Craig Raine

Craig Raine’s My Grandmother’s Glass Eye: A Look at Poetry will be published in December.

Poem: ‘Gatwick’

Craig Raine, 4 June 2015

I Tom Stoppard sold his house in France: ‘I was sick of spending so much time at Gatwick.’

II At the UK Border, I double and treble through the retractable queuing barrier.

Now I have my passport splayed at the requisite page.

She glances, she frowns, she turns it upside down so it can be read by a machine. She stares at a screen.

And then she asks, looking up from her desk:...

Like a throw of shot silk, its blue brilliance calmed by the iron, completed, so you can clearly see the alternative versions.

This is the first thing,The first thing you feelWhen you happen to findThat the worst thing,The worst thing that could happenHas happened for real.

And everything adds up to a pattern,So that it’s certain now,As if there’s somehow a curtainDrawn back in...

Kipling and Modernism

Craig Raine, 6 August 1992

At the outset of his long literary career, Rudyard Kipling was apparently content to recognise the distinction between verse and poetry, and, if we are to judge from his letter to Caroline Taylor of 9 December 1889, equally content to accept that his own place was below the salt: ‘I am not a poet and never shall be – but only a writer who varies fiction with verse.’

Nabokov ‘had a flypaper feel for words’, according to Alison Bishop, who knew him at Cornell when she was a child. He might, therefore, have relished his biographer coming mildly unstuck in the course of this otherwise tenacious, intricately argued, judicious account of Nabokov’s life in the States, and, post-Lolita, in Montreux. Disposing of Andrew Field, his predecessor in the field, Brian Boyd cites his insolent, perfunctory response to one of Nabokov’s factual corrections. Told an event had taken place in July and not on ‘a wet autumnal day’, Field emended the phrase to ‘a wet autumnal day in July’ – a covert imputation and rebuke of pedantry, not without a certain Nabokovian brilliance. The brilliance is unconsciously acknowledged by Boyd some forty pages later when his own phrase, ‘a wretched autumnlike spring’, revisits the trope.’


Craig Raine, 13 June 1991

Matrioshki are those wooden, hollow, biologically improbable Russian dolls, sarcophagus-shaped and too rudimentary for much in the way of features or waists. In terms of beauty, they have all the allure of a thermos flask in national dress. What they lack in looks, however, they make up for in fecundity. Each holds several increasingly small replicas, one inside another. In their way, they are the perfect emblem for translation – for perfect translation, that is, where some diminishment is inevitable, but the model and the copy are otherwise identical. This depends, of course, on the given simplicity of the original. Anything too complicated – poetry, for instance – and, until quite recently, you might have found yourself looking for an entirely different image.

Poem: ‘Muse’

Craig Raine, 9 May 1991

Luck    To have lived at the level of floorboards and not to give    a toss

about Antaeus or any of that

Only    the pleasing precision of solid dirt inlaying the planks

like a long leather bootlace

or finding    the perfect fit of thumb to the palate

Carefully torn wallpaper    sufficient unto...

Diary: In Moscow

Craig Raine, 22 March 1990

Monday 29 January. Things have changed. We are at the Russian Embassy to see Andrei Nekrasov’s execrable biopic about Pasternak. A huge video projector squats while Sergei Shilov, the Ambassador’s personal assistant, presents my wife with 12 red roses, garni, and says a few words of introduction. He will not presume, he says, to speak of the work of Boris Pasternak because, well, there are in the audience the nieces of Pasternak, who are intelligent, well, very intelligent, and also, well, very beautiful and far more able than he is to speak about Pasternak’s work. Shilov’s English has that mixture of hesitation and surge normally associated with high-wire artists. At the end of every successfully negotiated sentence, he smiles like a performer being judged – radiant with nerves.’

Updike’s Innocence

Craig Raine, 25 January 1990

As a title for this gathering of essays, Just looking is as engagingly unpretentious as its contents, and yet misleading. Lavishly illustrated, sometimes with pictures that aren’t actually discussed (by Hopkins, Poe and Oscar Wilde), apparently effortless, occasional, these pieces are freighted with the chronic preoccupations evident since the beginning of this intelligent writer’s long career. They are not the innocent reports they seem to be. Witness Updike’s comment that Sargent derives from ‘the darting, flippant brushwork of Frans Hals’. On the other hand, neither are they as knowledgeable as, as in their casual way, they half take for granted. Sometimes, too, they are not even the accurate reports one might expect from this vigilant novelist. Discussing Jean Ipousteguy’s sculpture La Naissance, Updike finds it ‘as polished and iconic as one of Brancusi’s “eggs” and yet as anatomical as a medical book’. Since he was born in 1932, Updike quite possibly belongs to that generation of fathers banned from the delivery suite. This would account for his failure to perceive the discrepancy between Ipousteguy’s mislocated vulva and placid anus and the tormented bloodiness of childbirth in the flesh, as opposed to the marble and bronze. Occasionally, Updike’s description is inspired, as when he hits off a tight grouping of figures in Degas’s Semiramis Building Babylon as ‘people in a transparent elevator’, or when he flippantly notes that Degas’s young spartans ‘crouch and stretch purely for the benefit of the artist’. Such moments are surprisingly rare. More often one finds oneself in niggling disagreement.

