I imagine that Craig Raine still receives visitors and students in his airy front parlour in New College Lane, Oxford, seated immediately beneath a strikingly realistic painting of Craig Raine seated in his airy front parlour in New College Lane, Oxford. It's a postmodern experience, gazing from the real writer to the framed one above, and suitably surreal too, since you're in conversation with the poet who invented 'Martian' poetry.*
In 1999, I was among fifteen or so students at Oxford who attended Craig Raine's yearly ‘poetry class’ that Trinity term. Once a week, we would meet at his place in New College Lane to discuss poets and poetry, a few of us adjourning afterwards to the college bar to continue our - often very lively! - discussions there. Sometimes Craig would come with us to the bar. He’s the sort of tutor who likes to mix with his students, to chat about poetry and perhaps influence some of them towards his way of thinking.
So what is Craig Raine’s way of thinking?
Well, his ‘Arts Tri-Quarterly’ magazine Areté may hold some clues, edited by CR with Deputy Editor Ann Pasternak Slater (his wife). Still being based in Oxford when the magazine was launched - around the millennium - I bought the first few issues and found them a difficult read, full of worthy but obscure articles on literary figures whose works I had yet to encounter. Last week, I sent off for a copy of the recently published Areté 22, with its smart red cover, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself not merely understanding it - in places, it has to be said - but enjoying it too.
There are quasi-comical pieces here, including an article ‘On Being a Film Star’ by Susan Hitch and a poem by John Fuller, ‘My Life on the Margins of Celebrity’, plus a poem extract (from a verse novel?) entitled ‘The Broken Word’ by Adam Foulds, which is so lengthy it would have taken me several hours to read. So I'm afraid that I've not yet attempted that. The whole book is due to be published by Cape in 2008.
There are also two hefty essays on contemporary poetry, one by Craig Raine, entitled ‘Little Big Man: The Poetry of Don Paterson’ and the other by Areté Assistant Editor, Adam Thirlwell: ‘On Bad Poetry: Daljit Nagra’. The magazine holds other delights - it covers Fiction, Poetry, Reportage and Reviews, over some 150 pages - but I will only be dealing with the two poetry articles here.
CR’s main objective - in his Paterson essay, at least - seems to be that of discomforting the reader. And not only the reader, but the poet under review, I should imagine, as the article contains such astringent observations on his poetry as the following, which comes after an unfavourable examination of his 1994 Arvon prize-winning poem ‘A Private Bottling’: ‘Worse than any of these specific flaws, though, is a general disposition to annex mystical territory, a grandiose pretence, a self-aggrandising weakness for talking things up. In a word, exaggeration, a kind of immodesty that relies on no one calling your bluff’.
When I first started to read Raine’s essay on Paterson, I certainly felt uncomfortable and was prepared to disagree with his findings before I had even read the whole article. Landing Light is among my favourite new(ish) collections at the moment, and I found many of Paterson’s observations in his 2004 TS Eliot Lecture, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’, highly apposite and credible. In that much, therefore, Paterson is a poet I trust.
But I soon found myself having to reassess my knee-jerk reaction to the icy bucket of water Raine throws over Paterson’s oeuvre. He isn’t so much indulging himself in critical vitriol as making some salient points about lazy writing and unintended humour in DP’s work. By the end of his essay, in fact, I had been brought to a point where I was able to agree with Raine on several points, even concerning some of Paterson’s better-known poems which I had previously admired. As you can imagine, having my own judgement challenged in this way was a difficult but salutary experience for me.
It’s important for poets - and poetry critics - to have scant respect for accepted wisdom, beliefs and authorities, and to rely instead on their own instincts when reading poetry. Craig Raine, in his role here as critic, is like the little boy in the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the one who refuses to go along with the charade, not because he has superior intelligence or keener eyesight than the rest, but because he has strong instincts and has not been cowed into ignoring them.
Correspondingly, his analysis of Don Paterson’s poetry is about exploding rather than exploring the man’s reputation. Let me be clear here. His essay is unnecessarily personal and is even guilty of wilfully missing the point on occasion in order to send up Paterson’s style - often hilariously. But that doesn’t mean CR is wrong on all counts. It just means he’s rude.
It becomes easy, when moving in particular circles on a regular basis, to fall into a pattern of responses to contemporary poetry which may not bear much resemblance to your earliest instincts as a reader. We call this process education, a useful by-product of reading a great deal of a certain sort of poetry and criticism, but it can also become indoctrination: one party imposing their beliefs on another, this latter usually less experienced and therefore more open to influence.
I consider myself open to influence on various levels, though far less than when I was just starting out in poetry. The most useful thing I learnt at Oxford was to question everything, regardless of appearances or reputation. This has bestowed on me a certain fearlessness on the one hand, but on the other a constantly shifting scale of literary values which can be confusing at times, liberating at others.
