More Dynamite: Essays 1992-2012, by Craig Raine, Atlantic Books, RRP£35, 560 pages
More Dynamite is a collection of the poet Craig Raine’s critical writings on literature and art from the past 20 or so years. Raine is of the “one thinks of” school of criticism. His essays are tutorials. Rather than present his case and let it persuade you, he tells you which lines of poetry are worth admiring, which metaphors don’t work, whose arguments are unsound. Observations are presented as essential truths, obvious to anyone with a modicum of good taste: Derek Walcott is a fraud, Rudyard Kipling was not a racist, Geoffrey Hill is a disingenuous obfuscator. JM Coetzee’s Disgrace is faintly damned as “quite a good novel”.
There’s something attractive about the clear-eyed certainty of Raine’s assessments, but passing judgment by appealing to a common aesthetic sense – his main critical strategy – can mask dodgy thinking. Proust “says many acute things about memory”, Raine observes. “One assents and thinks of Robert Frost’s ‘After Apple-Picking’.” Does one? He means he does.
He finds it very difficult to let writers – especially poets – speak for themselves. Barely a quotation goes by to which he does not append the proprietorial “my italics”. It happens twice on the first page alone, and continues throughout (with some variation: we also get “my incredulous italics”, “my pun-seeking italics” and “my italics, Updike’s genius”). They have the effect of claiming ownership, of thought if not of language. These may be the poet’s words, he seems to say, but they’re my italics.
Raine’s literary tastes are narrow but rigorous, largely conforming to those writers endorsed by the Oxford English syllabus (which until recently he taught). Samuel Beckett is out (“blighted from the beginning by the prior prodigality of Joyce”), TS Eliot, Kipling and Virginia Woolf are in. He is harsh on most contemporary writers, but his arguments are never fatal. The work of David Foster Wallace is dismissed as hipster junkie-lit (“Foster Wallace isn’t a genius. He is a top contestant on Mastermind and his special subject is tennis – followed by taxation as an encore.”) He hates writing (his italics). He’s particularly hard on Don Paterson, whose poetry is beset by what Raine sees as the twin sins of euphemism and exaggeration, the “absurd paper currency of runaway poetic inflation”.
It is all underpinned by a faintly clubbable atmosphere. Raine is firmly ensconced in literary culture. When he reads something he does like, he sends its author a postcard. Then he quotes his letters in his essays. How gratified Alan Bennett must have been to receive a note praising his television play Our Winnie as a “perfect play about imperfection”. He glosses a letter to Ted Hughes: “I love this correspondence. Neither of us is embarrassed. We’re both poets riveted by particularities, technical details that would bore many a reader.”
He ranks parties he has been to as assiduously as books he has read. A New Review bash is a “bleak party, a scratch affair, with eye-watering salt and vinegar crisps and inferior wine.” He invites Harold Pinter to a party to drum up publicity for Areté (the magazine he founded and still edits): “the food will be good (River Café chefs)”.
Raine is proud of the straightforwardness of his language. He invariably calls sex “fucking”. He is still – and will always be – an incredibly stylish writer, but it is a style that has tended to get high on its own supply over the years.
Despite his insistence on precision in language he tends to use scientific terms loosely. Specific gravity doesn’t mean what he thinks it means, and he’s fond of “radioactive” as a descriptive metaphor precisely because it doesn’t really mean anything in particular. He uses technical philosophical terms equally vaguely. Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Moose” “invokes a topos of ancient tradition, of fixed ritual, of order ... There is a telos implied in the syntax, and we safely achieve it” (my italics, Raine’s pretentiousness). The poem is about a moose “with a pronounced noumenon”. In a review of Updike a “theologically ignorant dentist” assumes a “godlike, beneficent noumenon.” One despairs.
I remember reading this essay a few years ago and admiring its audaciousness whilst not quite knowing what it meant. Now I find I don’t really care.