Craig Raine Raine, Craig (Vol. 32) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Craig Raine 1944–

English poet, critic, and editor.

Raine is regarded as an important new poet who has brought a sense of vitality to English poetry of the late 1970s and early 1980s. His distinctive style emphasizes startling images and strange metaphors to make the familiar world seem fresh and newly discovered. Several of Raine's contemporaries, most notably Christopher Reid, share this technique of presenting images from an alien viewpoint. Critic and poet James Fenton used the term "Martian School" to describe this group of poets.

Raine first gained recognition for poems he contributed to such British periodicals as The New Statesman and he was known in England as a clever poet by the time his first book, The Onion, Memory (1978), appeared. In his second and third volumes, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979) and A Free Translation (1982), Raine continued his playful use of language and metaphor. Some critics fault his work for not addressing human emotions or concerns, but most agree that his impact on English poetry has been enlivening and significant.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108.)

Derek Mahon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Only occasionally does a poet appear whose voice is instantly and uniquely recognisable, and Raine is such a poet. Pseudonymous and badly type-written, as for a competition, a poem by him would not long retain its pseudonymity. His peculiar and startling metaphors would give him away at once. Also his predilection for the present indicative tense. Thus:

Surrounded by sausages, the butcher stands
smoking a pencil like Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Most things in [The Onion, Memory] happen like this, and while they can become tiresome, wearying you with their gratuitous cleverness, one must acknowledge the figurative sureness of touch, the surprise and pleasure Raine provides, not only at his best but almost as a matter of course.

Contemporary English poetry is full of people—living, loving, dying and being remembered. This is appropriate in a humanistic culture. Raine's poetry, too, is densely populated, but the object has a life of its own—not as a rule the anthropomorphic life attributed to it by certain French and American poets, although at one point he does say precisely this:

Esse is percipi. Berkeley knew
the gentle irony of objects, how
they told amusing lies and drew laughter,
if only we believed our eyes.

But something (a fear of pretension, a distrust of the numinous?) keeps him chary of an intellectual commitment to this line of thought, with the result that what might have been (might yet be, perhaps) metaphysical in the strict sense, remains merely playful. Some, including the poet himself no doubt, will take issue with that 'merely', but I offer the...

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Derek Stanford

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aristotle once said that the capacity to mint new metaphors was the readiest test of a new poet. If we accept this rule-of-thumb as valid, Craig Raine commences with a full head start on most of his versifying coevals. To borrow from his own method, I might describe his first volume The Onion, Memory as a bee-hive, a wasps' nest, a tank of tropical fishes. All imply animation and colour, and all these have the power to irritate and sting the literal-minded reader or one with a conservative imagination.

One does not win the first and second prizes in the Cheltenham Festival for nothing; and there is no doubt that Mr. Raine has a feather-fine weathercock way of catching the nuances of similitude where another would discover only incongruity. With words as the instrument of observation, he is phenomenally quick on the draw; quick to spot an unlikely likeness and swift to convert it into something rather like a visual epigram…. This trigger-happy cleverness, however, reminds me—not directly, but status-wise—of the Scots poet Norman MacCaig (who has one over him in verbal music), and I wonder whether Mr. Raine's kind of talent is of the sort that might stay imprisoned in the strait-jacket of a virtuosity which he is forever renewing. No doubt, it is proof of his style's infectiousness that again I express my doubts in terms of his own figurative fashion when saying that he seems like a public entertainer who, in Trafalgar Square or on Margate sands, draws his crowd by binding his arms with knotted ropes which he then skilfully proceeds to undo, only to repeat the trick again and again. One thing must be allowed him: it is not a confidence trick but a real one; and only an exceptionally agile dealer in language could carry it through with such self-assurance.

What I have previously said may seem an ungracious niggling way of welcoming a new poet well worthy of critical salutation. (pp. 22-3)

Derek Stanford, "The Muse and Metaphors," in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 24, No. 1, October, 1978, pp. 22-3.∗

Alan Brownjohn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Onion, Memory is about the drunkenness of things being transmutable: transmutable not into symbols (which is a comfort) but into other things which can be cajoled or laughed into seeming ridiculously like them…. The brilliance of Raine's invention does serve to prevent the poems becoming mere boxes of whimsical tricks, even where one sees that he might have gone on for as long as the available detail lasted out—he seems aware of the dangers in "Professor Klaeber's Nasty Dream"; and Craig Raine in a junk shop could be a nightmare indeed. But the whole procedure also precludes much chance of normal human concerns breaking in; whereas they always did with MacNeice, and one at least respects McCaig for pushing his fancies out to wider horizons.

