A Martian School of two or more
- A Martian sends a postcard home by Craig Raine
Oxford, 46 pp, £2.95, ISBN 0 00 000097 3
- Arcadia by Christopher Reid
Oxford, 50 pp, £2.75, ISBN 0 00 000097 3
- Love-Life by Hugo Williams
Whizzard Press/Deutsch, 40 pp, £2.95, ISBN 0 00 000097 3
- A Faust Book by D.J. Enright
Oxford, 70 pp, £3.25, September 1979, ISBN 0 19 211895 1
- Time by Yehuda Amichai
Oxford, 88 pp, £3.50, ISBN 0 00 000097 3
Craig Raine’s second collection follows swiftly upon his first, The Onion, Memory (1978). It is as if the poet had been waiting impatiently over us, while we picked ourselves up off the canvas, before delivering the second blow. A Martian sends a postcard home is a slimmer volume than its predecessor, but it will do more than simply consolidate a reputation already made. It takes us a definite step further. In the words of Raine himself:
Vol. 2 No. 1 · 24 January 1980
From Terrence Des Pres
SIR: Mr James Fenton’s review (LRB, 6 December 1979) is the worst single piece of reviewing I have seen in a serious journal. By chance I had already read four of the five volumes under review, and I therefore knew that Mr Fenton had great diversity and richness at his disposal – and dispose he certainly did. But if I had not read these poets, I would still have known that Mr Fenton’s review was cheap in its praise, insensitive in its observations and wilfully biased (even Mr Fenton must know that in a review length is judgment) to a degree shameful to see, shameful to share.
I have not read Hugo Williams’s new book and so cannot comment, but along with the volumes by Raine and Christopher Reid. I read with delight and lasting pleasure D.J. Enright’s A Faust Book and Yehuda Amichai’s Time. In Amichai’s case, Mr Fenton is dealing with a world reputation, a poet who has produced astonishing poems. If, therefore, Mr Fenton actually does find Amichai’s new collection vapid, he must say how this is so, and more particularly, give some account of how the new poetry falls short of past excellence. Instead, Mr Fenton gives us one very brief paragraph, in which the only thing approaching description or judgment is Mr Fenton’s claim that Amichai is a fool.
But surely the meanest distortion is Mr Fenton’s treatment of D.J. Enright’s A Faust Book. This volume is in fact a small masterpiece of its kind, a vigorous revival of wit, punning and allusion, of language working by turns as gesture, as farce, as tonal dance, in the finest British tradition. To make the Faust legend come alive, to capture its gravity through comic means, to use Marlowe and Goethe as sounding-boards for satire upon just the sort of literary intelligence Mr Fenton represents – all this comes across with wonderful ease and authority. And to have done this by making Mephistopheles the dominant voice – cynical, playful, perverse, witty amid lapses of bleakest honesty – is surely the correct angle of vision for a time as askew as our own.
Both quotations supplied by Mr Fenton come from the same page of A Faust Book, a fact Mr Fenton conceals, in order not to have to say why such disparate forms are directly linked. He would also have to remark that the poem is a narrative, in which different parts (poems) are spoken by different voices at different dramatic moments. Rather, he faults A Faust Book for being a sequence of the kind written ‘by people who have not solved the problem of how to write a long poem’ – as if Shakespeare were less the poet for hanging his verse on stories, or as if the capacity to reconfirm one of our central myths by sheer flexibility of form were less than the marvellous accomplishment it is. And when, finally, Mr Fenton condemns Enright because he ‘punctuates as he pleases’, Mr Fenton is being more than picky. He is ignorant and someone should inform him that poets do indeed punctuate as they please.
Terrence Des Pres