30 November 2017
Identifying the Unknown Species
Throughout time people have had trouble identifying the meaning of works of literature. There are an almost infinite number of things written since the begging of time and it is impossible to read them all. However it is not impossible to understand the literature that you are able to red. There are many ways to understand literature and what message the author is trying to convey to the reading. Everyone has a different process they go thought when trying to comprehend the text. Two very popular processes of analysis literature are Formalism and Psychological Criticism. They both look to analyze literature but in a very different way than the other Both have their strengths and their weaknesses when it comes to trying to critically think about the text at hand. The text in question is Craig Raine’s 1979 poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”. Poet and critic Craig Raine was born on 3 December 1944 in Bishop Auckland, England, and read English at Exeter College, Oxford. He gained a Cholmondeley Award in 1983 and the Sunday Times Writer of the Year Award in 1998. Raine “taught us to become strangers in our familiar world, to release the faculty of perception and allow it to graze at liberty in the field of experience”. This shows tremendously inside this poem and Raine makes us think about what the human experience really is and how it is important to look at it from a different perspective. Let’s take a look at this poem form the formalist perspective first too see how we can help bring meaning to Raines masterpiece.
The first method of criticism to use to better understand the poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” by Craig Raine is Formalism. When you want to analyze a poem wising the formalist method you should look at three things. The form, the physical structure of the poem, such as the length of the lines or stanzas, their rhythms, and their rhymes and repetition. Next is diction, what the words of the poem literally mean and why they chose that exact word instead of another one. Last is the unity of the poem, this is when significant parts of the poem come together to make the entire then whole. A formalist will look at all of these things when they critique a poem to try to understand the deeper meaning.
Let’s first look at the structure of the poem. “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” is comprised of 34 lines in couplets that do not rhyme. Sometimes words seem to be places where they shouldn’t be almost overflowing onto the next line. This use of couplets is for the readers benefit, it makes the poem much easier to read on the page. He also could have formatted his poem like this because the poem contains many metaphors and it is easier to focus on the metaphor if there is a break in between. Cleanth Brooks would call this an “Aesthetic Structure” because the structure of the poem is meant for the readers to understand it easier. Raine tries to write the poem to appeal to whoever is reading it and that is why he chose this form of writing in his poem.
Second we need to look at the diction inside the poem and there is a lot of interesting word choices by Raine. The best way to do this is to look at what words are in each line and what each line is saying. The first six lines is where the author uses his first comparison. A Caxton is a reference to the Englishman Will Caxton who first printed books. He then compares these books to a creature of earth, birds. He compares the birds wings to the pages of the books and both birds and books each have their way of showing their importance or meaning. Birds show how their importance and meaning with their color, and books show how their importance and meaning with the words they contain. “cause the eyes to melt/ or the body to shriek without pain” refer to human emotions cry and laugh that the speaker of the poem (The Martian) doesn’t understand. Then he goes on to say how a book cannot fly but he has seen one perch on the hand, making note of how humans hold books as they read them.
The next four lines also make a comparison between nature and mankind. “Mist is when the sky is tired of flight” could be saying that the sky is a way to travel for the Martian through a UFO or spaceship. “engravings under tissue paper” takes us back to a book but this time it seems unimportant, like the Martian might not understand the importance of a book. Lines 11 and 12 the rain is compared to a T.V. They both make things appear darker than they really. Also rain could be like the static in a T.V when the signal is fuzzy often when it is raining. The next two lines talk about “a Model T” which is a kind of car that was very popular in the early 1900’s. The “room” is the inside of the car where everyone sits and the “lock” is ignition where the key goes. “Key is turned to free the world” is the car moving and the “film” is the mirror that lets you see the world as it goes by in case you missed something. Lines 17 and 18 talk about something a lot of people have an obsession with keeping track of, time. Tied to a wrist is a watch and kept in a box is a clock. The Martian is saying that humans try to make time an object and there is no reason for this because your time will always run out.
