Mick Imlah

Selected Prose

by André Naffis-Sahely (Volume editor) Robert Selby (Volume editor)
©2015 Others XII, 282 Pages
Series: Peter Lang Ltd., Volume 41


As well as a highly respected poet and editor, Mick Imlah (1956–2009) was one of the finest literary critics of his generation. He spent most of his twenty-five-year career working for the Times Literary Supplement, reinterpreting familiar writers from Tennyson and Trollope to Larkin and Muldoon, and – as his interest in his Scottish background grew – elucidating those fallen from favour, such as Barrie, Buchan, Muir and Scott. With a preface by Mark Ford, this volume draws together a selection of Imlah’s essays that reveal the formidable breadth of his unique literary insight, and the flair with which he communicated it. The volume also encompasses some of his pieces on miscellaneous subjects such as sport and travel, as well as on his own poetry, in order to provide a rounded sense of Imlah the man and writer.
Mick Imlah was born in 1956 and educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught as a Junior Fellow. He was editor of Poetry Review from 1983 to 1986, Chatto and Windus poetry editor from 1989 to 1993, and worked at the Times Literary Supplement for many years until his death in 2009. His second collection of poetry, The Lost Leader, won the Forward Prize in 2008.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface by Mark Ford
  • Introduction
  • On Writers
  • Blind Harry and Robert Baston
  • Walter Scott
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • Anthony Trollope
  • Matthew Arnold
  • James Thomson (‘B. V.’)
  • A. C. Swinburne
  • Robert Bridges
  • S. R. Crockett
  • J. M. Barrie
  • W. B. Yeats
  • Laurence Binyon
  • G. K. Chesterton
  • John Buchan
  • Edwin Muir
  • ‘In the Dorian Mood’
  • Robert Graves
  • Graham Greene
  • Henry Green
  • Gavin Ewart
  • Philip Larkin
  • Christopher Logue
  • Harold Pinter
  • Alasdair Gray
  • Tony Harrison
  • Ian Hamilton
  • Seamus Heaney
  • Douglas Dunn
  • Julian Barnes
  • James Kelman
  • Peter Reading
  • Christopher Reid
  • Martin Amis
  • Paul Muldoon
  • John Burnside
  • Michael Hofmann
  • Irvine Welsh
  • Douglas Galbraith
  • ‘Auld Acquaintances’
  • ‘I Belong To Glasgow’
  • Digressions
  • Bottle Fatigue
  • In Praise of Ugly Bugs
  • Don’t Fly Me
  • On Cricket
  • On Rugby
  • The Road from Marrakesh
  • The Legend of Iron Joss
  • Away From It All
  • Interview
  • With Oxford Poetry
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

← vi | vii → Preface

In the essay that he wrote for the Oxford Poetry issue (XIII, no. 2, Winter 2009) devoted to Mick Imlah’s life and work, Alan Hollinghurst praised the ‘canny wit’ and ‘fraternal tenderness’ of Mick’s discussion of writers, such as Robert Bridges and Laurence Binyon, who were popular enough in their time, but are nowadays not much read. Mick’s critical pieces, Hollinghurst continued, ‘deserve to be collected, for their own merits, and also as adjuncts to his growth as a poet’. This volume contains all Mick’s most significant reviews and literary essays, and does, I believe, fully bear out his friend’s assessment. Mick was a shrewd and entertaining critic, whether writing on canonical favourites such as Tennyson, or resuscitating minor figures like S. R. Crockett, or responding to new work by Douglas Dunn or Posy Simmonds; at the same time, the reading that he undertook for these reviews, in conjunction with his co-editing (with Robert Crawford) of The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, increasingly fed into, even shaped, his poetry. To take the most obvious example, it is unlikely that he would ever have written his brilliant ‘B. V.’, which deals with the life of the alcoholic Scottish-born poet James Thomson, had he not been sent Tom Leonard’s 1993 biography of Thomson to review for the Independent on Sunday.

‘B. V.’ is the middle section of a sequence entitled ‘Afterlives of the Poets’, which was in many ways the pivotal work of Mick’s poetic career. Although the poems of his first volume, Birthmarks, were literary to the extent that some were in witty, even cheeky dialogue with poets like Browning and Yeats and Wilfred Owen, very few made specific allusions to other writers or famous people from history; they didn’t, in other words, dip much into what Philip Larkin called ‘the common myth-kitty’, or require ancillary knowledge from further reading to be understood.

