How Snow Falls, Craig Raine, Atlantic Books, 176pp, £14.99 (hardback)
Since arriving on the literary scene in the late 1970s, like a poetic dandy in a sea of confirmed English ironists, Craig Raine has continued to divide critical opinion. A poet of the transformative eye, and one clearly gifted in sexing-up similes and metaphors, early Raine was also fingered by some unbelievers as a rather heartless poetic aesthete and literary show- off. Lawrence Sail, reviewing Raine’s debut, The Onion, Memory (OUP, 1978), in Poetry Review, verbalised some of the initial critical disquiet: ‘The reader may wonder uneasily whether, in this book, the total is less than the sum of its parts – a poet accumulating power without quite knowing what to do with it.’ But there was no doubting Raine’s abundant visual skills, as evidenced in the opening couplet of ‘The Butcher’, the first poem in his first collection:
Surrounded by sausages, the butcher stands
smoking a pencil like Isambard Kingdom Brunel…
Reviewing the same volume in The New Review, the poet’s former student, Christopher Reid, highlighted a central feature of Raine’s work as ‘this urge to recreate, to make present once more’. Reid was later co-opted into a much-publicised but rather narrow poetic school christened ‘Martianism’ by Raine’s literary friend, James Fenton, in the New Statesman in October 1978. The moniker was ultimately counterproductive. It saddled Raine with the ‘Martian’ tag, and led to the early poetry often overshadowing consideration of his later – and often superior – work. John Carey’s dream review of Raine’s second collection, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (OUP, 1979), in the Sunday Times – ‘I can’t think of anyone else writing today whose every line is so unfailingly exciting’ – was a career- defining moment for Raine. His literary clout seemed to be confirmed when he was appointed poetry editor at Faber and Faber in 1981. But the doubts over his poetic worth – and value as a critic – have continued.
The most infamous hatchet job was delivered by poet Michael Hofmann in a full-page Observer review of Raine’s Collected Poems 1978-1999 (Picador, 2000). The fact that Hofmann was one of Raine’s first signings after the latter assumed the top job at Faber’s simply added spice to what amounted to a critical mugging. The younger poet slammed his former mentor’s verse as ‘small, mannered and barely comprehensible’. Stylistically, Hofmann found Raine’s reliance on simile and visual exuberance ‘completely worthless’, while blasting the Oxford don’s long poem, History: the Home Movie (1994) as ‘quite dreadful … It shows, if nothing else did, what a reductive and soulless commentary this type of writing is, and how repeatedly drawn to machinery and gourmandise and deformity’.
Some critics have been kinder. Sean O’Brien, for one, praised Raine’s adoption of a more astringent lyrical line in Clay: Whereabouts Unknown (1996), the book which seemed to find most critical favour among his more mature work. But as an occasionally spiky literary commentator Raine has acquired enemies. The knives were sharpened once again in 2010 when he published his début novel, Heartbreak. Old adversary and Marxist critic Terry Eagleton led the onslaught: ‘Craig Raine’s Heartbreak is a novel in the sense in which Eton is a school near Slough … [The] publishers have represented it as a novel, rather as Jedward are represented as singers.’
Fast-forward to Raine’s latest collection, How Snow Falls, and some critics still find the poet’s literary showiness hard to take. Paul Batchelor complained in The Times that for ‘all his dazzling effects, Raine conveys little emotional substance’. Meanwhile, Kate Kellaway in The Observer joins Batchelor in lamenting the poet’s kiss-and-tell poetic confessionalism when it comes to talking, in an overtly sexual manner, about how he removed hairs from his dying mother’s chin:
Every time a hair was plucked,
she sighed, almost like someone being slowly fucked.
For Batchelor, this is ‘wretched’, while Kellaway believes the reader at such junctures is cast in the role of ‘a shocked trespasser’, with Raine ‘taking liberties with the dead’. But it is also possible to see Raine’s embrace of sexual frankness, or even poetic ‘bad taste’, in his latest volume as part of a stylistic constant from his earliest Martian incarnation. Raine’s ars poetica values lyrical exactitude above all else, which means saying – to embellish Lowell – exactly what happened. Elegy is the dominant mode in How Snow Falls, as the poet seeks to bring the dead back to life; conventional literary ‘good taste’ is rarely part of the equation. As Raine explains at the conclusion of his audaciously-titled ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’, an elegy for a late lover, his ambitious lyrical intention is
To make you real.
To make you see, to make you feel,
to make you hear.
To make you here.
Charges of poetic heartlessness cannot easily be laid at the door of the new book’s central elegy, ‘I Remember My Mother Dying’. The recently retired Fellow in English at New College, Oxford, had an almost Lawrentian, working-class upbringing. Raine was born in the distinctly un-poetic Shildon, County Durham, the son of a spiritualist, prize-fighting father and slightly more bookish mother. The latter is lovingly but also bleakly memorialised in a series of sorrowful couplets:
‘You’re my protector.’
Too late, I put my arms too late around her.
But grief is leavened by Raine’s trademark poetic truth-telling, as he remembers his failing mother growing ‘ugly’ and ‘coarser’. Some readers and critics will feel Raine crosses some moral-literary boundary in pursuit of poetic veracity:
I wanted to wash my hands when I left her flat,
as if I’d just been to the toilet.
Poetic reticence, even at such autobiographically raw moments, is again given short shrift, Raine seeming almost to relish charges of insensitivity or plain crassness. (The poem is also notable for a truly frightening walk-on role by the poet’s hard-drinking and unloved brother.) Similar accusations could be levelled at ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’, published separately in 2000, whose intimate physical and sexual inventory of the poet’s dead ex-lover seems to embody Stendhal’s dictum about all the truth and pleasure of history being in the details.
Raine’s first book in a decade, How Snow Falls, is a bountiful helping of all the poet’s moods and manners – from the ludic, childlike recklessness of ‘51 Ways to Lose a Balloon’ to a sorrowing, almost Hamiltonian elegiac terseness (‘For Pat Kavanagh’ and the finely judged title poem), to a literally icy exploration of mortality (‘On the Slopes’). Overlong, certainly, and containing the occasional poetic dud (the academic bitchiness of ‘High Table’ is an unfortunate and extended longueur), the collection as a whole is evidence that – as Peter Porter remarked twenty-six years ago – Raine ‘is richly endowed … with the power to turn experience into new shapes’.