Glossary Home Movements

Martian Poetry

Martian poetry was written by a small circle of British poets in the late 1970s that depicted everyday objects in a disorienting light.

Martian poetry was marked by its strange use of similes, metaphors, and imagery, showing the day-to-day phenomenon from the perspective of a visitor to earth. The school of Martian poetry or Martianism as a literary movement lasted for only a few years, starting in the late 1970s and ending in the early 1980s. There is only a small body of works produced by Martian poets. Their poetry greatly influenced the development of Martian fiction.


Martian Poetry Definition

Martian poetry is a distinct group of modernist poems that explore familiar things in an unfamiliar, strange fashion.

Martian school of poetry is a term applied to the works of British poets Craig Raine and Christopher Reid, which contain surprising metaphors, similes, and conceits. The unique style of defamiliarizing the familiar is called Martianism. This transient literary movement had a significant impact on late 20th-century British poetry and fiction. The martian poets used unusual and thought-provoking expressions in order to describe everyday objects, human behavior, and mundane scenes.

Origin of Martian School of Poetry

The term “Martian” was first coined by James Fenton to describe the poetic works of Craig Raine and Christopher Reid. The word was first used as an adjective in John Lothrop Motley’s Historic Progress and American Democracy, a speech delivered at the 64th anniversary of the New York Historical Society in 1868. Martian means one who is the inhabitant or colonist of the planet Mars. The term was used to describe the distinct school of British poetry with the publication of Craig Raine’s poem A Martian Sends a Postcard Homein 1979.

Martianism is often considered part of the surrealism literary movement, developed in the context of the experimentalism of the late 1960s. Prior to Martian poets, there was another loose association of British writers called “The Movement,” represented most prominently by Philip Larkin. Movement poets were pragmatists and expressed their pessimistic views on the postwar world. In contrast to that, Martian poets rejected their style and drew inspiration from surrealism, metaphysical poetry of John Donne, Andrew Marvell, etc., nonsense poetry of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, and Anglo-Saxon riddles.

British novelist Martin Louis Amis popularized the works of Raine and Reid. Interestingly, his name is an anagram of the Martian school of poetry. He developed Martianism in fiction through his 1981 novel, Other People: A Mystery Story. The story revolves around a young woman who has come out of a coma. She describes the everyday scenes around her in a strange manner.

Martian Poets

Some of the influential Martian poets were Craig Raine, Christopher Reid, David Sweetman, and Oliver Reynolds. Raine along with Reid was the pioneer of Martianism in poetry. Raine’s poetry collections The Onion, Memory (1978), A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), A Free Translation (1981), and Rich (1984); Reid’s Arcadia (1979) and Pea Soup (1982); and Sweetman’s Looking into the Deep End (1981) are the most important works of Martian school of poetry.

Martian Poetry Features

Some of the significant features of this short-lived school of poetry constitute:

  • Use of startling imagery, unexpected comparisons, and rapid transformation of the scenes.
  • Defamiliarizing the familiar objects found on earth with a surrealist touch.
  • Presence of thought-provoking and odd visual metaphors, similes, and metaphysical conceits.
  • Cast light on ordinary human experiences from the perspective of an outer-world human being.
  • An optimistic emphasis on human life with a naive spirit of enthusiasm.


Examples of Martianism in Poetry

The expressions used by Martian poets are peculiar at the same time awe-inspiring. In ‘A Martian Send a Postcard Home,’ Raine’s narrator describes books as “mechanical birds with many wings” and “mist” as a result of the sky’s tiredness. In other works from this school, an open pack of cigarettes becomes a tiny organ and an overturned beetle turns into an orchestra with Beethoven. Water is described as a “dark expanse of linen” and rose as a “shark-infested stem.” These examples portray how those poets yoke completely different ideas into one, possessing glimmers of surprise and unique beauty.

