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A Martian School of two or moreJames Fenton
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Vol. 1 No. 4 · 6 December 1979

A Martian School of two or more

James Fenton

1720 words
A Martian sends a postcard home 
by Craig Raine.
Oxford, 46 pp., £2.95
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Arcadia 
by Christopher Reid.
Oxford, 50 pp., £2.75
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Love-Life 
by Hugo Williams.
Whizzard Press/Deutsch, 40 pp., £2.95
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A Faust Book 
by D.J. Enright.
Oxford, 70 pp., £3.25, September 1979, 0 19 211895 1
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Time 
by Yehuda Amichai.
Oxford, 88 pp., £3.50
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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:

What single-minded brilliance,

what logic!
Not one of us can look away.

What could be called the Martian, or phenomenological, style pays particular attention to a level of perception in which the imagination is allowed to work freely, discovering new and surprising analogies, investing its experience with unusual and apparently inappropriate emotions. The simile is Raine’s favourite tool for this purpose, but it is quite wrong to conceive of these poems as being mere collections of striking similes or attention-grabbing images. There is nothing mere here. If the grocer from the first collection is seen offering the change with ‘his thumb crooked over the stigma’ and smiling ‘like a modest quattrocento Christ’, we are expected to retain the analogy beyond the moment of initial recognition. We must do so. We must give the tradesmen of Raine’s poems a place in his iconography, just as Christ has a place in the early painter’s.

The Martian is a happy invention, since he presents us with a series of highly suggestive misapprehensions. Entering a car, he is unable to distinguish between the motion of the car and that of the world outside – and so forth. But the Martian is always emotionally alert to his experience of the human condition: he watches the emotional effect of books upon the body, without having any conception of the contents of books. He observes:

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.

The form of this passage, when extracted from the poem, becomes recognisable as that of the Anglo-Saxon riddle, an appropriately Oxford influence. And yet there is no trace of coy Here-be-dragons Tolkienery. Like all his influences, it has been properly assimilated.

It was the poem ‘In the Kalahari Desert’ which convinced me that Craig Raine, having invented his own style in his first book, had begun to extend its range and application to much more ambitious tasks. Here the poet tells a part of a story – whether fictional or not I do not know – in which two groups of missionaries are stuck in the desert. ‘The wilderness,’ says the poet, ‘was full of home.’ All the images of the poem consequently come from the place of origin. The head of their Zulu guide reminds Mrs Price of

her old pomander stuck with cloves,
forgotten in some pungent tallboy,

while a beetle on its back is reminiscent of the Hallé orchestra. Clearly, the missionaries come from Manchester. Their Zulu guide reads the Bible, replacing the words he does not know with ‘Manchester’, a word for which we imagine he has conceived an awed respect, having heard it so often from the lips of the missionaries. So, in his rendition:

Spikenard, alabaster, Leviticus,
were Manchester and Manchester.

In the space of not many lines, characters are introduced and killed off by the sun. The Prices are forced to retrace their steps, to find the remains of the Helmores and bury them.

‘In the beginning was the Word’ –
Roger read from Helmore’s Bible

found open at St John.
Isabella moved her lips,

‘The Word was Manchester.’
Shh, shh, the shovel said. Shh …

This final passage suggests many things: that Isabella will shortly crack up, that she is beginning to hate her mission, that the author intends an ironical comment on what it actually was that drove these missionaries to seek the desert and their death, or that there is something ineluctable in our origins, that the imaginative world in which we have grown up will stay with us, will draw closer, in extremity. I think this is a superb poem, as economical in its methods as it is suggestive, and broad, in its implications.

This is a good period for English poetry. Not only is there Raine. There is also Christopher Reid, whose work bears a sufficient similarity to that of Raine for one to talk of a Martian school. Arcadia, Reid’s first collection, is an elegant and original book whose virtues remind one of the world of painting. It is not surprising that Matisse is mentioned, or that an idea for a poem is attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec. So far as poetry is concerned, I guess that one influence would be the Wallace Stevens of ‘Sunday Morning’: the book certainly has a Sunday morning feeling to it, like a late breakfast consumed at leisure. Here are bright colours and bold designs, as if a lesson has been learned (as indeed the Post-Impressionists did learn) from the art of children: houses are lovingly ‘Battenburged with windows’ while their occupants contrive to greet us ‘with smiles like black bananas’.