The Onion, Memory contains no more than three or four poems where the poet himself manages to emerge from under his own pile of coloured balloons. These include the title-poem, and "Epithalamion", arguably the best one in the book, where the lovers lying in a field—transmuted into a wedding party with "a thousand parsley parasols"—sense a destructiveness in their liaison…. There is something unsatisfactory about a poetry which obliges the reader first to puzzle out, and then to test, the appositeness of a hundred local effects. This can't be the way poetry should be read, and if a telling point is made through bizarre clusters of metaphorical devices, it is quite possible that it could be made without them. With so much enterprise about—and so much intelligent calculation—one waits eagerly for those dim shadows in the wings to come out and show themselves as poems which are moving as well as ferociously ingenious. (pp. 63-4)

Alan Brownjohn, "Heads, Tongues & Spirits," in Encounter, Vol. LI, No. 5, November, 1978, pp. 63-9.∗

Lawrence Sail

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Craig Raine's first collection [The Onion, Memory] displays a formidable gift for metaphor and simile. Thus a barber 'flies electric shears fringed with steel / from a row where they sleep like bats', dogs 'grin like Yale keys', lizards asleep are 'perched pagodas with tiny triangular tiles'. Throughout the book comparisons come thick and fast (together with a liberal smattering of puns). Often they are remarkably apt and precise—chickens in a butcher's are 'stripped to their aertex vests'; a spectacles case 'lies on the counter like a mussel'—and they succeed best where they are not strained beyond their capacity, in poems like "Meditation at Spring Hill", "Memory" and (beautifully observed) "The Horse". But sometimes the sheer weight of detailed comparison threatens the original object of the poet's attention, and the images become arresting in a bad sense: feelings and attitudes, though present, are too often submerged. The division of the book into six sections, and of nearly half of the poems into couplets, tends to heighten the impression of dislocation. Likewise with the final long poem, Anno Domini—there are brilliant moments, but no very clear overall shape or purpose, for all the biblical references. The reader may wonder uneasily whether, in this book, the total is less than the sum of its parts—a poet accumulating power without quite knowing what to do with it. Mr. Raine seems to be aware of the problem, when he writes of '… metaphor, / God's poetry of boredom'…. Given his obvious acuteness, it would be good to see Mr. Raine moving closer to the centre, and in the process increasing the traffic along what he calls in one poem 'the branch-line of the heart'. (pp. 58-9)

Lawrence Sail, "Fruits of the Fall," in Poetry Review, Vol. 68, No. 4, January, 1979, pp. 57-60.∗

Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Craig Raine didn't exist he'd have to be invented. After the Movement's ironical circumspection, and the agonised candour of confessional poets, his work represents a long-awaited return to exuberant imaginative playfulness. But fulfilling the prophecies of literary trend-spotters hasn't ensured him a universally warm welcome—like most original books his first collection, The Onion, Memory, sharply divided public opinion. In the year or so since its publication, however, there have been signs that several erstwhile opponents have become repentant advocates—sometimes so admiringly that Raine has been promoted from enfant terrible to Grand Young Man with unseemly haste. A Martian Sends a Postcard Home gives a chance to assess his claim to the new title, and because it follows hard on the heels of its predecessor, it does so at a point which would seem previous in almost any other poet's career. The advantage of this, obviously, is that it confirms the impression of abundance he has already given. The disadvantage is that it risks provoking the charge of repetitiveness or self-parody.

A few poems in the new book can be accused and found guilty. But feelings of déjà vu are usually infiltrated by pleasure at discovering Raine's energy and generosity undiminished. The innocent precision of his metaphors is astonishing—nowhere more so than in the title poem's description of a telephone:


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Peter Porter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's hard to decide where Craig Raine's originality lies. Every poet uses metaphor, and some do so more bizarrely than him. Yet, after only two books, it can be said, of him, as Wyndham Lewis wrote of Auden, that he 'is the new guy who's got into the landscape.' We are beginning to see things in a Martian way ('Martian' is James Fenton's adjective for the Rainian method).

This is a considerable achievement, since Raine bypasses avantgarde battles, while setting style too high among his priorities to be a documentary realist. 'A Martian Sends a Postcard Home' is a better book than 'The Onion, Memory,' because it is a concentration of his talent, and an intensification of his mannerisms. He hasn't set out on new paths after his initial success, but decided to tune a shining engine to perfection. To his detractors, the Raine mechanics are by Fabergé, to his admirers, by the Supermarine company. This new collection may seem to depart from his former practice by including several poems telling stories—'In the Kalahari Desert,' 'In the Dark'—but there were plenty of submerged narratives in his first book.