Martian Poetry Examples

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home by Craig Raine

‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’ is one of the best examples of Martian poetry, published in Craig Raine’s second collection of poetry having the same title. In this poem, the amused speaker (an alien from Mars) describes the objects and scenes of the earth in a strange way:

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

Mist is when the sky is tired of flight

and rests its soft machine on ground:

The world, according to the Martian, looks like “engravings under tissue paper”. He goes on to observe watches, phones, children crying, and the bathroom. In the conclusion, he notes “Adults” hide in pairs in their rooms at night, when all the colors die, but they dream and weave stories in color behind their eyelids. This is what Martian poets tried to depict.

A Holiday from Strict Reality by Christopher Reid

In this 1978 poem, Reid’s speaker approaches the unknown with a sense of wonder:

Here we are at the bay

of intoxicating discoveries,

where mathematicians

in bathing-trunks and bikinis

sit behind the wheels

of frisky little speedboats

and try out new angles

to the given water.

The speaker further notes how humans should react to the familiar scenes:

Everything that we see

in this gilded paradise

is ours to make use of:

In the title poem of Reid’s first collection Arcadia (1979), the speaker describes a dream-town, a “studious invention” or a place where the “chimneys think smoke.” The inhabitants of that town smile at strangers like “black bananas.” In other poems from this collection, pig’s heads on a butcher’s slab are described as “pallid putti” with “ears like wings” and a weightlifter looks like a “human telephone.”

Skevington’s Daughter by Oliver Reynolds

The traces of Martianism can also be found in Oliver Reynolds’ works, especially in his collection Skevington’s Daughter (1985). In one of the poems published in the volume, the speaker describes the hibernating tortoises in the following manner:

And tortoises hibernate,

Their hearts slowed

To eleven beats a minute;

Eleven tentative beats

Ticking into March.

The “taps,” according to the speaker, dribble solid water, and clouds thin out after stumbling over hills.

Earth by John Hall Wheelock

This short martian poem contains an interesting narrative. It alludes to a dark future, in which humanity has not sorted out their differences but has leaned into them. It has led to the destruction of the Earth.

“A planet doesn’t explode of itself.” said drily

The Martian astronomer, gazing off into the air.

“That they were able to do it is proof that highly

Intelligent beings must have been living there.”


FAQs

What is Martian poetry?

Martian poetry is a distinct school of British poetry developed during the late 1970s and lasted until the early 1980s. There is only a small body of poetic works that are known by this term, which was popularized by British novelist Martin Amis. Martian poems depict the familiar objects of earth from the perspective of a complete stranger, a resident of the planet Mars.

What are the features of Martian poetry?

Martian poetry is known for its defamiliarization of familiar things, optimistic representation of mundane objects, and the use of unusual figurative comparisons. The poets from this transient school describe everyday human interactions, behaviors, and acts in a strange manner.

What is Martianism?

Martianism is a literary style developed by a small body of British poets in the late 1970s. In modern poetry, the defamiliarization and disorientation of everyday objects in order to explore new horizons of interpretations is called Martianism.

What is the meaning of the word “Martian”?

The term “Martian” means something related to the planet Mars. James Fenton first used the term to describe the poetry of Craig Raine and Christopher Reid. From then onwards, the term is applied to a small body of British poets from the late 1970s, whose works include a disoriented representation of mundane objects.

Which British poets are known as Martian poets?

Craig Raine and Christopher Reid are the pioneers of Martianism in poetry. They started writing some unique poems tinged with surrealism and experimentalism in the late 1970s. Their works are considered some of the important examples of this short-lived school of poetry. Later David Sweetman and Oliver Reynolds adopted their style and Martin Amis introduced the tradition into fiction.


  • Surrealism: is a literary movement in which writers chose to incorporate dreams and the unconscious, and fuse reality and pure imagination.
  • Dadaism: was a literary movement developed in reaction to the senselessness of war.
  • Experimentalism: is a term used to describe the literary works that pushed the familiar boundaries of modernism.
  • Postmodernism: is a literary movement that started in the late 20th-century in reaction to modernism.
  • New Wave Science Fiction: is a movement of writers who experimented with the style of “soft” science fiction.


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