Mick Imlah, Selected Poems, reviewed by David Wheatley
For many years, Alan Hollinghurst writes in the introduction to this Selected Poems, the Aberdeen-born Mick Imlah was reluctant to go abroad. Announcing he was off to France he got no further than Taunton, where he stayed in a pub and watched the cricket instead. He got over his hang-up eventually, but even in stay-at-home mood there are few poets who take their readers on more entertaining and varied tours than Imlah. A typical Imlah poem might be set in the nineteenth century, contain an Oxford college, a rugby or cricket match, a shaggy poet behaving badly somewhere below-stairs, a Scottish member of the House of Lords, and something to drink. It might be in flawless rhopalic verse, dashing rhyming couplets or the long lines of a Browning monologue. Alternatively it might forgo all the above and deliver a rain-soaked imprecation from a Dark Ages saint or a contemporary encounter with a personable Scottish drunk. Elements of all the above animate the quirky narratives of Imlah’s Selected Poems, a volume that draws on the mere two collections published in his lifetime: Tusking, in 1988, and its much-heralded (and much-delayed) follow-up, The Lost Leader, which appeared twenty years later.
For all his presence at the metropolitan centre of things at Poetry Review, Chatto and the TLS, Imlah did not exactly go in for the high visibility model of poetic careers. He seemed an awkward, dare one hope unwilling participant in the New Generation promotion in 1994, one last tweedy throwback to the Fuller-Fenton-Magdalen College axis before the donkey-jacketed, or was it Armani-suited newcomers seized the initiative. But who was Imlah? His work wasn’t telling, most of the time. These are slippery poems, giving little away, not that I’m looking for full biographical disclosure in a poet. But slipperiness does seem important to the Imlah persona, and even a taste for wilful disinformation: a spurious story about Gerald Finzi here, a manufactured epigram there, a vein of counterfactual Browningesque whimsy passim.
Geoffrey Hill has written of his love for what he calls Hopkins’s quality of ‘bidding’, ‘the art or virtue of saying everything right to or at the hearer… and of discarding everything that does not bid, does not tell’, and Imlah’s poems have similar powers of button-holing magnetism, to judge from openings such as ‘This is a story about possession of beds’, ‘It’s a free-for-all. Vandals have shattered the Sistine ceiling’, or ‘As I walked down toward the Drinking Race’.If Imlah’s poems are white rabbits jumping down holes, they also possess the knack of making readers think nothing of jumping down after them. This is work with a riotous yet savingly flippant quality, like the croquet game in Alice’s in Wonderland, if I can stretch to a second Lewis Carroll comparison. And speaking of sport, ‘sport matters /Because it doesn’t matter’, which seems about right to me.
Imlah had a deep affection for Tennyson but alternates in The Lost Leader between a Tennysonian smooth finish (though with nods to his dafter side too) and the theatrical pandemonium of James Thomson, author of The City of Dreadful Night, whose battle with alcoholism Imlah describes poignantly. Tom Leonard has written a biography of Thomson, and the gulf between Imlah and Leonard today would seem no narrower than that between Tennyson and Thomson. An epigraph from a rank-pulling book review acknowledges Imlah’s deficiency in performative Scottishness, but it would be a brave (and ignorant) commentator who would take issue with the native credentials of someone partly responsible for the Penguin Book of Scottish Poetry (coedited by Imlah and Robert Crawford in 2000), not to mention the Caledonian monumentality of The Lost Leader. It is tricky, with so organic a sequence, to select individual items, but let me try anyway: ‘Fergus of Galloway’, ‘Braveheart’, and ‘The Ayrshire Orpheus’ seem to me wonderful poems, as do ‘Tusking’, ‘Abortion’ and ‘Goldilocks’ from Birthmarks.
A personal note to finish. Though I wrote for Imlah at the TLS for about a dozen years before his death, he was always a figure of mystery to me. Reading Hollinghurst on Imlah’s sudden gear changes between swift, decisive action and a more natural dawdling and procrastination, I was reminded of sending him a poem only to have it accepted and published within a week; but equally I remember short reviews taking months and months to appear, to the point where I assumed they’d been quietly put to sleep. Asked to give a reading in London I invited him along and enjoyed our conversation, only to learn afterwards, to my embarrassment, that he hadn’t turned up after all. I still have no idea who it was I mistook for him and who so kindly played along with my misconception (‘Pleased to meet you at last…’). And yes, the irresistible, clichéd follow-up at this point would be to say how much that little vignette sounds like a Mick Imlah poem.
But there will be no follow-ups. In retrospect The Lost Leader seems an unluckily apt title for Imlah’s last, which is to say second, collection. Seldom can lost causes have seemed more seductive than in the polyphonic miscellany that is Imlah’s work. These poems deserve a healthy posterity.
David Wheatley is the author of various collections of poetry and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Aberdeen. This review is reprinted from The Edinburgh Review.