Craig Raine

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 observation for what it's worth. This is, of course, a first volume; and who, contemplating, say, the early work of Wallace Stevens, could have foreseen 'The Idea of Order at Key West'? Playful or not, an attentive interest in the things of this world is no bad way for a poet to begin. Perhaps it's the best way, even the only way. An accusation of mereness would be premature. But I'm reviewing The Onion, Memory, not his future work, so let me return to it, with its Nabokovian title.

Nabokov, in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight , speaks of 'that real sense of beauty which has far less to do with art than with the constant readiness to discern the halo round a frying pan'. Raine appears to have little interest in 'beauty', 'art' or halos, but his imagination is fired by the sight of a cheesewire ('a sun-dial selling by the hour'), a wall-phone ('the flex / is Jewish...

(This entire section contains 749 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Orthodox'—I presume he means Hassidic), the 'Regency stripes' of a college lawn, a horse's mouth 'like a boxing glove', 'cabbage whites with caviar eyes', a spectacle case 'like a mussel'. These are the things for which this collection will be deservedly praised.

As for its human population, I'm not so sure. A poet like Douglas Dunn, who has already submitted objects to the Rainean treatment, and as arrestingly (television aerials like Chinese calligraphy, 'the music inside fruit'), has also written so well and with such insight about other people that nothing less will suffice. I fear that Raine, preoccupied with the quiddity of objects and the figurative trouvaille, doesn't really give a damn about the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker: he prefers the company of the chop, the loaf and the candlestick. This wouldn't matter if he didn't sometimes seem a little heartless.

Thus, consider 'Home for the Elderly', where youth appears to mock at age, or 'Danse Macabre', where a man who has collapsed on the pavement is whimsically compared to a Blue Period Picasso. 'All day he wrings his hands, crying buckets', says Raine of a window cleaner; but this tells us nothing about the window cleaner, only about language. James Joyce, whom he clearly admires (two of the poems bear Joycean epigraphs), told us about both….

Conventionally enough, the one moving poem in the book, and the most achieved, is the title poem, in which the poet revisits his ex-wife:

              Divorced, but friends again at last,
              we walk old ground together

They pass an amicable and inconsequential day while, outside, 'the trees are bending over backwards / to please the wind'. He slices onions; she does some sewing: 'It is the onion, memory, that makes me cry.' Here, at last, is the human face; and, as if to acknowledge the depth of his engagement, the object itself rises to the occasion.

Derek Mahon, "Have a Heart," in New Statesman, Vol. 95, No. 2466, June 23, 1978, p. 852.∗

Derek Stanford

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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:

           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.

This kind of perception is more than simply a means by which the ordinary becomes strange again. It's also Raine's method of realising and releasing emotion. Once, extraordinarily, he was accused of heartlessness; in fact, poem after poem registers a deep affection for what he sees. His way of looking is also a way of baring his heart.

Raine knows this only too well. But where he was prepared to keep quiet about it in The Onion, Memory, his recent poems suggest that he wants to tell us—as well as show us—how much he cares. The result is that we feel less inclined to believe him. 'Shallots' and 'Down on the Funny Farm' both threaten their own integrity by introducing chunks of self-analysis, and 'In the Mortuary' contains another, related cause for anxiety. As so often elsewhere, he seeks to record his compassion by examining a physical detail, but exploits the strategy to a point at which technique commands more attention than content…. (p. 947)

This tendency for Raine's poems to be knowingly tender, and thereby have too palpable a design on us, is a disquieting development. To some extent, no doubt, it's the product of containment within the peculiarities of his style: the longer he uses it, the more debilitatingly self-conscious he becomes. But he's aware, as well, of the need to overcome this danger—hence the significantly large number of narrative poems in the book. The stories and characters in 'Oberfeldwebel Beckstadt', for instance, or 'In the Kalahari Desert', are seized upon as the means of escaping his own tyrannical characteristics. The trouble is that try as he might, he can't keep himself at bay. Brilliant metaphors break up the sequential flow into a series of fragments, and masks slip to reveal the poet as we've always known him. Raine is not the first poet to cast a Martian eye on life, on death—it's his concentration on the procedure that makes him an innovator. (p. 948)

Andrew Motion, "Alien Eyes," in New Statesman, Vol. 98, No. 2543, December 14, 1979, pp. 947-48.∗

Peter Porter

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 joint effort to introduce some new vitality into British poetry. I had been looking at new books by two established poets, Ted Hughes … and George MacBeth …, and shaking my head in dismay….

