Craig Raine: love is stronger than spite

In his first collection of poetry for a decade, How Snow Falls, the poet exhibits a sensitivity at odds with his brusque public persona.

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How Snow Falls
Craig Raine

Atlantic Books

Craig Raine is that rare thing: a reader's poet. He has offended enough people to put him in the unique position of publishing contemporary poetry which must be predominantly read by non-poets. The literary climate of the UK was not always thus, but fellow writers will only put up with the enfant terrible shtick for so long. In the late 1970s Raine's movement, Martianism, emerged as a vibrant, rejuvenating force, as popuar and populist as Auden; as ambitious and inventive as, well, early Auden.

A clique which formed around the New Statesman, Raine, James Fenton, Christopher Reid, Clive James being the surviving names - Martianism (an anagram of Martin Amis, another contemporary) is very close to Symbolism in its effects, being, in Mallarmé's words, the art of describing an object "little by little so as to evoke a mood [through] a series of decipherings". Those "decipherings" are simply the metaphors and similes we're taught about in primary school, the nuance is in their deployment towards atmosphere or precision. If a Symbolist would praise the mood evoked by Eliot's horizon "like a patient etherised upon a table", a Martianist might question its visual accuracy.

All movements are hubristic, but any poetry worth attention will earn it through the dual aptness and originality of its imagery, and Raine et al were responding to a lack of vitality, wit and primacy of the analogy as the soul of good poetry in the literary scene they were to enter. It is a testament to their success that Raine's A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (in which a telephone is "a haunted apparatus […] If the ghost cries, they carry it / to their lips and soothe it to sleep") is still used on more or less every contemporary poetry and creative writing course in the country, even the ones taught by people he's directly insulted.

Raine seems to wilfully cultivate the persona of a grudgeful bully, faithful to his worst impulses as if it were a matter of principle. This makes his criticism enormously entertaining and largely ad hominem. His first novel, Heartbreak, was published earlier this year to one of the most systematic literary ambushes I've ever seen. Reading How Snow Falls I was given personal reason to Raine-bash when, apropos of nothing, a former tutor and friend of mine is ridiculed, mid-poem, for his "high table prose" - a barb that feels a bit rich coming from a poet whose milieu is the sherry reception, the ski slope, the don's study.

This is his first collection of poetry in 10 years, but Raine has been by no means inactive. On top of the novel he has been editing the journal Areté and also mentored Adam Foulds, whose long poem from 2009, The Broken Word, set in the 1950s during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, was one of the finest collections of recent memory and bears Raine's influence in its style if not its content. How Snow Falls finds Raine in typically familial territory - the same children he wrote about in History: The Home Movie are now grown up and, in On The Slopes witness their father sinking into a snowdrift after a fall: "And then it came to me: / that this is what my dying will be like. // A few feet away, close / yet in another country, / my children simply watching."

The long poem, I Remember My Mother Dying is devastatingly honest and all the more poignant for its ugliness. "Her nose got bigger. / Everything was coarser. / Under her eyes, the bags / were great wax seals, swags / on a medieval document." The poet admits to an odd but palpable instinct: "I wanted to wash my hands when I left her flat / as if I'd just been to the toilet." That same clarity - as emotionally engaged and icily detached as any writer - is manifest in the poet's monstrous brother who arrives drunk at 3am, shouting through the letterbox:

"I've brought you my mother's ashes"

The ineffectual, thirty-second thrashing

I gave him was a surprise to me.

I was hampered by my nudity.

The poem is written in couplets of full and half-rhyme and the cadence is often out: "so the decline could be reversed / if she was properly nursed" can only have the prosodically sensitive trying to read an extra syllable in "properly" or wondering whether "adequately nursed" would have been such a compromise. The form feels particularly distracting when detailing medical procedures: "We refused the offer of an endoscopy / as intrusive and unnecessary". This presumably deliberate hobbling of the rhythm through a breezy, casual rhyme scheme suggests a thematic parallel: at the most tragic, uniquely horrifying moments of your life, you will probably be surrounded by staff for whom every procedure, unto death itself, is workaday, routine. People who rhyme. Raine periodically uses the italicised refrain I remember throughout the poem, bringing to mind the American Beat writer Joe Brainerd and, in common with Brainerd's memories, it's the small incidental details that Raine uses to the most striking effect:

And I remember
that the numbers on the key-pad
on the pay-phone just outside the ward
were gone, blank as a bar of chocolate…

Rashomon, Raine's libretto based on Kurosawa's 1950 film (itself based on Akutagawa's short story In a Bamboo Grove) is likewise remarkable for its strong analogies: "Struck, the dagger went out like a light" is a good day's work by anyone's standards. As well as the openly intertextual there are "versions" (read slightly amended translations) of Boris Pasternak and Willem Van Toorn, which are very fine poems indeed, but I rather wanted Raine to be the only contemporary poet who wasn't supplementing his own volumes with great works by other people.

