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Critical Perspective on Mick Imlah

Some months ago, shortly after the poet Mick Imlah sadly passed away and his excellent collection The Lost Leader won the Forward Prize, I mentioned that I had written a piece for a profile of his work due to appear on the Contemporary Writers website. A few Wasteland readers expressed an interest in reading this piece, and as unfortunately it won't now appear, I thought I'd include it here instead. I hope it gives a flavour of Imlah's work, of which I'm a big fan, and encourages those not familiar with both of his collections (the aforementioned Faber volume and his first book, Birthmarks, published in 1988) to search them out.

Mick Imlah: A Critical Perspective

Alongside Michael Hofmann’s Nights in the Iron Hotel, Mick Imlah’s Birthmarks (1988) is perhaps the most original debut poetry collection of the 1980s: witty, irreverent and often darkly comic, its poems tread a line between the stylistically prosaic and the syntactically inventive and, in many instances, reveal an impressively unique music. As Neil Corcoran noted when reviewing the book in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘unusually for a first volume of poems, Birthmarks sounds distinctly like itself’, and it is certainly true that the collection resists comparison to much contemporary, even modernist, verse: in many respects, Imlah’s influences are Victorian. This is evident in his Tennysonian mastery of rhyme, rhythm, assonance and alliteration, as in ‘Silver’ (‘in block or chain / [it] Will not sustain / The nameless slaves / Who row it through the waves // As long as the old, crude / Hallmark tattooed / On every chest / Proclaims them second-best’), but more specifically in poems such as ‘Tusking’, a deft exploration of colonialism that, in its African setting of an imagined elephant hunt, ironically recalls the imperialistic works of Kipling:
In Africa once
A herd of Harrow
Elephants strayed
Far from their bunks;
Leather, they laid
Their costly trunks
And ears of felt
Down on the Veldt.

All forgot
The creep of dusk;
A moonbeam stole
Along each tusk:
Snores and sighs.
Oh, foolish boys!
The English elephant
Never lies!
As is characteristic of Imlah’s work, this wry and knowing humour rises through the registers (in this case, to a suggestive yet starkly vivid description of the dead creatures: ‘Out in the bush / Is silence now: / Savannah seas / Have islands now, / Smelly land-masses, / Bloody, cold, / Disfigured places / With fly-blown faces’), ending with a subtle commentary on post-colonial guilt: the ‘tinkle of ice [in whisky] and Schubert’ being played on an ivory-keyed grand piano, intoning: ‘Pity the hulks! / Play it again!’. As its title suggests, then, Birthmarks relishes in exploring the complex issues surrounding (and intertwining) our origins, identities and wider history, and does so with both ingenuity and sharp intelligence. In poems such as ‘I Have a Dream’ and ‘Cockney’, for instance, Imlah’s use of narrative and dramatic monologue (a form he frequently adopts, bringing to mind another Victorian poet, Robert Browning), serves to cunningly question received ideas on race and class respectively, but also to demonstrate his gift for demotic speech and an eye for the contemporary. In ‘Goldilocks’, a university lecturer finding a homeless Scottish man in his bed makes for a particularly well-drawn character:
Now I’m keen for us all to be just as much worse as we want,
In our own time and space – but not, after midnight, in my bed;
And to keep his inertia at bay, I went for the parasite,
Scuttling him off with a shout and the push of a boot

That reminded his ribs I suppose of a Maryhill barman’s,
Until I had driven him out of the door and his cough
Could be heard to deteriorate under a clock in the landing.
(Och, if he’d known I was Scottish! Then I’d have got it.)
Elsewhere, Birthmarks’ characters are as diverse as an unhinged neo-Darwinian biologist (‘The Zoologist’s Bath’), an outraged tourist (‘Visiting St Anthony’), an unborn foetus (‘Abortion’), and in the brilliant ‘Lee Ho Fook’s’, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, saved by a builder from a ‘vat of boiling and thunderous tea’. There are also three sets of sequences in the collection which further demonstrate Imlah’s considerable ambition: ‘The Drinking Race’ is by turns a funny and grave look at alcohol, ‘Mountains’ adopts peaks from Snowdonia to the Himalayas as springboards to various existential musings, and ‘from The Counties of England’ takes brief, often droll snapshots of everywhere from Rutland’s ‘Uppingham streets / And the alleys of Oakham’ to the imagined ‘battle of Berkshire’, depicted in much the same manner as the Anglicised Biblical scenes in the paintings of Stanley Spencer. In ‘Oxfordshire’, the entirely believable but likely invented project of ‘Oxford Rebuilt’ (a supposed plan drawn up in 1943 to restore Oxford after forecasted German bombings – ‘Nuffield to Churchill: We’ve got the phoenix, now you deliver the ashes…’) also demonstrates one of Imlah’s recurring tendencies: simultaneously delighting and deceiving the reader, thus revealing the world – as good poetry should – to be the questionable, random and uncertain place it is.