I wish Reid had not given the title ‘Strange Vibes’ to one of my favourite poems in this book – a title which, together with the odd touch elsewhere, suggests a certain striving for Americanism. The poem itself, however, displays a geniality of mood which I take to be Reid’s especial gift to poetry:

That seven-octave smile, those ten
chomping cigars, one with a golden band;

nicotined eyes, and someone’s squiggly hookah,
fendered in levers, wheezing the blues;

those three hypodermics pumping in a row;
men groaning and swooning: well, it all went to
                      show

we’d stumbled by chance on an opium-den.
Only the front man kept his cool,

stiff as a waiter and stooping to lay
such infinite knives and forks on a dazzling
                      table.

I love the unshockable tone of that ‘Well, it all went to show …’ And I find the whole awkward situation charmingly conceived. Where exactly we are, or why we are here, I have no clue – but this disorientation is part of the pleasure of following Reid around his self-created world.

Hugo Williams’s Love-Life leaves much to be desired, like most people’s. I like the look of the book, and the illustrations by Jessica Gwynne. Williams himself writes the sort of poetry for which people used to be horribly ragged in horrible schools – that is to say, he is not afraid to be frankly soppy.

My voice breaks
And I know it must be time
To pour out my heart to you again.

Note that the first two lines belong properly together as an iambic pentameter, of the model: ‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains …’ This is the trouble I have with a lot of poetry emanating from The Review. It looks like fragments of an antique poet. A few ingenious emendations, and the original can be put together. The remainder of the poem quoted above reads:

Believe me,
I would like to make you cry
This once,
But you smile encouragingly,
Prepared to understand.

And thus we reach an eight-line poem. But I imagine that a future scholar will deduce compositorial errors here, and rewrite:

My voice breaks, and I know it must be time
To pour my troubles out to you again.
Believe me, I would like to make you cry
This once, but you, prepared to understand …

Tee-tum, tee-tum. Poetry should not make one itch for a blue pencil in this way.

D.J. Enright’s A Faust Book comes with a recommendation from the Poetry Book Society. For my part, I have always found Enright’s sense of humour, as revealed in his poetry, to be feeble. This time round – well, listen:

Oi recken tis a hurenhaus, no good Christchin as all they skivvies ter do is biddin – Baint is biddin they does, tis is beddin – Oi eard tell thikky rum kerl, im that looks loike a yard o pumpenwasser, do be a flittermaus or vampir – From oly roman vampire eh? ha ha – Meister sends that dirne Gretchen ter fetch the brötchen, bäcker’s boy won’t go there no more, not after a uge black pudel made a uge black puddle on im – Bäcker’s boy be off is loaf anyroads …

It reminds one of that well-known phenomenon, the production of A Shoemaker’s Holiday in which the actors desperately split their sides with laughter while the audience sits pofaced and unresponsive. Ah, but isn’t that what Enright is parodying? Perhaps so – but an unfunny parody of an unfunny original …

The form of A Faust Book, the sequence of short poems, is one currently favoured by people who have not solved the problem of how to write a long poem. This doesn’t matter in itself, but it happens that Enright is indulgent in all formal respects. Consider this:

Gretchen has a large soul and small breasts
Meretrix, great big breasts and a tiny soul
Breasts are of this world: Faust loves them
Faust loves not souls, especially large ones.

That is the whole poem, and the reader can judge for himself whether it has any point. My question is a minor one: what about the punctuation? Why is it missing at the end of the lines? There is no system in this. Enright punctuates as he pleases, with the same aimlessness or vanity which leads him to pass off tentative jottings as whole poems.

Yehuda Amichai, ‘Israel’s foremost poet’, roped in Ted Hughes in order to help with the translation of his vapid collection, Time. Was the idea that Hughes should make sure that Amichai avoided making a fool of himself? If so, what about the following?

I lay in the dry grass, on my back,
I saw high summer clouds in the sky,
motionless, like me below.
Rain in another land, peace in my heart.
And from my penis white seeds will fly
as from a dandelion tuft.
(Come, blow: poof, poof.)

The reviewer in the last New York Review of Books said that Amichai’s poetry filled him with wonder. Me too.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

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Letters

Vol. 2 No. 1 · 24 January 1980

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
London NW8

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