimulating, procession of words knocked half a notch out of their prose order. This accounts for the satisfying monotony of his verse—almost all of it free verse of five-to-ten syllables per line. It also helps to explain the nicely calculated quality of the few interruptions that his policy allows: words like "frenum" and "plosive", or "obliterate" and "ejaculate" used as particles; and occasionally, the metaphor that inverts itself by overemphasis—"She felt excitement / like a dying salmon in his lap." Since Raine alludes respectfully to Salvador Dali, it may be added that he shares with Dali a thoughtless fondness for the well-contrived shock.
Apart from the poems about family and memory, Rich contains several oblique meditations on history and some expert pornography, both oblique and explicit. "An Attempt at Jealousy" is among the best of this group; it begins in resentment and ends in self-pity; but in the meanwhile the deserted lover wonders why he should be jealous of the man who replaced him:
Tell me, is he bright enough to find that memo-pad you call a mind? Or has he contrived to bring you out— given you an in-tray and an out? How did I ever fall for a paper-clip? How could I ever listen to office gossip even in bed and find it so intelligent? Was it straight biological bent?
And so it goes on, amiably, for nine more stanzas. The poem on the next page is "Gauguin", a Tahitian child's monologue about the things that men and women do with each other in secret, which ends: "Handmake Kodak man, come back, / my secrets are sorry with oil." It is all managed in this sort of pidgin English; but these last lines are poetry all the same. The style and incidental details of "An Attempt at Jealousy" and "Gauguin" are arrived at naturally, and together they show Raine's versatility with a single theme. In certain other poems, he sounds like a man trying hard to be drawn to what is repellent, and in his preface he mentions an expression he has tried to admire: "'to wipe someone's face', meaning to kill someone—a deceptive euphemism that deserves wider currency". The expression has not caught on because the idea is not tolerable; and who would want to belong to a life that gave it much currency? Raine's worst moments come from deceptive euphemisms of just this kind. But the prose of Rich seems to point in an opposite direction, and it is the direction that he ought to pursue.
SOURCE: "Sweaney Peregraine," in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 20, November 1-14, 1984, pp. 19-21.
[In the excerpt below, Muldoon concludes that Rich is a "substantial collection, [Raine's] best so far."]
Raine's third collection follows the procedures of The Onion, Memory (1978) and A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979): his poetic strategy is to present a series of striking similes or metaphors with the hope of forcing his reader to admire the justice of those similes and metaphors. Christopher Ricks need look no further (certainly not across the Irish Sea) for textual substantiation of his theory of the self-reflexive image.
Here, as before, the best of Raine's poems present something more than a concatenation of metaphors; effective though these may be. They are most effective when drawn from one area of experience, grouped around a single event or figure, or unified by a strong narrative. The tradesmen from the 'Yellow Pages' of The Onion, Memory, 'In the Kalahari Desert' (for me, his most successful single poem), 'Memories of the Linen Room' and the title-poem from A Martian Sends a Postcard Home: in all these cases, Raine has learned an important lesson from the 17th-century concettists: that the sustained metaphor in the service of an argument is the most satisfying, if the most difficult, modus operandi, that a conceit bears the same relationship to a string of metaphors as the Bayeux tapestry to a line of washing. A successful conceit, that's to say. In 'A Free Translation', for example, Raine sees lots of Eastern promise in a domestic setting, and the details amass gently and persuasively:
we have squeezed a fluent ideogram of cleansing cream across the baby's bottom.
The ending of the poem (endings always pose a problem to the necklace-maker, even if the beads are all of the same size, shape and colour) is less than original, however:
time to watch your eyes become Chinese with laughter when I say that orientals eat with stilts My favourites from Rich are 'The Season in Scarborough 1923', 'The Gift', the marvellous 'The Man who Invented Pain'— the kind of day a man might read the Sunday paper by his pigeon cree, or nervously walk out to bat and notice the green on a fielder's knee—
the excellent versions of Rimbaud and Tsvetayeva, and the quite brilliant 'Inca':
Now, there is only this: the long, unwritten poem which almost celebrates a daughter's parsnip heels and her pale, perfect nipples like scars left by leaves. Inca. How her nightdress rides up. How she comes, a serious face, from every corner of the garden, cupping a secret she wants me to see, as if she had somehow invented the wheel. O Inca.
In a review of The Onion, Memory, I accused Craig Raine of a certain lack of feeling, a surface dandyism. I suspect I was wrong even then. 'Inca' alone would now prove me wrong. Note, though, the qualities which are not always so evident in Raine's work but which contribute to the success of 'Inca': the irony implicit in the words 'unwritten' and 'almost', a line-length corresponding to a perceptible rhythm rather than the short Lego sections he more commonly builds from, and, Heavens above, an almost total absence of other than appropriate and discreet simile and metaphor. The least said the better, by the way, about that Sunday reviewer's wet-dream—The Martian School, The Metaphor Men. Who are they? Christopher Reid, perhaps? David Sweetman? Norman MacCaig? Philip Larkin? Seamus Heaney, perhaps? Doesn't Heaney's description of a lobster—
articulated twigs, a rainy stone the colour of sunk munitions—
vie with Raine's
scraping its claws like someone crouched to keep wicket at Lord's.
Like [Heaney's] Station Island, though for less obvious reasons, Rich is divided into three parts. Parts One and Three are subtitled 'Rich' and 'Poor', while Part Two consists of a prose meditation on Raine's childhood in the North of England, as if '91, Revere Street' formed a junction with 'Terry Street': 'A Silver Plate' is, to say the least, helpful to a reading of poems in Rich ('The Season in Scarborough 1923', 'A Hungry Fighter') and to autobiographical poems in the earlier books—'Mother Dressmaking', 'Listen with Mother' and, above all, 'Anno Domini'. 'Anno Domini' was called 'the fragmented biography of a faith-healer, whose greatest miracles are imaginative'. We now discover that the faith-healer is Raine's own father, who, after an accident in a munitions factory, underwent brain surgery: 'My father remembers the whirr and bite of the saw that took off the top of his skull. They removed part of his brain and inserted a silver plate.' And that's not all: 'He was and is a brilliant raconteur, with a large repertoire of brutal boxing stories, in which he is always the hero. He turned professional when he was sixteen and fought for the featherweight title of Great Britain, a bout he lost to Micky McGuire.' Raine writes fluently, always entertainingly, sometimes movingly, about his childhood: 'A Silver Plate' fills out an already substantial collection, his best so far.
SOURCE: "Prodigal Son," in New Statesman, Vol. 108, No. 2803, December 7, 1984, pp. 32, 34.
[In the following excerpt, Lucas senses Wallace Stevens' influence in Rich, but criticizes the rhythmic structure and sometimes the language used by Raine.]
Rich comes in three sections. The first contains poems about Craig Raine's immediate family and is called 'Rich'. Then there is a prose section, 'The Silver Plate', in which he writes about his boyhood and especially his extra-ordinary father, an unemployed and unemployable epileptic with a gift of tongues and overwhelming personality, someone who seems to be all appetite. The third section, 'Poor', contains poems which sometimes draw on the same material as the second section and which are about suffering of various kinds. What links the three sections is best expressed in Wallace Stevens's dictum that the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world. Raine does not quote this, although he quotes from a great many other writers, but you feel that Stevens hovers over many of the pages of Rich.
I do not mean this to be a criticism. After all, Stevens's appetite for reality always had something slightly theoretical to it which is hardly the case with Raine. In fact, probably enough has already been said about the veracity and voraciousness of his visual appetency and it is certainly true that he is more willing than Stevens ever was to see the world again with an ignorant eye.
This kind of intensity of vision becomes its own morality, especially in the opening section and above all in 'Pornography' and the already-famous 'Arsehole'. Raine's taking and giving of the world—to borrow from a more recent poem—is the spendthrift prodigality of careless riches which at times degenerates into Mammon-like catalogues. More interesting, I think, are the poems which celebrate the catching of tigers in red weather, and which vindicate Raine's use of his father as a hero of the imagination. There is for example a poem called 'Again', in which Raine remarkably attempts to capture or suggest how a brain-damaged boy constructs a life out of the ways he hears and sees: 'If he utters the sound for pain, / the one with cardboard clothes // will punish his pillows / and let him listen to the heart // she wears outside on a safety pin, / the better to show her love // when she holds his hand.'
There is nothing soft or sentimental about this poem. Instead, it has about it the imaginative gaiety which is also there in 'The Season at Scarborough 1923', a poem which invents his mother's perception of her work as a hotel chamber-maid, and that also shows in 'The Man who Invented Pain', although this poem about a wartime soldier who loosens pigeons and who is sentenced to be shot, can hardly get beyond its opening. For this is the absolute poem, the purely gratuitous act of celebrating a releasing imagination as the pigeons 'poured / past his hands, // a ravel of light / like oxygen / escaping underwater'. Where can you go from there?
The direction is by way of fables about the imagination, with which the book closes. Of these the finest seems to me to be 'The Grey Boy' which, because it can't fully be understood by an effort of intellect, haunts me as few recent poems have. A group of children are camping beside the river … But to try to say what the poem is about is absurd. Yes, it's about different urgencies of the imagination and without the example of Stevens I do not think it could have been written. But it is also an entire and seamless creation.
Yet to say this brings me to the two criticisms I have of Rich. The first is that Raine's ear isn't always adequate to his imaginative energies. The short, three-line stanza form he has developed often moves with the kind of spasmodic jerkiness that comes near to spoiling such otherwise excellent poems as 'A Walk in the Country' and 'Widower'. And on other occasions poems seem to me to break up into detachable bits or simply not to have the accomplishment of rhythmic control they cry out for. This is especially true of the misbegotten 'An Attempt at Jealousy'.
Secondly, and less emphatically, while I can see the force of Raine's wanting to find fresh ways of speaking the dialect of the tribe, I am not sure that the programme will lead anywhere but to the kind of sport poem exemplified by 'The Sylko Bandit', in which he stakes his claim for a poetry of new, extravagant mintings: 'he is the unexpected thyng, / who values not those laws / long passed enforcing playnesse … Sick affrayd of sumptuary police, / we do fear his flambouyance …' But language is surely as much a matter of rhythm, of stress and inflection, as it is of vocabulary?
SOURCE: A review of Rich, in British Book News, January, 1985, p. 53.
[In the review below, Booth blasts Raine for the "basically vacuous" poetry in Rich, although he concedes that the prose section contains "genuine attempts at true artistic achievement."]
The latest collection from Craig Raine, his first verse book for five years, is entitled Rich; sadly it is a weak addition to this famous poetry list. Previously, Raine's work has appeared from Oxford University Press (The Onion, Memory, 1978, and A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, 1979) but his appointment as poetry editor at Faber has him bringing out his own work, making him the first poetry editor for that firm since T. S. Eliot to publish himself.
One of the leaders of the 'Martian' school, the loose movement in modern British verse which has its nickname from the title of his second book, Craig Raine writes poetry characterized by its wordplay and density of image and idea, much of which is so compounded by intellectual arabesques as to make it nebulous. He is not so much a poet as a wordsmith who is captivated by the relationships of word to word rather than word to reality, understanding or readership. The result is a poetry that is superficial and escapist in that it seeks not to enter the intrinsic experience of poetry, but to bounce off it, absorbing little of its life but much of its veneer. His poetry seems therefore slickly clever rather than artistically accomplished:
Something apt to garden, he does plant those naked boys, the finest in Holland, along the length of windowe box. Were it not for the Buddha, the which he hath acquired from out of Angkor Wat, stone melted lobes intact he does much resemble a poet, one that ekes out guilders in payment for his rented room, hard by the station.
Some of Raine's poetry is frankly lacklustre and not all of it is original: his poem 'Arsehole', for example, is a poor rendering of a sonnet by Rimbaud and Verlaine creating together, unacknowledged when Raine first published it and only vaguely acknowledged now. When the writing does strive for higher levels, it is lost in arty verbosity:
The captain takes a swig at scratched binoculars, while we light the fires with Act One of Lear.
Only in a lengthy, yet still very self-indulgent, autobiographical prose section, somewhat out of context in the volume, is this inelegant and contrived 'literary' diction permitted to lapse, allowing genuine attempts at true artistic achievement to glimmer through the murk.
Throughout the book, one is confronted by a deliberate ignoring of the central tenets of poetry. Raine seems to delight in being obscure and denies his verse lyricality, beauty and simplicity of purpose for an attempted scintillating eccentricity that is basically vacuous and survives in print only because of his reputation.
SOURCE: "Craig Raine's Poetry of Perception: Imagery in A Martian Sends a Postcard Home," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1985, pp. 102-15.
[In the following essay, Forceville discusses the imagery of selected poems from A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, focusing particularly on the implications of Raine's metaphors and similes.]
Craig Raine is one of those contemporary British poets whose achievements have attracted considerable attention. Several of the poems in his second collection A Martian Sends a Postcard Home are first-rate, and the title poem supplied the name for what has come to be known as the "Martian" school in contemporary British poetry, of which Raine may be considered the initiator. The most striking feature of this kind of poetry is no doubt its imagery, to which the epithet "Martian" refers. In what follows I propose to discuss a few representative poems from the collection, focusing on this Martian element in the imagery and its effect on the poems as a whole.
