the eye in love

Craig Raine - How Snow Falls

Raine prizes the ugly, the deformed, the unpoetic – regarded often in their metaphysical aspect – over the inane, self-complacent suavities of a certain metropolitan literary culture. And this stance has proven to be the defining quality of most of his output: a democratising vision, a narrow-eyed rejection of the Parnassian mode. He submits the body to scrutiny with a watchmaker's loup – is hospitable in his poetry to its pitted imperfection, its oils and flaws. But it seems like rote performance, more often than not: a trick, a bit of verbal legerdemain. Of discursiveness there's very little, and a typical Raine poem abstains from the nervy self-justification that clots the line of other poets – each is an ideogram, the self-consuming artefact that is its own argument. His 'Martianism' has always secretly sought to deflect and discomfit criticism. A poem's thisness must have the ungainsayability of an object, of a material fact that you can no more unpack than a toadstool. The celebrated early poem, 'A Martian Sends a Postcard Home', arrests Raine in the fixative of achieved style:

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings,
and some are treasured for their markings -

Such effects require a certain succession of readerly readjustments, so fine as, when we 'get' it, quickly become imperceptible – like learning to juggle, the difficulties of the outset vanish into virtuosity. (We're not to be detained over the question of how the Martian availed itself of the cultural-historical datum of 'Caxton' as in the inventor of the book, while he is unaware of the lexical one of 'book' – the periphrasis tends to disintegrate if we examine it too closely.) Raine's miniaturism is underwritten by a kind of exultant attentiveness to the unremarked blebs and flecks on the surface of the world. Like his admired John Updike, whose hyperthrophied noticings make for an art bristling with contingent stuff, Raine suggests our blockish automatism – and insensitivity to the phenomenal world in which we find ourselves – has an implied ethical dimension. “I am the steward/of her untold wealth,” he has it in the poem 'Rich', with 'she' as Nature, perhaps, “keeper of the dictionary,/treasurer of valuables,//accountant and teller,/and I woo her with words/against the day of divorce.” This view of the matter might be unexceptionable – but when it appears to license Raine to document the private humiliations of family and friends (notably in his elegies to his mother and former lover Kitty Mrosovsky), and to, in effect, ransack intimacy for creative capital, the high-minded pungency of his position errs dramatically into the grotesque. The long poem À la récherche du temps perdu, republished in How Snow Falls (and book-ending the poem about Raine's mother's death), overbrims with illicit life, wrought in a fit of dislike, bafflement and tenderness. But critics (among them Sarah Maguire) found its openness cynical and, yes, rather ugly. It is a catalogue raisonnée of human suffering – but it's free inventorying of the dead woman's body, her sexual exploits, raised hackles. (The squeamishness was rehearsed a generation before, when Robert Lowell composed a poetry collection from the private papers of friends and lovers.) Raine would doubtless insist that there's no sense in glozing the parts of life we find disagreeable. And would endorse Auden's opinion that, although we want a poem to be 'a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play,' we also want it “..to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like, and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.” And yet, and yet. There's something to be said for reticence.

Against the day of divorce: in a phrase, the nub of Raine's salvatory aesthetic, never so flatly stated, but informing his poetry and extenuating maybe the distressing candour of the poetry dealing with the death of loved ones. Each image, each line granted its specific weight is a refusal of death's wholesale erasure – to be dead is to no longer to feel in our nerves and sinews and on our skin the vibrant presence of the world (Raine's work an extended palinode to Larkin's 'Aubade'); and, cumulatively, what we have in the end is a secular prayer to the superabundance of life, its interrelatedness, the gap between perceiving subject and the object perceived roundly abolished. It's a natural theology, tricked out with mild scepticism, but happy to countenance the shabby unfinishedness of things and our humbling belatedness.

The early poetry drew its vigour and interest from the stylistic kinks that Raine tosses up, where he'd gone some way to rehabilitate the simile – no longer ineffectually decorative, but a device that stood for a particular way of engaging with the world. And what's notable about his output as a whole is that this deft jugglery has remained its chief characteristic. Formal experiment interests Raine very little: technical élan has never been part of his repertoire; and the triplets and clipped quatrains that are like so many pendants to his ways of seeing reoccur from start to finish. Not minimalism – not the wire-drawn brevities of the postwar Eastern European poets - but a dedication to a kind of obsessive poetic microscopy. Language as a tweezer, plucking out details like so many ingrown hairs. Once in a while Raine lays out the principles of his own art, and the art he especially admires: “Good writing is a criticism of life: it describes, selects, contemplates defining features, beauties, flaws; it puts reality on pause; it searches the freeze frame; it is an act of measured consideration, of accurate re-presentation.” Italicized reality, as he has it. Yet the question of what such a pause can yield in terms of meaning and significance – whether the hors texte can finally instruct us in anything at all, even if put under the fiercest scrutiny – dogs Raine's poetry. A cow sipping from a pond, “..her snooker table, torn,/where only one player/attends to a solitary red.” - what licences Raine to this figurative fancy, that seems no more telling than a metaphorical scribble? Once we 'see' that the player is an angler, what then? If it seems a mite inconsequential, that's because it is.

How Snow Falls is Raine's first collection in a long while – À la récherche was published in stand-alone book format a decade ago. (A poet's parsimony usually hints at the expectation that a new volume will be an 'event'.) The title poem rehearses the fractured imagism of his recent work, the sensuous dédoublement between natural phenomena and the state of the soul: “And then love's vertigo,/love's exactitude,//this snow, this transfiguration,/we never quite get over.” The 'exactitude' comprises precision of observation and feeling – our gift of registering the impalpable and making it articulate, something that can usefully be passed from hand to hand. Yet 'How Snow Falls' is unusually blurred for a Raine poem. Its verbal singularity is undercut by the uncertainty of its occasion. Elliptical, undemonstrative, it seems to claim its metaphysical cachet without earning it first. Raine wants to record a moment of vision, but some scruple turns him from it.

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