There is a great sensitivity in many of these poems, a loyalty to friends and loved ones more fierce than the poet's spite for his enemies, and an elegiac gentleness which is only heightened by his unremitting honesty. However, "the morality of art is its accuracy" as Raine reminds us, and a snide, superior tone threatens to overwhelm the whole book.

High Table, a fitfully inspired upstairs-downstairs pastiche, is the collection's second long poem. It concerns a dinner at Peterhouse College, with its drunken president, a ludicrous young English lecturer, whose jewellery and grooming "signals / one unpedantic pedagogue, / unpredictable, exciting, young."; a nobel-laureate geneticist and a music fellow (on crutches), along with various other authors and scientists whose conversation makes something of a mockery of cross-disciplinary studies. All of the "servants" are skint grad students writing their doctorates on Wittgenstein, etc. The dialogue is witty, sharp and so knowing it becomes wearying, as is the sense that we're to feel simultaneously in awe of and superior to the intellectual caste depicted in the off hours for almost 40 pages.

The whimsical prose poem 51 Ways to Lose a Balloon is a lovely piece of process-writing, closer to the poetic techniques of American poetry (late 20th century up to the McSweeney's crowd) than British. "Here is your balloon. Heart-shaped, hard with helium, filled from an iron cigar. It has more creases than your baby sisters arm."

Highlights include: "3. The string of your balloon feels like the light-string in the lavatory so you pull it once and let go …"

"11. You are writing your name on your balloon when the nib goes through …"

"36. There's a friendly dog in the street who jumps at your face like someone playing netball."

In spite of the winsome lyricism, and as fun as this is, I couldn't help but suspect that Raine must either be ragging on 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem or mocking lightness of touch in poetry per se.

The collection's final, longest piece, A la recherche du temps perdu concerns Raine's affair with an academic and translator who died of Aids at the age of 50 in 1995. There are some graphically sexual images in this poem, but the academic jealousy and social observations are no less candid - the anecdote-envy, the book-envy.

Raine's lover sees a new critical tome on Walter Pater in Blackwells: "You phoned. You'd wept all day. / You came and wept in the V&A". On the whole the verse bears out its own contention "Details that make you cringe / will make the reader see" (and cringe with you, sometimes). Raine works the meta-fictional angle well as he stands in the crematorium: "Sinews shrink from the flames. / Sinews shrink in the flames. / I sentimentalize / and then revise," Along with this writerly awareness a thoroughly welcome self-deprecation creeps in; her father "called me 'the gutter-snipe' / (years later: he'd forgotten my name) / and frightened the young Michael Frayn / who was keen on another daughter."

The insistence on writing in near-doggerell is baffling, the name-dropping tiresome, but if you've admired Raine's work in the past you'll be reading this book more for the moments of crystalline visual brilliance, the moments that make you jealous. "Ski lifts tireless as a trail of ants. / Then stopped, / a charm bracelet" from Davos Documentary B&W; the ship passing a waterside house in Venice:

Twice a day - usually 6 in the morning,
or 6 in the evening -
the house has a heart attack:
a liner heading for the open sea,
blocking the view like a tower block.
Bang up to your eye.

I've never really asked for anything more than that from a poem. In one of his last interviews, Saul Bellow cited a fear that the literary interview, and literary culture in general, was becoming increasingly puerile, as wont to ask after the writer's marriage as his or her work. Martin Amis has recently left the country for the relatively respectful shores of the US - exile by media. It is a shame that we seem determined to treat our writers as the characters in a celebrity gossip magazine, and a shame when the work seems to invite this, but the personality of the writer should never overshadow what they're doing right, even when they seem hell-bent on just that.

Luke Kennard's third poetry collection, The Migraine Hotel, is published by Salt.