Interview: The hero of his own unrhymed triplets: Craig Raine is happy, successful, doesn't believe in modesty and got pounds 60,000 for his new book. Not bad for a poet

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Wedged under Craig Raine's brass door knocker is a spray of laurel leaves. Laurus (in Latin) or Daphne (in Greek) was worn around the temples by Apollo, the Greek god of poetry, and his acolytes, so it is an appropriate symbol for the home of one of our leading poets. It's also characteristic of a man who hasn't a self-effacing bone in his body. 'Modesty,' he explains in Rich, an autobiographical essay, 'wasn't something my father had taught me. I had been brought up to be a hero.'

Our hero lives with his wife, Ann Pasternak Slater, and their four children in a house situated in the loveliest neo-Georgian crescent in north Oxford. Its exterior, a marvel of architectural symmetry, belies the chaos inside. Every surface is covered with a mille-feuille of postcards, children's drawings, photographs, used envelopes, clothes, bathtowels, ironing, cushions; each discarded layer marking the progress of six people from breakfast to bedtime. The walls are lined with books and paintings.

Craig Raine is now an English don at New College, Oxford, resuming an academic career that began in 1969 but was interrupted from 1981-91 when he was poetry editor at Faber & Faber. He has published several books of verse, starting with The Onion, Memory in 1978, followed in 1979 by the influential A Martian Sends a Postcard Home. They used distinctive metaphors, drawing alien, unexpected comparisons.

His new book, History: The Home Movie, is a 334-page novel in verse that took 10 years to write and is full of these Rainean metaphors:

Every difficult breath

A shirt torn up for bandages

Unshaven weak brown bristles

like a kiwi fruit.

Lux soap flakes

like stamp hinges

Occasionally they seem obscure, or just plain wrong:

Rabbits have left

dun rosaries of droppings

. . . rosaries? But rosaries form circles, or at any rate loops, and rabbits don't usually bother.

He greets me at the door, spring- heeled and smiling despite having got home in the small hours from the London premiere of Sarajevo, a new opera on which he has collaborated. With his bright blue shirt, short stature, merry face and bushy beard, Craig Raine resembles a freshly painted garden gnome. He leads me upstairs to his study and sits behind the desk, poised for questions.

The carefully chosen title of his new book calls it both a history and a home movie; the subtitle is 'a novel in verse' and it is prefaced by the Raine and Pasternak family trees. Is it mainly biography, poetry or fiction?

'It's a novel,' he says. 'A great deal of true material is in there, but it's all fictional. Supposing I were to write a book about a girls' boarding school, I might use the real setting, as you did . . .' So he's done his homework on me. 'The point about fiction is that you want to make it seem as true as possible; the thing about truth is that you have to fictionalise some of it. Reality is prodigal, but fiction must be laconic. The family trees are simply there to make things easier for the reader.'

This man is a practised charmer but he's evading my question: is it more of a novel than a poem? 'It's a novel in verse - but there have always been a lot of those around, beginning with Pushkin's Evgeny Onyegin (pronounced with a liquid Russian accent). A novel is, as Forster says, 'Something which, oh dear me, tells a story' - and this book does that.'

Why make it more difficult for the reader by telling it in unrhymed triplets?

'I don't know that it made it more difficult for me, since I'm a poet. I wanted a comfortable, flexible form that would allow some of the freedom associated with novelists. I didn't want to hobble myself with rhyme, which clicks shut like a box. As a poet you're constantly weighing words like a tea-taster (he smacks his lips daintily to demonstrate, mnm mnm) trying them out, savouring, rejecting.'

Every word in History: The Home Movie seems to have been measured and calculated to give the precise balance and gravity that Raine's heavy theme calls for. The book chronicles nothing less than the fate of the nations of Europe - personified by two families, his own and his wife's - through the internecine battles of the 20th century.

'It was a very carefully planned book. I had a schema, so I knew what I was doing, not unlike James Joyce and Ulysses, but I have absolutely no intention of telling anyone what that plan is and my wife is very cheesed off because I won't tell her either. I'm going to destroy my notebooks . . .' (I bet he doesn't)

I ask about childhood, and he looks put out: 'Have you read my book Rich? There's a prose passage in that which is a family memoir. It dismembers my childhood. I refer you to that.' But I would rather hear it direct. 'I offer you Latour and you say: give me the grapes]' I coax him to recall his earliest memory. 'I was about four, coming home from elementary school with the first painting I'd ever done whose colours didn't run, and showing it to my mother. The next comes from her: she came home one day and looked through the window to see me and my brother playing close to the fire. She rapped on the glass to warn us and because of the shock I became covered with very small warts. The doctor gave her a letter for the specialist. On the way to see him my mother steamed the letter open, sensible woman, and it said: 'Here is a boy with a thousand warts.' By the time we got there they had all gone.'

