Robert Crawford

Robert Crawford’s next book will be the second volume of his Life of T.S. Eliot.

In a Tuft of Thistle: Borges is Coming

Robert Crawford, 16 December 2021

JorgeLuis Borges’s visit to the Home of Golf in 1971 is still remembered. Edwin Williamson devotes a page of his 2004 biography to the event, calling attention to Borges’s wish to recite Scottish Border ballads while in St Andrews, and to stand alone beside the North Sea. Not long before, the 71-year-old Borges had published a story called ‘The Congress’ which, as...

Poem: ‘Old World’

Robert Crawford, 4 February 2021

Who can see the green earth any moreAs she was by the sources of Time?Who imagines her fields as they layIn the sunshine, unworn by the plough?

Matthew Arnold, ‘The Future’

Barley field, cut, dried,Brewed, poured, you’re so garrulousLong after you’ve gone.

Old English riddle from the Exeter Book

Very few people will read through all these thousands of pages, and their publication risks making Eliot seem more daunting than ever. While this vast hoard offers scholars all sorts of opportunities, the problem for most common readers is to work out what that word ‘Eliot’ now means. Is ‘Eliot’ still the slim volume of poetry that can be slipped inside a coat pocket? Or does the name now unavoidably bring with it this vast body of letters, plays, poems and prose that can be transported only by fork-lift truck and accessed in full only via a computer in addition to a printed library? Just what the name ‘Eliot’ conjures up has always been a problem.

He was the man: Ezra Pound

Robert Crawford, 30 June 2016

Can anyone​ read a biography of Ezra Pound without feeling unsettled? The persistent anti-Semitism; the eager support for Mussolini; the pain and waste of the incarceration, first in a US military detention centre resembling Guantánamo, then in a Washington facility for the insane; the lasting damage done to people in his family circle; the powerful egocentrism at the heart of all this:...

Lithe Pale Girls: Richard Aldington

Robert Crawford, 22 January 2015

In​ 1906, May Aldington, a writer and innkeeper, published a novel called Love-letters that Caused a Divorce. It tells the story of Kitty Yorke, who falls in love with a married man. She abandons her marriage in order to run away with her lover, but eventually, after desertion and long hardship, returns to her husband. May Aldington lived long enough to see her son have a protracted series...

Poem: ‘Camera Obscura’

Robert Crawford, 8 January 2015

Nae knickers, all fur coat Slurped Valvona and Crolla, Tweed-lapelled, elbow-patched, tartan-skirted, Kilted, Higgs-bosoned, tramless, trammelled and trammed, Awash with drowned witches prematurely damned, Prim as skimmed milk, cheesily floodlit, breezily, Galefully, Baltically cold with royal Lashings of tat and Hey-Jimmy wigs, high on swigs Of spinsterish, unmarried malt; City of...

Poem: ‘Levity’

Robert Crawford, 21 August 2014

Baghdad of the West, gallimaufry of Zahahadidery, Heavy with locos, liners, yards and docks Docked now of shipyards, sculpted, purled into shining Titanium hulls where Wild West meets West End, Your square-bashing sandstone kremlin an offcut of Venice, Your galleries a showy clone of Santiago de Compostella, One-off of sugar and gallusness, Adam Smith and preening baroque, Art-schooled from...

I lived in funeral: Les Murray

Robert Crawford, 7 February 2013

Now in his mid-seventies, Les Murray has written some of the most astounding poems of our era. The opening words of several – ‘All me are standing on feed’ or ‘Eye-and-eye eye an eye’ or ‘Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing’ – announce a talent for reconfiguring the English language. In a lesser writer this would be mannerism, but Murray combines...

Escaped from the Lab: Peter Redgrove

Robert Crawford, 21 June 2012

Peter Redgrove had a secret. It was called ‘the Game’. Sexual in nature, this obsessive ritual ignited some of his most arresting poetry, and was vital to his personal mythology for sixty years. Known only to his lovers and a few in his inner circle, the Game has now been made public in Neil Roberts’s remarkable biography of the poet, published almost a decade after Redgrove’s death, along with a new Collected Poems. The revelations in Roberts’s book have an undeniably voyeuristic fascination but they also help readers find a shape in Redgrove’s body of work.

