Mick Imlah 1956-2009
The poet Mick Imlah, who died on January 12, was a writer of immense concision and talent, but one with a scant regard for the sense of urgency. Compiling just two poetry collections in twenty years, evidencing the respect and effort of his devotions, provided the world with a legacy of rare worth. It has also left his readers with a profound awareness of pleasures unknown, unrealized, and denied.
His scrupulous output revealed a modesty and lack of ego, but he also possessed strong views about the poet's obligations to his public. "Poetry should at least try to be exciting to read" was his simple but profound dictum. Imlah was born in Aberdeen on September 26, 1956 (with a twin sister). The family moved to Beckenham ten years later, although he retained an innate awareness of his Scottish origins.
In 1976 he won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where his tutor, the poet and novelist John Fuller, proved an guiding influence and an early supporter of his work, printing his debut pamphlet The Zoologists Bath via his own Sycamore Press.
Awarded a First in 1979, Imlah could easily have drifted into academia, but literary journalism was the road he chose. In 1983 he succeeded the current Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, as editor of the quarterly Poetry Review. Being the recipient in 1984 of an Eric Gregory award, which recognizes the work of poets of promise under the age of thirty, seemingly destined him for wider and prolonged success. From 1989 to 1993 he worked as poetry editor at Chatto and Windus, after which he joined the staff of the Times Literary Supplement.
The appearance of Birthmarks in 1988 earned him a Recommendation by the Poetry Society, and a garland of positive reviews. It was a success he was in no hurry to repeat. 1995 saw his inclusion in Penguin Modern Poets 3, but there was little there that hadn't already seen the light of print. Only his diagnosis with motor neuron disease in 2007 provoked the assemblage and publication of The Lost Leader the following year. The reviews were proof positive that the long wait had been worthwhile, and the collection reached the shortlists of the Forward and T.S Eliot prizes.
The breadth of vision, coupled with an eclectic eye for detail, cemented his reputation as one of finest poetic voices of his generation. Imlah's courageous appearance at the Forward awards, where he won, was to be his last.
Mick Imlah was one of those rare beings who devoted more time to the work of others than he did to his own. His reputation will rest on a very select canon of work, less than one hundred poems, but then, quality usually prevails in the onslaught of quantity. That much he knew. This we can discover, and more, from his dignified and finely distilled gleanings.