- Aisha Farr
Poet and critic Robert Crawford was born in Belshill, Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1959, and grew up nearby.
Educated at Glasgow University and at Oxford, he worked as Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews, becoming Head of School and now serving on the University Court. He won an Eric Gregory award in 1988 and was one of 20 poets selected for the Poetry Society's 'New Generation Poets' promotion in 1994. He has twice won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, and four of his collections have been Poetry Book Society Recommendations.
In addition to Sharawaggi: Poems in Scots (1990), shared with W. N. Herbert, Robert Crawford is the author of seven collections of poetry in English: A Scottish Assembly (1990), Talkies (1992), Masculinity (1996), Spirit Machines (1999), The Tip of My Tongue (2003), Full Volume (2008 - shortlisted for the 2008 T. S. Eliot Prize), and Testament (2014). He was a founder of the international magazine Verse in 1984 and worked as poetry editor for the Edinburgh publisher Polygon in the 1990s. With Simon Armitage he is co-editor of The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (1998) and with Mick Imlah he co-edited The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000). He has published several volumes of literary criticism on Scottish literature and poetry. Robert Crawford has given readings widely in Britain, Europe, and North America. He lives in St Andrews, near the sea, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. A Selected Poems was published in 2005. In 2009, his book, The Bard: Robert Burns, a Biography, was published and went on to win the 2009 Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Recent books include The Beginning and End of the World: St Andrews, Scandal, and the Birth of Photography (2011) and Simonides (2011), with photos by Norman McBeath.
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the British Academy.
Recently described by Michael Hulse in Poetry Review as ‘one of our university wits [with] a clever zest for words’, Robert Crawford is one of the most significant Scottish poet-critics currently writing.
Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews, he has written critical works on writers including T.S. Eliot, Edwin Morgan, Douglas Dunn and Robert Burns, as well as co-editing numerous major poetry anthologies including The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000) and The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (1998). But his own work as a poet is of equal note, from the Eric Gregory Award-winning debut A Scottish Assembly (1990) to the recent T.S. Eliot Prize shortlisted Full Volume (2008), showcasing the development of a witty, intelligent and freshly contemporary poetic sensibility that is by turns lyrical, affecting and, on occasion, reflectively nostalgic.
Two prevalent themes recur throughout Crawford’s poetry to date: technology and Scotland. Both were addressed by the poet with panache from the start, his first collection, A Scottish Assembly, brimming with an unusual and provocative use of technological jargon (in ‘Photonics’, humanity becomes ‘a new technology, a system that weds / Lasers; no electronics; / […] just conjugate-phasing / Turning constant signals into rings of light’), as well as celebrating Scotland for its diversity, unique character and idiosyncrasies, ‘run[ning] like fresh paint under August rain’. In a review of Crawford’s Selected Poems (2005), the poet Jane Yeh describes this early work as that of ‘a young writer in the best sense – inventive, varied, alive with the possibilities inherent in the act of putting words together’, and it is difficult to disagree with this verdict when considering poems such as ‘Scotland’, in which the poet skilfully figures his homeland as a complex supercomputer: ‘Semiconductor country […] / Your cities are superlattices, heterojunctive’, a place where ‘among circuitboard crowsteps / To be miniaturised is not small-minded / […] Your harbours, your photography, your democratic intellect / Still boundless, chip of a nation.’
In Crawford’s second collection, Talkies (1992), this fascination with place and modern technology continues to flourish, the landscape in ‘Aberdeenshire’ described as ‘computer screens dazzl[ing] the night, / Their flickering eyes added to the land’s’. But as its title suggests, the constant babble of the world at large is the book’s presiding subject, from the announcer in Central Station ‘calling Ardrossan, Polmadie, Haymarket, Pollokshaws’ (‘The Glasgow’ Herald’), to a ‘corona satellite-track[ing] / Star dialects’. Language itself, and in particular translation, also figure in a number of poems, most notably as specific, local dialects at risk from the increasingly globalised world we inhabit: ‘Negotiators, opera-buffs, tourists: / This is where we all live now, / Wearing something like a Sony Walkman, / Hearing another voice every time we speak’ (‘Simultaneous Translation’). Talkies also contains a handful of more stylistically diverse poems, expanding on Crawford’s earlier work, as in the jaunty anaphora of ‘Mary of Bernera’ and the oddly humorous prose piece ‘Bond’, the story of an elderly man taking his dog to the cinema where ‘ears cocked, the collie perched on the velour’.
