The earlier Craig Raine, up to a third of the way through his collected poems, is an unpretentious and delightful composer of elegant riddles in verse. He has a fresh vision, an affectation of adolescence, which is very perfect of its kind, and notably free of any overt will to transcendence – rough beasts do not slouch towards Bethlehem – and almost nowhere does he betray any hesitant and guilty desire for unearthly intensity of significance. – No Blakean arrows of desire fall somewhere off stage left as a mysteriously redeeming renewal.
The need for high significance and supernatural redemption never arises. The world as observed is good enough. We know from his general study of poetry, My Grandmothers Glass Eye, that he is against any extravagant sort of claim for poetic value, whether brazen or skulking, and, surprisingly, his writing is in practise consistent with that position. The self-portrait, at the end of Grandmother's Glass Eye, as a little bird singing hopelessly but courageously against the cacophony of the megalopolitan traffic, is more than a little damp, it is true, but it is not overweening. Self-pitying, a little; but a long way short of a Christ complex; and what can appear to be conceit can be defended as vivacity, animal spirits (that part of the adolescence is quite unaffected), for he has an evident and to degree winning delight in his own manifest gifts
Readers of his critical prose will think modest an odd word to use of him, but of the poems it is perfectly just. Instead of undetermined vistas and visions – avenues, dark, nameless and without end – he delights in the superficial and the precise, and mostly in the pictorial, without any hankering after universal or final judgment. There is, as a result, much to like; the visual and sometimes tactile ingenuity is both admirable and delightful, a rare achievement in a verbal art, and the verses are nearly always aurally pleasing (he is proud of his ear, and with some reason).
Perhaps best of all, his poems do not slyly induce moral frustration as a means of establishing the writer’s own superiority without taking on the burden of defining and defending that virtue. Indeed, half Raine’s distinction, at least in the early poems, lies in refusing this fatally attractive opportunity while still engaging closely with what he sees, hears and touches.