Robertson, Robin 1955-
ROBERTSON, Robin 1955-
Born July 12, 1955, in Scone, Perthshire, Scotland; son of a minister; married; children: two. Education: University of Aberdeen, Scotland, M.A., (English; with honors), 1977; University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada), graduate study, 1977-78.
Home—London, England. Office—Jonathan Cape, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London SW1V 2SA, England.
Penguin Books, assistant fiction editor, 1978-85; Secker & Warburg, London, England, editorial director, 1985-93; Jonathan Cape, London, deputy publishing director and poetry editor, 1993—. Annaghmakerrig residency, 1994; Writers' Room, New York, NY, first writer-in-residence, 1999. Contributing editor, Grand Street. Also guest reader at Arvon at Moniack Mhor and Arvon at Totleigh Barton, as well as other venues.
Poetry Book Society Recommendation, spring 1977; Hawthornden Fellowship, 1985; Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, 1995, for "The Flaying of Marsyas"; Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize, Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year, 1997, all for A Painted Field, 1997; Arts Council Writers Award, 1998; New York Foundation for the Arts Award, 1998; E. M. Forster Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters, c. 2004; special commendations at the National Poetry Competition and the Arvon Poetry Competition.
Camera Obscura, limited edition, Colophon Press (London, England), 1996.
A Painted Field, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1998.
Slow Air, Picador (London, England), 2002, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2003.
(Editor) Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame (essays), Fourth Estate (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of poetry to anthologies, including After Ovid: New Metamorphoses, Faber/Farrar Straus, Forward Book of Poetry, Faber, New Writing 5 and 6, Vintage/British Council, The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945, Penguin, Rilke in English, Penguin, Scottish Literature: An Anthology, Peter Lang, and Soho Square: New Scottish Writing, Bloomsbury. Regular contributor to New Yorker and the London Review of Books. Has contributed work to other periodicals, including Cyphers, Southern Review, Independent, Irish Times, Listener, London Magazine, Poetry Review, New York Review of Books, Pequod, Quarry, Canadian Forum, New Edinburgh Review, Columbia, Descant, New Statesman, Observer, PN Review, Poetry Review, Rialto, Scotsman, Spectator, Stand, Times Literary Supplement, Grand Street, Verse, Agni, Boston Review, Sunday Times, Harvard Review, Paris Review, Canadian Forum, and Yale Review. Member of advisory board, Oxford Companion to English Literature, revised edition, edited by Margaret Drabble, 2000.
After serving as editor for many successful novelists and poets, Robin Robertson began a second career as a poet, receiving praise from numerous critics and writers. Robertson's first book of poetry was published when he was forty-one, a late start that he credits to the effects of working so closely with the writing of others. The poet told Evening Post writer Vivienne Shakespear that "when you come out of an editing and sit and try to write something of your own, you still have the voice of the writer in your head." But with the success of the collections A Painted Field and Slow Air, he looked forward to taking the long breaks he required to be productive.
Robertson's first collection of poetry, A Painted Field, was hailed by critics as a highly notable debut effort. The book succeeded in winning the United Kingdom's three prizes for first poetry collections in 1997: the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival Prize, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and the Saltire Society Scottish First Book of the Year. The Scottish poet, according to reviewer Patrick Crotty in the Times Literary Supplement, has written an "extraordinarily knowing" work with careful consideration ranging from the "smallest verbal detail to the overall architecture of the volume." Though Crotty remarked that the testimonials by literary peers on the front cover are a bit overdone, this reviewer called the collection "consistently engaging and sometimes brilliant" and looked forward to Robertson's next offering.
London Review of Books contributor John Redmond compared Robertson's poetry to the work of William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney, observing that it "echoes… Irish poetry." He called the book a "sombre, highly polished debut… much of it taken up with atmospheric depictions of natural scenes." In Robertson's poetry, remarked Redmond, "Nature… is conceivably threatening but mostly reassuring." Although Robertson "by no means avoids" urban life, his poetry "is marked by a negative reaction to that life." Redmond further observed that "poetry and natural form are linked in Robertson's mind," and he praised A Painted Field as "of an unusually high standard."
Slow Air, Robertson's second collection, offers readers more work along the same lines, with similar stylistic strengths and thematic pursuits. Times Literary Supplement critic Nicholas Laird said, "The poems seep into each other—within and between collections—and this is their strength and limitation." Laird added, "The strongest poems emerge when observation meets incident," as in "Nightdriving's view of an accident. He judged that here was "a poet who should be read both widely and deeply."
In a Poetry review that again linked Robertson to Heaney, Christina Pugh found "a poetry of the finely honed image, the impressionistic landscape, and the condensed line" and observed that "some of these poems reveal the perils as well as the values of reticence. Robertson's very short poems are, in general, less compelling than his longer efforts." In Antioch Review, John Taylor observed that Robertson "structures Slow Air around a search for purity, even piety, ever greater depth of purpose, and renewal." He found that the collection "confirms the Scots poet's ability to probe, with precisely chiseled language, into the central questions of existence."
The book Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame has its origins in Robertson's duties as an editor, which often takes him to public appearances with writers. As the book relates, these events are notorious opportunities for embarrassment and disappointment. In one of the collection's seventy essays, Margaret Drabble recounts how she was mistaken for Lynne Reid Banks on a talk show and did not have the courage to correct the interviewer. Among writers who found themselves reading to uncooperative audiences is poet Carlo Gebler; he asked a group of drunken, squabbling students if they wanted him to finish and was told "Not really." And Michael Ondaatje describes how an American novelist became sick at an appearance at her high school. Thanks to a wireless microphone, everyone could hear her throwing up in the bathroom.
According to Michael Dibdin in a review for the Guardian, the anecdotes became somewhat "predictable." He also remarked that "one is left with a sneaking suspicion that the very worst stuff has been either repressed or self-censored." Dibdin, however, had special praise for entries by John Banville, Julian Barnes, William Boyd, Glyn Maxwell, Paul Muldoon, William Trevor, and Hugo Williams, who he felt proved that "when life lets you down, writing well is the best revenge."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Antioch Review, winter, 2000, John Taylor, review of A Painted Field, p. 124; fall, 2003, John Taylor, review of Slow Air, p. 782.
Booklist, March 1, 1998, Janet St. John, review of A Painted Field, p. 1088; April 1, 2003, Ray Olson, review of Slow Air, p. 1369.
Evening Post (Wellington, New Zealand), December 6, 1997, Vivienne Shakespear, review of Slow Air, p. 10.
Guardian (Manchester, England), December 6, 2003, Michael Dibdin, review of Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame, p. 15.
London Review of Books, May 21, 1998, John Redmond, review of A Painted Field, p. 31.
Poetry, August, 2003, Christina Pugh, review of Slow Air, p. 288.
Times (London, England), March 13, 1997, Jason Cowley, "Prickly Flower of Scotland," p. 33.
Times Literary Supplement, July 4, 1997, Patrick Crotty, review of A Painted Field, p. 26; December 13, 2002, Nicholas Laird, review of Slow Air.*