It is no coincidence that the poem "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" has both given its name to the whole collection and is the first one printed in it. In many respects it constitutes the key to how to read the other poems, and can be said to exemplify its author's poetic conviction that
images provide a kind of sustenance, alms for every beggared sense. ["Shallots," ll.16-18]
It seems to be a reasonable procedure, therefore, to scrutinize this poem first and subsequently examine other poems in the light of what has been discovered.
Once the reader has understood the implications of the poem's title and has overcome his initial puzzlement, he perceives that he is confronted with what in fact is a series of riddles. The Martian reports via interplanetary mail a number of earthly phenomena which to us, humans, are perfectly familiar, but which he, failing to understand their meaning, describes in a highly original, "poetic" way. It is our task as readers to "reconstruct" the phenomena the Martian describes by fusing our knowledge of the world with his perception of it. Or, to put it differently, Raine wants us to look at our already too familiar world with the unprejudiced eyes of a Martian in order to perceive it afresh. This, he implies, is exactly what a poet ought to do and, by extension, his readers. This notion of the poet's function to make his readers aware of the world is, of course, by no means new. In fact, Coleridge draws attention to a very similar idea when he explains Wordsworth's contributions to the Lyrical Ballads:
Mr. Wordsworth … was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural [Coleridge's realm], by awakening the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
(Biographia Literaria, Ch. 14)
Or, to quote [Victor] Shklovsky, a critic with a very different background, whose ideas are even more closely akin to Raine's:
The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar", to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.
Being a Martian, then, is like drawing away the "film of familiarity" clouding objects, making them "unfamiliar", so that our sense of perception is fully restored.
In "A Martian" Shklovsky's "defamiliarization process" is exemplified in its purest form. Some ten earthly concepts are defamiliarized by being concealed in an alien's perception of them and the reader has to make a conscious mental effort to retrieve the Martian's innocent and flawed view of these concepts. There can be no doubt that Raine succeeds brilliantly in finding striking descriptions for these objects, but his predominant concern with creating surprising images has resulted in a poem which in other respects suffers from certain weaknesses. In the first place the reader needs to surrender to a considerable suspension of disbelief—to invoke another Coleridgean coinage. In order to be capable of making his observations at all, the Martian must have at his disposal a number of sublunary concepts. Consider, for instance, the poem's opening lines:
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings and some are treasured for their markings— they cause the eyes to melt or the body to shriek without pain. I have never seen one fly, but sometimes they perch on the hand. (ll. 1-6)
Obviously the Martian must be familiar with, among other things, the notions of "mechanicalness", "quantity", "flying animal", "weeping", and of course be able to frame correct English sentences. Inevitably a degree of arbitrariness is involved on the poet's part in selecting the phenomena with which the Martian is acquainted, and those with which he is not. As this arbitrariness is inherent in the whole idea underlying the poem, however, the poet must be granted this freedom. Therefore, no sympathetic reader is likely to complain that the Martian uses words like "mechanical"(l.1), "machine" ("Mist is when the sky is tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on ground"—ll.7-8), "apparatus" ("In homes a haunted apparatus sleeps, / that snores when you pick it up."—ll.19-20), and even "television" ("Rain is when the earth is television"—l.11), but is, as ll.19-24 show, apparently unaware of the use of a telephone. Neither will anyone be seriously bothered to learn that the visitor from outer space marvels at "Model T", which is a "room with the lock inside" (l.13), while disregarding this oddity in the
punishment room with water but nothing to eat. They lock the door and suffer the noises alone. (ll.26-29)
After all, the "punishment room" is also a "room with the lock inside".
It is a more serious matter, however, when this kind of irregularity takes a form which justifies the qualification "inconsistency". Thus, whereas the Martian needs six lines to explain his "caxtons" (l.1), he describes the world as "dim and bookish" (my italics) in l.9, and, moreover, in the final lines shows that he is familiar with the concept of reading:
At night, when all the colours die, they hide in pairs and read about themselves— in colour, with their eyelids shut. (ll.31-34)
Similarly, while our Martian uses the circumlocution "when all the colours die" to indicate that it gets dark, he employs the verbal phrase "to make darker" in l.12. Finally, it is at least highly unlikely that the Martian would be mystified by the fact that at night humans "hide in pairs" (l.32), when he effortlessly uses concepts like "being tired" (l.7), "sleep" (ll.19 and 22) and "to wake up" (l.23). These inconsistencies suggest a lack of internal coherence in the poem; the poet has not consistently shown the world from the Martian's point of view. As the poet of all the other poems in the collection he could have used "when all the colours die" as another way of saying "when it gets dark"—and we would have admired the poeticality of the expression. But in this poem the narrator is not the poet—the "implied poet" if you wish—but a Martian, whose descriptions, by sheer coincidence, happen to be highly poetical.
The lack of internal coherence can be founded on yet another aspect of the poem: both its length and the order in which the "riddles" are presented, are completely arbitrary. Arguably, the last four lines, with their description of sleeping and dreaming, suggest a faint air of finality (the end of the day), but that would be as far as we can go. The other riddles (Clusters of ll.1-6; 7-10; 11-12; 13-16; 17-18; 19-24 and 25-30) could be read in any order. Furthermore, the poem could theoretically have been indefinitely extended, or alternatively shortened by one or two riddles without its "structure" suffering any serious damage.
It might sound a bit like splitting hairs to dwell so long on the poem's flaws. After all, the poem functions as a kind of prologue to all the poems that follow, which necessitates a clear, unmodified exemplification of the poet's artistic creed. Indeed, one could even consider the poem as a kind of manifesto—and that it has been taken as such is proved by the now widely used adjective "Martian". And as in a manifesto nobody expects carefully balanced stances, we can, as long as we consider the poem in isolation, wink at what, after all, are minor faults and let ourselves be carried away by its extraordinary imagery. A purely imagistic poem like this—titled in such a way as to collect all the images under one heading and bring the message home—should be taken in the same spirit as Pound's "In a Station of the Metro": "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough".
The main reason, then, why I have nonetheless chosen to go into such detail examining the implications of the imagery in this poem is that it provides us with some important touchstones for the analysis of the imagery in other poems in the collection and enables us to judge their relative merit.
There are several more poems which are very similar in pattern to "A Martian" in that they are predominantly strings of images with little connection between them, which gives them a very static character. All of these poems share the feature, though not all in the same degree, that they not only lack a neatly elaborated internal development, but also internal coherence. The first characteristic in itself, of course, can hardly count as an objection. As Morrison and Motion point out in the introduction to their anthology [Contemporary British Poetry (1982)]: "The new poetry is often open-ended, reluctant to point the moral of, or conclude too neatly, what it chooses to transcribe". But the second feature, the impaired internal coherence, is, as noted before, of a more dubious nature. Turning to "The Meteorological Lighthouse at O—" as a representative of the poems which are flawed in this respect, we are presented with a—presumably short—trip by speedboat to a lighthouse;
The speedboat ducks and drakes through quiet seas to where the lighthouse stands like a salt cellar by Magritte, dwarfing the keeper who figure-eights our rope around the bleak iron bollards. (ll.1-7)
We might assume from l.17, "the whole place is homesick", and from the fact that the trip is made by boat, that the lighthouse is situated on an island. There the narrator is shown around by the keeper.
Arguably, the poem can be divided into several parts, very much like "A Martian". It is possible to distinguish five clusters—ll.1-12;13-22;23-27;28-34 and 35-38—with, however, only the weakest possible links between them. The second part is connected to the first only by the repetition of the word "keeper" and by a certain basic logico-temporal sequencing (one first sets off to an island and then arrives there, rather than vice versa). That Raine himself is aware of the weakness of the transition from the first to the second part is suggested by the dots in l.12 ("like an opened envelope …"), a device which he frequently employs and which, though occasionally it has a clear-cut function (e.g. "passage of time" and "tension" both in "In the Dark"), often seems merely to be used to mask an uneasy, insufficiently motivated, transition. Part three (ll.23-27) is joined to the preceding passage by the notion of "sleeping". Raine's use of the contrastive "but" in l.23, however, seems to be not quite justified, for with it he equates the content of the vehicle of a simile ("as if he'd fallen asleep / outdoors and only just woken"), that is, an element from the imagination of the narrator, with a direct quotation of the keeper ("But the lighthouse is insomniac / he says", ll.23-24—my italics). In other words, the keeper could never have used the word "but", because he cannot have been aware of a contrast in the first place. Despite the fact that the break between parts three and four occurs within one couplet, there is again no clear connection between them, except that the computer is one more phenomenon the keeper can show to his guest. The last lines, too, are open to the objection that they are not really worked into the texture of the whole poem:
He shows me a garden through his telescope— wearing its greenhouse like an engagement ring (ll.35-38)
—although one could see in the mentioning of the garden (if it is on the mainland) a reinforcement of the idea of homesickness worked out in ll.17-22.
But still, a unifying imagery could have saved the poem. As in "A Martian", the poem abounds in original and striking images. However, instead of welding the poem into a whole, the images attract so much attention to themselves that they, on the contrary, emphasize its very fragmentariness. The images have been selected from completely different registers—games, surrealist painting, sleep, knitting, etc. Each image has been chosen because it vividly and originally evokes a certain situation, whereas no attempt has been made to have the images reinforce each other—as in for instance the poem "Floods", where the key theme "argument" knits the images together. Even in cases where a phenomenon arouses strong expectations as to its further development we are disappointed. Consider the following lines:
One side of the keeper's face is so badly disfigured he looks at my feet when he talks about the lighthouse. The whole place is homesick— even his scalded cheek, with its pallid impression of ferns and grass as if he'd fallen asleep outdoors and only just woken.
Whereas at first we trust to be told more about the keeper's badly disfigured face, we find we are given no further information, and it is difficult to escape the feeling that this feature was mainly introduced to prepare for the comparison with the "pallid impression / of ferns and grass" as of one who has "fallen asleep / outdoors and only just woken". Admittedly there is some justification for this simile; after all the narrator sees even in the scalded cheek a sign of homesickness, suggesting that the "ferns and grass" are a token of home—but surely this link is too tenuous to warrant the use of such a heavily loaded feature as a badly disfigured face.
It seems imperative at this stage in the argument to investigate more closely the nature of Raine's imagery, in order to avoid the trap of criticizing the poet for what he did not try to achieve in the first place. Following [Geoffrey N.] Leech's terminology and definitions, we can conclude that Raine employs metaphor slightly more often than simile, the use of formal indicators ("like", "as if") between tenor and vehicle distinguishing the latter from the former. Although he concludes that each metaphor can be turned into a simile, Leech warns the reader to remain aware of their important differences. He emphasizes that a simile is generally more explicit than a metaphor and that, unlike metaphor, it can specify both the ground and the manner of comparison. It is the greater implicitness which accounts for
the tendency of metaphor to explain the more undifferentiated areas of human experience in terms of the more immediate. We make abstractions tangible by perceiving them in terms of the concrete, physical world; we grasp the nature of inanimate things more vividly by breathing life into them; the world of nature becomes more real to us when we project into it the qualities we recognize in ourselves.
It is illuminating to consider Raine's imagery in the light of the preceding remarks. If we return to the "manifesto" Martian poem we discover that its images exemplify neither metaphor, nor simile proper. On the one hand formal connectors are entirely absent—which points to metaphor—on the other hand we are in all cases supplied with manner and ground of comparison—characteristic of simile—and, in the last resort, none of the implicitness of metaphor survives. This oddity finds its origin in a very simple fact: in all cases tenor and vehicle are completely co-referential, identical. Thus, once the riddles have been solved, we are left with an entirely unambiguous rendering of tenor (= vehicle) and the ground of comparison. The fact that the "tenor" is initially unknown explains why (as in simile) the ground of comparison is always included—it is indispensable for construing the tenor. And due to the identity of tenor and vehicle the images lose every hint of the suggestiveness characteristic of metaphor. The result is a poem which through its very transparency precludes any further interest once it has been "reconstructed".
Raine's imagery, then, because of the identity of tenor and vehicle, has an even greater explicitness than that usually associated with simile. While this is particularly true of "A Martian", the same feature can be witnessed in "The Meteorological Lighthouse at O—", though admittedly to a less marked extent. The main difference is that in this last poem we are faced with real similes. However, the potential tension between tenor and vehicle hardly materializes because of two things. In the first place Raine mostly compares concrete, material things in terms of other concrete, material things. Secondly, in most cases the ground of comparison is restricted to only one element: the visual similarity. The speedboat ducking and draking; the taut ropes, "leaving the sea / like an opened envelope"; the computer output; they all evoke a vivid picture—nothing less, but certainly nothing more, either. It is this tenuousness of the link between tenor and vehicle, together with the already mentioned lack of coherence between parts within the poems under discussion which account for their rather static and shallow character.
The question we will have to face now is to what extent we may hold all this against Raine. After all, Raine, in most of the more "orthodox" Martian poems, has no intentions whatsoever of explaining "the more undifferentiated areas of human experience in terms of the more immediate". On the contrary, he wants to draw attention, as we have noted before, to the process of perception itself. Perceiving the familiar in terms of the unfamiliar is a joy in itself and need not lead to a greater (metaphysical) understanding of the world.