That's the context, anyway, in which I found myself intrigued by [Raine's volume A Martian Sends a Postcard Home and Reid's Arcadia]. Both books … are uneven, as though their authors were feeling their way into something new, but both have an air of freshness and discovery. These poets seem to locate the interest of poetry in its genius for metaphor and transformation, so that their work is less pretentious and more imaginative than that of Hughes and MacBeth. Raine, for example, holds himself to a strict program of going from one comparison to another, stepping-stone fashion. In Athens he finds "columns of corduroy, weatherworn / lions vague as Thurber dogs" and "pillars sleeping if off / or standing tipsily." These comparisons—to cloth, cartoons, drunks—are reductive and comical. "Mosquitoes," says Raine in the same poem, "drift with paraplegic legs." So they do, and what a strange kiss of particulars that turns out to be. Often the poems add up merely to clever fragments, and sometimes the comparisons ("a naughty wind has blown / the dress of each tulip / over its head") strike the reader as simply childlike, but in his best poems, as for instance "Flying to Belfast, 1977," Craig Raine brings his talent for metaphor to bear on his material in an evocative and reverberating way….

It hasn't happened yet, but if the exuberance of early Auden and Day Lewis and MacNeice were to creep back into British poetry, who wouldn't be grateful? These Martians may bear watching.

David Young, "Earthly Observers and Martian Chroniclers," in Book World—The Washington Post, September 7, 1980, p. 5.∗

Michael Hulse

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 being in these irregular couplets. Elsewhere in The Onion, Memory—for example, in the title poem or 'On the perpetuum mobile'—Raine deploys metrical patterns more closely based on iambs, and often allows rhyme, but in the couplet poems rhyme is usually banished (the occasional rhyme or off-rhyme in a poem like 'Kublaikansky' is untypical) and the cadences are further removed from any iambic model. Out of this rejection of familiar poetic disciplines grows a new approach to the notion of the couplet, which, in Raine's hands, becomes a vehicle of new firmness and flexibility. Characteristic of this vehicle are four stylistic features. First, we may note the use of the present tense as a norm whose effect is to impart to specificity of observation a sense of general relevance and validity. Second, the syntactic pattern in the couplet poems tends almost invariably toward short, simple sentences containing one finite verb. Third, where a further finite verb is introduced it is common for this verb to be linked by the conjunction 'and' and to be placed at the beginning of the line. This high incidence of lines beginning with 'and' produces a sense of thoughts added, as it were, as afterthoughts; frequently the conjunction yokes together disparate images, and in this way innocent syntax is transformed into the image-maker's linguistic hold-all. It is worth noting here that it is extremely rare to find adjectives linked by 'and' in Raine's poetry; for obvious reasons, the density of imagery well-night eliminates description. Fourth, it is characteristic of Raine's couplet line that it ends on a noun. Elementary in itself, this device, in conjunction with the others mentioned here, endows Raine's couplet line with a unity and rightness that are equivalent, in the overall scheme of his poetics, to the Augustan propriety of Pope's couplet line.

Outside his couplets, Raine can sound unfortunately derivative. The title poem of The Onion, Memory recalls both Eliot and W. D. Snodgrass, and in 'On the perpetuum mobile' we find a tone unmistakably borrowed from the early Eliot…. The peculiar barrenness of this poem comes from its slavishly derivative use of the tone of Eliot's 1917 volume, and in particular the tone of the 'Portrait of a lady'. It is the strength of Raine's couplet poems that in them (and, it is true, occasionally elsewhere) he develops a manner and tone entirely his own.

This manner and tone, this style in which, for all its necessary limits, the poet is able to achieve triumphs, is always dictated by the overall scheme of Raine's poetics. When I use this phrase I mean to refer to his conception of the role played in poetic creation by images. Without question, poetry has always availed itself of metaphor and simile, but Raine's approach is different in so far as he elevates image-making to the supreme structural principle of his work. In 'The gardener' Raine is clearly interested in the man at work primarily as a peg on which to hang images; the images are the poem, they represent its total structure, and without them the poem would not exist. We can rarely, if ever, say this of the use of imagery by any other poet in the language. (pp. 14-15)

When George Orwell wrote [in his essay "Politics and the English Language"] that 'The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness' and maintained that 'A newly invented metaphor assisted thought by evoking a visual image' he was speaking of prose in terms which, as Pound and Raine would well have understood, apply equally well to poetry; we need only compare (for example) Pound's observation in the ABC of Reading: 'In Europe, if you ask a man to define anything, his definition always moves away from the simple things that he knows perfectly well, it recedes into an unknown region, that is a region of remoter and progressively remoter abstraction.' The notion that image-making is the clearest form of definition, and therefore the clearest means of communicating experience, is central to Craig Raine's aesthetic.

