John Glenday had published four collections of poetry at the time of his recording for the Poetry Archive: The Apple Ghost (Peterloo Poets, 1989), which received a Scottish Arts Council Book Prize; Undark (Peterloo Poets, 1995), which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation: Grain (Picador, 2009), shortlisted for both the Ted Hughes Award and the Griffin International Poetry Prize; and The Golden Mean (Picador, 2015), shortlisted for the Saltire Scottish Poetry Book of the Year and Winner of the 2015 Roehampton Prize.

Glenday’s poetry is often characterised by a subtle, finely-tuned attention to the natural landscapes of Scotland, observation of which gives rise to mediations on death, religion and nationality. These are delivered, sometimes, in highly musical, lyrical long lines (‘the way / the morning breaks against itself marks progress / of a sort; like a prow digging under, ploughing the hour white’), but also, occasionally, in deceptively plain language which, when extended over a prolonged syntactical unit, can warp and buckle unexpectedly. ‘A Westray Prayer’ displays all of these qualities.  With extraordinary deftness, the poem strings together a range of registers, tones and concerns – pastoral, political, devotional – concluding with a couplet whose powerful simplicity is more than earned by the swerves and nuances which precede it:

Let us now give thanks

for these salt-blown

wind-burned pastures

where outgrass and timothy

shrink from the harrow of the sea

where Scotland at long last

wearies of muttering it own name

where we may begin

to believe we have always known

what someone in his wisdom

must have meant

when he gave us everything

and told us nothing.

In other modes, Glenday demonstrates his ability to connect different orders of experience – the personal and the historical, the local and the global – in an equally intricate fashion. In a witty, moving poem, ‘Tin’, Glenday responds to the demand for a love poem (‘another love poem’) by unexpected means:

my thoughts were immediately drawn to the early days

of the food canning industry –

all those strangely familiar trade-names from childhood:

Del Monte, Green Giant, Fray Bentos, Heinz.

From this seemingly light opening, the poem develops into a mediation on forms of containment, which touches on the Arctic explorer John Franklin, nuclear waste, tinned peaches, and, implicitly, the history of the love poem itself. The idea of the ‘strangely familiar’ seems, in many respects, descriptive of much of Glenday’s work, in which aspects of everyday experience to which we have become habituated – time, weather, language – are scrutinised so closely, and with such patience, that their basic, irreducible oddness is restored. That this activity of poetic composition is sometimes presented as purposeless, meaningless, or like speaking into a void (as in the conclusion of ‘Imagine you are driving’) only reinforces the impression that these are remarkably intimate poems, both in their hopeful address to the reader and in what they disclose; an impression only deepened by Glenday’s careful, gentle readings of them.

John Glenday's recording was made at The Byre on Nov 18th 2016.

Poems by John Glenday

John Glenday in the Poetry Store

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Books by John Glenday


Scottish Arts Council Book Prize for 'The Apple Ghost'

Prize website

Poetry Book Society Recommendation for 'Undark'

Prize website

Poetry Book Society Recommendation for 'Grain'

Prize website

XE Nathan Prize for 'After Versalius' (from Undark).


Roehampton Poetry Prize for 'The Golden Mean'

Prize website

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