This, of course, is a legitimate view. Unfortunately, however, Raine's ideas about the importance of perception clash in a number of his poems with an essential poetic principle. As I have tried to demonstrate, the poet has only been able to indulge freely in imagery by sacrificing internal coherence and consistency. Both by the standards of a "traditionalist" critic like [Graham] Hough, who stresses the necessity of a work of art's "integrity—the almost universal requirement that the work shall be a whole, not a slice, a chunk, a collection or a heap", and by those of a well-known structuralist critic [Jonathan Culler]—"[a] fundamental convention of the lyric is what we might call the expectation of totality or coherence"—we therefore cannot but conclude that a number of the poems in the Martian collection are seriously flawed.
However, Raine has written some outstandingly good poems as well and I would like to end this exposé with a discussion of a poem in which the poet has successfully integrated his perceptive flair in an overall structure. "Laying a Lawn" is as full of imagery as any of the poems dealt with before, but in this case a unity has been achieved which makes it one of the best of the collection. Concentrating on the imagery as before, we notice how the grass chunks—books simile with which the poem opens, informs it throughout. We will therefore take it as the starting point for our analysis, then consider other elements, and come full circle again. Let us first take a closer look at these opening lines:
I carry these crumbling tomes two at a time from the stack and lay them open on the ground. Bound with earth to last, they're like the wordless books my daughter lugs about unread or tramples underfoot. I stamp the simple text of grass with wood wormed brogues (ll.1-9)
Unlike many similes in other poems by Raine, this simile does not hinge on a single point of resemblance, but is a very rich one indeed. In the first place there is the physical similarity between the (probably rectangular) chunks of grass and the poet's daughter's books. Both are "laid open" on the ground; the grass chunks—carried two at a time, thus resembling a jacket and six "pages"—to form the lawn; the books (children's books, so probably with few pages, too) scattered around with a child's carelessness. The little girl's books are presumably of a firm quality as they are meant for children who are still to young to read ("wordless books", l.5—my italics). Similarly the grass "tomes"—a very felicitous choice of word—are heavy and meant to be relatively enduring; both books and grass chunks should be able to bear being trampled upon.
In the second place there are less tangible resemblances, where it should be noticed that meaning elements of tenor and vehicle magnificently interpenetrate on different levels. Whereas the books are "wordless", the chunks are "a simple text of grass" (l.8), but neither can be "read" in the literal sense of the word. Furthermore the two meanings of "brogue" (1. strong outdoor shoe; 2. dialectal accent) hint at significant interrelationships. The second meaning in the phrase "woodwormed brogues", when applied to "text", suggests the imperfectness of the earthly tomes, as does "crumbling" (l.1), a feature to which we will come back presently.
The blending of the connotations of the grass tomes and those of the books assume an added significance when juxtaposed to the father-daughter relationship. While the father is busily working with the grass chunks (which, as has been argued, are invested with the "book" connotations), the little girl is passively looking on. She is still innocent, not yet really involved with worldly things; she cannot yet be expected to help her father, just as she cannot yet be expected to be able to read books. Neither is she consciously aware of the fact that her doll is maimed, something which does not escape her father's notice. The idea of her innocence is further emphasized by her primeval nakedness. The father sees
only the hair on her body like tiny scratches in gold, her little cunt's neat button-hole, and the navel's wrinkled pip … (ll.21-24)
The child's innocence, concentrated in her body's intactness, is linked to the grass chunks theme by the hint of decay which inheres in both: the grass tomes are crumbling and contain wood wormed brogues, while the girl will change teeth (l.15) and go through the full circle of life. But there is a more profound connection: the girl's decay will ultimately end in her death and she will be buried under the very "tomes" she is now playing on—she will become part of the earth again. "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Eccl.3.20). But for the moment the father refuses to think of all this. He is glad he "needn't see / the thin charcoal crucifix / her legs and buttocks make", ll.18-20. He suppresses thoughts of his daughter's future suffering—the black crucifix is a symbol that leaves no doubt as to its interpretation—and focuses on her innocence instead, marvelling at the perfection of her young body. The poem superbly culminates in its final lines:
For the moment, our bodies are immortal in their ignorance— neither of us can read this Domesday Book. (ll.25-28)
If we read these lines in the light of what has become clear so far, it does not seem to be too fanciful to establish one other connection between the books and the earth, one which fuses the poem into a brilliant whole. For there is more to "reading the Domesday Book" than a witty joke. Not only does the Domesday Book refer back to the detailed survey King William I had drawn up, for tax purposes, of the precise state of England's lands and cattle; an Old English poem of that title, "Doomsday", has invariably been equated with the Day of Judgment, too. Once we have assessed these connotations, I think we are fully justified to be reminded of the medieval notion of the two books God bestowed on man: the Holy Book and the Book of Nature. The already mentioned themes of innocence versus experience, the transience and decay of human life, visions of suffering and the implications of the complex grass tomes simile resolve themselves in this aspect of medieval epistemology. Thus, whereas the father can "read" in the literal sense, which reflects his experience of life and suffering and his knowledge of the inevitability of decay and death, his daughter, who cannot read, is still blissfully unaware of all this—which constitutes her innocence. But neither the father nor his daughter can read "the Book of Nature" and in this respect the father is innocent, too. Focusing on this part of the innocence which he shares with his daughter, the father "for the moment" stops Time's wingèd chariot with its decay and death and completely identifies with her, feeling "immortal in [his] ignorance".
I hope the above analysis has convincingly shown that, unlike in the other poems discussed, the imagery in "Laying a Lawn" is not the result of a loose jumble of brilliant but unconnected perceptions, but the red thread welding the poem into a harmonious whole. The central simile is an incredibly rich one: instead of a single point of visual resemblance between tenor and vehicle, areas of comparison abound and trigger off an ever-extending degree of interpenetration of meaning-elements between them. The result is the ideal combination of maximum tension balancing maximum similarity characteristic of the best imagery. The images which are not directly dependent upon the earth-books simile—for example "the caterpillar, rucked like a curtain" and the "little cunt's neat button-hole"—are not overly conspicuous and are consistent with the dominant themes in the poem.
We already noted that the categories of figurative language do not always hold very precisely in Raine's poetry, so we are hardly surprised to find that the richness of the central simile gives it a very metaphorlike quality. Although many similarities between tenor and vehicle can be made explicit, the horizon keeps receding and new vistas come into view. Notwithstanding the fact that here, as in other poems, Raine compares two concrete things, each has such a vast range of connotations that none of the shallowness, characteristic of his weaker similes, results. Moreover, it is worth noticing that in none of the other poems does Raine so closely approach symbolism. In view of these observations, then, I would like to venture the idea that it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that the imagery in this splendid poem is not so much a celebration of sheer perception, as indeed an exploration into "the more undifferentiated areas of human experience in terms of the more concrete world".
SOURCE: "Tales of Hofmann," in London Review of Books, Vol. 8, No. 20, November 20, 1986, p. 11.
[In the excerpt below, Morrison reviews The Electrification of the Soviet Union, noting that it is "well worth reading."]
Craig Raine's libretto The Electrification of the Soviet Union might be seen as a further strand in his continuing argument with Tom Paulin over The Faber Book of Political Verse. On the one hand, Raine here shows himself to be a writer who can step out of the domestic tunnel into the stadium of politics and history: He takes [Boris] Pasternak's novella The Last Summer, set in 1916 with flashbacks to 1914, and lets the shadow of the Russian Revolution fall across it, adding an epilogue set in 1920 or 1921. It becomes a far more overtly political work in his hands than in Pasternak's (or in the translation of the novella by George Reavey), with Pasternak himself putting in an appearance to comment on the sacrifice of lives to political causes. On the other hand, all the imaginative sympathies here are with those who stand for the preservation of family life. The central character is Serezha, a poet, too naive to be either Pasternak or Raine, but sensitive and gifted and more to be admired than his hard-headed sister, whose song in praise of the New Man, 1917 model, is undermined by the facility of its rhyming:
He's broken away from the past. The old world has spoken its last, the fleshpots, the despots, the old world is broken at last.
The repressed Nordic Mrs. Arild, who refuses Serezha's love and ends up—gun in holster and jargon on her lips—in the uniform of a Party official, is also unsympathetic, though her behaviour is 'explained' by her moving widow's lament 'I died the day my husband died.' Considerably more warmth goes into Raine's portrayal of Sashka, a prostitute, the third woman in Serezha's life, who is seen peeing on a chamberpot and who talks of clients who 'come all over my face'. One of Raine's most attractive qualities is his readiness to give offence, especially where the sensibilities to be offended concern reticence about bodily functions. Sashka is otherwise characterised with impeccable conventionality (she has drifted into prostitution after being seduced) and the scenes in which she appears, and which include her drunk, Edmund Heep-ish husband, are those which carry most voltage. The Epilogue, about the Revolution's aftermath, seems crude in comparison, as do most of the politics, the current scarcely switched on at all. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to observe what Raine drops or develops from Pasternak, and if the theatrical power of the piece must remain in doubt until next summer (by which time the composer Nigel Osborne should have got his act together), three or four of the lyrics make the libretto well worth reading.
SOURCE: An interview in Ploughshares, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1987, pp. 139-48.
[In the following interview, Raine discusses Martianism, the evolution of his poetry, his audience, poetic technique, and literary influences.]
Craig Raine's new kind of poetry has yet to reach a substantial audience in the United States. But, if the reviews can be believed, Raine's reputation in Britain exceeds that of any contemporary poet on this side of the Atlantic. Raine's four books—The Onion, Memory, A Martian Sends a Post Card Home, Rich, and his recent opera libretto, The Electrification of the Soviet Union—have prompted an upheaval in British poetic tastes and tempers, but not a single thoughtful article in the American literary press.
Raine's poetry still bears the label—Martianism—pinned to it by British critics several years ago. In Martian poetry, one encounters the world afresh, as an alien might, through unexpected images: "And then Belfast below, a radio / with its back ripped off"; "the lawn sprinkler's dervish"; "a fluent ideogram / of cleansing cream / across the baby's bottom." Like cold water on a hot day, such lines startle at first, then resonate through the senses: one must swim in them for a while before actually feeling wet. Raine described the process in an article called "Babylonish Dialects":
The initial obscurity, the moment of non-sense, puts us in touch with our non-verbal thoughts, or their simulacrum. And even after the necessary translation is effected, the strangeness lingers.
Raine's work recalls the early gems of two master experimenters, Pound and Williams. And just as Pound bridled against the confines of the Imagism box, so Raine resists the Martian pigeonhole today. Such restlessness befits a true inventor, and in an age when American critics trumpet something oxymoronically called "the new formalism," Raine's inventions deserve celebration.
[Karr:] For American readers who haven't yet read A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, can you describe the Martianism that caused such a hubbub in the British press?
[Raine:] "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance." Dr. Johnson's famous reply to a woman who asked him why he had defined pastern as the knee of a horse, contains an additional, inadvertent definition—of Martianism.
Ignorance, the mere absence of knowledge, need not detain us. But pure ignorance is the condition to which Descartes aspires in the Meditations. It doesn't just happen. You have to work at it until it is second nature, until you habitually question what Arnold called "the old straw of habits, especially our intellectual habits."
Our first nature is tidy. The mind is a know-all. It classifies. It is experienced. It is well-supplied with labels. It finishes our sentences for us. It lays down the law.
But Martianism is intellectually delinquent. Try telling it something indisputable, like a rose is a rose is a rose—and it will tell you that rosebuds are "tight pink cupolas" or "careful turbans." Caught pink-handed, it always pleads innocence and asks for the bouquet to be used as evidence. It has been led astray by French Symbolist poetry, by Mallarmé's injunction to Cazalis: "Peindre non la chose mais l'effet qu'elle produit" [Don't paint the thing but the effect that it produces]. In Rimbaud's diagnosis ("Il s'agit d'arriver á l'inconnu par le dérèglement de tous les senses" [It's a question of arriving at the unknown through the disordering of all one's senses]) it divines something more than an invitation to drugs and general excess—namely, the austere condition of pure ignorance, a refusal to know what everyone knows. The tidy given world is leading a double life where things are less tame, even a bit deranged. Seeing is believing. But you have to look twice. The first time you see the cooked. The second time you see the raw. Both are "true" but the latter is always fresh and the former is sometimes overdone.
Call Henri Matisse to the stand: "To see is itself a creative operation, requiring an effort. Everything that we see in our daily life is more or less distorted by acquired habits, and this is perhaps more evident in an age like ours when cinema posters and magazines present us every day with a flood of ready-made images which are to the eye what prejudices are to the mind. The effort needed to see things without distortion takes something very like courage; and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time: he has to look at life as he did when he was a child and if he loses that faculty, he cannot express himself in an original, that is, personal way." Thank you, M. Matisse; no further questions.
How is the lingering strangeness of your poems like the Symbolist obsession with mystery?
Valéry has an essay called "L'Existence du Symbolisme" in which he maintains that the only unifying factor from Baudelaire to Verhaeren is the desire to tease the bourgeois reader with difficulty. I think, however, that the point of this poetry is not only that it is difficult, but that understanding should come, as Mallarmé said, "par une série de déchiffrements" [by a series of decodings]. Reading is like undressing someone you love—very slowly: "Two hundred to adore each breast: / But thirty thousand to the rest." The reader has to participate. It isn't television.
I draw the line between the seemingly non-personal narratives of A Martian Sends a Postcard Home and Rich, in which the poems and the prose piece seem overtly autobiographical. Where do you stand now in terms of writing personal poetry?
