|‘There are great books that fail to be recognised at the time but are re-discovered’ … Robin Robertson. Photograph: Chris Close|
Robin Robertson: ‘The poetry world is polarised. I’m in the middle, vaguely appalled’The Man Booker shortlisted writer on his love for Jane Bowles and biographies, and why he never gives books as presents
Friday 28 September 2018
The book I’m currently reading
As always, I have submissions to read (I work in publishing). When I’m allowed to read for pleasure, it’s usually non-fiction – or something ancient and Greek.
The book that changed my life
I was brought up within earshot of north-east Scottish dialect, folklore and music, in what remained of a fishing community with its oral tradition, superstitions and legends. Tending to the solitary, I fell naturally towards books and read indiscriminately. The stories I remember were Scottish folk tales, the Greek myths (in some hopelessly expurgated edition, upgraded slowly through the years) and Grimm. As a teenager I found Mervyn Peake’s Titus books intoxicating, and those novels, probably, started my passion for fiction, while Yeats and Hughes and Heaney were making poetry crucial to me. I’m not sure a book has changed my life, but all great art jolts your perspective and enlarges your gaze.
The book I wish I’d written
I suppose I’m always trying to write that book (which is the only way to pay attention, the only way to improve). To have produced books of the stature of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, or David Jones’s In Parenthesis, without the attendant physical or psychological damage – that would be an achievement.
The book that influenced my writing
The work of David Jones – not just the poetry and essays, but the engravings, drawings, watercolours and, particularly, the painted inscriptions. I hope my admiration for his writing doesn’t stray into mimicry.
The book that is most underrated
There are great books that fail to be recognised at the time but are rediscovered, like John Williams’s Stoner, or novels like Ulverton or Death and Nightingales that offer a constant admonitory warning to judges of literary prizes. I wish more people read Jane Bowles: Two Serious Ladies and Plain Pleasures are wonderful.
The last book that made me laugh
The books that make me laugh, cry, then smash furniture tend to be written by people driven by self-promotion and shallow narcissism; they don’t have time to bother with all that pesky learning-the-craft business: they want “Likes” on social media and they’re having strong and important feelings somewhere near you, right now. The world of poetry is small and currently polarised: it’s often either simplistic or incomprehensible. I find myself in the middle, vaguely appalled. I’m allergic to “light verse”, because it seems a betrayal of the purpose of poetry. Equally, poetry that sets out to be deliberately opaque is betraying the purpose of language.
The book I couldn’t finish
I spend my life not finishing books – though they’re mostly manuscripts rather than books.
The book I’m ashamed not to have read
Being Scottish, I carry enough shame already without needing the help of books.
My earliest reading memory
I remember sitting in the congregation of King’s College chapel in Aberdeen, transfixed by my father’s sermon. I was never a believer, but the power and beauty of his delivery was thrilling. It was the cadences rather than the creed that moved me, and I understood then how language could be made to sing.
The book I give as a gift
I almost never give books as presents: it feels rather presumptuous, or something ...
My comfort read
I feel I’m drifting towards a fondness for biographies, where one can find comfort in seeing people make a mess of their lives and the lives of others and still produce art that is beautiful and lasting.