I enjoy Don Paterson’s poetry. At its best, it lifts and inspires me to write. But Craig Raine’s essay has shown me weaknesses in the work which had been obscured for me by that sense of enjoyment.
And since all things lead back to one’s own work - for poetry is the most self-obsessed literary form and poets the least interested in each other’s current work, beyond ambition or necessary politeness at parties - I am also indebted to Raine’s essay for highlighting weaknesses which exist in my own poetry too: ‘opaque syntax’, ‘sentimental and clumsy’, ‘verbal incompetence’, and even this sideways swipe at W.B. Yeats for similar crimes against poetry: ‘Padding, confusion, reprise. Usually in Yeats, the flaw is the separation of subject and predicate by unwieldy parenthesis. To be in such exalted company might cheer Paterson. It shouldn’t. A fault is a fault.’
But I'm not entirely swayed by CR's invective. There are a number of mistakes here, misreadings and misunderstandings. I don’t agree, for instance, that ‘the pearl sits knuckled in its silk’ in 'Letter to the Twins' is a poor description of a clitoris. CR may examine his own knobbly fingers at this point and fail to see the comparison, but let me assure him, a woman’s knuckles are not only far more petite, but an excited clitoris does protrude like a knuckle on a clenched fist. Not on the same size scale, of course, but enough to make the comparison allowable. Trust me, I’ve seen this.
: wicked smile:
And while it may seem a tenuous stretch to CR, if we use Paterson's own theory of a network of words and meanings suggested by the interplay of sounds within a word or line, the justification for 'knuckled' becomes stronger, reinforcing the sexual imagery here by hinting at: 'nuzzled, 'fucked', 'sucked' and, when taken in conjunction with 'silk' further along the line, even 'licked'. Craig Raine's own preference for the exact metaphor rather than the allusive, suggestive one hampers his ability to enjoy the range of Paterson's imagery here.
There are also flashes of delightful malice in this essay where I simply had to stop, read something out to my husband, and wipe my eyes before reading on. This, for instance, describing an unfortunately phrased line, again from Paterson’s poem, ‘Letter to The Twins’: ‘That last line is a minor miracle of ugliness. You want to take it to Lourdes.’
Overall then, an accomplished piece of critical thinking and sheer braggadocio from Craig Raine. Adam Thirlwell’s piece on Daljit Nagra’s debut collection, by contrast, is heavily defensive in tone and suffers from not really having understood the poet’s intentions. I’ve reviewed Look We Have Coming to Dover! myself, so have a fair grasp of the book’s style and contents, and I felt Thirlwell had decided on a theme for his essay first - in this case, ‘Bad Poetry’ - then tried to fit that theme to the collection in front of him, apparently oblivious to any mismatch.
There are also frequent bizarre echoes between Thirlwell’s phraseology and that of Craig Raine, as here when discussing ‘Bibi & the Street Car Wife!’: ‘I can ignore the hamfisted beefburgering: I can’t ignore the ugliness of these two lines’ (my italics). At another point, he uses exactly the same phrase Raine applies to one of Paterson’s poems in his own essay, describing Nagra’s work as ‘an allegory of deracination’. Thirlwell also throws the same complaints of ‘sentimentalism’ and ‘imprecision’ at the younger poet, complaining of similarly incompetent writing.
For Paterson’s extensive oeuvre to be attacked is fair enough. As an experienced poet with many accolades under his belt, he’s perfectly able to rebuff such critical attacks and probably expects them as a matter of course.
But to launch this entirely negative and thoroughly hostile 10 page rocket assault on a debut collection is, to my mind, unacceptable behaviour. To raise doubts may be a necessary thing, especially when a new poet has landed a contract with a publisher as internationally renowned as Faber. But it’s one thing to raise doubts and quite another to steamroller a debut collection into the ground.
This sort of nonsense smacks of vindictiveness and is in very poor taste. Besides which, it’s simply not effective criticism to pick at every line for its supposed obscurity - most of these poems are deliberately written in pidgin English, for god’s sake - and then end with a pronouncement as painfully sententious as ‘bad poetry is the mausoleum of language’. The same, I'm afraid, can be applied to bad criticism.
Not that I would use that particular phrase myself, bowdlerised from Baudelaire; I’d be too embarrassed.
* 'Martian' poetry is a phrase coined by James Fenton in a review of Craig Raine's first collection A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. It refers to a way of writing which assumes no prior knowledge of everyday items and so employs unusual and striking metaphors and other tropes to describe such objects, as though the narrator is a Martian. As an entertaining aside, Martianism is an anagram of Martin Amis, also known to have employed this peculiarly vivid writing style.