Maybe Poets Are, in Fact, Aliens
On Craig Raine and the Martian School of Poetry
Martians? Really? Yes, really. Once upon a time, you see, there was a poem called “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” (1979) by Craig Raine. The poem takes an old philosophical notion—describe X from the point of view of a visitor from Mars with no knowledge of the goings-on of earth—and breathes new life into it. Such an idea lay behind a good deal of popular as well as philosophical culture. The screwball comedies of the 1930s often relied upon the main character not understanding how, say, life in high society worked, a trope that found its final resting place in television’s The Beverly Hillbillies. The Clampetts may not have been from Mars, but in Beverly Hills, the Appalachian backwoods were a suitable substitute. Even earlier in the decade of Raine’s poem, Robin Williams mined the earthbound-spaceman trope for comic gold in Mork & Mindy. Raine’s gamble wasn’t that his concept was too far beyond readers but that it might seem less than exotic. Or compelling. In any case, no worries. The key to his success lies in the crispness of his Martian’s observations, and in the odd mix of worldliness and naiveté, as in the opening lines:
Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings—
they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.
There’s a bit of trickery here at the beginning: How does the spaceman not know the word “book” yet know Caxton, the man who brought the printing press to England? It is more than many of my students knew, so discovering that the wings were pages and the mystery items books frequently came as a complete surprise. Later, the Martian can say that “Rain is when the earth is television,” yet he doesn’t understand the telephone, a “haunted apparatus” that people talk back to sleep when it cries and yet sometimes awaken “by tickling with a finger.” Sketchy knowledge is sometimes a wonderful thing. Nor does he understand the purpose of a bathroom, which he believes is a place of punishment, given the noises people make there, noting that “everyone’s pain has a different smell,” perhaps the most thought-provoking description of defecation ever written.
Raine has no intention of making his Martian consistent. He is not a little green man, still less Marvin the Martian of Warner Bros. cartoon fame, but rather a conceit, a figure of dislocation and bemusement running through the poem. That’s why, in a poem that begins with incomprehension over books, he can close with metaphorical reading:
At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs
and read about themselves—
in colour, with their eyelids shut.
What really motivates Raine in the poem—in all his poems, really—is not space travel but defamiliarization. This is a term coined by Viktor Shklovsky in 1917 for a process we might call “making strange,” or taking commonplace elements of our experience and making them alien to us, as if we never saw them before.
There are many ways a poet may make things strange. One, obviously, is the Raine path: take familiar items and self-consciously make them alien to us. It’s a small school, but he is hardly the first nor the last. Membership in the actual “Martian School” was mostly limited to him and Christopher Reid, with a handful of ancillary figures. But we can go back to the Romantic era, to William Blake, who didn’t need to make things strange because he was strange. Most who know his name do so from “Tyger, tyger, burning bright, / In the forests of the night,” but he can go so much further than that. In his visionary and prophetic poems he can be nearly impenetrable even two hundred years later. Later avatars might include Edgar Lee Masters, whose Spoon River Anthology consists of dramatic monologues by the residents of the Spoon River Cemetery; the mostly French and Spanish adherents of surrealism, which got strange pretty fast, but also American poets influenced by surrealism such as Robert Bly and John Ashbery, as well as Deep Image poets such as Diane Wakoski and Clayton Eshleman, and Ted Hughes, whose nature is never warm and fuzzy.
In general, this defamiliarization splits in two main ways: seeing things differently and saying things differently. Both paths are legitimate responses to Ezra Pound’s dictum, “Make it new.” Nor are they unrelated. Poets who would teach us to see anew must find language appropriate to that challenge. To go back to Raine, his Martian struggles for apt comparisons, having so few options. Mars evidently has birds, for instance, but no books, television but not rain, dreams but not sleep. Hey, it could happen. What always matters in the “magical alien” narrative is that the outlander knows just enough about what he sees to be able to comment, but never so much as to understand the things he comments on.
“So here’s the question: Faced with this calamity, how does one write the next poem? How many ways can you say, ‘My thoughts have all dried up’?”