Bad Dreams: Peter Porter

Robert Crawford, 6 October 2011

One of the greatest elegies of the 20th century was written in a flat-roofed Australian beach house beside scribbly-gums and banksias in 1975. The poem and the circumstances out of which it grew are painful. Nearly 20 years ago the poet allowed an Australian academic, Bruce Bennett, to publish details of the events behind it in Spirit in Exile.

In the 1950s Jannice Henry, an 18-year-old...

Two Poems

Robert Crawford, 17 February 2011


eftir Kallimachos

Herakleitos, Whan they telt me Ye’d deed Wey bak I grat, Mindin Yon nicht We sat oot gabbin Till the cauld Peep o day. An sae, ma auld Halikarnassian pal, Ye got seik And noo ye’re someplace Deid in the grun – But thae sangs, aa Yon nichtingales o yourn Still soun Lik they sounded Then When we set oot An sat oot, Twa young men. Daith taks the...

Two Poems

Robert Crawford, 23 September 2010


If I could read music And play the piano I’d interrupt you With no notice Wherever you are In some seminar In Edinburgh Or sitting alone In your office. Today I’d haul my pianoIn medias res And play Like Géza Anda, Like Alfred Brendel, Like Frédéric Chopin, Like Claude Debussy, Like all the alphabet Of subtle pianists So impossibly When we kissed It would...

Poem: ‘Guide’

Robert Crawford, 11 March 2010

Year in, year out The guide still follows A well-paced route Through those small rooms Until the tour group Have all been told And told again About the diarist, About the poet, Brother and sister, Husband and wife; So their plain life Stays still Green in the rain, The stress Less on fame Than on wee mundane Details: How He once failed To neatly ink His name Inside the lid Of His sole suitcase,...

Poem: ‘Really’

Robert Crawford, 24 January 2008

Hi I’m Lois I’m lonely I live near the motorway on Lewis Want to chat with me? I love chatrooms You might have seen me on TV I’m really feral I’m twenty-one I love chatrooms Want to chat with me? It’s so hot here I love Paris I used To dance there I’ve just washed all my hair Hi I love existentialism Want to chat with me? I temp as an archaeologist but...

Two Poems

Robert Crawford, 20 September 2007

Wool and War

after the Latin of Florentius Wilson of Elgin (c.1500-47)

Never mind our European allies. The Arab snuggles into wool. It’s worn By peoples round the delta where the Nile Courses down from sky-high mountain peaks, Splashing broad fields each year, slashing across The desiccated soil of Libya In one grand arc. Upscale designer dressers Sport wool in old Damascus, and so too...

In Bloody Orkney: George Mackay Brown

Robert Crawford, 22 February 2007

Poets need to dig in. This involves psychological concentration, a focus on the act of writing, but also on how to limber up for writing: they must be open to the often accidental stimuli that nourish poems. Travel can encourage this, but too much travel dilutes it. For many poets familiar ground is best. Tennyson had the gateposts of his house distinctively painted so that he didn’t...

Poem: ‘Beleago’

Robert Crawford, 20 April 2006

after the Latin of George Buchanan (1506-82)

Diogio de Murca, Head and King, Rector of Coimbra University, We all admire the way you’ve got ahead, But your Sub-King Co-ordinator of Commercialisation, your Head of Advanced, Enhanced Entrepeneurship, that wee Master Beleago, MBA (Monster of Bestial Accumulation) Whose ugly hooves tramp on our heads Is so pigheadedly convinced That he has...

