Thursday, 12 December 2013

Martians, ignorance and rudeness: on reading the Spectator's 'Books and Arts" section...

I read the Spectator every week. In the old-fashioned way by sitting or lying holding the words printed on paper and reading them. None of this fancy la-di-dah modern technology malarkey - a little moment when part of the mind thinks Ogden Nash was right about progress:

Progress might have been alright once but it has gone on too long

Really though I read the front part of the magazine - the politics bit - and then arrive at the page labelled: "Books and Art". At this point I enter a bewildering world filling with things I know nothing about and that, even after reading the words of clever Spectator contributors, I remain completely confused by.

A masterpiece of this confusing genre is a piece written by Philip Hensher that begins:

It’s important not to be too immediately dismissive of poor Craig Raine. Book reviewers and editors like him, who invent rigid literary principles and then dismiss anything that fails to embody them, have been on the decline since the 1970s. It’s true that one would probably sooner go for guidance to a generous reader who tries to discover what an interesting book is seeking to do, and how it achieves it. But the principle-wielder is an endangered species, and however ill-founded the principles themselves may be, as readers we might welcome the existence of one or two.

I am, my friends, immediately at a disadvantage since, until this moment, I had never heard of Craig Raine (although I have heard of Craig Davies). What I gleaned from this paragraph is that Philip Hensher doesn't like Craig Raine very much. In the spirit of adventure and discovery I venture further into the article - this is a full two page hatchet job with a cartoony picture (presumably of Craig Raine) and find out that the target of Philip Hensher's wrath is, or was, a poet:

Raine has carried on publishing poetry since his heyday in the late 1970s, when he founded a minor fad called ‘Martian’ poetry. 

'Martian' poetry tickled my mind a little so I looked some up - here's a chunk from one called "A Martian sends a postcard home". I leave you to judge:

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight
and rests its soft machine on ground:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

I think the poem's OK but it was, Philip Hensher says, "a minor fad" so what do I know.

Further into the article - after the bleeding corpses of Raine's novels are left twitching in the dust of this arena, we get to read about the actual book being reviewed. But first we meander down the side alley of Raine's magazine - Areté. Nope, I'd not heard of it either. Philip Hensher doesn't like it:

...I picked up a recent issue to find an essay by Raine attacking Penelope Fitzgerald. He found her similies, as well,  lacking — being not extravagant enough (Raine’s poetry was praised back in the 1970s for its extravagant way with simile). 

I am drowning in my ignorance now as - not only had I not heard of Philip Hensher or Craig Raine but I've not heard of Penelope Fitzgerald either. Although having checked, I should since she's one of the "50 greatest British writers since 1945" according to The Times (in some list designed to depress folk like me who won't have read much by anyone on that list).

The article continues - and my ignorance extends - as Philip Hensher actually comments on the book he's reviewing:

Don Paterson is done over; Raymond Carver is ingeniously declared to be a less brilliant writer than his editor, Gordon Lish; the wonderful Derek Walcott is savaged. These are all quite entertaining essays— though twice as long as they need be — and are fine examples of what Oxford used to specialise in: the perverse case, vigorously made.

A glimmer of hope here - I'd vaguely heard of Derek Walcott (although if asked "who is Derek Walcott", I would probably have answered that he's a West Indian cricketer) but otherwise more of someone I don't know of writing about another person I have never heard of writing about some other people I've never read. I must admit to feeling no loss at this lack of knowledge if it is to create such gushing unpleasantness as Philip Hensher's article.

I have learnt from this read that I am ignorant, Philip Hensher is rude (but not ignorant) and Craig Raine wrote some OK poems about - well not really about, as such - Martians.


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