Really?

'What is supposed to be impossible is constantly undermined by experience. The power of mind over matter is amazing.'

His mind, then: was he a clever, bookish child?

'I joined the local library when I was seven or eight and read three books a day for two years, then stopped as suddenly as I'd begun. I had books I lived in and they were enough. There was one called Wigwam Island that I used to fantasise around. We took a comic called Topper, on the back page of which was an illustrated version of Kidnapped. I collected them all and my mother sewed them together on her machine - she sewed to make pennies. We were quite poor.

'My father read cowboy novels about which my mother was rather withering so after a time he gave them up. We listened to the radio a lot - Saturday Night Theatre - and then those awful torpid Sundays: Archie Andrews, Journey into Space . . . I liked Toytown because I liked the way L-a-arry the La-a-amb talked.'

Raine speaks with love of his parents: 'I feel incredibly lucky to have been brought up that way; it was irreplaceable. I think what I felt was loved. And then I was away to boarding school and a slight silence opened between me and my parents, and a social gap, too. My mother was ambitious for us. She's a - I was going to say Lawrentian mother - she was fiercely ambitious and could see there were other ways of living and knew the value of education. My brother got a sort of minor scholarship and I got a sort of major scholarship and my mother did lots of sewing to give me pocket money.

'I went to a school called Barnard Castle in Teesdale, where I'm afraid I was happy. I played rugby and cricket for the school team - I was good at work - so basically, yeah (he laughs) it's one of the regrets of my life that I wasn't crying myself to sleep at night and working my soul up to some noble dimension.' He fingers his moustache and gazes out of the window. The treetops and the sky beyond are reflected in his gold-rimmed glasses. One oyster-shaped lens gleams like a mirror; through the other a brown eye gazes past me into memory. 'Of course, there were unhappy moments . . .'

Raine went up to Exeter College, Oxford, in 1963 and gained a Second in English. 'Life got more complicated at Oxford. Going to boarding school had changed my voice once already from a broad Durham accent; at Oxford I had to change it again because all my girlfriends laughed at what I had thought was an Oxford accent. Girls were all right - I liked them - there were no traumas. The whole Sixties thing, the Beatles, had started, but for me alcohol was much more interesting. I was absolutely Joe Average, really.'

What did he want to be?

'Due to my very charismatic tutor I had two incompatible fantasies: one to be a writer and the other to be a don - and here I am, having managed both of them, rather to my surprise.'

He suggests a cup of tea and we go down to the basement kitchen. It would make the perfect location for a Thirties melodrama. The ceiling has darkened to nicotine yellow, patterned with peeling triangular fragments of paint; the crazed floor tiles must be the originals. On a dresser are blue and white plates, jugs, mugs, a discarded tea-cloth and various unidentifiable objects. Beside it hangs a large colour photograph of his wife after the birth of their last child, Vaska, with the rest of the family clustering round admiringly.

Raine was already a graduate student at Oxford when he met his wife. 'I picked her up in the Bodleian library. I fancied her. She had, and has, this rather stern look, rather daunting, so I was interested. I said: would you like to come to George's and have a corned beef sandwich and a cup of tea? I had another girlfriend at the time, and Ann was in love with somebody else, so it started as a friendship until we both became unencumbered. We married in 1972. Lily, who looks after our children, also looked after my wife when she was a baby. Lily was a Jewish refugee from Austria. I've seen her Ausweis and pass: it's all getting your hands on history.'

How long has the novel-poem been in the making?

'I've been accumulating material all my life. I thought it would be interesting to write a poem to rival the novel. Poetry gets landscape and weather for its subjects; the novel gets boxing and tattooed women and sex, and I wanted to reclaim some of this material. In the end it became like a folk-melody, and I stole people's memories. I absolutely gravitate towards old ladies.'

What will he write next?

'I have an idea, it's true, but I feel, honestly, exhausted. We'll see. Writing needs quiet and stillness. You have to be able to dream a little . . . you know.' On his desk is a tiny green typewriter, a vestigial machine compared with the huge computers with CD-Rom dictionary and thesaurus attachments that some writers need. On the shelves behind him are postcards, bits of sculpture, piles of coins, Lego bricks, a pair of old-fashioned knobbly taps like fresh ginger (these Martian similes are infectious) and children's art.

Perhaps he can afford to wait a while. History: The Home Movie is rumoured to have been auctioned to Penguin Viking - not, as everyone had expected, his old firm of Faber - for around pounds 60,000. I suggest that it may be the largest advance paid to any poet this century.

'Any poet ever,' he corrects. 'With the possible exception of Byron.'

(Photograph omitted)

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