It is impossible to keep your personality out of what you write. Even writers who copy other writers display their own personalities—weak, colorless, touching, eager, anonymous.
But I know what you mean and I can explain—up to a point. It was really an accident, like so much to do with writing. Aged 16, I gave two poems to my very charismatic English master. We pretended they had been written by a friend. He said they were like pimply Dylan Thomas—a kind judgment, I now realize. And he gave me some advice which I followed faithfully. First, learn about meter and rhyme. Never trust your ear; train it; and keep it in training. Second, avoid the first-person pronoun. The result is that I don't feature in my first two books, directing, interjecting, intervening, in the way most young poets do. And I still find it difficult to use "I" with freedom—which is why my first answer has so much citation. If I were to speak for myself, I would be less coherent because I really don't know how my mind works. I agree with Gilbert Ryle that honest introspection doesn't produce what Descartes called clear and distinct perceptions. When I look at my thought processes, they are in complete darkness. On the other hand, I do have clear and distinct perceptions: "I noticed how each rose / grew on a shark-infested stem." How this happens, I don't know. It doesn't feel like thought. It's more like discovering a new erogenous zone. Pure pleasure from my point of view. So I always found it difficult to understand what Eliot meant by the dissociation of sensibility. Surely a thought is an experience for everyone—not just Donne.
Where do I stand now in terms of writing personal poetry? Right now I'm engaged in writing an epic. Whenever anyone in the poem behaves badly, selfishly, unfeelingly, insensitively, I know who to study for details. The danger in writing directly about yourself is that you tend to present the best profile. But I'm interested in the complete works.
It's a shame that your publisher has not released Rich or your new libretto in the U.S. In writing your poems, do you ever think of the American reader?
Don't blame my publisher. It's me who's been playing hard to get.
I can't honestly say I take the U.S. reader into account. I once changed a reference to Durex, at the suggestion of an American editor, to Trojan. But that's as far as it goes. Inescapably, my frame of reference is bound to be English—cricket rather than baseball. But I'm not sure this is a great handicap. In Ireland, people read me without expecting references to hurley rather than hockey.
Generally, it's impossible to think about the audience when you're actually writing. Afterwards, you might make some adjustments—clarify an allusion, say—but the process itself requires total concentration. It's too erotic to tolerate much in the way of distraction.
You've said that there's no such thing as translation, that "translation is impossible because you change the words." If so, how do you read foreign poetry? Can you address the translation problem between British and American readers?
Frost said that poetry is what is lost in translation. Sometimes, though, poetry is what survives the process of translation. Clearly, some translations work: Keeley and Sherrard's Cavafy, Theiner's Holub. Cook an egg and you change its molecular structure, but it's still an egg. The best translation can only hope for that—poached Dante, scrambled Rimbaud, fried Baudelaire, hard-boiled Hofmannsthal. Whenever possible it is better to work from the original, using a prose crib and a dictionary. I have three recordings of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition—the original piano score, Ravel's orchestration, and Yamashita's arrangement for guitar. The original and two translations, in other words. Without being completely different, they are completely different—distant cousins at the most.
American and English are not the same language. A trucker isn't a lorry-driver. The connotations are different. Even place-names reverberate differently. The old Gene Pitney song "24 Hours from Tulsa" was written for truckers. In England, there is no equivalent. "24 Hours from Peebles" is a joke and no one ever left his heart in Bognor Regis. But what do Americans make of Eliot's reference to the Edgware Road in "The Dry Salvages"? Probably about as much as we make of the Dry Salvages.
Poetry teaches the language to sing. It uses language consciously and carefully. In this sense, it is the very opposite of everyday unreflexive speech. As Eliot/Mallarmé said, the aim is "to purify the dialect of the tribe." But poetry must also and always grow out of the language of ordinary living men and never settle into poetic diction. Poetry, then, is Peter Quince at the conservatoire. Now, let me hazard a generalization: faced with these two apparently opposed imperatives, American poetry prefers to hang out with Peter Quince, whereas English poetry is endlessly practicing scales. In fact, the two imperatives aren't logically opposed at all.
You've been compared to Pasternak. Is that an apt comparison?
My wife is Pasternak's niece so it will seem disingenuous when I say that I do not know Pasternak's work. I speak a little house-Russian which I have picked up. I know the Russian word for snot. I can tell a child to wipe its bottom. But I don't know the Cyrillic alphabet and I could not even begin to read Russian. Obviously, given my family milieu, I have picked up ideas about Pasternak's poetry—that it is metaphorical, that its sound patterns are lush and intricate and assonantal, so rich, in fact, that these effects are more or less impossible to translate.
I also wonder if one of Pasternak's influences—the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky—influenced you. Shklovsky's dicta seem tailored to your work: "Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life…. It exists to make the stone stony…. It removes objects from the automatism of perception." Marjorie Perloff elaborates this quote for an American audience, "[Art] defamiliarizes objects by presenting them as if seen for the first time, or by distorting their form … so as to make the act of perception more difficult, and to prolong its duration."
I have not heard of Shklovsky, but I agree totally with the quotation that poetry "exists to make the stone stony." In England now (and perhaps in the States) vivid imagery is perceived not as an illumination of the object but as an obstacle placed in front of it. In this argument, I side with Dickens: "I sometimes ask myself whether there may be occasionally a difference of this kind between some writers and some readers; whether it is always the writer who colors highly, or whether it is now and then the reader whose eye for color is a little dull?"
You've proven yourself a poetic experimenter, yet you obviously borrow from the English tradition, often irreverently twisting it. (I'm thinking of the sonnet"Arsehole.") In contrast to your iconoclastic streak, you received an Oxford education and hold a respectable post as poetry editor of Faber. Can you discuss both the traditional and iconoclastic sides of your work?
In art, the only interesting thing to do is to discover the rules—and then break them. Attack the orthodoxy. All successful revolutions are founded on the understanding of tradition, its strengths and its weaknesses. But eruditionisn't enough. There has to be time to do nothing but think. Look at Troilus and Cressida: Shakespeare may have had small Latin and less Greek, but he knew a bogus heroic tradition when he saw it. Challenge the influential master, said Cézanne.
In terms of line, how did you settle on the couplet for A Martian Sends a Postcard Home and the octosyllabic line for The Electrification of the Soviet Union?
Broadly, I agree with Saul Bellow: "A writer should be able to express himself easily, naturally, copiously in a form which frees his mind, his energies. Why should he hobble himself with formalities?" And I once wrote, in a similar spirit: "Many critics are impressed by technical virtuosity—by which they mean the dead perfection of the sestina and other futile fifteen-finger exercises. The couplet I use is essentially a flexible instrument capable of accommodating a huge variety of subject matter. The sestina strikes me as the poetic equivalent of an instrument for removing Beluga caviar from horse's hooves—bizarrely impressive, but finally useless. The unrhymed couplet, on the other hand, is more like a tin-opener—so useful that one is inclined to overlook its cleverness."
Meter is capable of extremely subtle effects when it is violated. Take Donne's Elegy on His Picture—to be left with his mistress until he returns from an expedition, perhaps terribly changed:
My body'a sack of bones, broken within, And powders blew staines scatter'd on my skinne; If rivall fooles taxe thee to 'have lov'd a man, So foule, and course, as. Oh, I may seeme than, This shall say what I was: and thou shalt say …
I love the crammed mimetic elision of "body'a sack" and the inverted foot of "broken" which breaks the meter within the line. I love the forceful equality of stress on "blew staines scatt …" before the meter itself suddenly and appositely fades. Donne has one bravura touch after another.
Both free verse and meter have their strengths. They also have their attendant dangers. Meter can quickly become automatic, a kind of poetic Morse code. Free verse can degenerate into a rhythmic desert where the poet's unrestrained voice turns like tumbleweed.
Free verse, if it is any good, is never without rhythm. But its patterns are strange, less predictable, and listening for them is as absorbing as waiting to hear the tap of someone buried alive. Or the tap of some thing buried alive.
In addition to mentioning Hopkins and Ted Hughes as influences, you've also mentioned Lowell. Which Lowell poems most affected you? Have any contemporary American poets impressed you?
Life Studies is a great book. Exact, humorous, vivid, honest, unconcerned about its dignity. Lowell had his eye on the object, rather than on the idea of what a great poem might be. If we're not careful poetry comes to resemble some exclusive club full of stuffed shirts. Ideas and objects aren't admitted unless they're wearing evening dress. So all the really interesting things wind up in the novel and poetry makes polite conversation about the weather or landscape. The artistic ideal for me is the opening of The Marriage of Figaro: "cinque … dieci … venti …" Numbers. Measurements. Mozart gets them in. Lowell also gets things in and, by implication, attacks the idea that some objects are more suitable for poetry than others. Personally, I don't see why literary criticism shouldn't be a subject for poetry.
I can answer the second part of your question about contemporary American poetry by referring to Lowell again. I once heard him read at the Oxford Union. He was asked which British poets he liked. "Well," he began, "I like Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Alan Brownjohn, Geoffrey Hill …" Five minutes later, he closed the list with the mischievous observation, "I hope I didn't leave anyone out."
SOURCE: "On Craig Raine," in Ploughshares, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1987, pp. 149-53.
[In the essay below, Lux gives a close reading of "In the Mortuary" and "The Trout Farm," marveling at Raine's poetic skill.]
I discovered Craig Raine's work (first his remarkable second book A Martian Sends a Postcard Home and then his first book The Onion, Memory) about eight years ago. I was immediately struck by its eloquence, which is never stuffy or merely decorative, by the sharpness of its tone, and by the odd Tightness of its metaphors/figurative language. The poems are intensely written, never wasting a syllable and using all of the tools available to a poet. They are serious, yet there is a vein of humor that runs through both books. There's a fierce poignancy, a fresh and lucid compassion in a poem such as "In the Mortuary":
Like soft cheeses they bulge sideways on the marble slabs, helpless, waiting to be washed. Cotton wool clings in wisps to the orderly's tongs, its creaking purpose done … He calls the woman 'Missus,' an abacus of perspiration on his brow despite the cold. And she is the usual woman— two terra cotta nipples like patches from a cycle kit, puzzled knees, finely crumpled skin around the eyes, and her stomach like a watermark held up to the light. Distinguishing marks: none. Colour of eyes: closed. Somewhere, inside an envelope inside a drawer, her spectacles … Somewhere else, not here, someone knows her hair is parted wrongly and cares about the cobwebs in the corners of her body.
The opening of this poem, in its absurdity as well as its tactile exactness, sets the tone and announces the elements of technique for the whole: the softness of the cheese vs. the hardness/coldness of the marble, a sensory immersion into the scene, simple and specific, that carries an emotional reverberation. The b and l sounds of "bulge" and "marble" and "slab" are a kind of sonic, onomatopoeic equivalent to the imagery. The second couplet changes the effects to the softer w and s sounds which are more appropriate to the powerlessness of the corpse. This kind of subtle rhyming—assonance, consonance, and other music-making—goes on through all of Raine's poems, internally as well as at the end of lines. He has an excellent ear, a dying or often ignored poetic gift. In the third stanza he uses more aural imagery: the cotton "creaking." That's a sound that is also felt. "Tongs" and "done" off-rhyme and eye-rhyme. Needless to say, all this action—of sound, of imagery, of implicit emotion—in just three relatively short-lined couplets, is not accidental. The reader is now sensorially and humanly involved in this poem and with its (thus far) two characters—the dead woman (it switches to the feminine and the singular in the next line) and the orderly. The next particular detail is a good example of Raine's metaphorical intelligence: "an abacus of perspiration." It works not only literally, visually (beads of an abacus, beads of perspiration) but it also suggests her lack of humanity (she is just a number) plus it suggests the hard manual labor and perhaps even the nerves of an orderly: he sweats despite the cold, which is more sensory information, which places the reader further inside the world of the poem. The next several lines comment on simple, obvious body parts, all external, yet each one is presented in such a way as to make her, in her death, come alive: the particular color suggested by "terra cotta" and again the tactile and visual synesthesia of the tire patches, the "puzzled knees" suggesting a face, the "crumpled skin around the eyes" suggesting age and expression, and the odd transparency of the watermark suggesting lines, scars, stretchmarks, the things which individuate our bodies. This description, very fresh, very lucid, adds up to a depiction of the human (in both the individual and the larger sense of that word) that rings beautifully here. These seven lines, all one sentence, so lyrical, rhythmic, are followed by two short, terse sentences clearly meant to snap us back to the reality of the death, the ultimate coldness of the scene. This kind of syntactical variation is smart and perfectly timed. The first one about the distinguishing marks contradicts, deliberately, what has just been said. The second is serio-comic, bitter. The poem now, in its final three couplets, takes an abrupt turn and risks a great deal—sentimentality, primarily—but I feel it is a risk taken and won. I am moved by the ending because it is both a surprise and, somehow, inevitable, and because he dared to make this corpse even more human, in that she was loved.