Poem: ‘Coming to France’

Robert Crawford, 17 November 2005

after the Latin ‘Adventus in Galliam’ of George Buchanan (1506-82)

Badlands of Portugal, bye-bye For ever, starving crofts whose year-round crop Is lack of cash. And you, fair France, bonjour! Bonjour, adoring sponsor of the arts, Your air’s to die for, and your earth’s so rich Vineyards embrace your warm, umbrageous hills, Cows crowd your pastures, glens gabble with...

Poem: ‘The Exorcist’

Robert Crawford, 23 June 2005

after the Latin ‘Franciscanus’ of George Buchanan (1506-82)

A barren haugh. No flowers, no trees for miles. No use for harvest. Barbed-wire thistles spatter Dour, poisoned fields. Bare space. Hoofprints of cows. Dysart, folk call it. Under desert earth Vulcan’s mile-long unmined coal still smeeks In runnelled caves. Random, lung-clogging fires Belch out all over through the...

Three Poems

Robert Crawford, 4 November 2004

The Also Ran

The hare wasn’t there. The hare was nowhere To be seen, a sheen Of kicked-up dust, the hare’s coat, Every hair of the flank of the hare so sleek, so chic, It was sponsored, it caressed his physique. Out of sight, out of mind, the unsponsored tortoise fell Into a vertical sleep that sank him deep Down in his shell. He dreamed. He smelled the smell Of formula one. The...

Poem: ‘Omens’

Robert Crawford, 19 August 2004

after the Gaelic of the ‘Carmina Gadelica’

Monday at 6 a.m. I heard a lamb,

And then, while I sat by, A snipe’s kid-cry.

I saw the cuckoo, grey as slate Before I ate.

On Tuesday, late, A slimy flagstone shone Where snails had gone,

And the wheatear, like Ash off a dyke,

Flapped where the old mare’s black Foal stumbled and turned its back.

I sensed right there, Right...

Three Poems

Robert Crawford, 24 June 2004


Nine and Seven, one by one, Lay face down on a home-made skateboard,

Hauling it forward, inch by rope inch, Into the Tomb of the Eagles.

Seven glissaded down Maes Howe’s Five-thousand-year-old chute,

Walked unbowed down its entrance passage Whose stone slabs weigh forty-five cars.

Nine chased Nine with dog-track speed Round Orphir’s circular kirk,

Dropped down rung...

Locked and Barred: Elizabeth Jennings

Robert Crawford, 24 July 2003

Like most poets, Elizabeth Jennings, who died two years ago, wrote too many poems. She was careless about her output, sending Michael Schmidt, her editor at Carcanet, ‘sacks’ of manuscript work to sift through and make into a collection. Even he seems occasionally to have lost track. His sympathetic and shrewd introduction records that her own favourite among her poems was...

Two Poems

Robert Crawford, 20 March 2003


Student poser, presbyterian swami, When Being and Nothingness ruled the Kelvin Way,

I rebelled by carrying a rolled umbrella To lectures. I never finished La Nausée.

Chaperoned through suburbs by my virginity, My act of Existential Choice was pie,

Beans and chips at Glasgow’s boil-in-the-bag Student Ref. Couscous? I’d rather have died.

Nightlife was homelife, the...

Poem: ‘Emily Carr’

Robert Crawford, 28 November 2002

For Alice and Marjorie

Klee Wyck Laughing One they call Through soaked air on Vancouver Island Where she snores adenoidally in roadmakers’ toolsheds Inches down night-chilled slimy rungs To the tippiness of a canoe One woman British Columbia Nosing among floating nobs of kelp The bay buttered over with calm

Parents christened her Emily Carr Wee faces scribbled on her fingernails Black...

Bard of Friendly Fire: The Radical Burns

Robert Crawford, 25 July 2002

It’s hard to call any poet a ‘bard’ now except as an ironic jab. Few poetic terms have shifted in significance so much. When, around 1500, William Dunbar called a rival Scottish poet an ‘Iersche brybour baird’, each word was a studied insult. ‘Iersche’ (Gaelic) was barbarous to Dunbar’s Lowland ear; a ‘brybour’ was a vagabond; a...

