Craig Raine Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Biographical Information

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 Valve Trumpet (1990). Since 1991, Raine has taught as a fellow at New College, Oxford, and has completed the epic poem History: The Home Movie (1994).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Onion, Memory (poetry) 1978
A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (poetry) 1979
A Journey to Greece (poetry) 1979
A Free Translation (poetry) 1981
Rich (poetry and prose) 1984
∗∗The Electrification of the Soviet Union (libretto) 1986
Haydn and the Valve Trumpet (essays) 1990
1953: A Version of Racine's 'Andromaque' (verse drama) 1990
History: 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...

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Gavin Ewart (review date 30 June 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 860 words.)

John Bayley (review date 4 January 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Hulse (essay date Autumn 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Bromwich (review date 19 October 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Muldoon (review date 1-14 November 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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John Lucas (review date 7 December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 804 words.)

Martin Booth (review date January 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Charles Forceville (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4609 words.)

Blake Morrison (review date 20 November 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Craig Raine with Mary Karr (interview date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 2806 words.)

Thomas Lux (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sean French (review date 8 June 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Kemp (review date 6 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Barbara Everett (review date 12 July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1604 words.)

Carol Rumens (review date 9 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Adam Thorpe (review date 11 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Frank Kermode (review date 22 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mick Imlah (review date 7 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Tillinghast (review date 11 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Tom Clark (review date 12 March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1121 words.)