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.

(2013: Getty Images)
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496