Mick Imlah


Born: 26 September, 1956, in Aberdeen.

Died: 12 January, 2009, in London, aged 52.

AT THE Scottish Poetry Library last night tributes were paid to Mick Imlah when several poets read from New Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, an anthology dedicated to him. Today brings Imlah's funeral in Oxford; tomorrow a further service at Colmonell by the River Stinchar in Ayrshire.

Michael Ogilvie Imlah was born in Aberdeen in 1956 and ranks among the finest Scottish poets of the generation that includes John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson. With his twin sister, Fiona, he spent his early years in Milngavie, familiar with "the softer suburbs of the Kirk". His family moved to Kent when Imlah was ten and he was educated at Dulwich College, then Magdalen College, Oxford.

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Brilliant, handsome, hard-drinking, Imlah was, at Oxford, a literary and a sporting star. Graduating with first-class honours in English in 1979, he began, but did not submit, a doctorate on Arthurian myth in Victorian poetry. He twice held a junior lectureship in English at Magdalen in the 1980s. Still in his twenties, he became editor of Poetry Review.

Imlah's circle in Oxford included his teacher (and first publisher) John Fuller, the poet Bernard O'Donoghue and Imlah's near contemporaries Andrew Motion, Alan Hollinghurst and Steven Boyd.

In his moving elegy for Boyd, a fellow Scottish rugby fan who later taught English at St Andrews University, Imlah says his own "Southern education … Had trimmed my Scottishness to a tartan phrase/ Brought out on match days and Remembrance Days".

Many who met him or heard his voice would not have perceived that Imlah was Scottish; ever intelligently elusive, he was alert to that. One of the most memorable poems in his first full collection, significantly titled Birthmarks, has its Oxford academic speaker encountering a drunk Aberdonian tramp and reflecting parenthetically, "(Och, if he'd known I was Scottish! Then I'd have got it.)"

In his late twenties, Imlah was awarded a Society of Authors Gregory Award. Birthmarks, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, was published by Chatto and Windus in 1988. Full of playful cleverness, the book also has an undertow of erotic and alcoholic damage. It is complex and deft in its treatment of class, gender, and national identities, as well as in its handling of poetic form. After its publication, Imlah succeeded Andrew Motion at Chatto as poetry editor, working with shrewdness and precision.

Leaving Chatto in 1993 he worked for the rest of his life as poetry editor of the Times Literary Supplement, where close colleagues included James Campbell, former editor of the New Edinburgh Review.

Imlah's editorial position possibly made him unusually fastidious about releasing his own poems. He almost failed to deliver his work for Penguin Modern Poets 3 (1994) in time for publication; though he published individual poems and a pamphlet (Diehard, 2006), it was not until two decades after Birthmarks that Faber published his second full collection.

In the late 1990s Imlah and I co-edited The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000), work which dovetailed with his own poetry. He was very keen, for instance, to anthologise part of Robert Henryson's medieval Scots Orpheus and Eurydice, which now supplies the epigraph for Imlah's elegy for Stephen Boyd and informs, in another poem, his presentation of Burns as "The Ayrshire Orpheus".

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Though he loved to spend time in Scotland, Imlah seldom gave readings here – a memorable exception was in St Andrews in April 1990 – and he was aware he was rarely considered as a Scottish writer. He had a sometimes worrying fascination with the Scots-born Victorian poet James Thomson, who had moved south as a child and whose alcoholic London peregrinations underpin The City of Dreadful Night.

In 2008 Faber published Imlah's insightful and superbly introduced selection of Edwin Muir's poetry. The same year his own collection The Lost Leader (its title gestures towards Bonnie Prince Charlie) came as a revelation – showing just how much he had accomplished. Running the gamut of Scottish literature and history, the poems of The Lost Leader confidently yet often elegiacally reimagine material from Columban Iona to modern times.

Widely praised, the book was awarded the Forward Prize for poetry. Its contents demand sustained attention. They reveal fully Imlah's gifts of irony as well as plain-speaking, lyricism fused with layered craftsmanship; also his love for his partner, Maren Meinhardt, for his young daughters, Iona and Mary, of whom he was so proud, and for the Scotland with which he increasingly identified from a distance.

By the time the book appeared, its rugby-playing, running, cricketing author was already grievously ill with motor neurone disease. He bore this with courage, even thoughtful humour. Faber plans to reissue Birthmarks and to publish a selection of his prose.

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