Iain Crichton-Smith’s ‘Poetry’

2013-07-08 08.20.22


It was summer. I found myself on the top floor of the library, on the recommendation of a friend: ‘It’s where they keep the poetry.’

She did not mention it was tucked away in the furthest recess possible.

Many of the names there were predictable: Hughesheaneylarkinplath. But there were surprises too. A very complete collection of Redgrove. Poets from Ireland. Poets in translation.

You could follow the sensibility of the person who had chosen the books. For about twelve years they must have had the best fun imaginable.

It was eclectic, whimsical, untutored. Then it stops, just as the Bloodaxe explosion is about to fill the skies, the New and Next Generations a  very tiny dot on an unimagined horizon.

I imagine the committee meeting which approved the cut-backs, a day like today, hot, slightly end of termish, people faithfully showing up and committing to the task in hand.

(I don’t believe in agendas or conspiracy theories. I believe people follow their lights, talking and pausing and wondering and influenced by other people, for good or ill).

Or perhaps there were no cut-backs. Perhaps the person left. Or fell ill.

The poetry stops.

Except it doesn’t stop.

You can still climb those stairs to that recess and you can still find gems like this. It’s an unremarkable looking book called Ends and BeginningsYou can still turn the pages.

There it is, on page 1, set apart from the rest of the collection, a kind of statement, wrapped up in a surprising lyric poem of thirteen lines that is like opening a window with a view onto the sea.

It is poetry and it is in your hands. The committee did not win.



Poetry has nothing to do with who we are.

It cannot be explained by biography,

e.g. sickness, unhappiness.

Poetry is a swart planet

with which we are in touch, from which

we receive at certain times messages.

Nor is it a black or emerald clock –

I think it is a voice which speaks to us

at night, as unquiet trembling, or maybe

a curious arrangement of stones,

poorly random and yet sonorous,

a packet of crisps beside a Greek vase

on a day with the breeze flowing from the South.


Iain Crichton-Smith, from Ends and Beginnings (Carcanet, 1994)


  1. ‘Swart planet’ is lovely, as is the poem (I’ve often referred to poems as worldlets). Interesting to set this beside other ars poeticas, such as Milosz’s or MacLeish’s. I love those poems but this seems airier and lighter on its feet. Thanks.


    1. I love ‘poorly random and yet sonorous’ as well. As you say, very light on its feet. I think somehow in ways I don’t fully understand that the crisp packet is vital. A


  2. I was touched by your description of the poetry “section” of the library. And also by the serendipity of being able to browse the stacks instead of simply reading the card catalog or using a computer to search. If serendipity is not part of the world of poetry, I don’t know what is. And what you found was so worth finding. Thank you.


    1. Hi Molly
      I think serendipity is really what it is about, you’re right. The finding the poem. The talking about it. Then others finding it. Amazing isn’t it?
      As ever with many thanks


  3. This is really lovely. I must have read the poem once, because I remember ‘swart planet’, but I had totally forgotten the ‘packet of crisps beside a Greek vase’. Loved this. Thank you.

    It also reminded me when I first worked in the college which I’ve just left, and this was 25 years ago. I went through all the sets of books, mystified by which students, in this college of engineers, motor mechanics, office students and sports trainees, had been persuaded to study all the Shakespeare, the (several sets of) different Graham Greene novels, the D H Lawrence and the anthologies: ‘Poetry of the Thirties’ (ed. Robin Skelton), and the tried and trusted (but old) ‘Poets’ Quair’ (Rintoul and Skinner), which started with Chaucer and ended with Stephen Spender; and the complete works of Norman MacCaig, a whole set in hardback. Such books represented a person (or maybe a couple of teachers) with very particular and most interesting tastes. I may have been the last individual to read my way through these books.

    Now I’ve left the college myself. It’s no longer called a ‘technical college’ as it was when I first joined. Things are far posher these days and generally the students don’t do books and often aspire to do degrees. Having said this, I have left some books behind me too, a little trail of them like Hansel and Gretel and the white stones. Or the crumbs. I like the crumb metaphor better. They will be consumed and disappear.


    1. Hi Nell
      I am so pleased you saw this.
      Your reply is worth a blog post of your own, if I may say so!
      Isn’t it amazing how poetry (and ‘Poetry’) reaches across the miles and the centuries like this?
      As ever with deep thanks for your appreciation


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