Mick Imlah was not obviously Scottish but his homeland was deep in the grain of his personality and poetry.
This will be as much a memoir as a review. I knew Mick Imlah – not well, but well enough – for twenty years. We first met when he took over from Andrew Motion as poetry editor at Chatto & Windus, maybe around 1989, the year I moved from Glasgow to take up a lectureship in Modern Scottish Literature at St Andrews University. Though born in Aberdeen and brought up as a child in Milngavie, Mick did not sound at all Scottish. This roused suspicion in me. Probably I was jealous too. Three years older than me, Mick was strikingly handsome, slightly louche, readily attractive to women. A rugby-mad and privileged English public schoolboy he had glided from editing Poetry Review to looking after poetry at Chatto. It all looked like effortless superiority: from Dulwich College to Magdalen College, Oxford, where in 1983 Mick helped re-found the magazine Oxford Poetry. As a sport-hating boy who had grown up in lower-middle-class Lanarkshire, gone to Oxford after an undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, then had co-founded the more aggressively international mag Verse in 1984, I found it hard to forgive Mick for appearing such an Olympian Oxbridge toff.
But I came to respect him as a superb editor. He had published his first collection, Birthmarks, in 1988, revealing in that book’s title and in several poems anxieties both about his own submerged Scottishness (which was deeply important to him) as well as about class and colonialism. The first poem tracks ‘Harrow/ Elephants’ through an African dreamscape where
A massacre song
With the notes wrong
On Massa’s baby.
I gave Birthmarks a good review in the London Review of Books, and remember shortly afterwards breathing a sigh of relief that I had done so. Because, unexpectedly, Mick became my editor at Chatto. He was disconcertingly shrewd at spotting words in poems that were not necessarily being repeated deliberately. He was also almost pathologically elusive. When my second collection got held up, he was impossible to get hold of. I intuited from his poems he was a man-about-town with apassion for booze, and was accustomed to have women chasing him. That, I supposed, was what he was up to.
And possibly so it was. Many now republished in Imlah’s Selected Poems, the 1980s poems of Birthmarks have lasted very, very well. Cunningly made, they are capacious yet four-square; foursquareness became a hallmark of Imlah’s later poetry. The subtly intelligent poems of Birthmarks reveal troubled relationships with women and drink. The poem ‘Birthmark’ begins,
On my decline, a millipede
Helped me to keep count;
For every time I slipped a foot
Farther down the mountain
She’d leave a tiny, cast-off limb
Of crimson on my cheek
As if to say –
You’re hurting us both, Mick
Though Imlah does use real people’s names in his poems, his protagonists seem constructed for the verse. The poems are often wittily elaborated; on occasion a little hobbled by a weakness for parentheses. ‘Birthmark’ depends in part on a sort of punning glissade that takes writer and reader from the word ‘foot’ to the word ‘limb’. Legginess, legging it, and getting legless were part of Mick’s psyche — his imagination at once escapological and fascinated by traps. Definitions in his poems tend to be qualified by bracketed complications. One of his best 1980s works, ‘Goldilocks’, relies on a sense of his own hidden Scottishness. The poem’s patronizingly donnish speaker evicts from his Oxford college room an alcoholic, ginger-haired vagrant with a distinctly Scots voice:
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
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.)
Mick had a liking for anapaests and dactyls which, rightly or wrongly, reminds me of the sometimes radical Victorian poetic experimenter Arthur Hugh Clough who wrote about Oxford students in the Scottish Highlands. Imlah began an Oxford doctorate on Victorian poetry, but did not complete it; he also pondered (and may have written part of) a novel set in Morocco. He was a superb essayist. A selection of his essays, letters and reviews should be gathered for a Selected Prose to complemented the Selected Poems now so deftly edited by Mark Ford, and shrewdly (if anything, a little too tactfully) introduced by Alan Hollinghurst, Mick’s Oxford college friend and later his colleague at the Times Literary Supplement.
