A Martian Sends a Postcard Home
A Martian Sends a Postcard Home
Craig Raine 1979
In 1979 Craig Raine received the New Statesman’s Prudence Farmer Award for his poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” Written from the point of view of a Martian attempting to describe what he sees on earth to his fellow Martians, the poem employs a series of metaphors to explain both natural and man-made phenomena. Often the metaphors make connections between technology and nature, with the Martian frequently describing nature or culture in terms of a machine. For example, the speaker calls books “mechanical birds with many wings” because he does not know the word “book.” The effect of describing the world in this way causes us, as readers, to experience the strangeness of our own everyday lives—to see things the way that an outsider would see them.
Raine created a stir with this poem, the title piece of his second book, and he soon had so many followers and imitators that the British press dubbed them “the Martian school.” Poets inspired by Raine’s novel poetic subjects and his strategy of defamiliarizing the everyday world include James Fenton and Christopher Reid.
Craig Raine was born on December 3, 1944, in Bishop Auckland, England, to Norman Edward Raine and Olive Marie Raine. Raine’s father was both a prize-fighter and a faith healer who believed that he knew when people were cured because “he felt burning coals in the palms of his hands.” Raine’s childhood provided him with more than enough grist to fashion poems with speakers who see the everyday world in unconventional and often strange ways. After taking degrees from Oxford, Raine married Ann Pasternak Slater, the niece of Boris Pasternak, the highly regarded Russian poet and novelist of Dr. Zhivago. In his first collection of poems, The Onion, Memory, Raine established his penchant for elaborately describing the physical world from unusual perspectives. The result is often a surface of bizarre images that shocks us into self-recognition at the same time that it creates distance from what we had thought was familiar. This technique has much in common with what Russian critic Victor Shklovsky called “defamilarization,” or the ability to make the real seem strange. Raine’s second volume of poems, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, cemented his position as one of the most innovative British poets of his generation.
Raine has worked in and out of academia. He has lectured at various universities, been a broadcaster for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and was the poetry editor for Faber & Faber between 1981 and 1991. He currently is a fellow at New College, Oxford University.
Based on the first six lines, we understand that the poem will be a description of human culture seen through the eyes of a Martian. The speaker uses the word “Caxtons” to refer to books. Englishman William Caxton, who lived during the fifteenth century, was the first person to print books in English. In these lines, the Martian compares books to birds. Like birds, books have wings (pages), and, like birds, they are marked in ways that give them value. Birds can be distinguished by their color(s), books by the words they contain. Because the speaker does not know the words for “cry” or “laugh,” he says that books can “cause the eyes to melt / or the body to shriek without pain,” referring to humans’ emotional response when they read books. In lines 5 and 6, the speaker returns again to the comparison of books to birds, focusing on the way in which humans frequently hold books. To the Martian, a book in a person’s hands looks like a bird perching.
Again, a comparison is made between a manufactured item and a natural thing. By saying that “Mist is when the sky is tired of flight,” the speaker is suggesting that the sky is like a vessel of some sort, presumably a flying saucer or a spaceship. It is often difficult to see the sky when the ground is shrouded in fog, hence the idea that the sky is resting itself on the ground. In lines 9 and 10, the speaker returns to the image of the book. We can understand this comparison if we see the outlines of things in the world—e.g., buildings, trees, mountains, etc.—as looking like words, or “engravings under tissue paper.” This is a complicated image to visualize, but it deepens our own understanding of how mysterious the earth could be to someone who has never experienced it before. Combined with some of the other descriptions of the natural world, this image, in effect, “de-naturalizes” nature for the reader.
There are several ways to read these lines. One way is to think of rain as being like a machine, in this case television. Like television, rain makes “colours darker” by shrouding our view of what is really there. This reading also raises the question of what “is” really there, suggesting that reality itself
- The following web site provides daily weather conditions on Mars: http://www.ucls.uchicago.edu/MartianSunTimes/.
- Faber & Faber has issued a cassette of Thom Gunn and Craig Raine reading their poetry.
- Carl Sagan’s book Contact, made into the 1997 movie of the same name, postulated that an alien life form could contact humans on earth.
is colored by the cultural lenses one brings to the act of perception. Another way of reading these lines is to think, literally, of the static that frequently appears on television sets. We often refer to such static as rain or snow.