Another poem in this collection (A Martian Sends a Postcard Home) that I like very much, also in tightly-written couplets (most of the poems in this book are in unrhymed or off-rhymed couplets) is "The Trout Farm":
The trout are silent choristers, singing for our supper a cold-blooded requiem mass, though every one's throat is cut. Death is a young Elizabethan lad who shambles across the yard, his waders shrunk to buckets round each ankle. For him, the trout are stacked in rows like a crate of open-mouthed empties, waiting to be carted away. He doesn't see their soft Vandykes or the beautifully tarnished mail as glorious as a silver spoon that changes to sombre indigo at the touch of an ordinary egg … He kills them scientifically. At the touch of a switch, they become rigidly ridiculous, aristocrats with monocles, shocked as Bateman cartoons when some bounder mentions death. The boy turns to offer me a miniature organ of cigarettes …
The trout in their artificial pools sing not for their supper but for ours because they will be our supper. The puns in the first two couplets might not be as strong as some of his metaphors but still are very fresh. It would be very dangerous to be too serious here—after all, we raise, kill, and eat animals all the time. He wants us to see the scene not as bloody, chaotic, or noisy, say, as a slaughterhouse but somehow stranger: the fish passive, almost spiritual, and the executioner a "lad" who "shambles" in floppy, water-filled rubber boots. The lad in this poem is somewhat like the orderly in the previous poem—doltish rather than cruel, ordinary rather than a monster, i.e., more real. The next simile, comparing the fish to crates of empty bottles, is particularly apt and again displays Raine's odd Tightness of perception. The trout are just another commodity and not a very valuable one at that. The next five lines combine visual and tactile imagery plus a few carefully chosen abstractions: "glorious" and "sombre" and even an oxymoron, "beautifully tarnished." As is the case in so many of these poems, there is a lot going on, a rich verbal and sensory texture, in relatively few lines. The fish are killed, apparently, by electric shock (which makes sense: no damaged flesh) and "they become rigidly ridiculous / aristocrats with monocles" (which strikes me as a wonderfully accurate as well as comic depiction of a dead fish's eye) and shocked like a character in a Bateman cartoon. The Bateman reference I don't get exactly—I assume he's a well-known English cartoonist—but Raine's basic point is clear. He's being careful to avoid the sentimental here, but he is not afraid to risk, again, sentiment with the final couplet, the last line of which is an example of his metaphorical brilliance. We've all seen cigarettes offered that way but have we made the connection ourselves to the church organ? The organ, of course, brings the poem back to its beginning, the silent choristers singing, and there is also the suggestion of death in that offering.
These are only two short poems from one of Craig Raine's books. To me they make it clear he is a poet of rare wit, originality, and humanity. May his poems continue to arrive on our shores.
SOURCE: "Getting Dirty," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 3, No. 104, June 8, 1990, p. 38.
[In the review below, French cautiously admires Raine's critical abilities in Haydn and the Valve Trumpet.]
In my local bookshop I recently saw Clive James's collection of literary essays, Snake Charmers in Texas, among the travel books. Craig Raine's eccentric title for his own essays [Haydn and the Valve Trumpet] will almost certainly guarantee them a place in the musicology section of most bookshops.
The title derives from an essay exploring Haydn's use of the valve trumpet, which was published in the Listener in 1972. The following week a letter was published pointing out that the valve trumpet had been invented nine years after Haydn's death.
Raine himself is at his most carnivorously enjoyable when catching other critics in the act. In response to the critic A. Alvarez's accusation that John Betjeman indulges in "the nostalgia of public schools", Raine points out that "there are 130 poems in Collected Poems (1958) and of them only one refers to school—a day-school, as it happens. What bone-idle, irresponsible mendacity."
For Raine, a poem or a novel is like a machine. The job of the critic is to get dirty peering among the pistons and cogs establishing how everything fits together. If they fail to do this, it is because they are lazy, or incompetent, or corrupt.
Trusted artists can fail as well. One of Raine's best qualities as a critic is the freshness of his response. Even a favourite writer won't just receive automatic praise. Looking under the bonnet of Saul Bellow's latest novel, More Die of Heartbreak, Raine discovers that many of the components have been hastily lifted from its predecessors and they barely fit together. In a detailed analysis that seems to be based on a complete rereading of the Bellow oeuvre, Raine demonstrates with daunting authority "how inattentive and incompetent Bellow has become in this novel"—and this is Raine speaking of his favourite modern novelist.
At some point in analyses of difficult poets like T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens most people lapse into generalisation and obfuscation where, if they were really honest, they would simply admit that they weren't sure what the poetry means. (Christopher Ricks's confession that a William Empson poem left him "unhelpfully perplexed" is all too rare.) Raine is good at pointing out when other critics are bluffing and brave himself about always attempting to say what a work is really about.
This means that Raine leaves himself more exposed than most critics and sometimes he can seem very wrong indeed. His insistence on common-sense readings of oblique poetry can lead him to interpretations that are both perverse and reductive, as in his account of Eliot's "Mr. Apollinax". For him the lines, "I heard the beat of centaur's hoofs over the hard turf / As his dry and passionate talk devoured the afternoon" means that "as far as his American-audience is concerned, Mr. Apollinax is flogging a dead horse. Hence the 'centaur': what horse could be more definitively dead …?" If you believe that, you'll believe anything.
His suspicion of the vagueness and evasiveness of so much literary appreciation can lead him to over-statement. We will all agree that there are difficulties in making literary evaluations of works in languages we don't understand but does he have to take it as far as this: "Let us have no more non-Russian-speaking experts and enthusiasts"? (My italics.)
Ought we not to read Anna Karenina any more? And must we do without the marvellously suggestive criticism that Seamus Heaney has produced in recent years about eastern European poetry?
Raine can be infuriating in his rudenesses and his summary dismissals, but he always has the engagement of the practitioner, of the man for whom poetry is an activity and a craft as well as an elevated art form. This is a book that will encourage readers to get their hands dirty.
SOURCE: "Matters of Decorum," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3862, July 6, 1990, p. 26.
[In the excerpt below, Kemp praises Raine's "exhilarating and engrossing" criticism in Haydn and the Valve Trumpet, concluding that "it is almost always stirringly alive to the procedures and possibilities of creativity."]
[Anthony] Powell's Pall Mall prose, meticulous concurrence with the conservative, and pained recoil from the irreverent lower-class energies of Wells, Twain and their like [in his Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers, 1946–1989] put him at the opposite extreme as a critic to Craig Raine. Where Powell exudes commendation for the genteel, Raine cordially abominates it. One of his most elegantly edged pieces in Haydn and the Valve Trumpet slices into the petrified propriety and frigid diction of Augustan poetry to expose stultified responses.
The imitative and remote from life regularly incur cutting comment. An elevated 18th-century poem about a washerwoman's day—"At length bright Sol illuminates the skies, / And summons drowsy mortals to arise"—is brought crashing down to earth with the remark "Perhaps she 'did' for Mr. Pope". Grandiose abstractions, generalities and standardized utterance—from neoclassical periphrases to the jargon of contemporary literary theory—are seen as the enemies of art and the imagination.
What characterize the authors Raine writes most admiringly and admirably about—Dickens, Joyce, Bellow, Larkin—are a converse fascination with concrete, indeed earthy, detail, and a tellingly individual voice. Idiosyncrasy enthralls him. "All great poetry", he contends, "is written in dialect": by which he means it has a distinctively personal timbre and idiom.
Poets who parrot others' effects are deftly winged with high-calibre bursts of critical marksmanship. At the other extreme, Raine has an especial flair for illuminating the techniques by which gifted writers revitalize cliché. Behind a scene in which a shamed V. S. Naipaul character looks into a mirror and sees nothing there, lies the phrase "to lose face", he shrewdly points out. The gaps between the ill-fitting clothes Dickens's Miss Tox wears manifest her inability "to make ends meet".
Such insights into the way a lurking lively image can be conjured out from a seemingly inert phrase vivify Raine's pages. Alert to the inventive, he is also keenly attentive, sensitive even to how an over-dramatic exclamation mark "quivers like a javelin on the page". In particular, he is acutely attuned to give-away tremors of affectation: Geoffrey Hill's use of "the Yeatsian 'but' for 'only' … like the sob in a pub tenor's top note", arty syntax that leaves him feeling "Inversion on the scale of these poems the reader admires not".
Bogus afflatus is pin-pointed and punctured. Pomposity and stiltedness are nimbly mocked. Raine's distaste for the decorous frequently expresses itself in cheeky, clever puns: noting how books about Johnson re-cycle the same stories, he quips that there's "a limit to how often it is possible to turn Johnson's choler". Homely images sometimes supply satiric sparkle; a horse in one of Henri Rousseau's less successful paintings bares teeth "fresh from a tumbler of Steradent". Among the authors under review, there's even room for Barbara Cartland who makes a memorable appearance "in the pink, nay, the cerise of health".
Given Raine's antipathy to the orotund, it's surprising to find him as appreciative as he is of Arnold and Eliot (quotations from whom almost oversaturate some essays). Even more curious is his dislike of Wilfred Owen who, he claims, "associates poetry with the merely poetic" and is "insensitive to the possibilities of understatement". Taking "Dulce Et Decorum Est" as an example of this, Raine writes off its lines "bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues" as "the rhetoric of Speakers' Corner". In fact, they contain instances of the quiet effects he thinks absent from the poem. Subliminally pervading Owen's lines is the folk-tale motif of liars being punished by sores on their tongues. In the horribly inverted world of war, his poem intimates, the opposite occurs: it's not the liars—pro-war propagandists—who now get sores on their tongues; it's the young men who, heeding them, end up on the Western Front in a gas attack whose noxious fumes hideously blister their "innocent" tongues.
Raine's inadvertence to Owen's subtle puns, muted wordplay and use of deliberate dissonance to echo the discords of war is highly uncharacteristic, though. What makes his criticism both exhilarating and engrossing is that it is almost always stirringly alive to the procedures and possibilities of creativity.
SOURCE: "Being All Right, and Being Wrong," in London Review of Books, Vol. 12, No. 13, July 12, 1990, pp. 11-12.
[In the following excerpt, Everett identifies the "journalistic" quality of Raine's criticism in Haydn and the Valve Trumpet, concluding, however, that his essays are "genuinely literary."]
Men of different generations and presumably social worlds, Anthony Powell and Craig Raine aren't much alike as writers. But the novelist's Miscellaneous Verdicts and the poet's Haydn and the Valve Trumpet are both very good, solid selections of occasional writing. The five hundred pages to which they both run are mainly literary journalism, with some illuminating essays on the social-historical from Powell, and vivid side-glances at painters and painting from Raine. With all their differences, the two writers have one thing in common. Both dislike most kinds of academic literary criticism. And this antipathy can't be disentangled from the effective virtues of their work.
It seems safe to assume that academics have as much right to discourse on books as have poets and novelists to write them. Nor do minds as able as Powell's and Raine's need telling that in modern society the arts depend on a current of ideas which it is the universities' task—at least in theory—to provide and protect. The trouble comes with the theory.
Nobody could pretend that universities are at present, or were ever, especially alive with applied intelligence. In addition, we are in a difficult phase of academic literary criticism, which has the air of getting cleverer and cleverer while simultaneously moving close to pointlessness. The new quasi-theoretical modes as often as not find a use for Shakespeare or Jane Austen or T. S. Eliot by exposing them, morally or politically or otherwise, as no good. This is annoying for writers and farcical for readers.
Though sometimes plainly motivated, this effect is basically incidental. Academic life is now governed by the thesis; and a thesis is required to show an authoritative mastery of its literary subject easily converting to a stance of superiority on the part of the researcher. Moreover, such research techniques have managed almost universally to demand of all literary criticism that it have what is referred to as 'system'. This seems reasonable. Unfortunately, what passes for system academically is often no more than mechanism, producing results painfully shallow in comparison with the real systems of high-powered human intelligence.
Defending literature now can place the liberal academic in positions which it's not altogether ludicrous to relate to that of the trapped liberal of the Thirties, confronted by competing totalitarianisms. And those positions are inherited by university-trained writers like Powell and Raine. Both enunciate principles as congenial as they now sound dated: Powell's civilised 'plea for mutual tolerance among authors writing on the same subject', Raine's brave 'nothing is more difficult than being open-minded.' Any liberal reader reads and admires and sympathises with their impassioned defence of the writer as against the academic. And of course poems and novels are better and more vital than critical essays. But at the moments when both try to find a way of saying why this is so, they get curiously trapped between the philistine and the Romantic-aesthetic. Thinking about the arts is at once more important than they sometimes make it sound, and harder….
Powell and Raine come together in a peculiar and very interesting Britishness, their sense of art an English one. This is what makes both, for all their late-Romantic aestheticism, simultaneously risk the philistine in leaning backwards towards an Augustan lack of cant. (Johnson's often misunderstood attack on the corruptive power of arrogant pretension, 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote but for money,' is the great text for journalism. And both Powell and Raine can take on a special sharp-edged no-nonsense realism which shows them as Sons of Sam.)…
Miscellaneous Verdicts is itself 'all right' in any number of different ways: its greatest distinction may be the dance which Powell made his reviewing perform for years around the idea and the fact of a writer's rectitude. Craig Raine's Haydn and the Valve Trumpet is as gifted and richly entertaining as Powell's volume. But it offers one contrast in style so marked as to be almost ideal. Raine isn't, in a sense, concerned with being 'right'. In fact, he reveals that if a critic is good enough, he can afford to be wrong.
