What we cannot speak about we must
About Robert Crawford
In his poem ‘Alba Einstein’ Robert Crawford re-imagines the famous scientist as a Scot (‘He’d always worn brogues. / Ate bannocks in exile’), a deceptively lighthearted take on one of the poet’s most enduring themes: the complexities of Scottish identity. Professor of Modern Scottish Literature and Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews, Crawford has published seven poetry collections (not counting his 2005 Selected), as well as number of prose works, most recently a biography of Robert Burns, The Bard, which won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award in 2009, and Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination. He writes poems in English and Scots, bringing unfamiliar words in both languages energetically to life with his precise, insistent reading style.
Crawford was born in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, in 1959, and began to publish poems while at school in Glasgow. He went on to study English at Glasgow University, where Edwin Morgan was one of his tutors. After postgraduate work at Balliol College on T. S. Eliot, and a research fellowship at St Hugh’s College in Oxford, he won an Eric Gregory Award in 1988 and was one of the ‘New Generation’ poets in 1994, a group which included Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, John Burnside and many other significant poets.
Reviewing Crawford’s last collection, the T. S. Eliot Prize-shortlisted Full Volume, Sean O’Brien speculated that ‘because Scotland's philosophical and religious traditions retain a degree of everyday currency, its poetry is still equipped with a didactic faculty which English poets have long set aside. This manifests itself as a sense of intelligent urgency rather than law-giving, but…he or she still means you to take notice.’ There is indeed a compelling element of the oracular to Crawford’s work, particularly in pieces such as ‘Clan Donald’s Call to Battle at Harlow’, a version of a Gaelic poem in which he adopts the rallying voice of a battle rouser, or the short poem ‘Rounding’ in which a geological perspective emphasises the cyclical quality of the natural world. But to over-emphasise this aspect would be to neglect the rich seam of more personal meditations, such as those on marriage, fatherhood and the poet’s childhood. In ‘Anne of Green Gables’, for example, Crawford tenderly explores the subtle workings of marriage and the private spaces that might be retained within it: ‘At first / I was jealous when you sat not speaking, / Then put the books away on your own shelf.//…At first / I was jealous. Not now.’
Robert Crawford’s recording was made at ID Audio, London on 15 October 2013. The producer was John Green.