Interview: Poetry is about engaging the wider world, says Robert Crawford

Robert Crawford's latest work has a Scottish accent yet engages with a wider world. Picture: Jane Barlow
Robert Crawford's latest work has a Scottish accent yet engages with a wider world. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Poet Robert Crawford believes the discipline is close to music and endeavours to make his work sing, he tells Susan Mansfield

It has been said that poetry makes nothing happen. That poetry and politics don’t mix. That art which is also polemic can’t be good art. It is said quite a lot, but not by Robert Crawford.

Anyone who has read his work will be in no doubt where he stands on Scottish politics. His last poetry collection, Testament, was published a few weeks before the independence referendum, and included some of his most overtly political work to date. His first collection, in 1990, was called A Scottish Assembly.

“I think as soon as you say to poets, ‘poetry mustn’t do such-and-such’, there’s a certain badness factor where you think, ‘well, I could try doing this’,” he says, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Poetry needs the freedom to go where it will. It’s a tension, perhaps, between nuance and propaganda. I think, in poetry, you are always wanting to be on the side of nuance. Nonetheless, there are moments, not least in Scottish poetry, where politics comes to the fore. It’s that sense of complication and nuance, fused with a political imagination, which attracts me.”

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One might say that his latest collection, The Scottish Ambassador, just published by Jonathan Cape, is more nuanced, less overtly political, although the title poem begins with an well-aimed anti-Brexit dart: “Still loyal to our European partners…” Crawford says: “One thing it’s about is going forth and engaging with the world, and yet being conscious of a Scottish perspective. The book is trying to sing Scotland, but also Scotland as part of a much wider realm. I’m wanting to talk about the local and the national but also the international and the different, get a balance between detailed specifics and human universals.”

If the book speaks with a Scottish accent, it also affirms its right to speak about anything and everything. One sequence in the book fuses elements of Heraclitus and ancient Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty, translating them into Scots. Cultural references range from Madame Butterfly to ancient Assyria. If it’s a vision of Scotland, it’s a complex, expansive one. “You don’t want to be boxed in. No one wants to be boxed in by a definition of their identity, even if aspects of their identity might matter an awful lot to them. I think a combination of the foreign and the familiar has always been important to my imagination. When you’re making poems, you take your material from wherever you can, in a rather kleptomaniac way.”

Does poetry have a role, as Hugh MacDiarmid might have said, in shaping the identity of a nation? Crawford is careful. “I think it’s easy to get terribly self-important about that. I do like the idea of being able to voice aspects of the nation, but the truth is that in our society poetry is a relatively marginal art form. It’s not quite the same as saying poetry makes nothing happen, but a danger of political poetry might be grandiosity.”

Crawford grew up in Cambuslang (he celebrates it as part of a sequence of poems in the new book about Scottish cities and towns) and describes himself as a “frustrated artist”. He attended Saturday morning classes at Glasgow School of Art, hoping to study there, but ultimately went to Glasgow University to read English instead. “Which was the right decision, I say that slightly mournfully. I had quite a good sense of colour but a really lousy sense of draughtsmanship. My painting just didn’t improve beyond a certain stage, whereas I was already writing poetry by then and was getting a bit better.”

Quietly and steadily, he gathered acclaim for his poetry. Like the man himself, it is fiercely intelligent and voices its thoughts elegantly. There is something restrained about it, one might also say Presbyterian (his grandfather was a minister), but with fire burning underneath. It is, perhaps, no coincidence, that there are several poems in the new book about fire, or that he speaks about the process of writing poetry as a metallurgical fusion of ideas under pressure.

Poetry, then, was his vocation, but it is notoriously bad at paying the bills. When he was offered a full-time job at St Andrews University in 1989, it brought a promise of stability for him and his family. He is a prolific and talented academic, with a significant output of books of literary history, criticism and biography (he is currently working on the second book in a two-volume biography of T S Eliot), but he worried that too much academic writing would “abuse the muse”.

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His way to deal with this was (ironically) to write a book: The Modern Poet: Poetry, Academia and Knowledge Since the 1750s. “Hardly anyone read it, but it was a book I felt I needed to write because I had to work out how to survive working in academia and going on writing poetry. I realised that quite a lot of poets have had to negotiate this, right from the 18th century. You need to learn from other examples. Poetry is a long game; you get disheartened. Seeing how other people have managed it can be useful.”

Having kept his distance from the university’s burgeoning creative writing programme, he has recently become more involved. “I used to think it would syphon off energy which I wanted to protect for my own evil ends. But then I thought, well, other people manage to do it and it’s not really damaging them, why am I being so prissily self-protective? I think some of the most important creative writing teaching is one-to-one where you’re going through somebody’s work line by line, often suggesting to them, could you cut that? Not foisting your voice on to somebody else, but helping the other person release their voice by cutting out stuff so that their voice remains, but in the most concentrated form.”

A lot of his editing of his own work is to do with cutting out, too. “It’s all about resonance. The white space around the poem matters, that’s letting the resonance spread out into the blank space which is the reader’s imagination, that’s how the poem operates. So if you can clear more ground about it by leaving things out, that often makes the poem stronger.”

Resonance, of course, is to do with sound. “I can’t even read music or even play an instrument, but cadence and rhythm are vital to poetry, as far I’m concerned. Ultimately what I love about Eliot is the music of his poetry. What you’re trying to do when you make poems is make a kind of music. I think poetry is as close as language can get to music without bursting into song.

“So I want to sing Scotland! But in not too grandiose a way!”

• Robert Crawford, The Scottish Ambassador, is published by Jonathan Cape, £10. He will talk about the book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with fellow poet Angus Peter Campbell on Friday 17th August, 12:15pm