Being wrong is his general theme. A fine brisk essay on Joyce ('New Secondhand Clothes') surveys an earlier stage of the current battle over Joyce texts by stating the principle that misprints occur and don't matter. This is true up to the point that meaning is more important than text. But Raine gives his theory more space in his opening essay. He mentions a critic who recently made the mistake of arguing that Haydn was influenced by a form of the trumpet which proved not to have been invented until after the composer's death. Raine's point is that, in this case as everywhere else, it's the music that counts, not the nonsense we talk about it. Hence Raine's choice of a title for his book which works by a kind of triumphant wonkiness. Interestingly different from the amused offhand anonymity of Miscellaneous Verdicts, the attractively nubbly Haydn and the Valve Trumpet is a short Raine poem in itself.
Raine's tough commonsensicality, his respect for real life and for the serious 'game' which he takes poetry to be, and most of all the intelligence of his good-natured gusto and rage, all work-together to give integrity to his arguments. Yet in the simplest possible way he can get things wrong in a manner that may dent his case just a little. The dust-jacket of Raine's book sets his title in a box against a fine etching by Rembrandt one perhaps even too fine to have been used to sell a book ('there are perhaps worse places to read about Melancholy than a publisher's office'). The inside of the jacket identifies this beautiful image as The Young Christ Disputing with the Doctors. This is a naming which Raine defends in one of his later essays, 'At a Slight Angle to the Universe', which rebuts sentimental linking of the artist with the child. The artist may be childlike, he suggests, only in his or her capacity to correct stale and sedate quasi-philosophies, like the young Christ in his dispute with the Doctors of the Temple; and Raine turns to the etching by Rembrandt usually known as Joseph Telling his Dreams, claiming that its true subject is that of Christ with the Doctors. If Raine had been right, there might have been even less to be said for using it as a dust-jacket: identifying critics with Jesus just must be a mistake. But luckily Raine is wrong. The subject is what it has always been taken to be, 'Joseph Telling his Dreams'.
Rembrandt left behind at least two real treatments of the topos of Jesus with the Doctors, in each case leaving the subject iconographically unmistakable: brief but definite indications of monumental masonry show that the location is the Temple. The print on Raine's cover is no vast stone edifice filled with Scribes and Pharisees: it is an intimate domestic interior. The old lady behind the boy is in a bed, perhaps a day-bed—you can see bed-curtains, not to mention a night-cap; she is conceivably Joseph's mother, Rachel, who bore him very late in life (though she was actually dead by this stage of Joseph's existence). The figure surely can't be the young Mary, mother of Jesus, and she wouldn't lie around in a Jewish temple anyway. The loving old man on the left isn't a Pharisee but Joseph's adoring elderly father, Jacob; the sullen averted faces to the right aren't intellectuals but his embittered older brothers, soon to attempt his murder in jealous rage. And the wonderfully intent boy at the centre has the face of a poet, not of God; he is dressed not in sanctity but in the very best and most expensive possible 17th-century boy's topcoat—the many-coloured dreamcoat, in short.
The mixture of great virtues and great mistakes is an essential part of what Raine is doing and saying. At one point, he lays down the sturdy affirmation, 'Eliot is a poet by whom critics are judged'—and this is certainly true. But Eliot was a critic himself, as many poets are. He goes on to argue that the general theme of Eliot's verse 'from first to last' is 'Live all you can. It's a mistake not to.' Even Henry James, whose novel The Ambassadors is the source of this phrase, wouldn't have said it in propria persona: it's odder still from Eliot.
Raine is a splendid critic of the textures of language, the 'pidgin' or 'Babylonish dialect' that each artist makes his own. On Dickens, on Joyce, on Elizabeth Bishop and John Betjeman—perhaps the best essays—he has things to say both brilliant and new. But he wouldn't have said them, paradoxically, had he not been a critic capable of mistakes. In all his essays he brings virtues easy to class as 'journalistic' up to the level of the genuinely literary. He does so from a strong refusal to cut the arts out of life. 'Poets hate the sanitised, sentimental, overly spiritual version of what they do. They always want the unpoetical.' And: 'If there isn't the sustained effort to accommodate the unpoetical, poetry is likely to revert to the poetical.' This is a poet speaking, a voice too individual to be mistakable for Jesus. But Joseph is quite good enough.
SOURCE: "Local Heroes," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, September 9, 1994, p. 37.
[Below, Rumens disputes the publishers' claim that History: The Home Movie is a verse-novel.]
In "Epic", Patrick Kavanagh is consoled by Homer's ghost. So what if the Monaghan poet spent the "year of the Munich bother" arguing about "who owned / That half a rood of rock?" The Iliad itself was made from "such / A local row". History: the Home Movie doesn't seek the epic in the ordinary quite in this way. The technique is to show us both History and the Home Movie, the "Munich bother" as it infiltrates the "local row", the local-row element in the Munich bother.
These poems document the entwined history of two families during the current century, the English Raines and the Russian Pasternaks. There are 87 poems, compactly built in the slightly noun-bound, three-line, two-or-three-beat-a-line stanza form that is one of Raine's old favourites.
His hand-held camera is an enabling device, like his earlier "Martian" persona. It permits revelation through apparent incompetence. It is drawn to the erotic and the bizarre. It catches the players off-guard, peers from an odd angle, unembarrassably stares. When Oswald Mosley lectures at Olympia, Jimmie Raine observes more of the side-show than the main event: a woman in the audience having an epileptic fit, a heckler whistling the Internationale in the roof. Applause "swells and subsides" as does the erection produced by the sight of a suspender-nub; the seats, in long shot, are "a home perm".
The fictional convention, whereby a character shows qualities of perceptiveness that belong, strictly speaking, to his creator functions smoothly enough, given that the other psychological details are right. As they usually are: Raine was never merely the virtuoso of imagism, and these poems reveal his ability to observe a mind's interiors as well as a body's surfaces. His writing-up of that well-known scene in which Stalin phones Pasternak and demands to know Mandelstam's poetic credentials is a good example of his imaginative strategy. Pasternak, taking the call in the hall of a communal block of flats, finds himself staring through a pinhole onto the wet breasts of a bathing neighbour ("Each tit / tipped like a billiard cue / with pink Morocco plush").
Asked if Mandelstam is a genius, he feels profoundly that there must be some mistake. "What about me?" he wonders. It is a new angle on the old moral conundrum, an exposure of poetic insecurity, warts and all. Poets always think "What about me?" It takes one to know one.
Clearly, History: the Home Movie, is not fiction. Its real impulse is not narrative. For all its imaginative liberties, it deals with actual historical figures and facts. Norman, the poet's father, and other English "players" will be familiar to readers who enjoyed the autobiographical essay, "A Silver Plate", in Raine's last collection of poems, Rich.
This is a sequence of poems—at its best when it proceeds by epiphany and pauses for some playful linguistic dabbling, puns and so forth, and at its weakest when it feels obliged to inform. Having got a Booker-ish gleam in their eyes, the publishers may call it a verse-novel, but let's give credit to the right muse here. Poetry is not just shy confessional muttering. It can give you the local row and the Iliad, and put real toads in imaginary gardens, and vice versa. The publishers may claim fictitiousness as a legal protection, but to suggest the work is thereby fiction is a breathtaking act of philistinism.
SOURCE: "Adding Assonance to the Ancestors," in The Observer Review, September 11, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review, Thorpe admires History: The Home Movie, focusing on the "glittering little links" of the poem sequence.]
Billed as a fiction/poetry hybrid, Craig Raine's History: The Home Movie wilfully dispenses with the Pushkinian elements of strong narrative, deeply drawn characters, and a bustling, involved narrator—and there is no complex verse form, either. Home movie, yes: or perhaps an evening at the music hall.
The first 'chapter' arranges the Pasternaks—Russian, renowned—in a filmic family group at a Black Sea dacha in 1905. The second shows Queenie Raine's peeing-toff act flopping at the Victoria Palace in front of King Edward. The ensuing reels, or numbers, or 'chapters', show us the Pasternaks and the Raines shunted and buffeted by the century across various geographical and mental spaces and getting maimed in the process. Secondary characters include Lenin, Churchill and Haile Selassie in pleasantly incongruous situations, as well as a philandering Russian turned Oxford rapist with a vitriol-damaged, quarter-masked face. He seems a totemic, phantasmal presence in this epic sweep, both ruined and ruining.
Images and incidents flicker charmingly if bewilderingly across the screen, but a narrative presence is felt mostly in the lavish use of vivid and incredible comparison. This is a Raine trademark which once went by the name of Martianism but owes a lot to Donne. In the context of this 300-plus-page poem, when great forces are surging through small lives, this obsession with the exactness of things is curiously effective. For Raine, the past is a rummage of discarded objects; to experience it as anything other than a costume drama is to double-take on things once general, but now invested with the burnished particularity of the antique, the oddity of junk. The process kicks off with the print on the page: a pince-nez is 'like the letter g'; in 1921, a telephone is 'an earwig of brass and bakelite'; a rough midwife's rubber gloves 'cackle … like hot fat' in 1929; in 1937, SS officers salute on a train with 'a croquet click of heels'. Raine is equally good on bodies. The Lucian Freud of poetry, Raine particularises his characters by their fleshly parts, eternally pillaged by time and history and other people. Medical appliances abound alarmingly. Sex is generally self-abuse.
In the grander schema of the poem, it's the families that are likened and linked, resembling the two sides of 'the symbol for infinity', with the spying poet at the junction. Craig Raine is married to Boris Pasternak's grand-niece, and in the printed (part-fictional) family tree she becomes his first cousin by Eliot Raine, a second-rate doctor who spends the Thirties as a genetic researcher in Hitler's Germany. The Raines are depicted as a somewhat fickle, muddled lot with a streak of madness—the signwriter Jimmy ends up 'nuts', Norman's hands turn from a boxer's fists to a faith-healer's palms after a terrible war wound, Eliot hides his spanking magazines in a deed box.
The Pasternaks' higher culture and lightly bohemian contentment is swiftly shattered; the ominous opening image of Leonid the painter-father's discarded newspaper stirring and blooming 'as if the letters lived' prepares us for the fraught set-pieces of private and public dispersion across Europe. Here, nuttiness is politically imposed. Boris Pasternak himself, much troubled by his teeth and his women, never really grows beyond biopic grittiness. There are, however, some secretive references to his poetry; in 1950 his exiled sister Zhonya (like Craig Raine)
… pays attention to particulars. The line of drips left on the cup sometimes makes a book of matches. Her lipstick sometimes leaves a segment of blood orange on her glass of orange juice. She cares about coincidence, things coming together.
Pasternak's own marvellous poem 'From Superstition' opens with an image of his room as 'a matchbox with an orange'. It closes with the idea of himself as a book taken down from the shelf by a lover, the dust blown from his name. In 1919, Queenie Raine, mourning for her dead daughter Alice, does just the same with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
History: The Home Movie is a vast and at times immensely enjoyable poem sequence stuffed with glittering little links like these, within and without itself. The broad buckling bands of the novel are exactly what it lacks.
SOURCE: "Yoked Together," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 18, September 22, 1994, p. 3.
[In the review below, Kermode traces the narrative movement in History: The Home Movie, observing the poem's literary precedents.]
'There is hardly a stanza in the long poem which is not vivid, hardly one which is not more or less odd, and the reader feels as if he had been riding on the rims over an endless timber bridge.' As I read Craig Raine's new poem [History: The Home Movie] (a novel, an epic, a film, says the ebullient blurb) something stirred in the depths of memory, and I found myself thinking of Theophila, a very long poem published by Edward Benlowes in 1652. Theophila is written in three-line stanzas, a pentameter, a tetrameter and an alexandrine, all on a single rhyme. The judgment on Theophila quoted above comes from The Oxford History of English Literature, which rightly regards Benlowes as representing the giddy limit in 17th-century attempts to write 'heroic' poetry in the high metaphysical manner. And this must surely seem an unpromising way to tackle extended argument or narrative. Benlowes was a devotee of the far-fetched conceit, in the by now degenerate tradition of Donne, perhaps with some input from the smoother baroque concettismo of Marino and his followers. (On the evidence of some of his delightful earlier poems I had privately awarded Craig Raine an honorary position in the company of the marinisti.) Marino produced narrative in this style, but in more fluent stanzas, and without proceeding to the metaphorical extremes of the English. Though often eloquent, Benlowes is neither fluent nor moderate, and clearly it formed no part of his plan to make it easy for his readers to know exactly what he was on about.
Later poets with stories to tell normally preferred to use pentameter couplets or blank verse, which allowed the narrative or the argument to be followed with less effort, and did not encourage wild flights of baroque wit. Milton, a contemporary of Benlowes and an admirer of Spenser, not only freed his narrative of 'the modern bondage of rhyming', but after a youthful fling more or less gave up conceited poetry. It would not do for real epic.