After Birthmarks appeared in 1988, Mick’s poetry stalled for a number of years, and he produced little that satisfied his rigorous notion of what was worth publishing. This impasse was broken by the suggestion that he compose something for the centenary of Tennyson’s death for the Times ← vii | viii → Literary Supplement, whose staff he had just joined. ‘In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson’, the first section of ‘Afterlives of the Poets’, occupied the entire back page of the TLS’s special Tennyson issue of 2 October 1992; it’s a wonderful poem, perhaps his finest, and the composition of it revealed to Mick how stories, true or apocryphal, about literary or historical figures, could serve as vehicles for his own imaginative energies and preoccupations. Mick was a great admirer of Larkin (as a review collected here demonstrates) and indeed commissioned and published in Poetry Review his last ever poem, ‘Party Politics’; but it was only by embracing, rather than fleeing, as Larkin had counselled, bookishness, that he was able to recover his poetic voice: the result, The Lost Leader of 2008, is one of the most original, inventive, various, amusing, moving – I could go on – volumes of poetry so far published this century.

The ‘fraternal tenderness’ that Hollinghurst identified in Mick’s assessments of both the justly and the unjustly forgotten was in part the result of his awareness of the brutal and unpredictable nature of posthumous fame – or rather, since it’s far, far more likely, posthumous neglect. All poets write in the teeth of the knowledge that there is not much chance that anyone will be reading their work in a hundred years’ time. Mick was drawn to this topic in a spirit that was partly satirical – he always relished the comic gap between pretensions and the reality that invariably punctures them, particularly in his early work – but it also elicited in him a delicate, even uplifting sense of fellow feeling. One is allowed to feel sorry for, as well as to laugh at, the once-great Victorians imagined in ‘In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson’, slowly realizing, as they watch from above, that oblivion is engulfing their names and achievements (being dead, and therefore expelled from the heaven of the poem, comes from being entirely forgotten on earth):

And yet, while we keep the old pastimes, we keep the old dread:

And that, for our sins, is an absolute horror of being dead.

These days we can hardly get four for bridge; I’ve seen the departure

Of Lytton – accepted – but Manning, by God, and Macaulay, and Archer!

‘Afterlives of the Poets’ concludes with a much shorter section that is partly a clear-eyed meditation on the random nature of the universe, on the entropy that ends up obliterating nearly all humanity’s bids for immortality, but partly also a compassionate commemoration of individual ← viii | ix → striving, however misguided and misunderstood, in the face of cosmic indifference. The uncanonical – ‘rejects’, ‘busts with broken noses’ – are compared to stars that are dead but still visible; yet they also acquire a dignity and a potency through the poem’s eloquent acknowledgement of their ‘having been’; at the end of the day – to borrow a sporting cliché of the kind that Mick so enjoyed – they cannot be contained or controlled by our systems of value and judgement:

though nature has done with them, still through the void they hurtle their wattage,

powered with the purpose of having been – being, after all, stars,

whose measure we may not take, nor know the wealth of their rays.

In their introduction, the editors of this selection illustrate some of the ways that Mick made use of the reading that he undertook for the reviews that are gathered here in particular poems. It is fascinating to compare, say, his review of the Edinburgh University Press edition of various novels by Walter Scott with his verse biography of the Laird of Abbotsford, ‘Diehard’. The relaxed, even prosy idiom he allowed himself in the poem blurs the distinction between genres, and invites comparison with the other kinds of biographical and historical narrative on offer in The Lost Leader – the razor-sharp Byronic wit of ‘Braveheart’, the lethal mixture of lyricism and contempt in the book’s title poem on the defection of Bonnie Prince Charlie after Culloden, the garrulous blank verse of ‘Rosebery’. Mick was seen by some as a traditional, even conservative poet, and it’s true that he enjoyed the challenge of complex forms and rhyme; yet almost all his best poems seem to me to be wild, occasionally implausible experiments, journeys into the unknown, like that undertaken by the voyagers of The Lost Leader’s opening poem, ‘Muck’, which describes an oblique and baffling quest that ends in a failure far more startling than any success could have been. The poem illustrates what John Fuller has called Mick’s ‘vein of penetrating whimsy’, a whimsy particularly strong in its concluding address to ‘the gay goddess / Astarté’; only in Mick’s pantheon is she the ‘mother of false starts’.