A Model T is an automobile. Not knowing the words for the parts of a car, the speaker instead refers to it as “a room” (the seats and the space inside the car) “with the lock inside” (the ignition into which the key fits). After the car is started, it moves. The Martian compares the experience of seeing things go by, to “free[ing] the world / for movement ...” The “film” is the rearview mirror. We can see what we missed by looking at it, and in this way, it is like a movie.
The Martian implicitly criticizes human culture in these lines, suggesting that human beings have imprisoned time by tying it to the wrist (wrist-watch) or keeping it in a box (a clock). By saying that it is “ticking with impatience,” the Martian subtly mocks human beings’ obsession with measuring time, also suggesting that the ways in which human beings commodify time (by making it into a thing) is inappropriate at best and useless at worse.
From this point on, the Martian attempts to describe the domestic life of human beings. The first metaphor he uses compares a baby to a telephone. The phone is “haunted” because it periodically “cries,” or rings. Its snoring is, of course, the dial tone. The speaker compares the ways that people attempt to calm a baby to the way that they talk on the telephone: “they carry it / to their lips / and soothe it to sleep / with sound.” Extending the metaphor, the speaker notices the similarity between tickling a baby and dialing a number.
Continuing with his observations of the generational relationships between humans, the Martian describes how using the bathroom is different for adults and children. Whereas children “are allowed to suffer / openly,” “Adults go to a punishment room / with water but nothing to eat.” Here, the Martian returns to the theme of imprisonment, which he initially suggested in his description of time in lines 17 and 18. He suggests that the ritual of going to the bathroom is a punishment of sorts, because adult human beings do it alone. Everyone is punished, or punishes themselves, because everyone goes to the bathroom. Raine adds a comic touch when he says that “No one is exempt / and everyone’s pain has a different smell.”
This final metaphor returns us to the Martian’s initial comparison, only here he is comparing dreaming to reading. “The colours die” when the sun goes down. It is interesting to note that the speaker chooses to describe a couple in these last lines rather than an individual human being. Taken with the previous two descriptions, this last one seems to suggests that human beings’ primary mode of living is in families.
Appearances and Reality
Poets and philosophers have long asked if what we see is reality or illusion. In his “Allegory of the Cave” Plato claimed that the world we experience is a world of appearances—an imperfect copy of the real. The human world is a shadow world of the pure forms that exist in the realm of ideas. In “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” Raine underscores the notion that experience itself is insufficient for understanding the world, because we are all bound by personal and cultural ideas of what is. Another way of saying this is that experience is at once an interpretation and something to be interpreted. For example, an activity that we frequently take for granted, reading, is a foreign concept for the Martian, whose experience exists outside of earthly conventions. He cannot conceive that words can make a human being laugh or cry, nor can he comprehend those responses. He describes what human beings do when they sleep as “reading,” implicitly seeing dreams as kinds of books. Although the Martian does not have the language to literally name the things and activities of human culture, by making connections to his own experience and culture, he is able to make sense of humanity and, in the process, allow (human) readers to see their own world in a fresh way. As a result, we see how our perceptions are caught up in our desires and how what we consider to be real is tied to our own conventions of language and naming.
“A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” illustrates the confusion and comic absurdity that occurs when a foreigner attempts to explain a new place to his own people. The clash in cultures is evident in the Martian’s descriptions of earthly things and activities. These descriptions tell us as much about the Martian as they do about humanity. By describing natural elements such as rain and mist in terms of machines, the Martian suggests that his world is void of such elements but full of machines. This requires readers to attempt to envision a world without mist and rain, a task at least as difficult as the Martian’s. However, there are descriptions that suggest the Martian’s familiarity with human concepts. For example, by describing a telephone as a “haunted apparatus” and its ring as the cry of a ghost, the Martian shows that he is aware of human ideas of the afterlife. Even if we do not consciously recognize it, the Martian’s awareness allows us to be more sympathetic to him, because he seems more like us, and less like a Martian. In this way, the poem can be seen as an extended metaphor for how various human cultures act and interact with one another. Although the Martian’s descriptions of human beings are, for the most part, neutral and often comic, human beings’ descriptions of one another—especially descriptions based on ethnicity, national identity, race, sexuality, and gender—are frequently loaded with judgements, stereotypes, and insults, which only exacerbate tensions rooted in cultural differences.
Topics for Further Study
- Write two poems from the point of view of animals attempting to explain the behavior of human beings. First, write from the point of view of a domestic animal (e.g., a cat or dog), and then write one from the point of view of a “wild” animal (e.g., a lion or penguin).
