Words mean things, sir,” one of my old First Sergeants liked to say. This was his plea for carefully considered speech; he believed that words had great power and that a man was responsible for what he said. Craig Raine, in his new book on poetry, My Grandmother’s Glass Eye, makes the same case. “The first task we require of poetry,” he writes, “is to mean something” (his italics).
Here one is reminded of Matthew Arnold’s dictum that poetry should be concerned with “high seriousness” (we know Raine is a fan—a quotation of Arnold’s appears on the last page of every issue of Raine’s magazine, Areté). One also thinks of Saint Paul’s observation that “when I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” Maturity brings with it a new language, a language of seriousness and complexity. Is this the meaning Raine is after?
Certainly he expects great things from poetry. Raine says that it “puts the world in italics,” it “teaches the language to sing.” When constructed properly, verse sustains tremendous weight. Like a Roman victory column, a poem is there before the reader, intricate, enticing, monumental. It commands attention and rewards close inspection. Ted Hughes’s “New Year Exhilaration” is one such poem for Raine. Hughes describes the newness of an early January day through weather and landscape, “The river/ Thunders like a factory . . . the whole landscape/ Is imperilled, like a tarpaulin/ With the wind under it.” For Raine, the “counter-intuitive comparison of the river to a factory,” the mixture of the comedic and apocalyptic, all serve to create a “surge,” an “exhilaration.” The poem conjures real life.
“New Year Exhilaration” is also comprehensible. “We have no difficulty reading this poem,” Raine says, because its meaning is immediately grasped. This is not to say that something more “difficult” (Raine and T. S. Eliot’s word) is unwelcome. Indeed, much of Glass Eye is Raine leading us by the hand along tortured streets. Keats’s “Grecian Urn” is actually about a rape, for example, and Walt Whitman’s “The Torch” is not so much a light for fishing as “an emblem of consciousness.” Navigating this difficult terrain, Raine praises direct language, accuracy of description, and emotion. Such things are signposts toward meaning, allowing poems to function as pathways for shared contemplation, even a kind of shared experience.
Raine praises direct language, accuracy of description, and emotion.
This aspect of poetry explains the book’s title, which is taken from Elizabeth Bishop and discussed in the final section of the book. Bishop’s grandmother wore a prosthetic eye, a condition that reminded her of “the situation of the poet: the difficulty of combining the real with the decidedly unnatural; the curious effect that a poem produces of being as normal as sight and yet as synthetic, as artificial, as a glass eye” (her italics). Raine’s hunt for meaning is understood then as a hunt for a convincing fraud, a manufactured eye that, through its craftsmanship, appears just like the one beside it. And, for Raine, the way in which poetry approximates reality is through its most characteristic devices: rhythm, line breaks, lyricism, metaphor, and sub-text. More than cosmetic, these devices are part of the substance of a poem, and are the ways in which meaning is rendered.
In this we see the value of Raine’s contribution. Wordsworth, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, claimed that poetry is inspired by “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It was a way of coming to terms with the past, of subduing it. And, amidst the political upheavals of the Napoleonic Era, this was a much-needed literary power. Larkin developed this idea by describing poetry as a “verbal device,” a device that will “reproduce” a desired “emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it.” The poem was his sheet anchor, a way of holding fast to experience amidst the postmodern tide. Wordsworth sought to come to terms with the past—Larkin to incarnate it with language, to prevent its dissipation. In both cases memory was essential. The poet was experiencing and remembering. And in so doing he was building and protecting. Raine does more than repoint this wall because, while emotion and personal experience are important to him, his focus on meaning, oddly, allows for further abstraction.
“A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” a poem of Raine’s published in 1979, which is discussed in Glass Eye and reprinted in the appendix, is the best example of this development. In seventeen couplets, a Martian gives his impression of books, automobiles, weather, telephones and bathrooms: “Rain is when the earth is television./ It has the property of making colours darker.” There is emotion and lived experience. But because of the Martian’s perspective, as well as the tradecraft—the metaphor, the line breaks, the lyricism—the mundane takes on a weirdness. The world appears in italics. Consider too that Glass Eye is dedicated to Milan Kundera, who writes in The Art of the Novel that, “the poet is a young man whose mother leads him to display himself to a world he cannot enter.” That is, the poet is a Martian yet he writes in a language that Earthlings understand.
So far critics have missed the importance of Raine’s defense of meaning, instead being distracted by tone. “Raine also likes to be rude,” William Wootten scolds in the Times Literary Supplement. He essentially finds Raine to be presenting a “no-nonsense clarification” of difficult texts as well as a particular kind of taste. Or Julian Stannard, who begins his review in the Spectator by stating that “Craig Raine is a pugnacious figure,” before going on to add that reading Glass Eye “is rather like having a ring-side seat where the punches are only going in one direction.” Neither reviewer addresses the substance of Raine’s argument, which, similar to those put forward by Wordsworth and Larkin, is a much-needed assessment of the state of contemporary poetry—that authorial intention is often ignored, that poetic devices are no longer treasured or studied, that criticism is rarely more than an excuse for political sloganeering, that words have, at least for some, lost their meaning.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 5, on page 81
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