Four Poems

Robert Crawford, 21 February 2002

Native Language

Overnight I’ve listened to thirty Vancouver stories, Not leaving my room. My jet-lagged ear Tunes in to verticals beaming cold H2O Ten levels higher, twenty ceilings below, Blueprinting every floor of the building, Floating each a little, draining it slowly away Down chutes, round U-bends. Hung-over minibar glasses Emit high pings, a dawn chorus of different pitches,...

Three poems

Robert Crawford, 29 November 2001

My Husband’s CV

King of England from 1461, born Atlanta, Georgia, always Zealous Orleanist, became Cricketer, administrator, son Of trade unionist, Irish mother leader Of Gaelic revival, debuting Covent Garden, Wurttemberg, Sardinia; fought Crimean War, Fifth of seven, acquiring nickname ‘Hetman of the Cossacks of the Don’. After carrying army across Bosporus on bridge of...

Poem: ‘Croy. Ee. Gaw. Lonker. Pit’

Robert Crawford, 19 July 2001

Croy. Ee. Gaw. Lonker. Pit.Croy: an animal pen, a rained-on pigsty Snorting with mooning bums of bacon, snouts Spike-haired, buxom, Pictish-beasty, rank.Croy. Ee. Gaw. Lonker. Pit. Croy. Once, dogging off a dig on the Antonine Wall, Knees-to-chin in the back of a Beetle near Croy, I eyed the triumphal arches of Castlecary’s British Empire viaduct above Turfed-over Roman barracks. Soil...

Three Poems

Robert Crawford, 21 June 2001

The Mithraeum

God-mulch. Apollo. Coventina. Snapped-off moons and pre-Christian crosses

Pit the tor. Comeback king, Midas-touch Mithras, his moorland shrines

Dank caves or knee-high proto-kirks North-west of Hexham, waits

First for microbial, then feather-thin, Then skull-thick, unscabbarded dawn

Butchering the bull-black darkness, Cutting Christmas Eve’s throat.

Mithraic puddles freeze...

Bad Shepherd: James Hogg

Robert Crawford, 5 April 2001

For those brought up to associate Scottishness with silence, exile and cunning, much Scots verse sounds megaphonically noisy. ‘You’ve a good Scots tongue in your heid,’ generations of mothers have told their children, preparing them to meet royalty, headmasters, Sloane Rangers or public transport officials. This lore of speaking out is evident in the poetry of thieving,...

Four Poems

Robert Crawford, 16 November 2000

The Auld Enemy

There they are, bonny fechters, rank on tattery rank, Murderer-saints, missionaries, call-centre workers, Tattoos, Bunneted tartans weaving together Darkest hours, blazes of glory, Led by a First Bawheid, rampant, hair fizzin, sheepsheared, Scrummin doon, pally wi their out-of-town allies, Wallace fae Califaustralia, Big Mac, an Apple Mac, Back from the backwoods, wi Rob...

Flickering Star: Iain Crichton Smith

Robert Crawford, 21 January 1999

Smile at that tiny poem and it will sparkle back at you. It is a novel the size of an egg-cup. The first in a sequence of individually numbered ‘Gaelic Stories’, its strength lies in mischievous enjambments. Others that follow confine in very few words life-dramas that have a humorous patina, yet could tilt toward the tragic:‘

Two Poems

Robert Crawford, 12 November 1998

Old Tunnockians

The ritual of the taxi ride to my uncle’s funeral, its names Leuchars, Pitlessie, Blairgowrie, Kippen, Balfron.

Passing a village shop whose window reads YOU CAN’T TOP TUNNOCKS, I save the striped wrapper of a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.

All my family are graduates of that chocolate coating, loyal to its sticky texture on the teeth.

MORE THAN 4,000,000 OF THESE...