- Research attempts to discover extraterrestrial life on other planets and write an essay exploring the reasons and hopes for what such a discovery might tell us about ourselves.
- Discuss how a martian might describe the economic and political systems of the United States.
A free-verse epistle written in couplets, “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” employs a series of metaphors to highlight the differences in perception between human and Martian culture. An epistle is a letter (in this case, a postcard) intended for a distant individual or group of people (in this case, Martians). Well-known writers of epistolary poems include eighteenth-century British writer Alexander Pope and twentieth-century American poet Richard Hugo. Tone is the stance the speaker takes towards his or her subject, in this case human beings and their culture. The Martian’s tone is complicated, but is primarily one of curiosity and wonder.
Raine juxtaposes unexpected elements to create metaphors that make the familiar seem strange. For example, he describes a telephone by showing what it has in common with a baby. The vehicle of this metaphor, or the image that he uses to represent the phone, is a baby, and the tenor—the subject of the comparison—is the phone itself. Because Raine’s comparisons are initially so odd, readers often get stuck on the vehicle and think that he is literally describing a baby. It is only by stretching our minds to look at the world from another point of view that we finally understand the real subject of the description.
Compare & Contrast
- 1958: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is established.
1961: President John F. Kennedy calls for the landing of an American on the moon by the end of the decade.
1962: John Glenn becomes the first astronaut to circle the earth from outer space.
1969: Neil Armstrong becomes the first human being to set foot on the moon.
1975: NASA’s Viking 1—whose primary mission objectives were to obtain high resolution images of the Martian surface, characterize the structure and composition of the atmosphere and surface, and search for evidence of life—was launched on August 20, 1975, and arrived at Mars on June 19, 1976.
1980-82: The Viking 2 ended communications on April 11, 1980, and the Viking 1 on November 13, 1982, after transmitting more than 1,400 images of the surface of Mars. The results from the Viking experiments give us our most complete view of Mars to date. Volcanoes, lava plains, immense canyons, cratered areas, wind-formed features, and evidence of surface water are apparent in images, and the planet appears to be divided into two main regions, northern low plains and southern cratered highlands. The surface material at both landing sites can best be characterized as iron-rich clay. The biology experiment produced no evidence of life at either landing site.
1992: The Mars Observer, designed to study the geoscience and climate of Mars, was launched.
1993: Contact with Mars Observer was lost on August 21, 1993, three days before scheduled orbit insertion, for unknown reasons and has not been reestablished. It is not known whether the spacecraft was able to follow its automatic programming and go into Mars orbit or if it flew by Mars and is now in orbit.
1999: The Mars Microprobe Project is launched. The Deep Space 2 (DS2) project is a New Millennium mission consisting of two probes that will penetrate the surface of Mars near the south polar layered terrain and send back data on the subsurface properties. The mission will also serve as a technology test for many of the components of the probes and a demonstration of passive atmospheric entry and survivable hard impact. The total cost of development of the Deep Space 2 probes is $29.2 million.
- 1966-1969: The television show Star Trek, starring William Shatner as the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, helps to popularize ideas about extraterrestrial life.
Today: Star Trek movies, their sequels, and Star Trek television spin-offs are a multibillion dollar international industry. Followers are affectionately referred to as “Trekkies.”
Shortly after NASA was formed in 1958 and charged with exploring space, “Space fever” gripped the world. Interest in the possible existence of extraterrestrial life could be found everywhere. Television shows such as My Favorite Martian and Star Trek only fanned this interest. Three years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, the Pioneer 10, an unmanned spaceship, was launched from earth. The Pioneer flew to within 90,000 miles of the planet Jupiter, took photographs (which were beamed back to earth), and was then hurled, by the planet’s powerful gravity acting as a slingshot, beyond Jupiter and out of the solar system. Astronomer Carl Sagan convinced NASA officials to attach a plaque to the antennae of Pioneer, depicting where the craft came from and who made it, should extraterrestrial beings ever come into contact with it. The plaque’s central illustration was of two representative earthlings against a scale drawing of the Pioneer in the background. Both the Pioneer and the earthlings were set against a starburst pattern consisting of fourteen lines, each of which symbolized specific pulsars. Extending behind the human figures was the fifteenth line, which indicated the distance from the earth to the center of the galaxy. Scientists hoped that with this information, extraterrestrial beings would know where and when the spaceship was launched.