Conrad and Prejudice

Craig Raine, 22 June 1989

‘Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist.’ This quotation is taken from ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’, a lecture delivered by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe as long ago as 1974 and now collected in Hopes and Impediments.

Soul Bellow

Craig Raine, 12 November 1987

According to Oscar Wilde, before Dickens there were no fogs, and before Turner no sunsets. Wilde is merely exaggerating a truth, practising the art of aphorism, drawing our attention to this precept: we need art so that we can see what we are seeing. On his way to the Hebrides, Dr Johnson pulled down the blind on what a future generation of writers would take for their subject-matter – wild, ‘romantic’ nature. Johnson, had he lived, would not have seen the point of Wordsworth’s ‘single sheep, and the one blasted tree, / And the bleak music of that old stone wall’. But if art enables and liberates its audience, it can also disable and enslave the subsequent generation of writers. In To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow notes that ‘in every generation we recognise a leader race of masterminds whose ideas (“class-struggle”, “Oedipus complex”, “identity crisis”) come down over us like butterfly nets.’ This insight applies to artists as well as thinkers.’

The Story of Joe

Craig Raine, 4 December 1986

When Joe Orton was in Tangier, he noted down the following exchange:

Poem: ‘Songs for an Opera’

Craig Raine, 3 April 1986

The moon was open-mouthed with fear, on the night the Novik went down. The guns were greased, the decks were clear, the sea a steady frown.

We knelt there ready for action, sweating in spite of the cold. Her plates were shifting a fraction as the engines throbbed in the hold.

We could see a ship on the skyline like the beam in a Pharisee’s eye. We could hear the fluttering ensign like...

Poem: ‘For Hans Keller’

Craig Raine, 5 December 1985

There will be more of this, more of this than I had realised of finding our friends

irrevocably changed,

skewed like Guy Fawkes in a chair because all the muscles have gone and talking as if nothing has happened

when nothing has happened.

There will be more of this, more of coming to crematoria to learn that a life can come to an end

like a Haydn quartet, without a repeat.

There will be too...

Dan’s Fate

Craig Raine, 3 October 1985

In Speak, Memory, the five-year-old Nabokov is led down from the nursery in 1904 to meet a friend of the family, General Kuropatkin.

Poem: ‘The Prophetic Book’

Craig Raine, 20 September 1984

I will give you the world, the world we are given: the turban in a tangerine, a snooker table, say, with six suspensory bandages, the lemon squeezer in the men’s urinal.

Good Manners

Craig Raine, 17 May 1984

Elizabeth Bishop was refined. Manners interested her, as The Collected Prose makes clear. She can remember learning ‘how to behave in school’ with more recall than most people: ‘this meant to sit up straight, not to scrape your feet on the floor, never to whisper, to raise your hand when you had to go out, and to stand up when you were asked a question.’ Fifty-odd years later in Brazil, she teaches manners to two little girls who are following a crazy woman and giggling at her: ‘I give them a look.’ At the same time, she could see the limitations of manners, could see beyond their immediate and important utility as guides to behaviour. She realises that manners are provisional. They change. Which is why her poem, ‘Manners’, carries the ironical epigraph, For a Child of 1918. Elizabeth Bishop knows that this rigid six-inch ruler, serviceable in its way, cannot measure the larger reaches of human behaviour. ‘Manners’, then, isn’t quite the charmingly simple, didactically homespun affair it pretends to be. It is an elegy for a lost, straightforward world. Present, too, squally and intractable, is the unmentioned problematic present.