Other contexts for Raine's aesthetic suggest themselves, possibly the most persistent being one from outside the Anglo-Saxon tradition. From 1902 to about 1908 Rainer Maria Rilke worked according to a concept of 'Dinge', or things, which he developed fully during his acquaintance with the sculptor Rodin and expounded in his monograph on Rodin, as well as in letters. For Rilke, 'Dinge' held within them the absolute; it is as if all meaning and all relation to life in its relative phases could be perceived through a close enough contemplation of the thing in question. That thing might be anything, from the perceptible or conceptual world: Rilke's poems of this period take animals, birds, flowers, cathedrals, works of the visual arts, people, well-nigh anything as their centres—but not emotion, or experience immediately related to a persona. It was important to Rilke, as to the Imagists in their different way, to present his things simply and without discursive interpretation. (pp. 17-18)

Returning to Raine, we find that he too, like Rilke and like the Imagists, possesses an active, outward-looking curiosity which fastens on anything and everything as a possible subject for poetry. His poetry—as he puts it in 'An enquiry into two inches of ivory'—deals with

                 Daily things. Objects
                 in the museum of ordinary art.

It is interesting that his weaker poems—those in which, as I have already suggested, he adheres too faithfully to the forms of other men—are also those in which he comes closest to examining emotion, and experience related to a persona; his better work looks outward and attempts to embrace the full thisness of the world through exactness of definition….

Raine's images recreate the object-subject, giving us, at their most effective, a Rilkean sense of penetration akin to symbolism. That Raine's things are not symbols is evident from the fact that there is nothing beyond themselves that they could represent; but they partake of the flavour of universal validity which we associate with symbols.

Occasionally Raine's images take on a slightly different function, in poems where his prime concern is not so much with essence as with narrative. 'In the dark', arguably the finest poem in the second collection [A Martian Sends a Postcard Home] is an excellent example of this shift of function, the images in it serving as a sort of imagistic shorthand to represent areas of life which are familiar and do not need elaborate delineation. The poem is the story of a girl, her unwanted child, and the social pressures which inflict an inevitable tragedy. No one would claim the story is original; but Raine invests it with a 'ne'er so well expressed' felicity that conjures forth every essential element in the narrative in a handful of precisely-chosen words:

           God danced on his cross
           at the foot of her bed

           like Nijinsky having a heart attack …

The moral-religious pressures brought to bear in such a case have rarely been as succinctly expressed, and something too of the girl's own mental torment comes over in that image of a Christ crucified, represented in the traditional almost-S shape so close to squirming pain. Raine is surely right to suppose that such images speak for themselves and do not require 'overt moralizing'. The echoes and extremities of the image are clear and whole.

If we look again at 'The gardener' we see, of course, that it lacks the large moral dimensions of 'In the dark' and, existing as it does in a realm of sheer exuberance in the activity of image-making, represents a less serious artefact. As I have already said, Raine uses his gardener as a useful peg on which to hang images. The difference could be compared to the difference between Rilke's poem about the panther, which makes a profound statement on the relationship of will to liberty, and his poem about flamingos, where the simple pleasure and accuracy of observation are the poem's sole justification. If 'The gardener' is to be defended against those who, like Brownjohn, would see in it (and others of Raine's poems which resemble it) an abdication of seriousness of purpose, the defence must be the same as we would offer for Rilke's poem: that a poetic experience uncomplicated by moral perspectives is no less valid qua poetic experience simply because it is simpler. It offers a different pleasure and a different reward; it would be a wilful aesthetic that would therefore reject it out of hand.

In addition to this defence we can add that Raine occupies a position in British poetry in the final quarter of the century similar to that of the Imagists in the first, in so far as his aesthetic of image-making necessarily exposes him to objections such as that which Firkins aimed at the Imagists; and it is undeniably true that when the poetic process becomes merely a process of seeing the poems produced can have limitations of the kind Firkins, Fletcher and Hughes suggested. Thus the title poem of A Martian sends a Postcard Home is too flashy and glib, too self-consciously manufactures new vision. Poems on familiar moral issues can at times be less successful than 'In the dark', too: 'In the mortuary' is an easy poem in a vein long ago made familiar by Gottfried Benn's morgue poems, and the tale of 'Oberfeldwebel Beckstadt' is an unfortunate string of clichés. The Onion, Memory is uneven too; in one poem Raine's talent can be an elevation and a revelation, in the next the rather pompous huffing and puffing of a superannuated wolf. To say this much is to say only that Raine's achievement so far is uneven, and this much can be said of any poet.