In 1976, NASA’s Viking spacecraft landed on Mars’ Chryse Planitia (golden plains), and the first photograph of the Martian surface was transmitted back to earth. The photograph showed a rocky and dust-bitten landscape, much like the deserts of the American Southwest. The success of both American and Russian space missions during the 1960s and 1970s caused many people—including scientists, futurists, and business people—to speculate that space travel would become a reality in the not-too-distant future. Colonies would be established on the moon and on Mars, as human beings spread themselves throughout the galaxy. To prepare for a possible encounter with extraterrestrial forms of life, NASA’s radio astronomers set up radio antennae in California and Puerto Rico to survey the heavens for signs of nonhuman intelligence. Although no such intelligence has yet been discovered, the interest in extraterrestrial life has continued, unabated. Stephen Spielberg’s massively popular 1982 film, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, attests to that. In that film, three young children help a space creature return to his home. The creature is portrayed as an innocent, and the earthling scientists and government officials as menacing and manipulative. Elliot, the child who initially befriends the alien, teaches the creature about human culture, which Spielberg portrays as inherently materialistic and violent. Many critics read this film as a religious parable, and, indeed, the human desire to find extraterrestrial life is caught up in questions of meaning and identity. As we enter a new millennium, the interest in extraterrestrial life forms is increasing. Books such as Whitley Striber’s Communion, which details an alien abduction, and television shows such as The X-Files help perpetuate the idea that human beings are not alone in the universe.
Analysis of Raine’s collection of verse A Martian Sends a Postcard Home and its title poem focuses on Raine’s technique of using metaphors to “de-familiarize” the reader. Andrew Motion, reviewing the book for the New Statesman, said “Raine’s energy and generosity [is] undiminished.” Arguing against those who perceive “heartlessness” in Raine’s writing, Motion says, “In fact, poem after poem registers a deep affection for what he sees. His way of looking is also a way of baring his heart.” Peter Porter of the London Observer concludes that A Martian Sends a Postcard Home is a better book than The Onion, Memory “because it is a concentration of [Raine’s] Tatent, and an intensification of his mannerisms. He hasn’t set out on new paths after his initial success, but decided to tune a shining engine to perfection.” Writing in the Chicago Review, Devin Johnston notes that “‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ takes the position of an empathetic and eloquent E.T.—which is presumably also that of the lyric poet living in our midst.” Johnston observes that Raine’s success is contingent on his ability to come up with surprising details. “As a result,” Johnston argues, “Raine’s language is frequently acrobatic, and often foregrounds a literary self-consciousness.” In the introduction to Raine’s poetry in The Norton Anthology of Modem Poetry, Richard Ellman and Robert O’Clair claim that this acrobatic language results in a “surrealistic surface.” However, they contend that it is not random, but rather that it “seems to proceed from external nature—rain, mist, birds—to internal—’everyone’s pain has a different smell.’”
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer describes how, by the process of inverting metaphors, Raine provides a commentary on the art of poetic creation.
At the time of its publication the late 1970s, Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” seemed to strike a defining note for a whole new
What Do I Read Next?
- Raine’s 1994 book, History: The Home Movie: A Novel in Verse, chronicles the author’s family tree from 1906 to 1984, juxtaposing it with a highly speculative biography of Boris Pasternak, the famous Russian writer and the uncle of Raine’s wife.
- Albert A. Harrison’s 1997 study, After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life, focuses on the psychological, sociological, political, and cultural aspects of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The work provides a conceptual framework for organizing hypotheses about extraterrestrial life forms and civilizations and explores likely human reactions to different search outcomes.
- A way to more closely understand Raine’s aesthetic is to read his 1990 collection of critical essays titled Haydn and the Valve Trumpet. Here Raine analyzes, meditates, and evaluates the ways in which various kinds of art are put together.
- In 1986, Raine wrote a libretto titled The Electrification of the Soviet Union, which is based on a story by Boris Pasternak.
generation of British poets. In their introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (1982), Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion suggested that British poetry was at a new crossroads (according to anthologists, when is it not?): “The point is rather that, as a way of making the familiar strange, [the poets of Raine’s generation] have exchanged the received idea of the poet as the-person-next-door, or knowing insider for the attitude of the anthropologist or alien invader or remembering exile.” What Morrison and Motion are specifically referring to is the way in which the persona and point of view of Raine’s poem causes a readjustment of the manner in which British poets perceived themselves. The question then is not simply what impact did “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” have on British readers but how Raine created a new poetic stance in the poem that so impacted upon its readership.
