Friday, February 23, 2007

Martian Poetry: A Poetry Friday Post

Let me begin by noting that I come in peace.

For purposes of understanding what Martian poetry is, assume that a visitor from another planet -- say, Mars -- arrived here and described what it saw. Suspend your disbelief enough to assume that the visitor would use a language you understand -- say, English -- but wouldn't always know or understand what things are and/or how they work or are perceived. And then assume that the visitor wrote it all down on a postcard to send home. What you'd end up with, if you were Craig Raine, is a poem called "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home", 34 lines of riddle poems using clever, descriptive (some would say wild or improbable) similes and metaphors. Full text can be found on the internet, including at Rice University.

Here are the first six lines:

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

they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.

I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

"Caxtons" is, of course, a sly reference to English history disguised as a Martian word. Place your bets now.

The answer? A caxton is a book. Yeah, I could've wasted time asking you to guess what it is, but I want to focus on the descriptions that the space-visitor used. Google "caxton" and you're likely to learn about William Caxton, who lived in the 1400s and was reportedly the first to print books in England.

While this is only 3/17 of the poem, I don't think the similes and metaphors used are all that wild or improbable.

Let's talk about some of the similes and metaphors used in these six lines:

"Mechanical birds with many wings": Oh how I love the language here. Books are man-made, not organic, and when opened, they do resemble a bird in flight. In fact, if you're at all like me, you've seen lots of images of flying books over the years, indicative of the imagination taking wing and knowledge setting the mind free, whether in children's books, in posters, or in the movies.

Books are not usually thought of as "mechanical", but take a look at the definitions from my Webster's II New College Dictionary:

1. Of or relating to machines or tools.
2. Operated or produced by a machine.
3. Of, relating to, or governed by mechanics (mechanic: a worker skilled in using, making, or repairing machines and tools).
4. Performing or acting like a machine.
5. Relating to, produced by, or dominated by physical forces.
6. Interpreting and explaining the phenomena of the universe by referring to causally determined material forces
7. Of or relating to manual labor, its tools, and its skills.

I'm betting that, like me, you could argue that any or all of those definitions perfectly describe a book. My personal favorite definition is number 6, as applied to a book, "interpreting and explaining the phenomena of the universe."

"they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain."

What a description of the impact that writing can have. Eyes melting is probably a description of crying, shrieking without pain could be as simple as describing laughter. But both of them can be read on other levels. Maybe the melting eyes is an attempt to describe being riveted by the text. Perhaps saying that a body shrieking without pain is a reference to the physical tension (bordering on distress) that a good thriller or particularly gripping passage can cause.

Here's another portion of the poem, from very near the end:

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone's pain has a different smell.

Betcha never thought about bathroom matters quite that way before, did you? And yet my guess is you figured out what our Martian friend was talking about without my help. And if you think it through in all its impolite detail, it seems apt that an observer unfamiliar with the bodily functions of humans might equate defecation with pain (and hey, at least sometimes the visitor would be correct -- we've all been there, even if it's not something we usually discuss openly).

Craig Raine wrote "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home" in 1979, and this poem, the title poem of a collection of poems using a similar descriptive technique, gave rise to Martian poetry, an English school of surrealism with roots in Anglo-Saxon riddles, metaphysical poetry, and the nonsense poems of (who else?) Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. The term "Martian poetry" was applied by James Fenton to the work of Christopher Reid as well, with Raine and Reid sharing a British poetry award.

In this form riddlesare "married . . . to the wit of 'outrageous simile', as a way of 'viewing the commonplace with wonder and innocence'." (The quote is from the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, ed. by Ian Hamilton.) Unlike some earlier "movements" in poetry, there was no central school of thought about this form of poetry. Rather, the label was applied to a variety of poets who, at or around the same time in the late '70s and early '80s, wrote using (almost floridly) descriptive visual imagery as a means of "finding wonder in the ordinary."

Martian poetry is very popular amongst school children, particularly in the U.K. where the form was founded. And certainly applying some of the devices in the poems can lead to fresh imagery and the use of rich language so many poets aspire to.

Enjoy your day, whether driving your Model Ts (cars), looking at caxtons, or hanging out in the punishment room.

As for me, I'm off to look into Craig Raine's poems a bit more. He had a collection called The Onion, Memory that was divided into six sections, including one section called "Significance of Nothing" (I'm guessing it refers to Shakespeare's line from The Tempest: "'Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"), which includes a poem called "An Enquiry Into Two Inches of Ivory" (a reference to a comment made by Jane Austen about her writing). With literary references like those, it's worth having a look at the poems, I think.


Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful read. Thank you zoo much for posting it.

Kelly Fineman said...

You are very welcome.

Reggie von Zugbach said...

Thank you very much for this excellent piece of critical appreciation.