However, if you hold that lucidity and what the philosopher W. B. Gallie called 'follow-ability' aren't everything, that they may be sacrificed in a good cause, then admirable precedents are not wanting. Conceits can be combined with stories at acceptable cost to the stories. A narrative line can be more or less sustained through complex verse-forms and under repeated pressure from centrifugal interests. Think of The Faerie Queene, with its awkward nine-line stanza and its heavy concluding alexandrine: in this unlikely form Spenser undertook a huge narrative poem combining a great many stories, only more or less germane to one another and required to bear a considerable weight of philosophical and historical allegory. How well he succeeded is a point that has always been disputed. 'Every stanza,' wrote Spenser's 18th-century editor John Hughes, 'made as it were a distinct paragraph, grows tiresome by continual repetition and frequently breaks the sense, when it ought to be carried on without interruption.' Others contrast Spenser's heavy pace and patches of opacity with the more athletic movement of Ariosto. C. S. Lewis, on the other hand, thought the whole poem moved along pretty briskly. Other critics, without necessarily denying either view, waste their lives, though they may also secure tenure, in trying to explain just what is really going on in Spenser's poem.
These historical reminders are meant to contribute to an understanding of what Craig Raine is attempting in his new long poem [History: The Home Movie]; it seemed important to do that instead of saying 'Post-Modernism' and putting that familiar stop to all sensible discussion. He has presented an episodic history (one reason for his subtitle: you don't expect narrative continuity in home movies) and he has done so without serious modification of his normal conceited manner. The history is primarily that of two related families, Raines and Pasternaks (a second reason for calling the book a home movie). I first read the work in a proof copy which lacked the dual family tree now found in the opening pages, so that it was not easy for me to tell with any precision how apparently disparate episodes were related. Readers of finished copies will fare better, though there remain many passages that are not obviously or not closely related to the families or explained by the family tree, and others that may be so related but are still rather obscurely elliptical. Since Raine's three-lined stanzas (much simpler than Benlowes's) must serve as vehicles not only for the discontinuous narrative but for a great payload of Martian similes, in their nature at least as centrifugal as those baroque conceits, the poem is far from instantly intelligible, and is not meant to be.
But it's no use getting into an argument as to whether this is the best way to tell a tale, even if the tale makes some sort of claim to be some sort of history of Europe from about 1905 to 1984. As we have seen, there are precedents of some grandeur for a certain darkness and obliquity of treatment; there are also more modern exemplars, not only in poetry but in fiction and cinema. If you feel a need to hold the entire thing in a single thought, you have to satisfy that need yourself. Or, the sequence of historical occurrences, real and fictional, doesn't make sense in the old way, and it is a disabling mistake to suppose it should.
Interviews and press leaks of various kinds have offered hints on how to read the poem, but it may be best to ignore them and stick to the text. The narrator is a fly on the wall, a secret policeman, a pencil on a desk. He begins with a scene in a Black Sea dacha, date 1905, where the Pasternaks, children of the painter Leonid and his Jewish wife Rosa, are at play. Boris makes his first appearance. The 1905 Revolution is in progress offstage. The painter's palette is compared to a latrine,
turds of fresh pigment fresh from their bolsters,
and the painter himself wipes his hands on a newspaper, thus carelessly disposing of the history it doubtless records. In the next episode, '1906', a male impersonator, whose act includes pretending to have a pee, disgraces herself before Edward VII, incognito at the Victoria Palace. Now skip to 1915, when Henry Raine, the grandfather of Craig Raine (family tree), is writing from the trenches. His letter contains an inadequate attempt to console his wife on the death of their eight-year-old daughter Alice from 'diptheoria'. He then masturbates, a favourite occupation of the characters in this book. Indeed the narrator is extraordinarily interested in their sexual behaviour generally; this private eye stares hardest at everybody's genitals. Meanwhile, all around are corpses wearing gas-masks:
fixed, like horse-flies feeding on filth with a black proboscis' and bulging perspex eyes.
Raine is very good at noticing that things are unexpectedly like other things, a power certified by Aristotle as an indication of high intelligence: 'a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars'; he adds that the gift is innate and cannot be acquired. It was valued just as highly by the 17th-century concettisti, some of whom thought they were demonstrating what the world was like, a vast network of resemblances waiting for poets and other persons of genius to discover them. The Rainean conceit depends on the perception of similarity in dissimilars, which in turn calls for a gift of careful and curious observation. This Raine certainly possesses. Henry in his trench is set amid much expertly-noted military detail, each item wherever possible resembling something else.
Next we are moved to Moscow in 1917 for a domestic view of the October Revolution—here begins a long process of persecution and exile—and to Oxford in the same year, where Henry's wife Queenie is assaulted by a pervert. He wields a razor, and 'A nervous moth of light / Flits over the ceiling.' The war ends, Henry returns home, Lenin orates, but Stalin is thinking of sex and does not listen. A wheelchair and the hammer and sickle both resemble an ampersand (which, being an instrument for yoking things together, also resembles Raine's poems). What is memorable here is not the story, though it continues, but the notation of resemblances you would never have dreamed of: a glass of beer is 'a bulging leather gleam / like a fanner's legging'. The same eye can observe the resemblance between a certain kind of sofa and a boxing glove, which in turn resembles a toffee apple. It perceives a light bulb dangling from its flex as being 'like a suicide', or a dangling telephone brushing the carpet as 'like the arm of an ape'. Can you imagine teeth aching 'like testicles / after hours of foreplay'?
Some of the characters emerge recognisably, if dimly, from the plot: Henry is a boxer, also, apparently, an Oxford scout; his son Eliot, not, it seems, a competent doctor, becomes a psychiatrist (probably the most fully presented character, he is not very likeable). The Pasternaks get exit visas, marry and fornicate. Meanwhile History, more largely considered, continues, punctuated by lower-case, domestic history: the Germans experience hyperinflation, the young Raines masturbate, Mosley rants, the Nazis enact their eugenic laws, Pasternaks in England dig air raid trenches, Henry Raine fights, the death camps begin, some Jews escape. Norman Raine, father of Craig, gets a bad prognosis after an RAF accident. And so on till, in 1984, we reach the final ampersand and encounter Craig, grandson of Henry, son of Norman, and Craig's wife, Lisa, great-niece of Boris Pasternak, great-granddaughter of Leonid. They are momentarily amused by two Chinese, speaking comical English, and then visit the art gallery at Dahlem, where the more memorable pictures seem to share the anal interests of the author; even the word Drücken on a door reminds the latter of the trials of constipation. But there they are, ampersanded amid all this variety of scene and language, and accompanied by a photograph of Eliot Raine, the pornography-loving doctor who, according to the family tree, married Lydia Pasternak and begot Lisa. The photograph was 'taken on his deathbed' and he seems to be 'Straining to relieve himself'. So it goes; everything sort of comes together in the end.
A considerable number of famous people float anecdotally through the poem, Lord Northcliffe crazy, Lenin in the process of being mummified, Lady Conan Doyle getting in touch with her dead husband, Haile Selassie in exile, his gas bill unpaid. Stalin quizzes Pasternak on the telephone about Mandelstam, Pasternak refuses to sign the letter commiserating with Stalin on his wife's suicide, Churchill jeers at Chamberlain in the Commons. Edward, Prince of Wales, is cosy with his lady, Mussolini has a play on in the West End, Eisenhower is challenged by Jimmy Raine on sentry-go, Yeats lectures tediously at Oxford and has his Steinach operation. The Mandelstams, Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva make appearances. Rilke drops in, mocked by Karl Kraus. Dante and Wallace Stevens are silently cited. Obviously there is never a dull moment, though the sum total of those moments seems duller than they are.
There is an old argument about texture and structure in poetry, and John Crowe Ransom thought that although you had to have the second the first, however irrelevant to the structure, was more important because, for one thing, it is what makes poetry different from prose. Of course there can be recurrent elements in the texture which help to constitute structure; but these, and possibly other structural agents the poet prefers to keep quiet about, can be in some degree occult. Craig Raine has demonstrated elsewhere, when writing for the opera, that he has architectonic ambitions, and they exist here, though in large measure occulted. His short lines and often truncated syntax are capable of narrative load-bearing, and are often tersely effective, even when straitened, as they sometimes are, to aposiopesis (to use one of his own many learned words); but their main business is with texture, in its nature irrelevant to structure.
So we return to the questions posed at the beginning of this notice. Poets care most about texture but understand that poems, and especially the more ambitious kinds, need structure. It has always been a problem, and modern solutions have been authoritatively offered, notably by Eliot and Pound. For Post-Modernists, structure, in the old-fashioned sense, is an outworn myth, one of those grands récits that have to go and the sooner the better. But so is the very idea of history as consecutive narrative, an idea to which this poem, in however qualified a way, subscribes. Perhaps that final episode in the art gallery suggests, in addition to what it says more obviously, that the real structure of the poem is occult, accessible only through the details of texture. In Rembrandt's John the Baptist Preaching it is not the saint who attracts attention but
a woman in the foreground dusk … holding her little girl trussed so she can shit in the river.
Of the gallery itself what is remembered is the door marked Drücken, which Craig mistakenly pulls, perhaps to avoid the memory that this was the word used to exhort children in the throes of constipation. Admittedly that condition is almost antithetical to the style of this poem, with its splendidly lavish textural scatterings. These are what one remembers: 'a squirrel shudders up a pine. / Tines of sunlight through the trees'; or, in a gale, 'Yachts like Hassids in the harbour'. What they are doing in a novel is a different question from whether they are worth having. They can cleanse one's way of seeing things; why should they also have to tell us what to think?
SOURCE: "History by Hindsight," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4775, October 7, 1994, p. 31.
[Below, Imlah assesses the poetic and narrative strengths of History: The Home Movie, emphasizing Raine's anal and genital preoccupations.]
Auden observed of the Old Masters (he had Bruegel principally in mind) that they understood how ordinary life carries on in the comers, regardless of the momentous event that is the painting's subject; how, for instance, in one (unidentified or imagined) picture, "the torturer's horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree". Since his sonnet "Arsehole" of 1983 ("I fed that famished mouth my ambergris")—which made A. N. Wilson feel "sorry for Mrs. Raine"—Craig Raine has committed his poetry and criticism to the promotion of that unheroic "behind" and its kin.
In the final section of his long-awaited magnum opus, Raine depicts himself visiting the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, where he focuses on a similar tiny detail in each of two pictures. In Rembrandt's St. John the Baptist Preaching, what he notices is "a woman in the foreground dusk // … holding her little girl trussed / so she can shit in the river"; in Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs, he picks from dozens of competing details the one "where two pair buttocks / loom from a lean-to loo". Raine rightly prides himself on looking where other writers have blinked ("Cancer. Black blood in her cunt", etc.); though he may seem at moments like this always to be looking for the same sort of thing. If you were to turn for relief from the groaning store of genital and anal groceries on show in History: The Home Movie—from the "foreskin crinkled / like the unforced crown of rhubarb shoots" and the "inner labia // like chicken livers, / the segmented anus inside / out, a blood orange"—to the current issue of the Spectator, you would find a review by Raine of a volume of Dr. Johnson's letters, which begins with a quotation: "The testicle continues well…." It is Raine's instinct to put the genitals into, and take the Great Man out of, Johnson, just as it is to elide St. John from the Rembrandt. It would be going too far to present History as a debagging job on the whole twentieth century; but part of its design is plainly to evict the heroes and torturers from the centre of "historical" narrative in favour of the shiners on the margin.
It opens with a poem set in a dacha by the Black Sea in 1905. Across the water, the Kronstadt mutiny is brewing, the subject of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925) and of Boris Pasternak's cinematic verse "chronicle" Nineteen Five (written in the months after he'd seen the film). Here, though, the big-screen drama is kept, like Bruegel's fallen Icarus, "far out to sea"; and Raine's hidden camera plays instead on a family scene: a little boy (Pasternak's brother, as it happens) tucking his "cock and balls" back between his legs. (When we do see a battleship—and it's not until nearly half-way through the book—it's immediately disarmed and domesticated by having its rivets likened to "mangetout".)
The "movie" gathers unauthorized footage from the lives of two families, whose stories—if such calculatedly miscellaneous fragments can be called that—are intercut: the "Pasternaks", bourgeois Russian Jews who migrate to Germany and then to England, though leaving their famous brother at home; and the "Raines", a lower-middle-class family from Oxford. The resolution of this scheme would seem to be the union of Craig and his wife, the woman we know as the scholar Ann Pasternak Slater; but the book also marries fact and fiction in pursuit of clearer symmetries and richer stories. The identities of the three Raine brothers of the middle generation will suggest the blend. "Craig"'s father "Norman" is broadly compatible with the (only mildly incredible) boxer and brain-wounded faith-healer of the prose memoir, "A Silver Plate" (Rich, 1984); but "Jimmy", a sign painter and masturbator, has a fantastical knack of brushing with the Great (Churchill, Mosley, Haile Selassie, Eisenhower); while "Eliot Raine" is a highly unflattering appropriation into his own bloodline of the poet's father-in-law, the psychologist Eliot Slater.
But a little invention doesn't make this formally unique book a novel, as the blurb corruptly claims it to be (while no less "an epic history of Europe", "the best film you'll ever read", etc.). There is more point in considering how Raine—whose achievements in verse until now have all been in the miniature mode—has adapted his technique to the requirements of the very long poem.