As a poem, “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” is a one-trick number. It deals with the dislocation of perception that occurs when the familiar is perceived from a totally new perspective; and it is the very playfulness of Raine’s approach to his subject matter in this particular poem that led Motion and Morrison to suggest that a whole new generation of British poets were “making the familiar strange.” What the poem triggered was an entire subgenre of poets, namely Raine, Christopher Reid and, to some extent, Jeremy Reed. Their purposefully obtuse observations of the commonplace, and their self-conscious attempts to put a new spin on the “kitchen sink” realism and banality that had become the hallmarks of British poetic perception from the late 1960s onward, were attempts to revive interest in poetry by demonstrating that the essential elements of poetry—metaphor, image, and poetic logic—could be reinvigorated if applied in unheard of and unexpected ways.
Technically, what Raine is doing in “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” is inverting his metaphors. Poetic logic, that fundamental building block of rhetoric in poetry, functions on the universally accepted principle that a narrative of any shape or form—discourse, for want of a better term—is made up of a series of metaphors strung together. The mind of the reader is used to taking things in sequence, and not just an A, B, C, etc. sequence. Beneath the idea that narrative is a series of separate images strung together in the reader’s mind by virtue of the images being juxtaposed with one another, Raine perceived that the images themselves, usually compound images or metaphors, were made up of smaller subsequences. A metaphor is a compound, tripartite image comprised of a tenor (the fixed and readily acceptable image), a vehicle (a secondary image and the thing to which the fixed image is equated), and the resultant compound image or metaphor that is the sum of the equation of the two images. Readers, Raine recognized, were used to reading their images in a logical sequence, where the tenor was equated with the vehicle and the result was a metaphor. This tenor, vehicle, metaphor sequence is deliberately upset in “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”; the metaphor comes before either the vehicle or the tenor, because the metaphor is inverted or being read backward. It is a nice trick, because this simple process of reading images and metaphors backward dislocates the essential principle of epistemology: acceptable sequence. The human mind works in metaphors, and knowledge, the sum of what we know, is merely an extended metaphor, according to philosophers such as Heidigger and psychologists such as Freud.
In “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home,” the reader is confronted not merely by inverted metaphors and epistemological dislocations, but by a new way of looking at the simplest, most banal things in the world and by a different system of perception logic. What Raine shows the reader through the Martian’s eyes is hardly startling; but what is startling is the way the Martian sees it. In this respect, “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” is a poem about perception. In this light, the familiar is strange because it is being seen in a very unfamiliar way.
The poem opens with a reference to “Caxtons,” “mechanical birds with many wings” that “perch on the hand.” The references to birds “treasured for their markings” immediately confuses the reader—and for a good cause. The confusion is meant to locate the reader not in the world of linear logic, but in the world of puzzles, where all the clues are present but where the obvious has to be discovered. This process of discovering the obvious—whether that consists of going to the bathroom, driving in a car, using a telephone, or sleeping—serves what Motion and Morrison recognized as the attempt by poets of Raine’s generation to reassert “the primacy of the imagination.” The imagination, as Raine recognizes, is not simply a matter of conjecturing the mundane or the recognizable, but it also involves reinventing the means by which the recognizable is realized. The banal and the commonplace, therefore, are not only playfully reencountered with a sense of “renewal” and freshness, but with an eye to what Motion and Morrison call the new “tenderness” of the period. This “tenderness” was not merely sappy sentimentality, but a desire to see the value in the familiar—to relocate the individual in the individual’s own life by allowing the reader to step outside his or her own confining, logical apparatus. As Raine suggests, anything, when seen through a fresh framework of perception, is, in itself, refreshed. In this sense, the British poets of the early 1980s were determined to save and restore reality by reclaiming it for poetry, and the immediate world at hand provided all the resources to sustain lyric utterance: all the poets had to do was show the reader its value.