Following a twenty year hiatus, Imlah’s second collection, The Lost Leader, appeared in 2008. Winner of the Forward Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), it is one of the most wide-reaching, surprising and varied volumes of poetry to have been published in years: taking Scottish history from ‘the year dot’ to yesterday at a Dumfries bus depot as its starting point, it makes for an almost overwhelming, thoroughly incorporative tour de force. In part a response to Edwin Muir’s assertion that ‘no poet in Scotland now can take as his inspiration the folk impulse that created the ballads, the people’s songs and the legends’, the collection features a Scottish cast ranging from William Wallace to Fergus of Galloway, Sir Walter Scott to the title poem’s ‘lost leader’, Bonnie Prince Charlie; revivifying Scotland’s history and folklore in often wildly imaginative ways. What makes The Lost Leader such a brilliant book, however, is that while Scotland may be Imlah’s stock material, the true subject matters of the poems reach much further. ‘Domestic’ discusses the traits and general character of the Scottish terrier, for instance, but does so to explore such ‘sagacity, nerve, and the wherewithal / to make the most of little’ more generally, while the fantastical ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ has a train by that name telling another, ‘Joan of ‘Arc’, ‘if they [the passengers] had to wander back in time, / […] what would smack them in the general face’ would be ‘a great big smell – / […] composed of gunpowder, incense as well, / […] you know the stuff / I mean, Joan; the “English” word was ‘faith’’; something which both binds and collides Scottish, English and European histories.

If the first half of The Lost Leader is both a riposte to Muir and an assertion of Imlah’s Scottish heritage (in half-mocking response to the late Angus Calder’s statement that ‘few people thought Mick Imlah […] was a ‘Scottish poet’’), then the second half is perhaps most memorable given its gentler, more sincere and sometimes sombre tone, as well as its more directly personal subject matter. This includes a thoughtful and moving elegy for Stephen Boyd, a perfectly-pitched love poem (‘Maren’), and an affecting piece addressed to the poet’s young daughter (‘Iona’). While heartfelt, however, these personal poems can still be oddly and gravely humorous, as in ‘Past Caring’, where the narrator emptying the flat of an alcoholic female friend states: ‘The gin! / No wonder you’re thin; / Hundreds of bottles of gin; / And feeding them singly into the ring / My arm grows weary from shifting the bottles of gin; / A numbing collection of lots of exactly the same thing.’ As evident in ‘Gordon Brown’ (where the poet recalls meeting not Britain’s ‘lost leader’ but the rugby player, nicknamed ‘The Ayrshire Bull’), there are also repeat references to sports and games throughout Imlah’s work, a much underused subject and device in contemporary poetry as illustrated by the clever vignette ‘London Scottish’, remembering the rugby teams sent to fight in 1914.

On the strength of only two collections, then, Imlah’s highly inventive, quick-witted and often surprisingly executed poems have made his one of the most significant voices in contemporary British poetry: the many approving and admiring appraisals of his work – from poets and critics as different as Andrew Motion, Frieda Hughes, Bernard O’Donoghue, Mark Ford and Stephen Knight – testament to his ample talents and evidently wide appeal. As Douglas Dunn has noted, ‘Imlah’s accomplishments [are often] characteristic of contemporary poetry at its best’, and as longstanding Poetry Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, a position he held from 1992-2008, it is hard to imagine a contemporary poet more suited to the role.

Imlah’s death in early 2009 – a year after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease – robbed the poetry world of one of its most incisive, original, and talented practitioners.

Ben Wilkinson, 2009
Originally written for the Contemporary Writers site, © British Council