In ‘Vitruvian Man’, John Glenday writes:
he reached out beyond
the trammel of himself and caught hold
of nothing with both hands.
Something of the same could be said of Glenday himself. His poetry has often returned to the theme of absence; he doesn’t treat it as a void, but as something of substance, something real, almost tangible in our lives. Something that perhaps has a spiritual dimension or lesson to impart.
Jack Underwood in a review of Glenday’s third volume, Grain, put it well:
‘Grain accepts that some subjects are negatively charged, are defined by their indefinability and cannot be named directly. In [his poem] ‘And What is it?’, the act of description is a game of deliberately not seeing, of accumulating a truer sense of the thing by looking and describing around it.’
John Glenday was born in Broughty Ferry in 1952. He has said in interview that his mother was a reader, his father not at all. She gave him the words, his father the silences, a Glenday-like formulation. His ambition to be a poet was first fired in his teens. ‘A lot of people do [want to be poets in adolescence], but I never grew out of it…. Every job I’ve had is really something I’ve had to keep me while I’m writing.’ He studied English at the University of Edinburgh, and after graduating became a psychiatric nurse. Currently he lives in Drumnadrochit and works for NHS Highland as an addictions counsellor.
His first collection, The Apple Ghost, published in 1989, won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. His second, Undark, published in 1995, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. ‘Undark’, the name given to the luminescent paint which eventually poisoned the factory workers who handled it during Second World War, calls to mind light and shade while also negating both. That sense of being there and not there at the same time recurs through Glenday’s work, but without an air of the inscrutable. Glenday’s tone is in fact straight-ahead, even conversational. Complex ideas are worn lightly; it is the emotion woven into his lines that runs deep. This directness of voice combined with his interest in the evanescent is why Kathleen Jamie’s description of Glenday as ‘a tough mystic’ is so apt.
His third collection, Grain, was, like Undark, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. It was published by Picador in 2009, some 14 years after Glenday’s second volume, and shortlisted for the International griffin Prize. ‘I work exceedingly slow,’ Glenday said in an interview with Scotland on Sunday in 2009. ‘The problem is stopping, I’m like [the painter] Gwen John, adding finishing touches as the paintings are being carried out the door.’ The lengthening periods between volumes, one might playfully comment, are of a piece with the poetry itself. Less often ‘here’ than ‘not-here’, Glenday and his work nevertheless persists, connecting with new readers drawn to his precisely worded short lyrics.
In Grain, once more, Glenday searches for enduring qualities beneath the transient world he moves through. And yet at the close of the collection, in its last poem ‘Yesnaby’, he finds in that fragile sense of our existence a quality worth celebrating: ‘Not one of us will live forever – / the world is far too beautiful for that.’ By way of contrast, Glenday also has a gift for recording the throw-away and grubby (‘a stoppered length of old canal, blighted with drifts of knotted condoms’).
Although Glenday has chiefly written short lyrics in English, Grain includes one poem in Scots as well as several prose poems influenced by Michael Donaghy, John Burnside, and Ernest Hemingway. And for all the talk of the spiritual, Glenday’s poetry is often surreally humorous. ‘Tin’ manages to make a love poem out of the fact that the tin opener was invented 48 years after the tin can! As his citation by the Griffin Poetry Prize put it, ‘His highly crafted lyrics are like wrought iron, strong but delicate, with a care for assonance and cadence. He listens carefully to the language he works in…. It’s refreshing to discover a poet whose work is earthly, full of rivers and hills and islands, but where old ideas like ‘love’ and ‘soul’ have not been banished.’