Friday, 18 March 2016

A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, by Craig Raine

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

Craig Raine is a British poet, born in 1944, who is known as an exponent of “Martian poetry”, by which is meant the expression of familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways. The term derived from his poem “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home”, which was first published in the “New Statesman” in 1977.

One does not need to believe in Martians to enjoy this poem, only in the concept of being able to perceive human behaviour and institutions with complete detachment, as though one had never come across them before. Or rather, as Craig Raine does, to express one’s impressions of humanity in terms that seem strange and puzzling at first and need a little working out before one realises what it is to which the poet is referring. It is in working out the puzzles that the reader derives a lot of fun from this poem.

The poem

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:

then the world is dim and bookish
like engravings under tissue paper.

Rain is when the earth is television.
It has the property of making colours darker.

Model T is a room with the lock inside –
a key is turned to free the world

for movement, so quick there is a film
to watch for anything missed.

But time is tied to the wrist
or kept in a box, ticking with impatience.

In homes, a haunted apparatus sleeps,
that snores when you pick it up.

If the ghost cries, they carry it
to their lips and soothe it to sleep

with sounds. And yet, they wake it up
deliberately, by tickling with a finger.

Only the young are allowed to suffer
openly. Adults go to a punishment room

with water but nothing to eat.
They lock the door and suffer the noises

alone. No one is exempt
and everyone’s pain has a different smell.

At night, when all the colours die,
they hide in pairs

and read about themselves –
in colour, with their eyelids shut.


“A Martian Sends a Postcard Home” comprises 34 lines arranged in unrhymed couplets, with the sense sometimes confined to a couplet and sometimes spilling over into the next one. The use of couplets is therefore only a device to make the poem easier to read on the page.

The first puzzle is given the name “Caxtons”, which are “mechanical birds with many wings … [that] cause the eyes to melt /or the body to shriek without pain.” Although these “birds” have never been seen to fly, “sometimes they perch on the hand”.  It may seem a little incongruous that our Martian does not know the word “book” but does know that William Caxton invented printing! That said, it is the outsider’s description of crying and laughing that strikes the reader most forcibly.

The poem then moves on to describe two forms of weather, namely mist and rain.  Mist is “when the sky is tired of flight / and rests its soft machine on the ground”, which is not only perceptive but a rather beautiful description of what mist is. Then comes a very different account of rain, “when the earth is television”, which is a wholly unexpected piece of imagery. However, just as one can adjust the brightness of a TV screen, so does rain have “the property of making colours darker”.

In describing how a car works the Martian turns everything inside out, in terms of how a human might regard things. The reader has also to imagine that this Martian has read something about cars but very little, so that just as books are “Caxtons” the only car available is the “Model T”. This is “a room with the lock inside” such that the key “is turned to free the world / for movement”. He then presents a puzzle with “there is a film / to watch for anything missed”. Just as movies appear on screens, large and small, so does the outside world pass by when seen in the car’s rear-view mirror.

The Martian’s idea of time is that it is “tied to the wrist / or kept in a box”, but he is also able to assign an inappropriate human quality to time by describing it as “ticking with impatience”.

The most intriguing puzzle in the poem is that of the “haunted apparatus” that “snores when you pick it up”. This thing can cry, and humans then “carry it / to their lips and soothe it to sleep / with sounds.” Just as with the watches and clocks mentioned above, the Martian cannot distinguish between organic and inorganic objects, with the result that the reader might think that a baby or a cat is being referred to, whereas it soon becomes clear that this “apparatus” is a dial telephone that can be woken by “tickling with a finger”.

The poem ends by concentrating on human habits, notably their frequent recourse to “a punishment room / with water but nothing to eat.” Given that they lock the door and then “suffer the noises / alone”, one can soon see how a Martian might confuse a toilet with a prison cell. Finally, humans “hide in pairs” and their dreaming is described as “read[ing] about themselves / in colour, with their eyelids shut”.

As mentioned above, it is important not to take the concept of a Martian visiting Planet Earth too seriously. Indeed, many of the observations would work just as well if spoken by a child. The use of the Martian is therefore a narrative device for “seeing ourselves as others see us” and pointing to the strangeness of some of the actions of humans if removed from their context. That said, the Martian still comes across as a believable character with his own personality. His ignorance of what is really going on, and his dogmatic pronouncements based purely on his observations, give him a persona that amuses as he manages both to interpret human matters in mechanical terms and inorganic things in terms of living ones (the tired sky, impatient time, a snoring telephone, etc).

The Martian’s muddle-headedness works because the reader is reminded of how humans are often just as confused when faced with things that they do not understand. The poem succeeds by focusing on concepts that, for most readers, need no explanation and showing that if the context and familiarity are stripped away they could appear to be very puzzling indeed. The reader can laugh at the Martian but must also bear in mind that anyone, when thrown into a completely new environment that need not be all that far from home, can make similar mistakes that would strike those “in the know” as being equally deserving of ridicule.

( For more poetry analyses, see Great poetry explained: an index to my blogs )

© John Welford


  1. Replies
    1. How about the (midst is when.....what ishould the objects

  2. Wow! You put out a great discussion there. I was really confused about this whole thing but now I am very much enlightened. Thank you!

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  4. I'm amazed by the explanations. Thank you so much :)


    1. It's part of "going to the toilet". The Martian may think that the noises made by somebody defecating are cries of pain - and people do certainly produce different smells!

    2. do that line have more explanation?

  6. how about stanza 1? what object i should the object?

  7. What are the last two stanza about?


  9. Thank you very much
    I didn't understand the poem completely when I read it the first time.
    However the places I did get were truly amazing.
    After reading this discussion all my confusion has been cleared.
    To tell you the truth, this is the first time I have understood the beauty of poetry. This poem has really made me look at poems with a different perspective!

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