Poem: ‘Impossibility’

Robert Crawford, 18 September 1997

Under the North Sea, a mile off Elie Where once she was noticed in a mullioned window, White lace cap rising, brooding over her table, Margaret Oliphant Wilson Oliphant Translates onto starfish and nacred shells Montalembert’s Monks of the West

Still weary, awash with hackwork to support Dead Maggie, Marjorie, Tiddy and Cecco, Her water babies, breathing ectoplasm, She watches aqualungs...

Deep Down in the Trash

Robert Crawford, 21 August 1997

Younger Scottish writers seem to be preoccupied by gender. It is a theme crucial equally to Duncan McLean’s novel Bunker Man and to Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collection The Queen of Sheba. It is insistent in W.N. Herbert’s poem ‘Featherhood’ and Janice Galloway’s Foreign Parts. It bridges writing as different as the poetry of Carol Ann Duffy, Kate Clanchy or David Kinloch, and the fiction of Christopher Whyte or A.L. Kennedy. Some of these poets and novelists are wary of each other. Jamie recently refused to read with Irvine Welsh because of what she saw as the misogyny of one of his short stories. Yet even such wariness reinforces a sense that these issues are worth contesting.’


Robert Crawford, 3 October 1996

‘The Romantic awakening dates from the production of Ossian,’ Ezra Pound wrote, and he was right. One of James Macpherson’s great contributions to literature was the use of the fragment. His first Ossianic work, the Fragments of Ancient Poetry, published in Edinburgh in 1760, uses in its title and as its form one of the familiar terms of classical scholarship – the ‘fragmentum’ – and deploys it to give authority to the shattered remnants which he has carried over into English from the post-Culloden smash-up of the Gaelic world. Macpherson’s fragments predate and nourish the use of the fragment form by such Continental writers as Novalis and André Chénier. The fragment is a form which speaks of cultural ruin, and of potential re-assembly. It is central to the development of Romanticism, Modernism and Post-Modernism. Just as the Ossianic fragments are part of the aftermath of Culloden, in our own century the greatest uses of the fragment have come in the work of poets writing in the wake of a war which shattered the civilisation they knew. Pound used the form for much of his career and Eliot shored up fragments against his Waste Land ruins.’’

Poem: ‘A Life-Exam’

Robert Crawford, 6 June 1996

Answer truthfully from your own heart:

1. Rewrite The Waste Land using only English words of one syllable.

2. Rearrange the entire Bible into two columns, one headed KNOWLEDGE, the other WISDOM.

3. How many women did Henry VIII fancy, apart from his wives?

4. Make one of the following dramatic entrances: Natural, Caesarian, Episiotomy.

5. While breathing regularly, count up your limbs and...

Speaking in Tongues

Robert Crawford, 8 February 1996

No anthology offers us the full spectrum of Scottish poetry, but Roderick Watson’s comes closer than any other. This is the first big, general anthology to offer us work in Gaelic, Scots and English (note the word order) from the medieval period to the present. Catherine Kerrigan’s Anthology of Scottish Women Poets (1991), Douglas Dunn’s Faber Book of 20th-century Scottish Poetry (1992), and Daniel O’Rourke’s Dream State; The New Scottish Poets (1994) all offer work in the three languages, but, as their titles indicate, select from specific sectors of Scottish poetry. When we compare Watson’s volume with its main competitors, the Penguin and Oxford anthologies, it is clear not only that these are out of date, but that they are products of an age when cultural imperialism among publishers seems to have demanded the exclusion of Gaelic verse.

Poem: ‘Male Infertility’

Robert Crawford, 24 August 1995

Slouched there in the Aston Martin On its abattoir of upholstery

He escapes To the storming of the undersea missile silo,

The satellite rescue, the hydrofoil That hits the beach, becoming a car

With Q’s amazing state-of-the-art, State-of-the-art, state-of-the-art ...

Suddenly he has this vision Of a sperm in a boyhood sex-ed film

As a speargun-carrying, tadpole-flippered frogman Whose...