“Saying things differently” may sound redundant: Who among us wishes for more literature that states things exactly as they have always been stated? Exactly right. But this aspect of making it new encompasses a sizable range of activities. At the micro level, it can simply mean finding new arrangements of words that are specific to the individual poet’s immediate task. There may be only so many ways to speak of being in love, but that doesn’t stop songwriters from trying to get beyond “moon”-“spoon”-“June” rhymes—even when they use them—to find unique ways of expressing that love. The 18th-century poet Alexander Pope said of “true wit” that it involved saying “what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d,” meaning that it dresses commonplace thoughts up in unique garments. That’s not our understanding of wit, which generally involves being funny (something to which he was not opposed), but it covers our discussion of poetic originality pretty well. Wallace Stevens would be a modernist inheritor of the Pope mentality. At the end of “The Man on the Dump” he asks the question, “Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the,” thereby becoming possibly the first poet to end a poem with “the,” and certainly the only one to end with two. This is almost a perfect illustration of that definition of wit: even if we have considered the importance of the definite article relative to “truth,” we almost certainly have never thought of abstracting the “the” out as Stevens does. That last line typically prompts a moment of befuddlement followed by another of illumination.
Consider, for instance, the problem of running out of fresh ideas. This situation is the source of nightmares for all sorts of creative types—artists, writers, performers, directors, teachers—for whom the terror lies in the possibility that their last inspiration may already be behind them. But it may apply as well to nearly everyone whose thoughts seem to have dried up, who may be left with nothing to say but a litany of worn-out expressions. So here’s the question: Faced with this calamity, how does one write the next poem? How many ways can you say, “My thoughts have all dried up”? And the answer is, one more. For the elderly William Butler Yeats, tired and ill and intellectually stymied, the period of stagnation led to a startling image, that of himself as a ringmaster accustomed to marshaling his images, which were so many trained performers, around the circus ring. What came of that image was “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” one of his greatest late poems:
I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
That’s the first stanza, written in ottava rima, that gift to poetry from Giovanni Boccaccio, just to show that he’d lost none of his mastery of form, even if ideas had given him the slip. The rhyme scheme is pretty easy, the first six lines interlocking ababab and the last two forming a couplet, cc, and it had been around for about six centuries when Yeats used it. Here, he lays out his problem succinctly in the first two lines, that he had spent six weeks searching in vain for “a theme” or, in other words, a poem to write. This is a recent development, he says; until old age wrecked his abilities, his “circus animals,” which he sketches in the last two lines, “were all on show.”
In the next three stanzas of this three-part ode (although he avoids the term), he specifies the highlights of his career, from his early play The Countess Cathleen to his various uses of the mythic Irish hero Cuchulain, concluding with a remarkable statement, “Players and painted stage took all my love, / And not those things that they were emblems of.” That confession, so stated, brings us up short: the poet so caught up with his art that for him real life was never quite real. It is at once somewhat shocking and inevitable; of course, we think, and how terrible. And with it, he gives us the liberating example that even great poets end sentences with prepositions.
In the third section of the poem, like the first a single stanza, he considers the source of that vast array of images and characters that propelled his career. Where did they come from? he asks, deciding that they emanate from decidedly unlofty materials, “A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, / Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut / Who keeps the till.” In other words, the detritus of life from broken pots to crazy people in shops, with a special emphasis on items that can be recycled. The metal objects were sold on to be melted down and recast, while bones went into the manufacture of soap and rags into paper. We have forgotten in the contemporary world that the rag-and-bone man was a regular fixture of cities a century earlier. Poets, this poet says, are also rag-and-bone men, scraping together the discarded, the unwanted, the unloved to make not soap or paper but art. An intriguing notion in itself, it leads to a closing image that is astonishing. “Now that my ladder’s gone,” he writes, “I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Nothing—not the desolate tone nor the images of despair—has prepared us for this statement. Aspiring to rise high (the ladder), the poet must instead lie down among the trash and debris, which moreover is not that of the world but of the heart. I had never pictured the heart as housing that particular chamber. Reading it the first time, I needed a while to process all that the image offered. Generations of students taught me that my response was far from unique; we’re never quite ready for the genuinely original when it appears. After all, where was it we first heard of the truth?
From How to Read Poetry Like a Professor: A Quippy and Sonorous Guide to Verse. Used with permission of Harper Perennial and HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas C. Foster.