Mick Imlah: Poet acclaimed for the thematic range and exuberance of his work

Given the characteristic modesty and diffidence exemplified in those
observations (the poet will hope, he will at least try), Imlah may not have
realised just how much the new poems he subsequently published in magazines,
all too rarely, were valued. Fellow poets read them with admiration, and
some envy, for their craftsmanship, and readers found in them the excitement
Imlah believed poetry ought to cause. But he kept all of them waiting 20
years for his magnificent second ? and last ? book.

His heartbreakingly early death, at the age of 52, deprives us of someone who
showed not only abounding talent but also scrupulous care and continual
dignity in his practice of theart. That first volume, preceded only by the
startlingly brilliant six-poem pamphlet The Zoologist’s Bath and other
Adventures (1982) ? which featured some inspired free verse of veryconscious
oddity, had been eight years in the making. He had already won,in 1984, an
Eric Gregory award,given by the Society of Authors to promising British
poets under 30; for once, the stock publisher’s phrase about a “long-awaited”
book seemed amply justified.

Later there was to be a selection of mainly familiar poems in Penguin Modern
Poets 3 (1995), and another small booklet, Diehard, in 2006. But there was
only the one further full collection: The Lost Leader (2008). Quickly
assembled following the diagnosis of his motor neurone disease in autumn
2007, it contained all the unpublished work of the previous 20 years he
wished to retain, 58 poems of immense variety and technical resource. It was
incontestably the best volume of verse to appear in 2008, and reached the
shortlists for the T.S. Eliot and Forward prizes.

The poet’s courageous attendance ? he was by then very gravely ill ? on the
occasion last October when he received the Forward was to be the last time
he appeared in public.His reputation will thus rest, securely, on some 80
pieces, all adroitly crafted and original in the treatment of subjects both
bizarre or ordinary, frequently rather disconcerting, and altogether his
own.

Imlah was born in Aberdeen in 1956 (with a twin sister, Fiona). The family
lived in Milngavie, a village just outside Glasgow, where Imlah attended the
local primary school. In 1966 they moved south to Beckenham, on the Kentish
edge of London, and his next school was Hawes Down primary in West Wickham.
From there he passed on to Dulwich College, and in 1976won a scholarship to
Magdalen College, Oxford, where his tutor, thepoet and novelist John Fuller,
was a crucial influence on his development as a poet. Fuller would later
remark that Imlah had been the most astonishingly intelligent of a
succession of remarkable students to pass through his hands.

At Magdalen he excelled in sports as well as academically, making first-team
appearances in cricket andfootball, and captaining the college rugby union
side (a line in The Lost Leader referring to rugby as “the perversion I
was public-schooled in” is not to be taken seriously). He obtained a
First in final schools in 1979, and an academic career might have proved
tempting ? he had two spells, from 1984 to 1985 and between 1986 and 1988 as
a junior lecturer in English literature. But there was a strong competing
temptation; that of the literary journalist’s life in London.

The Zoologist’s Bath was produced by John Fuller on his hand-operated Sycamore
Press in 1982. The nightmarish (yet still very funny) title poem and “Quasimodo
says Goodnight”are extended fantasies done in a Browningesque vein, the
work of a poet immersed in Victorian poetry who was later to champion
Tennyson in a collection he selected for Penguin in 2004.

The other four poems are set in a weird present-day where “Insomnia”,
“A Brawl in Co Kerry”, “Jealousy” and “Abortion”
are simultaneously quite real and frighteningly dreamlike. From the latter:

Uncurled at noon
As dry as a Dead Sea Scroll, I rose and wobbled
Blank about the cabin like a reclaimed monster
Learning to eat; and through a glassy disk
Saw even passage, sun, unpoisoning sea,
And heard the call of sea-birds hosting me
To port, and hatched an eagerness for dusk
And drink, and company…

If that suggests a “morning after” on shipboard more than an
abortion, it is because drink and its observed effects are recurrent themes
in Imlah’s poetry; the poem called “Birthmark” (in the book
Birthmarks) is a laconically ominous study of alcoholic decline, placed
purposefully just before a wild sequence titled “The Drinking Race.”

Imlah and Tracey Warr were appointed joint editors of the quarterly Poetry
Review in succession to Andrew Motion in 1983, and subsequently, until 1986,
Imlah was soleeditor, showing a flair for devisingoriginal themes and an
alert eyefor new talent. There was a spell as poetry editor at Chatto and
Windus between 1989 and 1993, after which he joined the staff of the Times
Literary Supplement, where he had responsibility for commissioning reviews
of books on Ireland and archaeology as well as new verse.

Just occasionally he would venture an appearance at a poetry festival, as at
Struga, in what was then Yugoslavia, in 1990; or take on a creative writing
course with school pupils. All this time he was writing poems which he
mostly held back until he felt ready to shape them into a coherent
collection.

Hardly anything about Birthmarks prepared readers for the sheer technical and
thematic range of The Lost Leader. “Namely” reveals that “IMLACH
was what my family… had originally been,/Gaelic for those of the loch.”
A large number of these poems ? among them the elaborate revisitings of “Braveheart”,
“Mary Queen of Scots” and “B.V.” (about the drunken
Scottish poet James Thomson) ? unexpectedly develop the theme of
Scottishness, and the title poem even ends with an ambiguous tribute to the
cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Imlah’s verse often works slowly as the reader becomes accustomed to the tone
of any given poem, but it is soon clear that the stance in these particular
poems is exuberantly post-modern, by turns scathing, funny and very
touching, a sardonic celebration of what has been called the “tartanised”
elements of Scottish culture and history.

They are interlaced with a number of personal poems, of a kind he had not
written before, about parents, sisters and friends, his partner and his
children. (He had two daughters, Iona and Mary, with his partner, Maren
Meinhardt.) Sadly we shall now never know what their oblique tenderness
signalled for the poetry he might have written in the future.

Alan Brownjohn

Michael Ogilvie Imlah, poet: born Aberdeen 26 September 1956; (two
daughters); died 12 January 2009.

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