IAIN Banks’ early poetry gives a huge insight into his imagination, says Stuart Kelly
by Iain Banks and Ken Macleod
Little, Brown, 176pp., £12.99
When I interviewed Iain Banks shortly before his death in 2013, I was surprised that most of his creative energies were devoted to “fettling” his poetry. I’d known he had written the poems included in Use of Weapons, and dimly recollected that his first published work had been a poem entitled “041” (the old Glasgow dial code) in the first edition of New Writing Scotland in 1983; but had no idea that he had any greater commitment to it. This book is the result of his final edits and, as he intended from the outset, his own work is paired with that of his good friend, the novelist Ken MacLeod. It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that Banks and MacLeod enjoyed a creative partnership just shy of collaboration: it was MacLeod, after all, who encouraged Banks to revise the original manuscript of Use of Weapons and who suggested the reverse-chronology structure. MacLeod himself has edited the poems for publication, and contributes a self-effacing introduction.
The first thing to be said about it is that this is a young man’s poetry. The first is dated 1973 and the last 1981, so they were written between the ages of 19 and 27, after which Banks seems to have given up poetry.
To put that in context, his first published novel, The Wasp Factory, appeared to notoriety and acclaim in 1984. That does not make this juvenilia – there are frequently striking images and sharp insights – it’s more like a chance to watch a writer come into being. Certain concerns and techniques are attempted, honed and explored in the poetry, almost like catching a glimpse of the workshop of his imagination. It is not all the poetry Banks wrote: notably this selection excludes “Feu de Joie”, the long poem originally intended to be Uncle Rory’s poem on the floppy disks in The Crow Road and subsequently reworked in prose as “A Song of Stone”.
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The works here have the virtues of a young man’s poetry – sincerity, anger, confidence, a willingness to tackle the Big Issues of God, Love and Politics – and some of the concomitant drawbacks, notably a slight tang of solipsism.
The opening poem, “Damage”, shows the clear influence of the early TS Eliot, with two enigmatic characters, Mme Mercure and Ferris, in a landscape of “crumbling enamel under stained windows”, “the boards dead feet have scraped”, a “skylight, cracked and yellow” and a “snow-crushed garden”. The commuters have “pale streaks of faces”. A crime has been committed (or has it?), and the imagery circles around fire, combustion and burning.
Later poems also use the Eliotic techniques of interspersed song, and lines broken off midway. Even in this earliest of early works there is typically Banksian word-play – a diary entry reads “Tue”: an abbreviation of Tuesday or from the French tuer, to kill? Later poems, such as “Mediterranean” have such revelling in language as “Xerxes exerted” and, at Damascus, “Me Tarsan, you Jesus”? “Mediterranean” shows that Banks was a lifelong sceptic about matters religious (to the extent of being obsessed by it), ending “Shoot your stupid myths/ Kill your cosy faiths”.
A more sympathetic work is “Jack”, in which the stained glasses (stained with the detritus of self) are the perfect image for a blinkered world-view. The righteous indignation which crackles through these poems shows that Banks’ later engagements with politics – tearing up his passport in protest at the Iraq war – was no passing publicity coup.
Of course, one looks for hints of what was to come. There is an obsession with technology, and even alien-ish names in “Caucasian Spiritual”, as well as a hint of Edwin Morgan, especially in the refrain “The end justifies the means/ The end justifies the means/ The ends justifies the means/ The end mustifies the jeans… If the meanies send the just/ Ends the jean must, ie if the”. But what is most striking of all is the generous humanism which typified his work. In “Skull” he wrote “There is a skull beneath the skin all right,/ But beneath the bone/ A brain./ And though the hard/ Outlives the soft/ In the reckonings of decay/ That hardness to in dust’s betrayed/ While that other can, and can choose to/ Leave Changes”.
MacLeod continues to write poetry, and although the final cadenza here is a reworking of The Waste Land ,“A Fertile Sea”, with Marxism replacing mysticism and cosmonauts instead of Fisher Kings, his style is more typically reminiscent of Auden or MacNeice. There’s more use of rhyme, and a kind of specificity in the choice of nouns, favouring the concrete over the abstract. The concerns are markedly similar – atheism, socialism, the natural and the unnatural. There is a clear-sighted anger at both the subject and the West’s hypocrisy about the subject in “Stalin”, some ingenious parody in “The Word” and a sort of fantasy on HG Wells, “The Morlock’s Arms”.
There’s the old joke about asking directions and being told “Well, I wouldn’t start from here”. I wouldn’t give the poems to a reader who’d never read Banks or MacLeod to start from here, but here is where they started from, and a fascinating point of embarkation it is.
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