Mick Imlah (1956 – 2009) was one of the most brilliant poets of his generation. He published just two collections, Birthmarks in 1988, and twenty years on, the long-awaited The Lost Leader, which won the Forward Prize, and was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot and Griffin prizes. Both volumes reveal a poetic sensibility that was wholly original: Imlah’s poems are by turns lyrical, sardonic, hilarious, and unsettling; there is nothing quite like them in contemporary poetry.

Imlah spent the first ten years of his life in Milngavie, near Glasgow, and his Scottishness came to play an increasingly prominent role in his poetry. When he was ten, however, his family moved south to Bromley in Kent. In 1975 he was awarded a demyship to study English at Magdalen College Oxford, where he remained for the next thirteen years, first as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student working on Victorian poetry, and finally as a Junior Lecturer.

The influence of Browning and Tennyson is immediately apparent in Imlah’s early poems, many of which are dramatic monologues spoken by characters who are untrustworthy, or psychically damaged, or even deranged. ‘The Zoologist’s Bath’, for example, recreates the life of an eccentric Victorian evolutionary theorist, who believes mankind will soon return to its original element, the sea; he therefore refuses to get out of the bath, convinced he will soon develop a fin.

Birthmarks established Imlah as one of the most charismatic, sophisticated, and formally adept poets of his era. Around the time the book was published he moved to London, where he worked as a literary journalist and editor. From 1993 until his premature death from motor neurone disease sixteen years later, he was poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

Imlah’s second collection, The Lost Leader, presents a kind of mini-alternative history of Scotland, from its earliest saints, such as Kevin (the main protagonist of the poem available here, ‘Muck’, the first in the volume) and Columba, through to figures such as Robert the Bruce and Walter Scott, and on to the present day alcoholic of ‘The Bright Side’, who jests “I only get drunk, ooh, / Twice in the year – / Hic! – Tober to May, / And May to October”. It concludes with a sequence called ‘Afterlives of the Poets’ that makes typically inventive use of the biographies of the Victorian poets Tennyson and James Thomson.

It is a great shame that the swift onset of Imlah’s disease prevented him from making a full recording for the Archive, but this characteristically dry rendering of one of his most compelling narrative poems serves as a good introduction to the dazzling range of his work as a whole.

The recording was made in the Bodleian Library's Convocation House as part of an event to mark the first issue of 'Archipelago', published by the Clutag Press.

Poems by Mick Imlah

Books by Mick Imlah



Forward Prize for 'The Lost Leader'

Prize website