When the Martians landed

From the archives: Craig Raine and the birth of Martian poetry.

During the late 1970s the New Statesman hosted a small but influential revolution in poetry. 1977’s arable final issue bore three new poems from Craig Raine: A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, The Fair in St. Giles and Karma. These poems are flush enactments of ‘defamiliarisation’; that is, poetic language which ‘re-sees’ the world by finding fresh ways to describe it. A kind of pitch-perfect atonality marks the demented Imagism of Raine’s poems. And they are both delighted and disdainful, at once offering ludic pleasure while scalding used thinking and standardised writing (what Martin Amis called “clichés of the pen...clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart”). In defiance of such things, here, from A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, is 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.

And a few couplets later, the Martian reports an odd ritual:

      Only the young are allowed to suffer
      openly. Adults go to a punishment room

      with water but nothing to eat.
      They lock the door and suffer the noises

      alone. No one is exempt
      and everyone's pain has a different smell.

Followed by the Martian’s interpretation of the strange things we humans call sleeping and dreaming:

      At night, when all the colours die,
      they hide in pairs

      and read about themselves --
      in colour, with their eyelids shut.

Raine wishes to make land-fill of recycled language (and he's been dumping for years: while editing Ian McEwan's manuscripts he would scribble FLF ("flickering log fires") whenever he came across a cliché). There is a pedagogical edge to this poem too, as if Raine is demonstrating what can be done, and presenting a prototype. But there is more than cold technique (if technique is ever cold) in these sympathetic, affectionate poems. As Andrew Motion wrote in a 1979 edition of the New Statesman, Raine’s metaphors are “a method of realising and releasing emotion...Poem after poem registers a deep affection for what he sees”. “His way of looking,” Motion concludes, “is also a way of baring his heart.”

The Fair in St. Giles and Karma, which are free from the exemplary bent of the Postcard, contain carnal grotesqueries, like a stripper who sports “a bird’s nest under each arm”, and a soliloquising man dressed in black whose “nose [is] a terrible thimble”. Karma’s pastoral scene is animated and impishly mobilised:

      Rubbish smokes at the end of the garden

      cracking its knuckles to pass the time.

 

      ...and a naughty wind has blown

      the dress of each tulip

      over its head.

In October 1978 James Fenton, then editorial assistant of the New Statesman, judged its Prudence Farmer poetry award. Fenton entitled his article “Of the Martian School”, thereby giving the movement its name. He wrote that the only dilemma he faced was which of Raine’s poems to choose. The style, evident also in his journalism, was too marked to ignore:

Mr Raine's penchant for the outrageous image can create some startlingly repulsive effects...I often wonder what it must be like to be Mrs Raine, whose lying-in was described by her husband in unloving detail. At one moment, readers of the Sunday Times were told, 'her anus repuckered like an Italian tomato’. How does one face the neighbours after that?

The rejuvenating clarity of Raine’s poems amounted to an attack, Fenton argued, on one of the prime failings of contemporary poetry; which he deemed to be

the deliberate mystification of the reader. Mr Raine's poems are complex. They demand a second and third reading. But they do reward the reader. The puzzles are there to be solved, solved with pleasure. 

But there is more to them than this. Where R.S. Thomas had a social prerogative and Douglas Dunn exhibited a sense of alienation, Raine developed,

the phenomenological style. By this I mean that the poet, during the contemplation of his subject, deliberately rejects certain modes of consciousness. The only activity is that of free contemplation, without ulterior motive, eager if anything for the most improbable discoveries.

Fenton chose Christopher Reid’s Baldanders for the second prize. Another Martianist (who, at the judgment of Peter Conrad, pipped Raine to the 1980 prize), his poem compares a weightlifter’s stomach, held in “the hammock of his leotard” to “a melon wedged in a shopping bag”.

The Martian school has direct (though under-explored) ancestors. Nabokov is one, who as Stuart Hampshire wrote in a 1964 edition of the New Statesman, “pecks at nature, like a peacock” under the edict not of “‘only connect’ but ‘only distinguish’”. T.E. Hulme is another forebear. Above the Dock sees with an innocent eye (not unlike a Martian’s):

      Above the quiet dock in mid night,
      Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height,
      Hangs the moon. What seemed so far away
      Is but a child’s balloon, forgotten after play
.

