Webs of mean­ing

Two po­ets weave Buchanan, Burns and Freud into mod­ern nar­ra­tives of great power and charm, writes Keith Bruce

The Herald - Arts - - Books -


TTheAyeWrite!read FULLVOLUME Robert Craw­ford

Jonathan Cape £9

Salt £12.99 he open­ing lines of Robert Craw­ford’s new col­lec­tion are far from orig­i­nal. In fact the artist Di­eter Rot put the sen­ti­ment rather more pithily in his oft-quoted con­tri­bu­tion to Brian Eno and Peter Sch­midt’s Oblique Strate­gies of 1975: Faced with a choice, do both. Craw­ford’s Ad­vice is more con­cerned with tick­ing ev­ery box, and im­por­tantly it is ad­vice he heeds him­self, to the clear ben­e­fit of his verse.

The Oblique Strate­gies, orig­i­nally a set of play­ing cards in­tended to prod mu­sic-mak­ers and other artists in creative di­rec­tions, are now avail­able to con­sult on the in­ter­net, and it was at the Tower Po­etry site thereon that I once noted Craw­ford de­scribed as “pro­fes­sion­ally Scot­tish”. It was not in­tended as an in­sult, al­though it would surely strike many Scots as such. What it pointed up was a level of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Scot­tish lit­er­a­ture at St An­drews Univer­sity with his home na­tion that put a kilt on ev­ery­thing he wrote, al­beit of­ten a trendy, mod­ern Howie Nick­lesby one.

Full Vol­ume ranges much more widely, but that de­vel­op­ment is prompted less by Di­eter Rot than by Robert Burns, whose bi­og­ra­phy Craw­ford has been en­gaged upon, and the lines from To A Mouse quoted as an epi­graph here: “I’m truly sorry Man’s do­min­ion/ Has bro­ken Na­ture’s so­cial union.”

If the en­vi­ron­men­tal theme that runs through many of th­ese po­ems seems like an­other po­lit­i­cal band­wagon, they cer­tainly do not read that way. Craw­ford em­braces the whole phi­los­o­phy of think­ing glob­ally but act­ing lo­cally, to the ex­tent that Scot­land, when men­tioned, is dis­missed as “a na­tional smudge”. That telling ge­o­graph­i­cal im­age oc­curs at the end of Shet­land Vows, which deals specif­i­cally in such is­sues of per­spec­tive.

It has a sort of par­al­lel in Mea­sure­ment, 20 lines that bounce around the Orkney Isles and their fan­tas­tic in­built sense of his­tory. This is all achieved with a char­ac­ter­is­tic light­ness of touch that makes it seem all the more pro­found: in The Gean Tree he coins the al­lu­sive word Ky­otoishly, which ono­matopoe­ically sums up that approach.

The lin­guis­tic reach here takes in verse de­rived from Ge­orge Buchanan’s Latin from the six­teenth cen­tury and a Gaelic call to bat­tle of the Clan Don­ald from 100 years ear­lier as well as an adap­ta­tion of Por­tu­gal’s Pes­soa. It also ex­tends into the vir­tual world as it rubs against the nat­u­ral one in Sat­nav or cre­ates its own fic­tions in

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