In a note for a Soviet journal, Pasternak wrote that "in the book Nineteen Five I move across from lyrical thinking to epic, though this is very difficult". To Pasternak, lyric utterance had grown inadequate to the times ("this sort of writing no longer has a place in present-day aesthetics"); for Raine, making a similar transition in terms of scale, it is epic that has had its day. Hence the difficulty of History is rather the reader's, who has to make more general sense of the whole than Raine's piecemeal and cryptic procedure immediately allows. It consists of eighty-seven poems, between twelve and 135 lines in length, each labelled with a year and a title. The medium throughout is an irregular, unrhymed unit of three short lines, whose avoidance of fixed metres and larger rhythms embodies Raine's purge of "stale cadences" and his abrasive contention elsewhere that "all good poetry is anti-poetry". All is seen, in the present tense, with something less than the minimum of explication; so that on one level History resembles a huge collection of the sort of poem that Craig Raine has always written.
And it is a snag that, for all their various strengths, what the poems are mostly made of is a superabundance of Raine's old stock-in-trade, the kind of simile or metaphor that wants to startle and can sometimes be caught admiring itself rather than working for the good of the poem. It must be said that in History much of the metaphor is perfectly adapted to the narrative context, as in the emblem of a shy man struggling to talk to his wife about their son in pain upstairs;
There is an obstacle: love he feels as furniture, as a three-seater sofa stuck in the stairwell, its hessian underside on show, its castors comically prim …
But a good many of the similes can still seem stubbornly parenthetical, local satisfactions of an excess of what a pupil of Joyce's called his master's "descriptive lust". It is beside any worthwhile larger point, for example, to turn the head of a minor character into fruit, like something out of Arcimboldo"one eye like a Victoria plum. / Unshaven weak brown bristles / like a kiwi fruit". And while Raine would scorn any notion of good taste, surely a full moon hanging up "her radical mastectomy" fails on another count or two.
But read between them, and the similes are not all that History has to offer. The reconstruction of so many different Russian and European rooms (the laboratory where Lenin, and Lenin's genitals, are embalmed, for one) is done with thorough mastery of their worlds of strange detail; but Raine is understandably more at home in the Raine household, even if it is invented. The best of the English pieces are tightly paced, sharply realized narrative poems of a sort he has not often attempted before; and if it has required the whole project to get these written, then they justify the whole. The storytelling thrives when the action is most violent—in fight sequences, asylum visits, rape scenes; but there are more delicate successes too, like the beautifully particular "1919: Back from the Front", where Henry Raine spends an evocative evening "opening cupboards and drawers" before confronting the sexual tensions of his homecoming. Some of the poems involving Norman are very funny. And there is any amount of specifically narrative wit at work throughout: to select arbitrarily, in the way a nonsense name is made part of the postponement of the cheerless acceptance of a marriage proposal (though I suppose this depends on a simile):
Like the frozen hunting horn of Baron Karl Friedrich Hieronymous von Munchausen thawing out beside the fire after an epic silence she speaks: "So I'd better say yes"—
—or in the way the episode of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva having their fling is done as a series of index entries, to convey its perfunctory, instantly "historical" status.
And yet, if it asks to be considered as one thing, History is structurally inefficient. Chronology aside, there is no gain to be had from reading its sections consecutively, and therefore no compulsion to read them all. Certainly one catches echoes and recurring motifs—flies, spiders, acronyms, arseholes, quarter-faces, club feet, and a dozen other systematic implants; but these rhymes, the marks of history repeating itself, can as easily be registered backwards as forwards; and if there is a key to their deployment, it's not one that yields itself up to an averagely attentive third reading. Strangest of all, whatever the poem's private business, it seems to have exhausted itself by the end of the Second World War. While the forty-four years from 1905 to 1949 generate 300 pages, the forty-four from 1950 to the present day get only thirty. In the absence of a historical explanation, it feels, and fair enough, as though the poet is simply knackered.
Still, we were never to expect a choral climax. The book's last words—"… an ampersand. / An ampersand. An ampersand"—do refer to the yoking of Craig and his wife; but they also reprise a lonely, spiritless rhythm that beats through several earlier episodes. It is heard in the noise of trains on the tracks, of needles stuck in the groove, in the ubiquitous "click click" of male masturbation; and in mixtures of these, such as old Leonid Pasternak "doing" a train:
… Merde. De. Te. Merde. De-te. Merde-de-te. Merde-de-te-merde-de-te. He might be masturbating. He shakes on the sofa, rigid, gripped, unable to stop.
"Merde-de-te", dum-di-ti. It would be something if History is showing us, in the face of the modernist ambition it otherwise fulfils, that all we share with former generations is the pulse of this runaway dactyl; that what will survive of us is self-abuse and metre.
SOURCE: "Poets Are Born, Then Made," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 99, December 11, 1994, pp. 25-6.
[In the following excerpt, Tillinghast reviews History: The Home Movie, summarizing the salient points of Raine's poetic technique.]
Craig Raine has been known in Britain as the chief exemplar of a late-1970's movement in poetry known as "the Martians," in whose work quotidian elements of life were seen as if through the eyes of a visitor from another planet. In A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, for example, "Rain is when the earth is television / It has the property of making colors darker." Now he has written a bold; ambitious chronicle of life in Europe, chiefly in England and Russia, from 1905 to 1984. His method in History: The Home Movie is to chronicle events—some evidently fictional—from the history of his family, the Raines, and his wife's family, the Pasternaks. The publisher calls it "a novel in verse." Though the two world wars, Stalin, Lenin, various English monarchs, Halle Selassie and literary figures like Yeats appear in passing, what we have is not "official" textbook history, but rather a demotic, home-movie take on this period.
The home-movie analogy is apt. We get flickering glimpses of family dramas; and, as with someone else's home movies, the viewer's attention is not always riveted to the screen. The English characters are fairly well defined, but for the Russians I found myself flipping back to the family trees provided in the front of the book as I tried—often unsuccessfully—to distinguish Zhonya and Fedya and Zhenya (not to mention Zhenya's child, also called Zhenya).
It is as if Mr. Raine were making the point that some of life's commonest activities are those that hardly ever get written about. What we see of life in the trenches in World War I, in a section called "1915: The Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars," is grandfather Henry Raine writing a letter to his wife and then masturbating. It is evidently a family tradition, because about 60 pages on we encounter Mr. Raine's Uncle Jimmy, who has a go "while he reads Film Fun, / his mind on Harold Lloyd, / Mack Swain and Fatty Arbuckle."
Mr. Raine has other obsessions: the deflation of bourgeois values, sexual transgression and violence, excretion. His anal preoccupations alone might be reason enough to call this book History: The A Posteriori View. If his poetry were architecture its style would be Brutalist. His Fierce determination to demythologize history is typified in "1924: Lenin Takes a Long Bath," where we are treated to a discussion of the embalming of the Soviet leader: "He'll soon be permanent. / Old ways work best. Evisceration / Those pharaohs knew about meat."
There are one or two tender moments in the book—when Henry Raine returns from the war, for example
He spends the evening opening cupboards and drawers, finding the wary napkin rings, A set of six, like smokers' teeth.
Our response to Henry's safe return is compromised by our awareness that his wife, Queenie, has been violated six pages earlier by a pervert calling himself Mablethorpe: "She does it like domestic chores / making them both a cup of tea / before the shaving and the sodomy."
To be fair to Mr. Raine, however, he is a poet with at least one spectacular gift: the metaphoric or transforming faculty. The book is worth reading if only for the originality, and sometimes the brilliance, of its comparisons. In a catalogue he calls "a cubist quarry," cigarettes and hollow licorice sticks become "Wild Woodbines in packets often, / or loose in fives, sherbet fountains / fused like sticks of dynamite." The sound of water flows through a gravel pit "like a little girl / wearing her mother's shoes." Elsewhere "The boy lounges / between his mother's legs / like a cello."
SOURCE: "The Private Life of Our Century," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 12, 1995, p. 11.
[In the following review, Clark emphasizes the narrative aspect of History: The Home Movie, while praising Raine's choice of verse as appropriate for "an age trained to think in images."]
This challenging, innovative, unsettling novel in verse [History: The Home Movie] relates the history of 20th-century Europe through the interlocking private lives of two families—the author's own English family of Raines, and the Russian family of Pasternaks, to which the Raines are linked by accident of intermarriage. Poet Craig Raine here brilliantly melds the tonal authenticity of autobiographical memoir with novelistic modes of structuring, historical scoping and character-building, fleshing out fact with imaginative speculation of a most vivid, graphically immediate and intense kind.
No less distinctly contemporary in method than in subject matter, History: The Home Movie revives and updates the lost art of verse narrative to fit an age trained to think in images.
History is not just a serial poem (those are common enough these days), but a serious, full-scale philosophical novel, "modern" in the post-Joycean sense. Raine's montage technique reveals a spectacle of history as largely pointless suffering. Viewing through the peephole of private experience the true facts of a century of war, totalitarian terror and death camps, Craig Raine takes the only course open to a conscientious modern novelist, sacrificing the false "public" order of events (history as "progress") for the uncomfortable, disturbing chaos of what is.
His narrative proceeds via a chain of sharply focused movie-like vignettes. Each stanzaic "chapter" recaptures some telling lost moment from the life of a family member; each of those moments is fraught with both obscure personal significance and oblique, surprising "public"—historical points of contact.
The three generations of English Raines chronicled here descend from Henry Raine, a sergeant of the Oxfordshire Hussars whom we encounter in a regimental tackroom amid shellshocked trenches of the Western Front, and his wife Queenie, a music hall artiste, raffishly performing at Victoria Palace before the king in an early chapter.
The Russian line is introduced with the painter Leonid Pasternak and his wife the pianist Rosa née Kaufman, members of the Moscow middle-class Jewish intelligentsia under the czarist regime of the turn of the century; the Pasternaks first appear here at their dacha by the Black Sea in 1905, their tranquillity overshadowed, when their older son, Boris, spots the red flag of a naval squadron far out to sea, by ominous premonitions of upheavals and trials to come.
In keeping with History's highlighting of the role of accidents of desire in the course of human events, the poet Boris Pasternak's sexual dalliances and curiosity receive as much attention here as his better-known literary achievements and frustrations. An "excitement almost sexual," provoked by the sudden proximity of power, overcomes him when he's phoned by Stalin from the Kremlin to be interrogated about his fellow poet, Osip Mandelstam. Distracted by a peephole vision through the collective apartment wall of a young neighbor girl bathing, Boris stumbles into the well-meant but insufficiently cautious comments that inadvertently seal Mandelstam's awful fate of exile.
In the confusing, entropic unfolding of Raine's History, tragic destinies are more often than not enacted by the commonplace, and large-scale consequences repeatedly spring from little embarrassments, apparently inconsequential failures to communicate and all-too-human personal misunderstandings. The ancient burden to which the flesh is heir, Raine seems to be saying, fosters far more of history than we might at first glance care to acknowledge.
The novel's corollary figure to Boris on the English side is the author's uncle Eliot Raine. Eliot, with his inquiring, artistic temperament, his bizarrely diversified sexual pursuits, and the checkered medical career that brings him to Germany and marriage with Boris's exiled sister Lydia Pasternak, is perhaps the most complicated and compelling character in History. (One suspects that Eliot's private journals provided this project an invaluable research source.)
Less developed dramatically, Eliot's brother Jimmy, an amiable, rather simple-minded itinerant sign painter, serves as a useful onlooker, providing fleeting glimpses of several of the large-scale political figures who pass like flickering newsreel images through the novel's chapters on the '30s and '40s.
It's through Jimmy's eyes that poet-novelist Raine often manipulates his zoom-lens-like ironic technique of exploding scale. Bringing us up close to discern the large through the small, Jimmy's mute, unwitting witnessing produces some of History's cleverest comic touches.
On a chilly January morning in 1931, the legend on one of Jimmy's billboard paintings for a fairground sideshow ("The Boneless Wonder") draws the eyes of a strolling Winston Churchill ("Burly, bowler-hatted, / breathing brandy hard"), who opportunistically incorporates that phrase later that day in a House speech attacking the prime minister. And in 1942, re-posted with his Black Watch battalion to Gibraltar after a disgraceful failure of nerve at Dunkirk, Jimmy is out on sentry duty when the magic hand of chance (and/or the poet's fictive art) confronts him with a suspicious night prowler, "some jerk in a jerkin and chinos" who turns out to be the Allied supreme commander, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, out for an after-hours tour of the Rock. (Ike surrenders to Jimmy with white hankie waving nervously aloft.)
Graphic scenes of physical violence—attempted ax-murder, electrocution, garroting, shooting, flesh-scarifying beatings, etc.—litter these pages. But Raine's images of violence serve a serious thematic purpose. A dark, shadowy stain pervasively emerging like a faint negative watermark on every page, the pain inflicted by modern people upon each other and upon themselves is soaked through this poetic history of the private life of our century.
In History: The Home Movie, the matter-of-fact, tight-focus dwelling on intimate, sometimes repulsive physical detail is not mere shock tactic. Raine's hard-edged images particularize objects and situations that surround, and, by their contiguous reflections, define the human. A teasingly discontinuous narrative, refusing not only obvious sentiment but explanatory statement, thrusts those images into the foreground with unexpected immediacy, at times leaving the reader gasping for breath in the heady spaces between them.
Craig Raine's History admirably reclaims poetry's narrative function, its capacity to fictionally propose a world as complex and mysterious as reality itself. Its techniques demand extra work of the reader. In the end, though, Raine's choice of verse proves a fitting expressive vehicle for the history of this bewildering century—in which public truth gives way to private impulse, and human beings torn from one another and from themselves must look to poetic fiction to decipher the enigma of a chaotic and unintelligible life.