Lines 19- 24 make another comparison to mankind and nature, an ongoing theme in the poem. This time its comparing a telephone to a baby. If the phone rings it is similar to a baby when it cries, a parent needs to pick the baby up when it cries as you need to pick up the phone when it is ringing. When the baby is tickled it is like when you dial a number into the phone you are both using your fingers do the action. The next six lines talk about a child and an adult using the restrooms differently. The children “are allowed to suffer/openly” while the “Adults go to a punishment room / with water but nothing to eat.” Going back to a similar theme with time being imprisoned the people impress themselves in these bathrooms. Everyone is punished when they use the restroom and no one is safe from this punishment. The people force themselves to use the restroom and the children as well, in the eyes of the Martian. The last lines has the last comparison which brings us full circle in the poem. He makes the comparison of reading to dreaming. Night everything becomes dark and the people as a couple start to dream. The author might have used couples like how the whole poem is in couplets showing that humans belong in pairs. “With their eyelids shut” is them sleeping in bed “read about themselves” is their dreams. All in all there are many metaphors to unpack in this poem and you start to get an understanding of the overall meaning of the poem and its unity.
So what message is Raine trying to get across to us with all of his man vs nature metaphors? A formalist would argue that Raine is just trying to paint a picture to what an outsider would actually see if they were not in our society. They don’t see things the way humans do and they can’t even think of the right words to say for the things the Martian is seeing. The metaphors thought out the poem reinforce the point that the Martian isn’t sure what he is seeing and can only describe them in things that he has seen before. The Martian is able to take his experiences and connect them in a way with the humans. He think some of the things they do are strange and funny at time, but he can still make references to his own life and his views on life.
However this might not at all be what the author is saying. It is possible that we have no idea what Raine meant when writing this poem and Allen Tate argues the only real way to understand what modern poetry contains is to “Start young, read the classical languages and later read the philosophers.” We can only make a guess at what Raine was saying in this poem and that is what makes poetry beautiful. Everyone can take it their own way, an infinite possibility of what the poem means to them or to anyone. Or could it be that formalism is not the best method in understanding this poem and we need to look more outside the text to understand what Raine meant.
This next method of Criticism isn’t as much as taking the text at face value like the formalist method. It is about trying to get inside the mind of the author and figure out what was going on in his head when he was writing his poetry. There are 4 main critics that use Psychological criticism when unpacking literary work and they each have similar but unique styles when doing so. The first is Sigmund Freud, to have a Freudian approach to this text you would not oversimplify what the author meant and exaggerate your interoperations of symbolism as well as using all of Freud’s psychological jargon. This will allow you to dive deeper into the text and not just float on the top of the water. The second is Carl Jung and Mythological Criticism. Jung focuses on two things, the Conscious/Unconscious and archetypes. The Conscious/Unconscious refer to the human psyche and how our ancient ancestors thought and felt. Archetypes are very typical examples of a certain person or thing. Jung talks about archetypes for characters, images and situations. The third Northrop Frye used Jung’s ideas of archetypes to help promote his “theory of myths”. Frye argued that every text follows one of four mythoi and the whole text was called the monomyth. Last Jacques Lacan came up with an updated Freudian method for understanding literature. He had a different method for analysis characters in stories such as other and Other. The small o being the inside and the Big O being the outside of the body. Lacan also came up with Antirealism which is his assertion that langue is detached from reality. All of these four authors methods are important when looking at what Rain meant when writing “A Martain Sends a Postcard Home” and to get a better understand lets us apply of these to the Poem.
The last Stanza of this poem “read about themselves/ in color, with their eyelids shut” could be argued that this is a dream that the humans are having. Freudian theory becomes stronger when people are dreaming, Freud believed that dreams are a symbol for antiquity and that their dreams contain the needs of the induvial that they might fight troublesome. Another thing Freud would be interested in is the connection between a young child and guilt. In Freud’s “Oedipus Complex” he talks about “children the age of 3 to 5 developing their ego”, “a haunted apparatus sleeps” haunted referring back to the child is going through its unconscious torture and guilt. These dreams of the people in the poem help give insight into what they are feeling and what the author might be feeling, pain.