In this respect, “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” functions rhetorically in the same fashion
“What a poem such as ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ teaches us is the necessity to question the structures of poetry that are all too often taken for granted.”
as many poems from the same period—especially those by Paul Muldoon and Tom Paulin—do, in that it is “open ended.” As Motion and Morrison point out, the British poets of the early 1980s did not want to achieve their ends with moralizing or demonstrative lessons. Conveniently, they let the reader do most of the work in a poem by leaving the poem unresolved, so that the piece was more of a notation on reality than a commentary. When stripped of its inverted metaphors and its playful take on perceptual logic, “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” is really a series of observations rather than evaluations. Motion and Morrison noted that the poets in their volume are “‘inner emigres’”: not inhabitants of their own lives so much as intrigued observers, not victims but onlookers, not poets working in a confessional white heat but dramatists and story-tellers.” The “open-ended ending” of “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” is meant to allow the reader to have a “double-take” on what he or she has just encountered. The poem is not a story in the traditional narrative sense; yet it is an exemplum or a demonstration for the reader of how the world can be seen in a totally different way, and that in itself is the story.
The narrative is not made up of progressive elements leading to a realization or a climax, but of a process that is continuous throughout the poem and, ultimately, didactic even beyond the faux closure of the “open-ended ending.” The poem, therefore, like many other British poems from the same period, defies closure because it defies progress. As a series of notations, it teaches the reader not what to perceive but how to perceive. In this light, a forced conclusion or an emphatic message at the poem’s end would seem an imposition. Leaving the poem’s ending open also flies in the face of the concept of lyric closure, the almost musical resolution that one comes to expect from a poem. This defiance of convention and reader expectation is what Raine’s contemporary James Fenton dubbed the “new recklessness” of the period’s poetry, a conscious unwillingness to practice preconceived norms and conventions that are traditionally and often lazily associated with the art of poetry. The preconceived norms—expectations such as traditional narrative, reliable and comprehensible personas, traditional poetic and semantic logic, and poetic sincerity (often mistaken as a dependency on lowbrow seriousness)—triggered a revolutionary stance in poets such as Raine. For them, seriousness needed to be replaced by playfulness and wit; narrative and storytelling by untrustworthy narrators and confused takes on uncertain events; and conventional logic and semantic practice by reversed logic and dislocated semantics. In short, they wanted to upset the apple cart of poetry.
What a poem such as “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” teaches us is the necessity to question the structures of poetry that are all too often taken for granted. As Raine sees it, the imagination is a wonderful if unawakened place, and the way to awaken it is by “tickling it with a finger,” a puzzling and troubling approach to communication. Like the way the Martian perceives the use of the telephone by human beings, the poem is something that is mysterious yet learnable, a means of communicating both the ideas and the structures by which ideas are understood.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2000.
A widely published poet and fiction writer, Chris Semansky teaches literature at Portland Community College. In the following essay, Semansky argues that the descriptions of earth provided by the Martian speaker are full of contradictions that obscure our understanding of the speaker.
Craig Raine’s poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” purports to be a correspondence between a Martian visiting the earth and his fellow Martians back home. The descriptions the Martian provides, however, cut across time and do not provide the (human) reader with a coherent picture of the Martian’s own culture, or of the speaker’s identity. This is because the assumptions embedded in the descriptions frequently contradict one another.
The most apparent contradiction in the Martian’s descriptions relate to history. In the opening line of the poem, the speaker refers to books as “Caxtons,” metonymically using the name of the first person to make books, fifteenth-century British printer William Caxton. A metonym is a trope; it is used when the literal name for one thing is applied to another with which it shares attributes. (For example, if we say someone has read all of Shakespeare, it means that the person has read all of Shakespeare’s writing, not all of Shakespeare’s name.) Later, the Martian describes a telephone, a television, and a Model T metaphorically—he describes these objects in terms of other objects. For example, he says books are “mechanical birds with many wings,” asking us to see the pages of books when they are open as wings. Though the telephone, the television, and the Model T were all in use during the twentieth century, decades separate their invention and popularization. We are left to wonder, then, just when the Martian visited earth and where he went. We can infer that a) the Martian is capable of time travelling; b) the Martian has been a resident alien on the earth for centuries; c) the Martian is being disingenuous; or d) the Martian, in fact, is a poet. I will argue that “d” is the most probable answer. Before examining that possibility, however, I would like to examine other contradictions in the speaker’s descriptions.
