Craig Raine

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Why does the poem "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" describe ordinary objects and behaviors cryptically?

Quick answer:

Ordinary objects and behaviors are described cryptically in "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" in order to show that they are really not ordinary, but worth thinking about and appreciating. This technique is known as defamiliarization.

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A central technique of Russian Formalism, which exercised a profound influence on modernism and with which Craig Raine is thoroughly familiar is that of defamiliarization. The theory of defamiliarization, expounded by Viktor Shklovsky in his essay "Art as Device," is that the objects you see every day become too familiar for you to appreciate them. This can be true at a profound emotional level: the woman you adored and scarcely dared to approach twenty years ago is now the wife you take completely for granted. However, it can also be true of simple material things. Windows, trees, fountain pens, and spoons are all remarkable objects when you stop to think about them, but do you ever stop to think about them?

"A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" uses the technique of defamiliarization to make you stop and think. Take the first two lines:

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings ...

It may not take long to work out that a Caxton is a book and its wings are pages, but in the time it takes you to realize this, the familiar has become unfamiliar. This may help you to appreciate what a marvelous thing a book (or, strictly speaking, a codex) really is.

Raine's poem has been influential enough to found a minor movement in British poetry, known as the Martian School, or sometimes as Martianism, a word which is an anagram of one of its other well-known exponents, Martin Amis.

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