There is plenty of faux – as well as actual – scholarship in Mick’s poetry; the convincing-sounding epigraph to ‘The Zoologist’s Bath’, for instance, is entirely fabricated, while his later poems bristle with epigraphs and quotations that remind one that he set the TLS competition ‘Author, ← ix | x → Author’ every week for many years. An element of his wit involved leaving the reader uncertain how to prise apart the real from the fantastical. These essays, on the other hand, exhibit a genuine and respectful scholarly understanding of literary history and context, and of the ideals and compulsions acted out in the lives and embodied in the writings of the authors whom he considers; the knowledge and perceptiveness on display here, combined with his gift for the telling phrase or detail, make them well worth resurrecting from the literary papers and magazines in which they originally appeared.


Mark Ford

← x | 1 → Introduction

‘Brilliant and unfashionable’

Why write book reviews? For poets, the answer is simple: to hone one’s prose, expand one’s field of references, and keep one’s name before the public – essential activities during the inevitable lulls in between the writing of one poem and the next. Thus, poets tend to devote much of their time to essays and reviews, and for the most part, they tend to be relatively unconcerned with the almost endless notions of what a critic should be, other than that he or she should infuse their critical output with at least as much passion as they devote to their lyrical craft. In his review of W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, John Berryman wrote: ‘A proper critic is as zealous as a young poet, crawling with ideas he burns to spread and enforce.’ Berryman, like Eliot, believed the critic and the creative artist should be one and the same. This was certainly the case with Mick Imlah, who was first and foremost a poet, although the tantalizing – nearly legendary – slowness with which he penned the two collections he produced during his lifetime – Birthmarks (1988) and the Forward Prize-winning The Lost Leader (2008) – left him plenty of time to focus his provocative brilliance on a slew of other activities. After his demyship at Magdalen College, where he helped to revive Oxford Poetry, Imlah spent the next fifteen years juggling various duties – a junior lectureship, editing Poetry Review and the poetry list at Chatto and Windus – before becoming the Times ← 1 | 2 → Literary Supplement’s poetry editor full time in 1995, where he would remain until his untimely death in 2009.

This volume is a testament to the fruits of that provocative brilliance. Although history is likely to remember him as a Scottish poet, Imlah spent almost the entirety of his life south of the Tweed. Born to Aberdonian parents in 1956, he spent his first few years outside of Glasgow, but the family moved to West Wickham, a leafy south London suburb, in 1966. There began for Imlah what he described as the ‘years of Southern education’ that trimmed his Scottishness to a ‘tartan phrase / Brought out on match ← 2 | 3 → days and Remembrance Days’: he won a scholarship to attend, from 1968, Dulwich College, where he became a star pupil. It was not until the mid-1990s, when Penguin commissioned him and Robert Crawford to edit a new anthology of Scottish poetry, that his Scottishness began a concerted resurgence. Researching and co-compiling The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000), published months after the sitting of the first Scottish parliament in 300 years, had a substantial impact on his poetical preoccupations and ultimately led to what his Oxford contemporary Peter McDonald hailed as ‘a compendium of Scottish experience – historical, mythic, cultural and personal – of monumental proportions’: The Lost Leader.

The steady advance of his cultural patriotism also informed, and was informed by, his reviewing, and not just for the TLS. Included in this volume is his 1997 Guardian review of A Dictionary of Scottish Quotations, edited by Angela Cran and James Robertson. In his review, Imlah alighted on the quotation attributed to the fifteenth-century Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus, who reportedly told a gathering of his fellow noblemen that ‘I am he who will bell the cat’ – the cat being Robert Cochrane, Earl of Mar, of whom little is known, save that he was possibly romantically involved with James III, thus explaining why the King even allowed him to mint his own coinage. As Cochrane’s power and influence grew, so did the dismay of the Scots, who hated Cochrane all the more for having debased their currency by mixing its silver with copper; the inferior coins are still known as Cochrane’s plaks. When the people insisted their plaks be exchanged for proper currency, Cochrane replied: ‘The day I am hanged they will be called in, and not before.’ History, as it happens, was all too ready to oblige him. Inspired by one of Aesop’s fables, ‘The Mice in Council’, where mice discuss (but never accomplish) the inane task of ‘belling a cat’ so as to be aware of its whereabouts, Douglas took it upon himself to challenge Cochrane. As Imlah wrote:

A Douglas, with the Douglas wrath


XII, 282
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Essays book reviews literary criticism
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. XII, 282 pp.

Biographical notes

André Naffis-Sahely (Volume editor) Robert Selby (Volume editor)

André Naffis-Sahely is a poet and translator. His recent publications include The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hofmann (2013) and The Physiology of the Employee by Honoré de Balzac (2014). Robert Selby is a poet, journalist and critic. He completed a PhD on the life and work of Mick Imlah at Royal Holloway, University of London.


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