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)
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle