The bus down from Glasgow was a thing of legend. The city dissolved in a haze of orange lamps and the person beside you would toast the new life with a can of Carlsberg. It was a long night’s journey into day, and London’s King’s Cross, the place of arrival, was a different world then, with cobbled streets below and Victorian gasometers above, in the days before Eurostar and the revived St Pancras Hotel and the walkways and the Guardian. I remember a little cafe that was housed beneath the arches, a place with 1950s wallpaper, dirty windows and a matriarch in a plaid tabard who offered mugs of tea from a gushing samovar. “New, are you?” she asked. And over hard English rolls and bacon – I’d never known hard rolls before – she said the thing to do if you wanted to explore was to check your bag in at the cloakroom of the British Museum. I said that was nice of her and she gave me another tea and drew me a map of Bloomsbury.
A poet is a writer with a scrupulous spirit, that’s what books had taught me, so I came to London with a volume of Scottish verse and an essay I’d written about Wallace Stevens. In the museum I found a room filled with glass cabinets; they contained manuscript pages by well-known writers, and I couldn’t get over them, those wonderboxes, one of them showing Keats’s Lamia and another the inkings of Philip Larkin. I’ll only speak about dead poets here, and not because death becomes a poet, but because the greatness of newer poets is a magical course to me, and I won’t throw out the bairns with the memorial bathwater. I am in love with poetry and nothing is better than a fresh volume by a poet you admire. Ian Hamilton, that ace writer and recidivist encourager and denouncer of poets, could talk about Matthew Arnold as if the saint of high culture was about to walk through the doors of the Gay Hussar. He was present to him. And that is how I’ve always felt about Burns, or Yeats, or Tennyson, or Frank O’Hara. If great poetry helps you to live your life, then what is it exactly that a person can gain from the memorable speech of ghosts?
Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.
Lives of football men remind us,
We can dive and kick and slug,
And departing leave behind us,
Hoof prints on another’s mug.
Yet they were of a different kind
The names that stilled your childish play
They have gone about the world like wind
But little time had they to pray,
For whom the hangman’s rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save:
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave.
On the grass when I arrive,
Filling the stillness with life,
But ready to scare off
At the very first wrong move.
In the ivy when I leave.
It’s you, blackbird, I love.