But, having placed his aesthetic in perspective, we are equipped to follow his success not only in one, but in two directions: in the production of poetry, and in the changing of the conditions in which poetry can be produced. For one thing already appears certain: that Raine's impact on British poetry must be assessed not only in terms of his own work but in terms of the effects it has on the prevailing climate of poetry. It may even be that his own work will fail to maintain the high standards he has set himself in his best poems in the two volumes to date, and to a certain extent that will cease to matter. If he has a truly robust talent he may well develop along the lines of Rilkean symbolism, or he may follow Pound's course towards fragmentation and juxtaposition, or he may find an alternative of his own—or he may cease to produce good poetry; speculation is foolish. But his impact on British letters in the brief span of time since his first two collections appeared, in 1978 and 1979 respectively, has been immense. The adjective 'Martian' is everywhere current whenever an unusual angle of looking at the world is under discussion, and, looking beyond Raine's Oxford stable-mate Christopher Reid, whose poetry shares many of the characteristics of Raine's, we can already detect the influence of Raine in poems by various hands in magazines, as well as in the first collection [Looking into the Deep End] by … David Sweetman. It was a commonplace in the second half of the 1970s that British poetry was becoming enervated and lifeless. If Raine has succeeded in injecting new vigour where it was needed his contribution will have been twofold, creative and corrective. (pp. 18-20)

Michael Hulse, "Alms for Every Beggared Sense: Craig Raine's Aesthetic in Context," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter, 1981, pp. 13-21.

Roberta Berke

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

[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, nor are they the result of automatic writing. The everyday (with a few exceptions) is not transported to a personal dream-world. Most of the time, his poems's accuracy of observation keeps them anchored to reality. Yet often they have a very peculiar atmosphere, which the reader first senses in the fusion of the natural and the mechanical…. There are fewer risks of sentimentality if you write about people in the guise of objects, and one might call Raine's method the "ironizing" of both emotions and objects. And he does effectively vault over our cynical defenses, so that by the end of "Down on the Funny Farm" we feel sorry for what we thoughtlessly break every day—an egg…. (pp. 156-57)

Not only do objects assume human feelings; they also undergo the death that comes to all of us, and which we attempt to deny and disguise, as we do the crematorium: "this poetic diction, / this building at the edge of town, / its elaborate architectural periphrasis / to avoid calling a spade / a spade…." Often the focus shifts uneasily between the general and the particular, as in "In the Mortuary." Here a female cadaver lies without name or distinguishing marks, yet the poem reveals her body in vivid focus and "Somewhere else, not here, someone / knows her hair is parted wrongly / and cares about these cobwebs / in the corners of her body."

Raine's poems also flicker between being "funny" meaning odd and being "funny" meaning amusing. Frequently they have a playful tone, with whimsical puns and juxtapositions that at first may appear as carefree as the toys dropped by a toddler. Yet the jaunty surface of these poems is often a kind of nervous laughter concealing disturbing implications. (p. 157)

Now that Raine has accomplished a great deal in his first two books, he must wrestle against his own natural strength, the metaphor, to prevent it from becoming a mannerism. Raine's achievement is to give us a fresh and even naive gaze at our world, to make us recognize that we are all our own Martian invaders, even on our home planet. (p. 158)

Roberta Berke, "'We Say, Today. This Day': New Poets," in her Bounds Out of Bounds: A Compass for Recent American and British Poetry, Oxford University Press, New York, 1981, pp. 150-76.∗

Laurence Lerner

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 the poems fit comfortably. Perhaps too comfortably: one hopes he will begin to experiment in metre in a way that will match his experiments in metaphor.

