Robin Robertson

Robin Robertson (b. 1955)
Photograph of Robin Robertson by Niall McDiarmid
Robin Robertson © Niall McDiarmid

Biography

Summary

As well as having a successful career in publishing, Robin Robertson is a poet whose work has won prestigious poetry prizes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Full Biography

As well as having a successful career in publishing, Robin Robertson is a poet whose work has won prestigious poetry prizes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Born at Scone, Perthshire, Robin Robertson was brought up in Aberdeen where his father, a Church of Scotland minister, was the university chaplain. He read English in Aberdeen, before further studies in Canada. After returning to Aberdeen, Robertson moved to London to take up a publishing job, initially copy-editing and proof-reading. He continues to live in London, and is currently Deputy Publishing Editor at Jonathan Cape. He also serves as a trustee of the Griffin Trust, which manages the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Robertson is the author of five collections of poetry: A Painted Field (1997), Slow Air (2002), Swithering (2006), and The Wrecking Light (2010), and Hill of Doors (2013) as well as The Deleted World, his ‘new versions in English’ of poems by the Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer (2006), and translations of Euripides’ Medea (2008) and Bacchae (2013). He edited Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame (2004), inspired by his experiences as a publisher of attending book events when ‘some local difficulty unfold[ed] into something like catastrophe’.

A Painted Field won the 1997 Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize and the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year Award, while Swithering won the Scottish Arts Council Poetry Award and the 2006 Forward Prize for Best Collection. The Wrecking Light includes 'At Roane Head', which was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. In addition, Robertson received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2004 and the Cholmondeley Award in 2012. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Robertson published his first collection, A Painted Field, when he was in his forties, though many poems had previously appeared in periodicals – small magazines as well as the New Yorker, London Review of Books and The Observer – testifying to a long and thorough apprenticeship.

He has spoken of the ‘frictional’ relationship between the demands of his work in publishing and writing poems, which he does in concentrated bursts away from London; acknowledgements in his books list residential centres in the UK, Ireland and Italy, locations which find their way into the poems from time to time.

He dislikes readers seeking personal details in his work – ‘very few of the speakers are identifiably me… it is very tiresome when readers identify me as the speaker in the poem and extrapolate an autobiography’ – and few poems are straightforwardly based on ‘real’ incidents (the exceptions, one imagines, being those about his own children, such as Swithering’s ‘Donegal’). Yet the emotional tone of certain poems, indeed whole books, are influenced by life events: his father’s death in Slow Air, which Robertson has described it as ‘a book about grief and stasis’ (the dedication reads ‘in memory of my father’); and he has acknowledged that his Medea – dedicated to his former wife – connects to the break-up of his marriage. Despite the poems’ wide range of settings – Scotland, Cornwall, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand – Robertson’s sensitivity to landscape draws on his childhood experiences of north-east Scotland: ‘that sense of place people bang on about is absolutely crucial. And there is something about trying to get back to that beach where I walked.’

Jules Smith talks of Robertson’s ‘somewhat bleak, uncompromising, but compelling view of human relations’. The poems are full of grim sexual encounters, disappointed love, suicides and grisly killings. Many reflect contemporary life – the cold intimacy of ‘Blowing out the Light’, for example, in which the narrator’s sexual partner goes unmentioned, and is present only through the bedroom’s decor. Much of the cruellest material is taken from the classics, especially Ovid: Robertson reworks ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’, ‘Pentheus and Dionysus’ and ‘The Death of Actaeon’. Actaeon – transformed into a stag and hunted down by his own hounds, as punishment for catching a glimpse of the goddess Diana naked – reappears as a child in the 1960s in ‘Actaeon: The Early Years’, when Actaeon recounts, foreshadowing his eventual fate, the petty humiliations and punishments dished out by his mother.

Charles Bainbridge wrote of Swithering: ‘In many of the poems a figure heads out into the landscape alone. This is both an impulse to cut free and a hankering after oblivion.’ There is a repeated tension in the work between solitude and companionship, and recognition of the potential insufficiencies in both. ‘Strindberg in Paris’ presents the writer as alchemist, ‘forging lines of gold from lead. A gift for his lost wife and children’, as if poetry might make up for such loss; yet the poem concludes, unconsolingly, ‘With every word he wrote, his hands bled’.

‘I am conscious that I'm not a humorist, and my books are light on laughs’, Robertson has said, ‘but I hope there's a little bit of lightness there, some celebration of the wonders of the world.’ That ‘celebration’ can be glimpsed in an attentiveness to the physicality of things, alive and (as often as not) dead. ‘Artichoke’ and ‘Asparagus’ work at both sensory and metaphorical levels, as does the clever imagery and sound-play of the (unrhymed) sonnet ‘Wedding the Lockmith’s Daughter’.

Colin Nicholson has written of ‘the residual optimism of formal accomplishment’ in Robertson’s work. Though sometimes using the sonnet form, and referring to the imagery of the ballads, Robertson steers clear of strict traditional forms, and rarely rhymes; nonetheless, his vocabulary and phrasing always feel very deliberately worked. Sometimes that deliberateness becomes off-putting, and the poems’ mode of address comes close to that of a minister delivering a sermon – demanding attention, articulating uncomfortable truths, and leaving little room for reply.

As well as versions of classical literature, the collections are peppered with poems ‘after’ modern poets: Rilke, Montale, Neruda, Baudelaire and Tranströmer. Of these, Neruda, with his expansive, optimistic, politically engaged vision, seems the unlikeliest choice; but Robertson has chosen two poems (from Elemental Odes) about dead creatures, a tuna and a conger eel, the former described like an Ovidian force of nature as ‘a nerveless / sea-harpoon’, and the latter, skinned and cooked, recalling the delicate clumsiness of ‘Artichoke’. His book of Tranströmer versions, The Deleted World , was published in 2006. 

Robertson has written, ‘in the face of a god-shaped hole, we are all surely looking for patterns and rhythms of beauty and significance that may help us to make sense of what we experience’. With his roots – cultural, religious, emotional, aesthetic – in north-east Scotland,  and his disinclination to tie his work to broader political or philosophical schools, Robertson continues to mine literature and the contemporary world for subject matter which articulates (in Colin Nicholson’s words) ‘a secularised reverence’.

Further Reading

Selected Bibliography

A Painted Field (London: Picador, 1997)
Slow Air (London: Picador, 2002)
Swithering (London: Picador, 2006)
Tomas Tranströmer, The Deleted World: new versions in English by Robin Robertson (London: Enitharmon Press, 2006)
The Wrecking Light (London: Picador, 2010)
Hill of Doors (Picador, 2013)

 

Selected Biography and Criticism

Colin Nicholson, ‘Nomadic Subjects in Recent Poetry’ in Matt McGuire and Colin Nicholson (eds), The Edinburgh companion to contemporary Scottish poetry  (Edinburgh: EUP, 2009)

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