Craig Raine has a passionate love of poetry — and demonstrates it by tearing poems apart. He hates meaningless obscurity and a failure of logic in poems, and finds these faults in a great many of them. This book is a fat collection of essays, lectures and squibs in which he dynamites — as his title cheerfully claims — the reputation of numerous poets, and a few prose writers. Many of the pieces come from the literary magazine, Areté, that he edits from Oxford, where he is an Emeritus Fellow of New College.
The American Robert Lowell is undoubtedly the most revered poet in the English language of recent years. Raine does not spare him. He acknowledges Lowell’s charismatic power, especially over the other aspiring poets of the time. But he attributes it mainly to Lowell’s gift for creating great, memorable single lines — “My freshman year, he shot himself in Rio”, “The minotaur steaming in a maze of eloquence”, “a million foreskins stacked like trash”. But he finds many of the poems, taken as a whole — and even some of those single lines-hopelessly confused. He attributes that to the reverence in which obscurity was being held when Lowell was a young poet in the 1940s. That allowed Lowell’s mastery of phrase-making to pass off without too much scrutiny, either by others or, more seriously, by Lowell himself. Raine gives it the necessary scrutiny, with damaging results.
Philip Larkin, if not revered, is I think the most loved poet of these times. Raine clearly admires him too. Through his usual close examination, he detects the error in regarding Larkin as “the unromantic, l’homme moyen sensuel, undeceived”, and in the poem “Wild Oats” tracks him down, approvingly, as a true believer in romantic love: “…he is romantic, His yearning always gets under the wire, under the wary radar”. These are sympathetic, perceptive commentaries.
But Raine soon resumes his role as an inspector from Ofpoe, the poetry regulator. Examining the poem “An Arundel Tomb”, which he thinks overvalued, he concludes with the observation: “The penultimate stanza is smoke and mirrors more than it is cogent syntax.” That sentence encapsulates his approach to poems, for better or for worse.
In The Collected Letters of Ted Hughes, Raine is looking, as he himself says, for “the inside-dope”. Poor Ted is tracked down for eight pages for evidence of evasiveness and hypocrisy in what he wrote about his relationship with Sylvia Plath. In Hughes’s volume of poems Birthday Letters, which is specifically a reliving of that relationship, our judge finds him constantly evading responsibility for what happened, and finally blaming it on the stars. But he shows little interest in all the happiness that those poems describe so movingly.
Geoffrey Hill, much garlanded, is accused of “hectic, unsleeping obscurity”. Don Paterson, admired but relatively little known, is charged, in his poems about his sex life, with “exaggeration and euphemism”. Kafka is rejected. Raine is really upset by The Trial, in which so much is “frustratingly fluid, nonsensically opaque”. He calls it, dismissively, “a dream that never steps outside itself to tip off the reader”.
It is hard to describe exactly what it is that makes a good poem. It seems to me generally to be a few cadences, a few exquisite or disturbing images, that together strike at the heart. Certainly, one does not want to be presented with nonsense disguised as fine writing, which Raine so often finds poems to be. And it is no doubt useful to have a careful critic challenging accepted reputations. But Raine does not often seem to notice the more elusive, indirect forces that are at work in poems. Logical, rational argument is not the basis of poetry.
Whatever his reasoning, the underlying emotion behind Raine’s critiques of poems often sounds, actually, like disappointment in them. This is what makes me say that he loves poetry. It is just that he expects much better of it. He is himself a poet — and can one also detect a trace of the rival’s voice in his attacks on all these other poets? Perhaps. At any rate, no matter what the driving force behind it, this massive storm of criticism leaves the poetry landscape looking very battered and bleak.