Raine's Martian describes life on earth from plausible clues which misinterpret everything…. Throughout these poems, the purpose of metaphor is not the illumination of the unfamiliar by the better-known, but the sophisticated discovery of parallels which raise us above the everyday by their striking distortions of emphasis….

Those of us who retained strong doubts after Raine's first book appeared have been rebuked by his admirers for failing to appreciate how haunting his images of human feeling are. Certainly 'A Martian sends …' touches our nerves and remains in our memories more than most books of poems do. For me, the test remains whether this triumph of style can escape from its own brilliantly contrived limits.

Peter Porter, "The World Upside Down," in The Observer, January 6, 1980, p. 36.∗

David Young

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I was contemplating some interesting differences between two established British poets and two new ones, when I learned that I had stumbled into a School. We don't have those very often in poetry these days, but if my source, a newspaper mention, is correct, both Christopher Reid … and Craig Raine … belong to the "Martian School" of poets, who presumably try to look at the world as though they had just arrived from another planet, seeing it new and making it new by powerful and unusual metaphors.

It isn't wise to take journalistic mentions of literary schools too seriously, but I can testify that I was mildly intrigued, before I had any notion of a connection between these two poets, by their...

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Michael Hulse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

With Cheltenham Festival and Poetry Society prizes and New Statesman Prudence Farmer Awards to his name, Craig Raine seems to have discovered the formula for the winning poem. His typical aha!-effects, the quick sharp thrusts of his couplets and the riddlemaker's precision of his images all suggest an abundance of that gift for ready metaphoric connection which Aristotle thought central to the poetic sensibility. And critical acclaim has not been lacking. (p. 13)

[Loose] couplets are Raine's preferred form; in The Onion, Memory twenty-five of the fifty-two poems are cast in them, and in A Martian sends a Postcard Home the proportion rises steeply, twenty of the twenty-four poems...

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Roberta Berke

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] boldness, which distinguishes Raine from other young British poets, comes from his audacious use of images to make his poems vivid and multifaceted. "Rain is when the earth is television." His descriptions are precise but unfussy. Excessive details can make some of his poems rather static; yet, "In the end, the detail reaches out." These details enable him not only to extend his metaphors, but also to concentrate them. Because he can capture an object with a few details, he can move from idea to idea very quickly and conjure incongruities. This startles us and makes us look more closely: suddenly we realize that incongruities have concealed similarities. (p. 156)

Raine's poems are not surreal,...

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Laurence Lerner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Craig Raine has given us the very opposite to a Collected Poems—six poems [that make up the volume A Free Translation]…. Because I consider him the most exciting new poet of the decade, the booklet is well worth absorbing and discussing. His talent for seeing the world anew by means of a precise image is as fine as ever: he watches a man rowing "knit / with clumsy oars, / While the waves / unravel their length", and the circus giraffe "manipulates its jib / like an Anglepoise / awkwardly precise." In this group of poems he has settled to a fixed rhythmic pattern, three-line stanzas—or hardly stanzas, rather breath-groups—with no rhyme and no metrical regularity: an easy-going movement into which...

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Dick Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Do our modern poets ever read Richard Hooker? There is a sentence deep in Ecclesiastical Polity that describes a great deal of new poetry with alarming precision: 'The mixture of those things by speech which by Nature are divided is the mother of all error.' Craig Raine has made his reputation as the arch-priest of such 'error' and his new chapbook [A Free Translation] has its fair share of giraffes as Anglepoise lamps and jelly-fish as Dali watches (Dali, the artist as rearranger of the familiar par excellence, comes twice in the book). But Mr. Raine seems already to be growing tired of such games—his first poem moves towards its emotional climax with the question 'What is real?' and in the...

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Dana Gioia

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At the moment the biggest news in British poetry is the "Martian" school, a group of young poets headed by Craig Raine and Christopher Reid…. This fashionable gang owes its extraterrestial sobriquet to James Fenton, who, when his friends Raine and Reid shared The New Statesman's poetry prize, pointed out the unusual stylistic traits they had in common. Borrowing the central conceit from Raine's prize-winning "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home," Fenton summarized their mission as an attempt to make the reader see the familiar world in an alien way, especially by using bizarre metaphors for everyday objects.

Book reviewers love nothing more than a new school of poetry. It gives some shape,...

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