Dreams are also important in Carl Jung’s theory of Mythological criticism when talk about the conscious and unconscious. In Patrick Whites book “Fiction and the Unconscious” He talks about the ghostly lover figure and how it invades Laurens character kind of how the baby is haunted or the unconscious is taking over the baby while they sleep. When you are awake you are in the personal conscious and when you go to sleep at it turns into the personal unconscious. All your experiences you ever have are called the collective unconscious. Jung would argue the whole poem is the collective unconscious. These are the experiences of the outsider, how they see things. Also Archetypes are important in helping understand what Raine was trying to convey to the readers. The Martian fits the outcast character archetype perfectly. Some on who is on the outside looking in. The Martian doesn’t understand the ways of the humans and can only think of symbols for what the humans are doing. Another Archetype is Water, when it is raining in line 11 it could be his way of saying that time is passing and the earth is changing. The use of colors in the text is also interesting in as when it rains the colors are darker in line 12 might be saying the rain is washing away life. Lastly Initiation is a situation the young child might find themselves in when having to go to the “punishment room” trying to move from childhood to adult hood and learning the struggle through embarrassment.
Northrop Frye would look at this poem much differently than the other two and try to place the poem in one of Four mythoi’s to get a general idea of its meaning. It would be really tough to place this poem into any of these broad categories, but if we had to choose one the best option would be spring. The spring mythoi is about comedy rebirth and renewal, hope and success, freedom and happiness. This poem is written from an outside perspective when you read it you might have a different take on how you look at things. This would be a renewal of your point of view. Also in line 30 “everyone’s pain has a different smell” is meant to be a joke about using the bathroom which falls under comedy. The monomyth normally for a hero’s journey to complete but this isn’t a typical journey. The journey comes from learning about what this different species does and how the behave and it is complete when they fall asleep at the end and store all the information that they learned in that day. In Northrop Frye’s book “Anatomy of criticism” he talks about the phases of comedy in literature and this would fall under the last phase. “This is the phase where ghost stories and thrills lie”, similar to a ghost a Martian is an outsider and a ghost is usually “haunting” people because they don’t understand how they are hurting it. The Martian is like a reverse ghost because it doesn’t understand what the humans are doing in society
Finally we need to analyze the poem using Lacan’s method of criticism. Lacan would love this poem. Lacan says “all we can have is conceptualized reality” kind of like how the Martian views reality. “Between six and eighteen months of age the baby sees its own reflection know as the mirror stage”. Similar to Freud’s ideology, Laca is talking about how the child starts to understand what it is doing in the world when they are not a baby anymore and when they go to the “punishment room” they can see themselves in the mirror and understand what they are doing. The Martian is similar to the baby not realizing its purpose being there too. He would argue that big O(Other) in the story would be Humanity and the little o (other) would be the Martian looking in on it. Antirealism is another method Lacan used which would look at texts without considering them realistic. It is easy to do here as not only because aliens haven’t been proven but it is hard to imagine someone not able to understand how humans function in society.
In conclusion after looking at both types of literary criticism it becomes clear which one is better for coming up with a meaning for the poem “A Martain Sends an Postcard Home” by Craig Raine. Formalism is the clear winner here because of how it looks at the poem at face value. You can make draw many connections using formalism whereas using Psychological criticism it was much harder to connect the dots. Only dreams were reoccurring symbols throughout the poem and these dreams didn’t come up often. Formalism allowed us to look at the words written on the paper and it was easy to find the connections between humans and nature. It helped reinforce these idea that that “Martian” could be any outsider who didn’t understand how things worked in our society but could use metaphors to draw Parallels between his and ours. Formalism helped come up with an idea of what the author wanted us to understand while we read his poem, while Psychological criticism seemed to struggle. The best way to go about understanding the poem is to make the connections within the text and think about what these symbols mean in your everyday life.