From one angle Mick Imlah was a dashing success; from another, he teetered on the edge of wreck. Years went by and his second book of poems never appeared. Legends about it grew. Working as poetry editor at the TLS (a job which invites false friends and backbiting) he must have felt that his own next collection would be subjected to intense critical scrutiny; but there was more to his tardiness than that. I remember saying to him preachily at one point that his interest in the Victorian poet James Thomson, who was born in Port Glasgow but spent most of his life in London, was leading Mick to convince himself that his fate must be to mirror Thomson’s talented, alcoholic, depressive career. He did not thank me for that. Feeling, perhaps, a certain quasi-proprietary and self-lacerating anxiety, he felt bad that he had slighted Tom Leonard’s unusual and insightful biography of Thomson in a TLS review. Mick loved Scotland, but felt a distance between himself and many modern Scottish writers. “Thanks for asking me up here” he wrote on my copy of Birthmarks when he read in St Andrews in April 1990. Before long he left Chatto and I didn’t see much of him.
Then, five or six years later, having learned that I would like to edit a new anthology of Scottish verse, Mick phoned me up out of the blue. He had signed a contract some time earlier to edit a new Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, but said he hadn’t got beyond the Makars. He felt awkward about the book being edited from London. Would I like to edit it with him? Accepting this invitation with glee, I soon discovered that when he said he hadn’t got beyond the Makars he meant he hadn’t done anything at all. After convincing him and Penguin that the book should start much earlier, with the long Latin ‘Altus Prosator’ attributed to St Columba, and that it should take in a wide variety of languages, I met Mick a few times over the next several years. Mostly, though, I’d phone him at the TLS. He always seemed to be expected soon. A Houdini to co-edit with, he had a surefire knack for reeling in unexpected poems, such as David Malloch’s ‘On an Amorous Old Man’, about an ageing lothario – ‘Brisk where he cannot, backward where he can;/ The teasing ghost of the departed man.’ Mick also had a great love for Henryson’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’ with the harper-poet’s beloved seen as ‘Richt warsch and wan, and walowit as a wede.’ It could not be said that he chose most of the poems in The Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, but, dissatisfied at my cruder draft, he wrote almost all the introduction with absolute panache.
I remember being pleasantly surprised when he translated into verse a passage from the medieval French, ‘Fergus’, which I wanted to include in the anthology; he never told me he was working on a substantial series of poems based on Scottish history. I wish he had. In his second collection, twenty years in the making, Mick drew on texts as different as Adamnan’s Latin life of Columba and Henryson’s Scots poetry to make such new and sophisticated works as ‘The Prophecies’ and his celebration of Burns, ‘The Ayrshire Orpheus’. First published in his prizewinning The Lost Leader (2008), the best of these works are now in the Selected Poems — an impressive phalanx of verse. Imlah out-did T.S. Eliot in selecting Edwin Muir’s poetry for Faber in 2008. His Scotland is too strongly inflected by a rather old-fashioned, Muirish sense of a country inescapably defined by its wounded pastness. Occasionally his resuscitations of historic Scotlands smell of the lamp. Yet the best poems, unwavering in their refusal of simplification, yet also moving and strong, are likely to become a lasting part of the inheritance of Scottish literature.
In ‘London Scottish’, a splendid 15-line sonnet, Imlah elegizes a Scots rugby club of 60 men, 45 of whom died in World War I:
Just one, Brodie the prop, resumed his
The others sometimes drank to ‘The
Neither a humorous nor an idle toast.
Though it caused Boyd’s widow distress, Imlah’s poem ‘Stephen Boyd’, with its epigraph from Henryson’s ‘Orpheus and Eurydice’, is one of the greatest modern Scottish elegies. Boyd, who killed himself in 1995, was a west of Scotland contemporary of Mick’s at Oxford; he became a much loved Lecturer at St Andrews University, where the common room in the School of English now bears his name. Celebrating a shared love of rugby and “a friendship based/On little more than aping Bill McLaren”, Imlah builds a warmly humorous yet grieving account which also shows Boyd “harmlessly hammered” and “weeping” while his wife tries to steady him. This moving poem of friendship and damage is also one in which, as often in friendships, each friend mirrors the other. It has the control of Imlah’s more historical poems, yet also a deep and complex sense of personal involvement. Another late poem in the present book, ‘Maren’, addressed to Imlah’s partner, also carries subtly modulated personal conviction, mixed with this poet’s characteristic and winning ironic humour.
Mark Ford has added a very few poems written by Imlah before his death from motor neurone disease in 2009. He was fifty-two, but will be remembered as knowingly youthful. ‘Whom the gods love die young’, wrote the ancient Greek poet Menander. He was thinking of Mick.