Sperm’s-Eye View

Robert Crawford, 23 February 1995

The family, stuff of novelists as different as Rose Macaulay and James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is absent from much great poetry of the early 20th century. T.S. Eliot’s parents, a religious poet and a businessman, produced between them a businessman-religious poet, and meant an enormous amount to him. Yet they scarcely figure in his poetry, while his criticism, obsessed with issues of inheritance, usually suggests that the kind of tradition that matters comes from books, not parents. Often Modernist poets seem embarrassed by Mum and Dad: Ezra Pound’s father, Homer, is displaced by his son’s epic poem. Pound is his own hero, lonely and supermannish. One has to turn to his biography to realise how much MacDiarmid’s family sustained him as he wrote such superb poems of isolation as ‘On a Raised Beach’. In Auden too, family can appear as weakness. Heredity, in various aspects of Modernist culture from Freud to eugenics, is a source of worry that becomes, eventually, a Nazi obsession.

Four Poems

Robert Crawford, 4 August 1994


Silence parked there like a limousine; We had no garage and we had no car.

Dad polished shoes, boiled kettles for hot-water bottles, And mother made pancakes, casseroles, lentil soup

On her New World cooker, its blue and cream Obsolete before I was born.

I was a late, only child, campaigning For 33 rpm records.

Dad brought food parcels from City Bakeries In crisp brown paper, tightly bound...

Poem: ‘Conditions of Employment’

Robert Crawford, 4 November 1993

Middle-managers drowned while whitewater-rafting Will be promoted posthumously.

How can you expect to succeed in accounts If you’re scared of the bobsleigh? Jackie,

When you’ve finished the MD’s filing And watered his plants, just open a window,

Slip into your lycra shorts And abseil down to my office.

I was in our works canteen when a call Came over the tannoy to watch him endorse the new car. As he bent and touched it, he said, ‘This product will save your area For another decade; it will be loved Equally by US management And families whom its air-cooled rear engine Will power to school. I’m saying this That you may take a pride in your work.’ Nervous execs whooshed him away...

Love Poems for Alice with Old Cars

Robert Crawford, 25 April 1991

In the new dream I give you a big-radiatored 100-miles-on-a-gallon-of-water steamcar Exported by the White Sewing Machine Co, Cleveland, Ohio. You scoot with aplomb

Through Alexandria to Loch Lomond past the indigenous Argyll Motors Factory with its built-to-last Stone car over the door. People call you odd, Determined, unchaperoned, ‘fast’. Your wheels cover

Scotland, familiar...

War Poet

Robert Crawford, 24 May 1990

The finest poetry written by British citizens during the years 1939-45 was produced by T.S. Eliot and by Sorley MacLean. Each was a British citizen in a very different way. Eliot, more interested in assuming Englishness than Britishness, had already taken the un-English step of giving himself a written constitution (Royalist, Anglo-Catholic, Classicist), and gave over one of his three great war poems to the investigation and celebration of his American background. MacLean, a Gael born on the Hebridean island of Raasay in 1911, almost gave his life in the service of the British Crown when he was blown up by a land-mine at El Alamein in 1942; holding strong Communist and Scottish Nationalist views, he had decided he would fight because he was convinced Hitler would attack Russia, and because (as he wrote to MacDiarmid in 1941) his fear and hatred of the Nazis was greater than his hatred of ‘the English Empire’.


Robert Crawford, 7 December 1989

Till recently, I’ve dodged most of Peter Reading’s work. He seemed so much the darling of the TLS and of a metropolitan circle whose powerfully disseminated views it is often essential to evade in the interests of finding a position which affords a degree of independence. Seeing stray poems by him in magazines, I thought of him as having a gift of designer outrage, whose appeal to the sophisticated might be suspect. Was he trying to rewrite The Waste Land with a Black and Decker? Now, looking at Perduta Gente against a background of his earlier volumes, I find my original intuitions both complicated and reinforced. Those partial to the conspiracy theory of the sinking island of English letters may take comfort from the fact that the selection of poems in Essential Reading (1986) is edited by Alan Jenkins of the TLS. And that book contains a few examples of what are (in part at least) knowing winks: after describing a catalogue of sufferings in C, Reading concludes that ‘this, rendered in catalectic tetrameters, might do for the TLS or other reputable literary periodical.’ Heading the blurbs on the back of the new book, Perduta Gente, there’s Alan Jenkins again (in the Observer this time). But literary life is full of cliques, always has been, always will be, for better and for worse. Ultimately, Reading is his own man. What his TLS-ability signals is less his being suavely hyped than his being grounded on the side of the sophisticated. His work is obsessively self-reflexive – ‘but am I Art?’ is its central question.’

