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  Robert Crawford: The Tip of My Tongue
(Cape, £8.00)

I’ve always had a problem with Crawford’s poetry. I get the feeling I really ought to like it. It is very intelligent, often written with great feeling and wit, tautly written and edging towards the experimental from a fairly mainstream base. He’s basically a lyric poet, but one who has ideas above his station. Lyric poets often end up writing nice poems about being in love, or place from their own point of view, and they don‚t get much further than the personal.

Crawford, however, worries at the matter of Scotland:

            At my cubbyholed desk I work outdoors
            Through blash and sun in Skye and Lingo Fife,
            Yearning and earning, a fiket, deskbound shaman,
            Trying to let the side up.
                        (‘A Scottish Poet’)

Which is okay, after all, he is a Scottish poet, having taught in St Andrews for years. This book is full of Scottishness: both celebrated and mildly satirised. There is a very nice elegy for Iain Crichton Smith, and poems about St Andrews, Glasgow and Uist.

But ­ that deskbound shaman keeps popping into mind. This is very deskbound poetry. Even its Scottishness sounds bookish, distant. His celebration of the variouness of place almost sounds as if he’s been reading a Rough Guide in one hand and Hugh MacDiarmuid in the other:

            I want to thank each head of water
            In Lake Baikal and polar Lake Vostok.
            Thanks, too, to that Zurich Zoo chimp for taking
            Her vertical stroll up a rope,
            And to stones ­ strong, geriatric gneiss
            In the hip-deep soil of the world.
                        (‘Acceptance Speech’)

There is nothing of the galloping enthusiasm of, for instance, Edwin Morgan, nothing of the sense of fun that lies behind the considerable intelligence. Thinking of what Norman MacCaig would do with a poem ‘The Bad Shepherd’:

            I am the bad shepherd, torching my flocks in the fields,
            Feeding them accelerant, hecatombs of wedders and tups.
            In pits or pyres all are sheared and shamed by the flames.
            Every sheep is a black sheep in that fire,
            Penned in by heat, conspicuously consumed. 

You can see his limitations. Those obvious puns and the way he spikes the obvious cliché: it’s clever in an essayish way, as if he’s thought, ‘I really ought to write a poem about the foot-and-mouth tragedy; because, after all, I’m an important poet, so I should do.’ Even Norman MacCaig’s lesser poems were deeply felt, and sharply observed: not in the least experimental, but never merely clever. 

I keep thinking I must be missing something: he obviously thinks a lot about the world, about Scotland, about whatever he’s writing. And underneath it, I think he does feel strongly about what he writes: otherwise, why write the poems? Yet all that comes across is the occasional clever image, the dictionary-swallowing words (hecatombs, holophotal) and the more-Scottish-than-you lingo (dreich, wee, sleekit). The all-pervading irony swamps everything, even the few better and more personal poems like ‘Bionote’ and ‘Conjugation’: it stops you getting close to the poems. 

Which would be fine if there were something else going on. If there were ideas that made you think, rather than a sense that he’s writing about what he thinks he ought to write about. If he was taking you on a journey somewhere ­ but the rhythms are too clunky and the poems too short to go anywhere. Yet here he is, a Cape poet, with a host of books to his name, some of which, like Masculinity, are a lot better than this. What has happened? 

Even in his earlier poetry, there was a tendency to writing poems to a scheme. The long words and the mixture with dialect have always been there. The love of Scotland, and the intellectual endeavor, has always been there. Except in this book, they seem to have become divorced from feeling. There are some frankly bad poems in this book (‘The Bad Shepherd’ is probably the worst, but ‘Credo’ comes a close second) but there always are in most books. Here, though, they don’t stick out much from the general lack of real involvement. 

If there’s one big disappointment, it’s this inability to get involved in the poems. Good poems sweep you along with the language, they make you read on from the first line to the last. These poems are like reading mud; I find myself dragging through them. I wish I could tell you what the problem is: but all the elements are there. They just don’t fit together this time.

            © Steven Waling 2003