Critical Mass

Mick Imlah (1956–2009)

By Maureen McLane

NBCC board member Maureen M. McLane remembers poet and editor Mick Imlah, who passed away earlier this week

Mick Imlah—poet, critic, and founding editor of Oxford Poetry—has died. This is a terrible loss for his family and friends; it is a loss too for all those who found themselves moved and dazzled by his astonishing poetry. His second volume, The Lost Leader, appeared in Britain in 2008, after what in literary-calendrical time was a massive gap of twenty years since the publication of his first acclaimed volume, Birthmarks.

The Lost Leader more than justified the wait. (See for example Douglas Dunn’s review in the TLS.) The book won the Forward Prize in the UK for best poetry collection and will surely be recognized as a landmark volume in the US as well as the UK as it finds more readers. Reactivating Scottish history for an utterly contemporary poetry, Imlah showed a command of verse almost none of his peers can match; not for nothing did this book elicit comparisons to some of Paul Muldoon’s work. Pivoting between slangy demotic and the most delicate, elevated diction, Imlah explores identity––particularly Scottish identity (with nods to John Knox, William Wallace, and Robert the Bruce as well as to his own possibly mock-genealogy)––alongside masculinity, sport, politics (past and present), and affinities in all senses: erotic, literary, political. He is a great poet of the “mate,” of male friendship and sociability, but also a remarkable poet of public responsibility and the workings of history (with one poem addressing the nineteenth-century figure Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, briefly prime minister, his life conjured through reminiscences in the voice of one of his followers in the press).

While Imlah’s horizon of reference may be obscure for American readers (and for many in England, not to mention elsewhere), the emotional force of the book slowly reveals itself alongside its intellectual heft and metrical panache, most obviously perhaps in an elegy for an old friend, “Stephen Boyd,” remembered on the rugby pitch. A master of the sidelong dramatic monologue, Imlah torqued his language along brilliant rhyming lines and built intricate structures; he also wrote savagely witty epigrammatic poems and compact lyrics. His work is staggeringly accomplished; it is also deeply felt.

Imlah was, as Fiona Sampson writes, “not only a major poet but a major editor, too” (see her essay in today’s Guardian). Among many other projects, he edited a selection of Edwin Muir’s verse and as well as that of Tennyson and served for many years as poetry editor of the TLS.

For those interested in learning more about Mick Imlah, consult the following links:

Bio of Imlah at Faber

Obituary at the TLS

Obituary at The Guardian

Obituary at The Independent

Imlah considered on the BBC