Craig Raine, 6 October 1983

My subject-matter is subject-matter. Is it true, as it sometimes seems, that certain subjects are inevitably more interesting than others, however much we may protest that they are merely different? For instance, does Robert Lowell’s Life Studies intrigue us more than, say, Tony Harrison’s family reminiscences in Continuous? If so, is it because Lowell’s technique is more sophisticated and fluid than Harrison’s vigorously clanking sonnet sequence in which the rhymes come like a boisterous game of snap? Or is it because the Lowell family tree is richer in eccentricity and event than that of Harrison? Where Lowell can boast a Great Aunt Sarah thundering ‘on the keyboard of her dummy piano’ and ‘risen like the phoenix / from her bed of trouble-some snacks and Tauchnitz classics’, Harrison’s relations are more familiar figures, bickering on Blackpool’s Golden Mile or locked into their ordinarily absurd theatre of non-communication:


Craig Raine, 3 February 1983

Confessions of an Actor is, unsurprisingly, more an impersonation than a real piece of writing. In it, Laurence Olivier acts writing – an uneasy mixture of the chatty (‘All right, I can hear you, reader dear’) and the belle-lettrist flourish (‘Fortunately for the restoration of my depleted coffers … ’). What good bits of writing there are (not many) stem equally from Olivier’s métier: as when, for instance, he arrives in Hollywood to help the mad Vivien Leigh. ‘I said, “Hello, darling,” and when she spoke to me it was in the tone of halting dreamlike amazement that people in the theatre use for mad scenes when they can’t think of anything better. My instinctive reaction was that she was putting it on.’ She wasn’t. Soon she had to be sedated: ‘To my horror I saw that the nurse was enjoying it; she was waggling the syringe and there was a glint in her eye. But there was no time for anything; Danny Kaye and I threw ourselves on top of Vivien and held her down. Vivien fought us with the utmost ferocity as the needle went in, biting and scratching Danny and me, screaming appalling abuse at both of us, with particular attention to my erotic impulses … ’ There is a professional, unadorned quality of observation here that survives the sentence’s limp end: ‘it seemed an eternity before she went limp and Danny and I were able to let her go, both shattered and exhausted.’ The whole incident shows us not only the distraught husband but also the observant actor. Indeed, in Olivier’s life, the professional, for the most part, took priority over the personal: ‘I have always believed that if you aspire to be an artist you must be prepared to make such personal sacrifices as separation readily, if not exactly cheerfully. It’s tough but it’s right.’

Poem: ‘The Widower’

Craig Raine, 7 May 1981

His wet waders dipped in lacquer by the light,

the lobsterman puts out to sea against the tide

that tilts his boat. From where we stand, up on the dunes,

his wicker pots have dwindled already to balls of twine,

but for five minutes, saluting the sun out of our eyes,

we watch him knit with clumsy oars, while the waves

unravel their length, this way, that way, on the beach below ...

Have we...

Poem: ‘A Free Translation’

Craig Raine, 22 January 1981

(for Norma Kitson)

Seeing the pagoda of dirty dinner plates, I observe my hands

under the kitchen tap as it they belonged to Marco Polo:

glib with soap, they speak of details from a pillow book,

the fifty-seven ways in which the Yin receives the Yang.

Rinsed and purified, they flick off drops like a court magician

whose stretching fingers seek to hypnotise the helpless house ...

This single...

Poem: ‘Memories of the Linen Room’

Craig Raine, 22 November 1979

‘Fetch me the handkerchief; my mind misgives …’

Othello (III, iv, 89)

In the dormitory, boys laced up their rugby boots like parcels,

knowing the mud outside would add that final touch of scaling wax.

It’s taken them twenty years to be delivered by an accident:

I see a pint of gritty mussels for sale and think of wet boots

on the changing-room floor. The...


Seeing my etchings

12 July 1990

Obviously, if everyone has always believed the disputed Rembrandt etching on my dust-jacket to be Joseph Telling His Dreams, then there are likely to be grounds for this. But, as Valéry said, ‘what has been believed by all, always and everywhere, has every likelihood of being untrue.’ For example, as evidence that Rembrandt is depicting a domestic morning scene, Barbara Everett (Letters,...
When he equates Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent and the Sun newspaper (Letters, 23 November), it is hard to avoid the thought that the person with the tabloid mentality is Tom Paulin. I think I hear between the lines of his letter the familiar, raucous cry of ‘Gotcha!’ But I shall elude him. Let me quote again the passage he finds so self-evidently a racist libel on the Irish, Africans...


19 January 1989

A footnote to Stan Smith’s brilliant forensic account of Auden’s ‘What siren zooming is sounding our coming’ (Letters, 16 February). The source for ‘pffwungg’, Auden’s apparent nonce word for the noise of a gas jet, is the ‘Circe’ episode of Ulysses, when Stephen smashes the chandelier in Bella Cohen’s brothel: ‘THE GASJET: Pwfungg!’...