Poem: ‘Native Questions’

Robert Crawford, 6 July 1989

Ghosts with lightning eyes, peeled Aboriginal corpses

Gather insects through imported gloaming Catechised in Auld Kirk Gaelic.

After Culloden this land was possessed, Settled in a trance of cash.

Mraat, ghosts with interrogating eyes, Go walkabout in Caledonia Australis.


Robert Crawford, 20 April 1989

‘Where do you come from?’ asks one of the most important questions in contemporary poetry – where’s home? Answering the pulls and torsions of that question produces much of the verse of Heaney, Harrison and Dunn, but it also produces very different kinds of poetry. Martianism had nothing to do with Mars, everything to do with home, the place where Craig Raine (like Murray or Dunn) feels richest. Surely Martianism comes from the ‘Ithaca’ section of Ulysses, the quintessence of home seen from abroad. Home can be a bit smug, though; and sometimes constricting. The poetic celebrants of home at the moment tend not to be women. But if it was once fashionable to see home as a ‘provincial’ bore, there have been poets around for some time, such as Edwin Morgan and Roy Fisher, who give the lie to that. Home is no longer ‘so sad’.’

MacDiarmid and his Maker

Robert Crawford, 10 November 1988

Before 1922 Hugh MacDiarmid did not exist. And only Christopher Murray Grieve would have dared to invent him. Alan Bold’s valuable biography points out that when the 30-year-old Grieve began to write in the Scottish Chapbook under the pseudonym ‘M’Diarmid’, he was already editing the magazine under his own name, reviewing for it as ‘Martin Gillespie’, and employing himself as its Advertising Manager (and occasional contributor), ‘A.K. Laidlaw’. We tend to think of the subject of this biography as the greatest voice of modern Scottish literature; more accurately, he is the greatest chorus.

Poem: ‘Robert Crawford’

Robert Crawford, 27 October 1988

You’re interrupted in the book of the film By someone ringing who’s just seen your name

As the title of an opera. You remember that doctor in Mallaig Born long before Disney and baptised Donald Duck.

What could he have felt? Normality’s strange – Always more of it gets delivered in cartons

With the names washed off. Maybe next century We’ll have extra labels: a...

Two Poems

Robert Crawford, 15 September 1988


Throw all your stagey chandeliers in wheelbarrows and move them north To celebrate my mother’s sewing-machine And her beneath an eighty watt bulb, pedalling Iambs on an antique metal footplate Powering the needle through its regular lines, Doing her work. To me as a young boy That was her typewriter. I’d watch Her hands and feet in unison, or read Between her calves the...

Ecclefechan and the Stars

Robert Crawford, 21 January 1988

The university discipline we now call ‘English Literature’ is a Scottish invention. Though he had already given his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belies Lettres in Edinburgh, it was at Glasgow University in 1751 that Adam Smith became the first person to give an official university course in English that dealt with the technique and appreciation of modern writers in that language as...

Poem: ‘The Dalswinton Enlightenment’

Robert Crawford, 21 January 1988

Patrick Miller’s first iron vessel, the world’s First steamship is swanning across Dalswinton Loch. A landscape painter, Alexander Naysmith Perches on deck beside his good friend, Robert Bums.

It’s a calm, clear morning. The painter will later invent The compression rivet, and work out the axial arrangement Between propeller and engine. The poet will write about the light Of...