Unsympathetic readers of Raine's poetry ask if his poems add up to anything more than a patchwork of descriptive aperçus. The answer, I am sure, is yes…. Like a true modernist, Raine does not tell us what the situation is, and when we are moving from one speaker to another. The argument for such a method is of course that what we lose is only the prose structure, which a poem is finer and more suggestive for breaking free of; but I find that the information withheld from us is sometimes crucial to the receiving of the poem. "The Season in Scarborough 1923" is a wonderful account of the life of the rich as seen by a servant, ending with the poet himself sitting "on the train / to literary London" thinking of her "the day she packed / suddenly homesick / for the real…." Now what is the relation between the poet and the servant? Is it a stranger he happens to know about, or someone he has made up to write a poem about her, or (for instance) his mother? I would like to know this, but I must admit I can see the case for not being told. A more clear-cut case of needing to know is provided by "The Man who Invented Pain", which asks us to imagine how a firing squad in the morning turns the rest of the day into a kind of Sunday for the soldiers, and in this it succeeds brilliantly. But it is introduced with six stanzas about the "he" of the poem—presumably the man they shot—which come so tantalisingly close to telling his story that I feel simply teased at not knowing more. Perhaps Raine wishes to tease me. I can see it would be against the spirit of his poems to offer any but the necessary minimum of explanation; sometimes, for my taste, he drops below the minimum.

Laurence Lerner, in a review of "A Free Translation," in Encounter, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, January, 1982, pp. 56-8.

Dick Davis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 most interesting of the six offered he compares himself to a housemaid 'suddenly homesick / for the real …'. In the same way the last poem shows up the sad truths behind the tricks and pretences of a circus: these poems mark a welcome advance on his former work—he seems ready to replace its cute visual punning with a more interesting need to confront the realities that persist beneath the merely spectacular. (p. 22)

Dick Davis, "Missed Worlds," in The Listener, Vol. 107, No. 2742, January 7, 1982, pp. 22-3.∗

Dana Gioia

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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, however illusory, to the depressingly vague mass of contemporary verse that crosses their desks. Not surprisingly, therefore, no sooner had Raine and Reid been playfully nicknamed "Martians" than the term worked its way into general critical parlance. Reviewers fiercely debated the merits of the so-called "school," and for a while any poet who ventured a fancy metaphor was comfortably pigeonholed. The resulting publicity made Raine and Reid famous in the attention-starved world of poetry. Their books sold; their poems were anthologized; their imitators proliferated; and Raine, the undisputed leader of the group, emerged as the most influential poet of his generation—not only the E.T. of English poetry but its Audie Murphy as well, having won nearly every honor and award short of the Laureateship.

A skeptical reader might justifiably complain that there is nothing especially new in the "Martian" theory of poetry, their method being only the latest variation of the many Entfremdung techniques that have characterized modern literature. But poetic theory ultimately matters very little and practice very much. And in their practice Raine and Reid have created a tangibly new and different poetry, even if the differences are more of degree than of kind. How is this possible in a period when the average poem is bloated with imagery and metaphor? The "Martians'" metaphorical density and ingenuity of language is not in itself as new as their ability to use it to produce poems of suave and graceful transparency. Their best poems are extraordinarily rich without being cloying. Likewise if critics complain that the "Martian" aim of making the familiar world seem new is the traditional mission of poetic metaphor, this too is to be expected. All poetic schools earn their reputations by announcing old truths as new discoveries and claiming private patents on general techniques. (pp. 12-13)

If Raine's importance has been overrated by the media, it has also been underestimated by his critics. He is a remarkably inventive poet with a fine ear. The problem with his work—and indeed that of the whole "Martian school"—is not so much one of present performance but future development. The poetry is often bright, fresh, and entertaining; the question is, how long will it remain so? How long can the "Martian" style be exploited before it becomes tired and predictable? How long can metaphor alone command a reader's attention and hide the frequently mundane content of the poetry? As one critic mused, "Metaphor as a way of life. One wonders if it is quite enough."

Raine himself must sense these limitations, for his latest work, A Free Translation, shows him tentatively broadening his scope. While this small pamphlet may not mark a new stage in his career, it does reflect a difficult maturation. These six new poems all written in thin three-line stanzas are quieter and more somber than his early work. The sharp metaphors are still there but less densely, and they no longer serve as the driving forces of the poem. Most importantly, however, Raine now shows more personal involvement in his material, more humanity in his approach. As the enfant terrible has become a family man, he seems more keenly aware of the responsibilities people have toward one another. But while this humanity adds weight to Raine's poetry, he has not yet mastered it as distinctively as he has imagery and metaphor. A Free Translation is a curious book. It contains much wonderful writing but no whole poems as captivating as his best earlier work. Almost every line works well, and yet the poems as a whole are disappointing. They are not bad, just not good enough. (pp. 13-14)

Dana Gioia, "The Barrier of a Common Language: British Poetry in the Eighties," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1984, pp. 6-20.∗


Raine, Craig (Vol. 103)