Hurricane Craig

12 November 1987

SIR: I was flattered when my friend Julian Barnes put forward my name for a natural phenomenon as subtle as a hurricane (LRB, 12 November). If I may, I’d like to thank him publicly.On an entirely different matter, are readers of the LRB familiar with this passage in Primo Levi’s If this is a man? ‘“Il y a Jules à attraper par les oreilles." “Jules" was the lavatory...
SIR: When, before publication, David Norbrook politely and proudly sent me his stanzas, in which my Martian ‘whimsy’ (Letters, 23 October 1986) is expressed otherwise and becomes ‘sublime’ to rhyme with ‘rhyme’, he proposed that my reply should be a villanelle.It was a vindaloo you ordered, wasn’t it?I find your act quite hard to followand not just in the obvious...
SIR: In Timber, Ben Jonson hits off the tedious man with the famous put-down: ‘I spake to him of Garlicke, hee answered Asparagus.’ I was reminded of this when I read Tom Paulin’s reply (Letters, 6 June) to my letter about his slovenly account of Geoffrey Hill’s sonnet, ‘Idylls of the King’. Clearly, the tinnitus has worsened. He should make an appointment with the...


20 September 1984

SIR: In his review of Hans Walter Gabler’s new edition of Ulysses (LRB, 20 September), Denis Donoghue wonders whether I’d have quite such a cavalier attitude to misprints in my own work as, by his account, I have to those in Ulysses. As it happens, there are two footling misprints in my new book, Rich, and there is an equally unimportant misprint in the poem you printed in the same number...


6 October 1983

Craig Raine writes: I am grateful to John Lucas for his thoughtful letter. Initially, I was so convinced by its citation of local dialect (‘I was all covered in mud’ and ‘you could see she was all upset’) that I was prepared to stand corrected. Those two phrases are obviously authentic. There can be no argument about them. But is the same true of the phrase I quoted from Harrison’s...

Modern Shakespeare

21 April 1983

SIR: I do feel to blame for John Kerrigan’s recklessly pedantic review of Shakespeare the Director, a book written by my wife, Ann Pasternak Slater (LRB, 21 April). I’m afraid I taught Mr Kerrigan for a time at Oxford – not very well, it’s now plain to see. Had I been a more gifted teacher, I would have explained to Mr Kerrigan what most people think of as a speech, for instance....

Count the Commas: Craig Raine’s novel

Terry Eagleton, 24 June 2010

Craig Raine’s Heartbreak is a novel in the sense in which Eton is a school near Slough. The description is true but misleading. It is really a collection of short stories, loosely linked by...

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Is it always my fault? T.S. Eliot

Denis Donoghue, 25 January 2007

In 1929, in his essay on Dante, T.S. Eliot wrote: But the question of what Dante ‘believed’ is always relevant. It would not matter, if the world were divided between those persons...

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Yoked together

Frank Kermode, 22 September 1994

‘There is hardly a stanza in the long poem which is not vivid, hardly one which is not more or less odd, and the reader feels ... as if he had been riding on the rims over an endless timber...

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Being all right, and being wrong

Barbara Everett, 12 July 1990

Men of different generations and presumably social worlds, Anthony Powell and Craig Raine aren’t much alike as writers. But the novelist’s Miscellaneous Verdicts and the poet’s

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Puck’s Dream

Mark Ford, 14 June 1990

D.J. Enright recently celebrated his 70th birthday. In commemoration, Oxford University Press have prepared a rather lean Selected Poems, and a volume of personal reminiscences and critical...

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John Bayley, 19 February 1987

Charlie Chaplin was not hopeful when the talkies arrived in Hollywood. ‘It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was...

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Tales of Hofmann

Blake Morrison, 20 November 1986

The acrimony in Michael Hofmann’s book is that of a son towards his father. Like a family photograph album, the sequence ‘My Father’s House’ records the son’s growth...

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Sweaney Peregraine

Paul Muldoon, 1 November 1984

The title-sequence of Seamus Heaney’s sixth collection finds him on Station Island, Lough Derg, more commonly known as St Patrick’s Purgatory. It’s the setting for a pilgrimage...

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Best Things

Alan Hollinghurst, 20 August 1981

By and large we are interested in the thoughts, opinions and intentions of writers we are interested in, and by and large writers are keen to express these things in reviews, essays and memoirs...

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A Martian School of two or more

James Fenton, 6 December 1979

Craig Raine’s second collection follows swiftly upon his first, The Onion, Memory (1978). It is as if the poet had been waiting impatiently over us, while we picked ourselves up off the...

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