Robin Skelton Neil Rennie - Essay

Neil Rennie

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If (as in Robin Skelton's first poem) 'the numbering disc' is the dial of a telephone, what etiolated banality cringes in the shadows of (his book's title) The Hunting Dark? Or in those of 'the rivering dark'? Or the 'vast unravelling dark'? The 'hunting dark' would seem to be the preying doubt to which the middle-aged are particularly prone and Skelton, no exception, confirms his anxiety by haunting the scenes of his past. While the tone is well controlled and there are no histrionics, the information that places have changed, that people have died and that 'no dead awake' does not help to convince the reader of the necessity for these reminiscences.

His past accounted for, Skelton brings us up to date with the self-abnegating candour of the confessional poet who reports his lusts, his worries and the contents of his mirror: 'At forty sensual enough, no grey/at jaw or temple….' And, at fifty: 'A plump dark man,/grey hair thick at the nape, bags under eyes …' etc. There are, too, the '… fragments … scattered, random,/fumbling scraps together'. 'Profound? or mad?' asks Skelton.

In the last pages of his book, the poems have been slimmed to a fashionable shape, an elegant brevity, and poetry supersedes autobiography with agreeable results. Some of these pieces are too fragmentary to be effective, but others are self-sufficient, laconic and focus the miniature image precisely realized:

                     'The earth is
                     dark. I see
                     owls in your
                     palm….'

I hope the poems in this volume are in a generally chronological order and that we can assume that Skelton has overcome his self-indulgence, written off the confessional poet (whose poems risk unflattering comparisons) and is developing an individual voice. For the variety of postures he adopts only serves to emphasize the absence from his writing of any definite personal style. (pp. 121-22)

Neil Rennie, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1971), August-September, 1971.