And the school has bred considerable influence of its own since its flowering among the New Statesman’s leaves. Marti[a]n Amis championed it and took its principles to prose. In Other People flies are "armoured survivalists with gas-mask faces" and the sun streams through "colander clouds". Clouds become something quite different in Money, befalling a similar comparison, through the eyes of jocund John Self, to Raine’s Italian tomato. A Martian tremor might even have reached Alan Hollinghurst. James Wood, who like Oscar Wilde is never wrong, noted “the power of re-description” in Hollinghurst’s prose. He does not rely wholly on sparkling metaphors, but packs language, paradox and sound into almost unnatural distinctness, “goading”, as Wood puts it, “all the words in his sentences—nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs—into a stealthy equality”.

Fenton wrote that the Martian School ought to be noticed, for in Craig Raine and Christopher Reid it “enrolled two of the best poets writing in English”. How satisfying that it landed its craft in the New Statesman.

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Why defeating Islamic State means taking on the digital caliphate

A new book by Liam Byrne explains that the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism.

The terrorist group Islamic State caught the world by surprise in June 2014 when it declared a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Within a few months, like an avenging fire, it had scorched across Syria and much of Iraq, carving out an empire stretching more than 400 miles from Aleppo to the Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek, which lies just 60 miles from the Iranian border.

IS, or Isis, or Da’esh, seemed unstoppable but it has now been pushed back, possibly decisively. Since 2014, it has lost an estimated 45,000 jihadists, as well as control of key towns and resources. Its enemies – Kurds, Iraqi troops and Shia militias – are in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and are advancing on the group’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa. But, as the Labour MP Liam Byrne points out in this timely book, the fight against Isis and its brutal ideology has many fronts. Isis is obsessed with controlling territory and creating a global caliphate. But it existed for many years without territory. With its war on the world going badly, its digital caliphate is becoming ever more important.

In his wide-ranging and discursive study, Byrne concentrates on what is perhaps the most significant fight of all: the “battle of ideas”. His journey has taken him to northern Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. He makes his most interesting discoveries, however, in his own constituency of Birmingham Hodge Hill, where Muslims boast the highest share of the population (52 per cent) of any area in the UK.

Byrne concludes that Isis and other jihadi groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are fundamentally heretical by nature. Essentially they are death cults, with as much relevance to most Muslims as David Koresh and Jim Jones had to “mainstream” Christians. Ironically, Isis claims to espouse the purest form of Islam, pursued in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, it believes that it has the power to excommunicate apostates, an act known as takfir, and the right to exterminate them. This has metastasised into genocide, as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and, above all, Muslims in the Middle East can attest.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group, which then called itself alQaeda, morphed with Saddam Hussein’s avowedly secular Ba’ath Party. In effect, this was the merger of a terrorist group and an embittered terror apparatus. The objective of Isis was to trigger conflict between Iraq’s Shia majority, which came to power after the invasion, and the Sunni minority, which had hitherto ruled the roost. The group’s global aim was to foment division between Muslims and everyone else.

Byrne believes the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism. It has bought in to a “clash of civilisations” doctrine that makes Islam the problem. In the UK, counter-extremism programmes such as Prevent are based on a “conveyor belt” theory that identifies religious conservatism as the trigger for radicalisation. But Byrne, citing security and academic sources, argues that anger and resentment, often engendered by a sense of marginalisation, are more powerful factors: “. . . the starting point for radicalisation may in fact be rage rather than religion”. Jihadists have often created their own version of Islam after conducting rudimentary research online; two Birmingham men convicted of fighting in Syria ordered copies of Islam for Dummies on Amazon before leaving for the front line.

We should – at the very least – recognise the true nature of the extremist threat we face. The US president-elect’s declared solutions to dealing with Isis include bombing “the shit out of ’em” and barring all Muslims from entering his country. Reason and rationality may seem in short supply these days, but they have a habit of returning once people tire of the dispiriting alternatives. In the meantime, we could do worse than reach for Byrne’s excellent, revealing and clear-sighted book.

Andrew Hosken is a BBC reporter and the author of “Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State” (Oneworld)

Black Flag Down: Counter-Extremism, Defeating Isis and Winning the Battle of Ideas by Liam Byrne is published by Biteback (258pp, £12.99​)

Liam Byrne and Michael Gove will discuss Isis, Islamist terror and the “battle of ideas” with the NS contributing writer Shiraz Maher on 12 December in London. To book tickets visit newstatesman.co.uk/events or call 020 3096 5789​

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage