'Poetry Needs the Freedom to Go Where It Will…'

By Mansfield, Susan | The Scotsman, August 16, 2018 | Go to article overview

'Poetry Needs the Freedom to Go Where It Will…'


Mansfield, Susan, The Scotsman


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."

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. …

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