In Masculinity (1996), an increasingly lyrical, markedly personal side to Crawford’s poetry also begins to emerge. ‘A Quiet Man’, for example, is a reflection on the poet’s father and the recent birth of his son, as well as of his own character: ‘Washing the dishes but not doing ironing, // […] an in-between, quiet man, / Homo silens, a missing link.’ Elsewhere in the collection, numerous and often humorous riffs on pop-culture depictions (as set against the grounded realities) of manhood and masculinity appear in several guises and, though occasionally tiresome, are nonetheless deftly executed, as in the fantastical thoughts of ‘Male Infertility’:
‘Suddenly he has this vision
Of a sperm in a boyhood sex-ed film
As a speargun-carrying, tadpole-flippered frogman
Whose visor fills up with tears,
And of living forever in a dinnerjacket,
Fussier and fussier about what to drink,
Always, ‘Shaken, not stirred.’
Chlorine-blue bikinis, roulette tables, waterskiing –
Show me that scene in Thunderball
Where James Bond changes a nappy.’
Spirit Machines (1999) sets a more millennial tone, however, marking a return to Crawford’s fascination with modern technologies, particularly our use of – and growing dependency upon – computers and the internet. In the Scots dialect of ‘Liglag’, for instance, ‘torry-eaten databases / Yield scotch mist o an auld leid’ (giving up, like exhausted land, the small rain of an old language), while in the eerie ‘Deincarnation’, the poet describes how the virtual can often seem to displace, or even supersede, the physical: ‘laptops siphon[ing] off the glens, // […] the tangible spirited away, / Cybered in a world of light’. The book also contains Crawford’s longest poem to date, ‘Impossibility’, which places the 19th-century feminist and woman of letters, Margaret Oliphant, in a bizarre underwater world, resulting in a vatic, sprawling and almost simultaneously pre- and postmodern epic, prompting a review in the Times Literary Supplement to compare it to The Waste Land, describing the piece as ‘a work of authentic ambition […] and excellence’. One might have expected the poet to attempt a similar feat in his next collection, then, but Crawford’s follow-up, The Tip of My Tongue (2003), in fact demonstrates a refining of the brevity and lyrical, emotional timbre first struck in parts of Masculinity. In ‘Credo’, for example, the poet declares that just ‘as a candle-flame believes in the speed of light / I believe in you’, while a series of poems on Scottish towns and cities switch Crawford’s staple technological metaphors for more poignant and expressively formed appraisals, as in the vignette ‘St Andrews’:
‘I love how it comes right out of the blue
North Sea edge, sunstruck with oystercatchers.
A bullseye centred on the outer reaches,
A haar of kirks, one inch in front of beyond.’
Crawford’s latest collection of poems, Full Volume (2008), see the poet’s intellect, wit and ingenuity at their sharpest, and was rightly described by Sean O’Brien as ‘his best book to date’. It combines the winsome aspects of previous poetry – from assessments of technology (‘Satnav’; ‘Broadband’) and epigrammatic emotion (‘The Change of Life’; ‘Shetland Vows’), to depictions of the Scottish landscape (‘Near Auchtermuchty’; ‘Crannog’) and wry, often dark, humour (‘Really’; ‘Cooled Britannia’) – to impressive effect. The book’s highlight, however, finds itself in the title poem, where a ‘copper-helmeted’ diver is evocatively described as ‘he walks into Loch Ness’, in search of the ‘something [that] is in there, out there, down there, flails and dwells / In inner silence’. As a subtle meditation on both spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, it is also a fitting metaphor for the effects of reading Crawford’s poetry: the sense of embarking on a journey with the poet, and one which more often than not – as ‘Same, Difference’ puts it – promises to show that ‘a world of difference flecks each word’.
Ben Wilkinson, 2009