Obituary: Professor Robin Skelton

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The Independent Online
Two important strands contribute to the rich life of the poet Robin Skelton. Six years ago he retired from the Department of English (and Department of Creative Writing, which he had founded) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. He was, as he said of himself, first a poet, then a teacher; yet the teacher is a subtle ingredient in his work.

In 1963 he published a volume modestly called Poetry in the "Teach Yourself" series, and in 1971 The Practice of Poetry appeared, both of which may indicate a two-fold approach to poetry. First, that to do it you must know how to, but secondly, that endowed with the creative energy, one can bring oneself to do it. Within these limitations, creative energy is teachable, and on these principles all creative writing departments are predicated. However, the stress on the "how-to" which leads on to the "able-to" itself indicates a component in the character of Skelton's own poetry.

In 1964 he edited (with an introduction) for Penguin Books the influential and important Poetry of the Thirties, and although Skelton claimed, rightly, to have responded in his poetry to many other poets, the attention to the Thirties poets, the work of David Gascoyne and Dylan Thomas notwithstanding, shows him to be not a modernist poet but a contemporary one, of the "tell" side of the dictum "show not tell". The vigour of his work fuses with the impulse to tell and interpret how the experience is, rather than to show how it is, and in this he is not so much the modernist as having more in common with younger poets writing now.

This positioning of the self, and re-creative self, with experience, is visible in "Eagle". Some affinity exists between this poem and Ted Hughes's "Hawk Roosting", in theme and in rhythm, but even the staunchest modernist would concede that Skelton's approach ("telling") here widens the aperture of vision (in both meanings) to provide a view of man from the eagle's Olympian position, "I kill what I can bring into my height." Equally, what is compelling in the poem is not so much the eagle's capacity to view up a height as what it is he sees - man with a small but not reductive "m". Humans in their essence are composed of limitations. For although it is the small(er) creature the eagle can and does lift up to their destruction,

they watch the dwindling of their day, perceive

the small earth small, self-cancelling, and share

the shock that is the last discovery; here

they learn abandonment of every word

and are self-rent before I rend . . .

So it is by compelling analogy that as the eagle sees these small creatures available to his predatory nature, so the readers, through the eagle's interpretive vision, see humanity available to death's certainty. And in this we abruptly realise the traditional depths of Robin Skelton's art and psyche:

. . . Image me as God.

I am the final judgement and the rock.

So where Hughes is still (comparatively) predator- creature centred, Skelton's vision sees life as judged by death inherent (as most myths have it) in creation.

Realising this lesson in traditionality reintroduces us to the range of Skelton's performance. He wrote much poetry, there are books on Synge (1971 and 1972) and he is the editor of the work of the important poet David Gascoyne (Collected Poems, 1965 and Collected Verse Translations, 1970); and he was co-founder and editor from 1967 of the substantial Malahat Review, an issue of which was devoted to the work of the under-rated poet, art-critic and literary essayist Herbert Read (whose poems were republished by Sinclair-Stevenson in 1992).

Skelton was Yorkshire-born and educated (Pocklington Grammar School) and received his MA at Leeds University in 1951. From lecturer in English at Manchester University, he became Centenary Lecturer at the University of Massachusetts in 1962, and a year later moved to Canada, becoming Associate Professor of English, then Professor, at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

In a substantial article on his poetry in Contemporary Poets (1985) George Woodcock ends by declaring that Skelton "belongs not to one part but to the whole tradition of English poetry". True though this is, with the formula being more "English poetry" than "poetry in English languages", Skelton's move to Canada was undeservedly at the expense of attention to his work in the UK since.

Jon Silkin

Robin Skelton, poet, critic and English scholar: born Easington, East Yorkshire 12 October 1925; Assistant Lecturer in English, Manchester University 1951, Lecturer 1954; Associate Professor of English, University of Victoria, British Columbia 1963-66, Professor of English 1966-91, Founder Chairman of Department of Creative Writing 1973-76; married 1957 Sylvia Jarrett (one son, two daughters); died Victoria, British Columbia, Canada 22 August 1997.


Vertigo is my territory. Man

only another movement, another shift

in arrangement of shadows beneath my shadow,

angular, thick-boned, cumbersome, and bad meat.

I do not trouble him or the larger kind,

having no love of eating on the ground;

I kill what I can bring into my height,

what I can raise up until, terror-stunned,

they watch the dwindling of their day, perceive

the small earth small, self-cancelling, and share

the shock that is the last discovery; here

they learn abandonment of every word

and are self-rent before I rend and eat

what they already have forgotten, locked

on fear and splendour. Image me as God.

I am the final judgement and the rock.

From New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English (Oxford University Press, 1982)