Get a Real Degree

23 September 2010

The main problem with Elif Batuman’s piece was her starting point: ‘The fact is that literary historians don’t write about creative writing, and creative writers don’t write literary histories.’ D.G. Myers’s 1996 book The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing since 1880 is perhaps the best-known literary history of creative writing in the US, while Margaret Atwood’s...


3 October 1996

David Craig (Letters, 14 November) is trying to provoke a knee-jerk reaction when he writes of my Ossian piece (LRB, 3 October) in terms of ‘nationalistic point-making’. My commitment to a Scotland whose people have democratic control over their own affairs does not mean that I have undergone a complete critical and aesthetic by-pass operation. Some of the most interesting recent work on...

Jobs Wanted

8 February 1996

If W.S. Milne (Letters, 7 March) thinks that in reviewing Roderick Watson’s fine anthology The Poetry of Scotland I was writing an open letter to Oxford University Press setting out the case for a new Oxford Book of Scottish Verse which I would like to edit, he is absolutely correct. Sadly, Oxford feel that a new Scottish Oxford anthology would be uneconomic. It’s lucky that Edinburgh University...


9 July 1992

Please allow me to emit a barbaric yawp. Some of Donald Davie’s review of my Devolving English Literature (LRB, 9 July) is devoted to poets whom I do not discuss in the book, including Charles Tomlinson, Basil Bunting and Donald Davie. Since, sometimes, exclusions can be significant, I would like to yawp at Davie’s ignoring of the entire historical argument of Devolving English Literature,...

Auntie Cissiegy

10 November 1988

I admire Kenneth Buthlay’s pioneering work on MacDiarmid, and have profited from it. He is right to point out (Letters, 8 December 1988) that he drew attention in an earlier book to a link between the revival of interest in the Metaphysical poets and the idea of antisyzygy. I persist, though, in thinking that this might have been mentioned with advantage in his introduction to the book which...
SIR: Surely Michael Hulse (Letters, 15 October) is right to praise Scripsi and to wonder if there lingers an ‘anachronistic British superiority complex’ towards the newer literatures in English, but he may be generalising too much. He instances resistance to John Ashbery, to Les A. Murray and Australian verse, and to contemporary Canadian verse. As one of the editors of Verse, which has...

Smiles Better: Glasgow v. Edinburgh

Andrew O’Hagan, 23 May 2013

Can places, like people, have a personality, a set of things you can love or not love? Do countries speak? Do lakes and mountains offer a guide to living? Could you feel let down by a city? Can...

Read More

How Does It Add Up? The Burns Cult

Neal Ascherson, 12 March 2009

The late Bernard Crick, who had a fine and memorable funeral in Edinburgh the other day, left a legacy of sharp opinions behind him. Among the least popular was his opinion of the British...

Read More

Robert Fergusson died in Edinburgh’s Bedlam on 17 October 1774. He was 24 years old. He had been admitted to the asylum three months before, against his will, because his mother could no...

Read More

Anthologies are powerful things: movements are launched, periods are parcelled up, writers are made and broken. They are, or want to be, the book world’s performative utterances: defining...

Read More

Until recently, the notion that the academic subject called ‘English’ had any sort of history would have seemed rather odd. Hadn’t it always just, well, existed? Surely, at his...

Read More

Scots wha hae gone to England

Donald Davie, 9 July 1992

In books that go on about how the English have imposed their language and their manners on other English-speaking nations (Australian, Canadian, Scottish and Welsh and Irish, others), what is...

Read More

Two Americas and a Scotland

Nicholas Everett, 27 September 1990

Whether in person or in print, self-consciousness is unsettling. Self-conscious writers, like self-conscious speakers, can’t help betraying that they’re more concerned with their...

Read More

Feast of St Thomas

Frank Kermode, 29 September 1988

‘The idea that Eliot’s poetry was rooted in private aspects of his life has now been accepted,’ says Lyndall Gordon in the Foreword to her second volume of biographical rooting...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences