Thursday, 17 January 2013

T S Eliot Prize Redux: Robin Robertson's 'At Roane Head'

As I'm still feeling a bit preoccupied with all things T S Eliot Prize-related, I thought I might post an entry or two or three on poems or collections from past years which made a particularly strong impression on me. I'm not good on detail, so it's often the case that I remember more of an impression or a feeling from such an event, rather than specific poems or moments. If I do remember a moment vividly, it was something powerful.

I realised that Robin Robertson (who I am not obsessed with!!) has been responsible for a couple of these moments in my personal T S Eliot Prize history. One was at the 2006/2007 readings, when he was nominated for Swithering. I remember being quite taken by the long poem on Actaeon and Diana which he read; the rather bleak Scots accent, and the poem's lines cutting like knives.

Even more impressive was hearing Robertson read 'At Roane Head', at the 2010/2011 readings in the Royal Festival Hall. This poem had already won the 2009 Forward Prize for best single poem, which is a great honour. It also formed part of his T S Eliot Prize-nominated collection The Wrecking Light.

I won't describe the poem, particularly: it is self-explanatory when you read it. It would probably suffice to say that it is mythic, unpleasant, and unforgettable. The imagery, as is often the case with Robertson's poems, is taut and sharp: many cutting, percussive words which interweave into something flowing, like the drag of pebbles on a seashore.

What I remember is the extreme, tense silence in the Royal Festival Hall as he read the final lines unhurriedly, almost flatly. It was a silence so complete, in a hall full of people, that it was slightly frightening.

You can read 'At Roane Head' on this link:

AT ROANE HEAD (Robin Robertson)

And this is a video of Robertson reading the poem:


  1. I find this poem to be really extraordinary. And I'm so glad I watched and listened to the video clip of the reading. There's something very maritime about it all, to suit the subject matter partly, of course, but the whole poem seems enveloped by the sea. I felt the author could have been a resident of some remote corner of the Shetland archipelago--he seems quite cool and windswept. The vocabulary is tremendous, most unusual but not one bit out of place: the quicken, a whicker of pigeons, hirpling, chittering, beglamoured, smoor and scraich. I'm going to share this one.

    1. It is remarkable, isn't it. And I quite agree, there are many unusual words, but they don't seem at all jarring or "too much".

      The poem certainly brings up so many images and sounds which aren't even directly stated in its words. I "see" so much when I read it. I found a quote from Robin Robertson which explains it in part - he grew up on the northeast coast of Scotland and said that "history, legend and myth merged cohesively in the landscape."