The Martian contradicts himself when describing human behavior, especially behavior related to the emotions. Though on the surface, the Martian seems to find human emotional response unfathomable—for example, he initially appears to not know the name for laughing or crying—he uses words such as “impatience” and “suffer” to describe time and human “evacuatory” habits, demonstrating that he does indeed have a grasp of human emotional life. Later, he uses the word “cries” to describe the sound of a phone ringing. In a similar vein, although the Martian seems initially stymied for the word “book,” he later uses the adjectival form of the word to describe the earth under fog: “then the world is dim and bookish / like engravings under tissue paper.” He claims to be surprised by the phenomena of driving, of “free[ing] the world / for movement,” yet he implicitly suggests that he has driven before as well, at least in a spaceship. We can infer this from his comparison of mist being when “the sky is tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on the ground.” Similarly, although he presents himself as someone baffled by human culture and all of its eccentricities, the Martian seems perfectly understanding of one of the most difficult human concepts—that of the afterlife—in his description of the telephone as a “haunted apparatus.”
In description after description, the Martian is at a loss for the right name. He “misreads” earth and its inhabitants—apparently because he has not had the experience of dreaming or reading, or of using things such as a telephone, a car, a book, or a bathroom. Hence, he describes them in terms of things with which, presumably, he is familiar: a baby, film, birds, a prison. Together with the spaceship, which he uses to describe mist, these items appear to have little in common. Some are inherently machinelike and some are not. Perhaps that is because they are not meant to have anything in common. There is no coherent profile of who or what the Martian is other than his consistent use of metaphoric language to describe his experience and observations. The final—and perhaps most compelling—contradiction is one also full of irony. Although the Martian suggests his ignorance of the human practice of reading, he is writing a postcard home. We can only assume that it is meant to be read.
All of these contradictions can be explained if we understand the Martian as being a poet himself. Philosophers, psychologists, and anthropologists have long claimed that one of the primary features that distinguish human beings from animals is the former’s capacity for language. Part of this capacity is the proclivity for naming. Indeed, this is illustrated most clearly in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament, when Adam names the animals. The Martian, then, in the vein of the pod creatures in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, can best be seen as a shape-shifter of sorts who has taken on the ability to use language in a human way. Because postcards are most often used to communicate vacation experiences—which are, by definition, relatively brief—we can reasonably conclude that the Martian has not been on earth for centuries, or even for decades. And because his diction and grammar are consistent, it is doubtful that he is time traveling, although science fiction frequently represents Martians and other alien beings as being time travelers. If the Martian were jumping from century to century, his English would probably be fractured and peppered with odd words and grammatical anachronisms.
The most probable answer to the reason for the contradictions in the Martian’s descriptions is that he is a poet. As someone who has been around human beings for a short period of time, the speaker
“... [T]he Martian is an accidental poet, one who has backed into his craft out of necessity rather than due to a calling.”
has not accumulated the vocabulary of a confident native speaker, although his grammar is flawless. In the process of rapidly learning or absorbing the language, the Martian has difficulty in keeping track of concepts, hence his seeming contradictions. He can best be seen as a real alien ingenue who is sincere in his communication to his fellow Martians, but who has not fully mastered the nuances of names and, thus, has to use elaborate metaphors to describe the things he experiences and sees. In this way, the Martian is an accidental poet, one who has backed into his craft out of necessity rather than due to a calling. This view of the poet as Martian is consonant with human views of the poet as outsider, someone who teaches others to see the world in different ways, someone who has the capacity to transform the everyday into the exotic and the strange through manipulating language.
Ironically, if the Martian has been on the earth for only a short time, he has most likely received his knowledge as much from books as from experience. This would explain the historical inconsistencies in the poem. This view also supports the dominant metaphor of the poem, that of describing experience as a process of reading. How else would the Martian make the comparison between dreaming and reading? By most likely receiving much of his knowledge about human beings from books, the speaker underscores the idea that more than anything, being human means having the capacity to read and write. And because the Martian also has this capacity, we can assume that he is close to human, and the more he continues to read and write, the more human he will become.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students. Gale Group, 2000.
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Devoted to close readings of poets and their contexts from various postmodern perspectives, this book offers a wide-ranging look at the work of feminists and “post feminist” poets, working-class poets, and poets of diverse cultural backgrounds, as well as provocative re-readings of such well-established and influential figures as Donald Davie, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and Craig Raine.
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This is the first book to attempt a full account of NASA’s August 1996 announcement that an ancient Martian meteorite discovered in Antarctica may contain evidence of extraterrestrial life.
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Gregorson examines how postmodern ideas—such as intentionality, ideology, and indeterminacy—have shaped contemporary British poetry.