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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Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge