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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era