It is said in the Bible that "a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country" and it is surprising how little is made of the fact that Easington can boast of being the birthplace of a world-class poet and literary scholar in the person of Robin Skelton.
It is true that he is better known and appreciated today in Canada to which country he emigrated early in his career but nevertheless the quality and volume of his writings are such that he deserves to be more widely known and appreciated in his native land.
In his lifetime Robin Skelton was the author of more than 100 books. These included not only collections of his poetry but also novels and short stories, anthologies of the work of other poets, studies in versification, numerous scholarly works of literary criticism, and, rather surprisingly, a number of works on the occult.
Robin Skelton (1925–1997) was born in the old schoolhouse in Easington on 12th October, 1925, the only son of Cyril and Lili Skelton. He was educated at the village school, where his father was headmaster, until the age of almost eleven, when he was sent as a boarding pupil to Pocklington Grammar School.
On leaving school in 1943, he joined the Royal Air Force and his war service was spent mainly in India as a codes and cypher clerk with the rank of sergeant.
After demobilization, he studied English Literature at Leeds University from 1947 to 1950, and obtained a First Class Honours B.A. degree, which was followed by the degree of M.A. in 1951.
From 1951 to 1963 he was on the staff of the English Department of the University of Manchester. During his period in Manchester he became involved in a wide range of literary and artistic activities including the management of a small publishing house, the Lotus Press.
In 1955 he published his first major collection of verse, Patmos and other Poems. This was followed by further collections, including Third Day Lucky (1958), Begging the Dialect (1960), and The Dark Window (1962).
To supplement his university salary, Skelton worked part-time for the Manchester Guardian, first as a poetry reviewer and later as a theatre critic. He was also an examiner for the Northern Universities Matriculation Board and subsequently became Chairman of Examiners for its English ‘O’ level examination. Whilst preparing his work on versification, The Poetic Pattern (1956), he made the acquaintance of many of the leading British poets of the time, including William Empson, Louis MacNeice, David Gascoyne, and Kathleen Raine.
While still in Manchester, he helped to found the Peterloo Group and also the Manchester Institute of Contemporary Arts by drafting its constitution and acting as its first secretary.
In 1960 he travelled to Dublin to research the papers of the Irish playwright, J. M. Synge. He acquired there a strong affection for Ireland and its writers which bore fruit in a number of publications relating to Irish literature including an anthology of modern Irish poets, Six Irish Poets (OUP, 1962) and collected editions of J. M. Synge, Jack B. Yeats, and David Gascoyne..
In 1963, Skelton and his young family emigrated to Canada so that he could take up a post as an Associate Professor in the English Department at the then new University of Victoria, British Columbia. After three years as Associate Professor, in 1966 he became a full Professor of English, and was from 1967 to 1973 Director of the newly formed Creative Writing Program which he had inaugurated. This became the Department of Creative Writing in 1973 with Skelton as its Chairman until 1976.
From 1967 to 1971 he founded and jointly edited the literary periodical, Malahat Review and was its sole editor from 1972 to 1983. He received recognition as a Canadian writer, when in 1981 he became Vice-chairman and in 1982–3 Chairman of the Writers’ Union of Canada.
Throughout his years in Canada, Skelton continued to produce scholarly critical and literary works as well as collections of his own poems. His output was prodigious.
Apart from the works on the writers of the Irish Renaissance, he wrote a number of books on versification and the craft of poetry, including The Practice of Poetry (1971), The Poet’s Calling (1975), and the posthumously published The Shapes of our Singing (2002), as well as editing several anthologies including the Penguin editions, Poetry of the Thirties (1964) and Poetry of the Forties (1968).
It is however for his own poetry that he is best known and for which he would have liked best to be remembered. First published in a student magazine at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he continued to write and publish poems for the rest of his life, producing an astonishing body of work, which continued to change and develop throughout his career.
The earlier poetry published in England in the 1950s and early 1960s was in the New Movement style of the time relatively low-key and unemotional, but he went on to develop his own distinctive style with the reflective often autobiographical and longer narrative poems of Timelight (1974) and Callsigns (1976) giving way to the shorter, brighter, sometimes incantatory poems of Popping Fuchsias (1992) and One Leaf Shaking (1996).
Throughout his life, Skelton was fascinated by the varieties of poetic form and his later poems in particular demonstrate an impressive range of forms taken from cultures as diverse as those of Wales and Japan, as well as forms invented by himself.
Many of Skelton’s poems show the strong influence of his boyhood experiences in Easington and use the imagery of the sea, its tides and pebbled beaches, and the distant horizons across the estuary mudflats. Such poems as ‘Land Without Customs’, ‘Westfield Lane’, ‘Begging the Dialect’, ‘Marsh Cottage Revisited’, ‘Dimlington Heights’ are just a few examples of the more than 40 poems with local settings that appear amongst his other poems. Those who are interested in the local history of Skelton’s birthplace, Easington, should read his Portrait of My Father (1989) which is a biography of Cyril Skelton and contains much material on the school and life in the village in the first half of the 20th century.
Land Without Customs
My land had no customs. Habits, tricks
of the slow tongue, leading beasts to grass,
roads slape with rain, or answering
weddings and deaths in a dry voice
scurfy as dust in the village square,
boys’ names carved into the old stocks;
these—but no customs. Unless you count
the old men making one stretch of wall
the place for their backs, spring sun
blinking their eyes; or the way all
was marbles one day, the next tops,
in the road alongside the brick school.
Certain inevitables there were: the rub
of hands on apron at house door
to speak to strangers, the mild horse
surging the plough at a harsh roar
of ritual violence, the long silence
before speech. And these were
known and unknown. The land stood
somewhere inside them. A phrase missed,
a nod too easy, and boots dragged
at embarrassed cobbles. Two miles west
it was shallower, lighter. I once saw
a man there run for the town bus.
But no customs. In a way stronger
for that, I think. There was no need
to assert the place. It grew, changed;
the electric came and a new road
out to the south, and the telephone.
The pump was condemned. But the past stood.
And I daresay still, in its own way,
stands. Though a plaque by the old stocks
set in the wall is a thought strange,
there in the square are the old looks,
the pause before speech, the drab men
spitting in dust. Should I go back
these will have made me.
The small fields are as small elsewhere, the sky as blue
or just as grey with a thread of rain,
the stacks as lumpish, but here grew
something inalienable, a way
of giving each least thing its due,
a rock to living. A land without
customs, yes, but a land held
hard on its course, unsparing, firm
in its own ways. As I grow old
time hardens into that sure face
watching the foreign, shiftless world.
Westfield Lane, a green switchback
humping and scooping towards the wild
flat of the land north of the dyke
by Marsh Cottage; remembering that,
and, clearly, the saddle's jolt, the spin
of the blurred spokes, and the meshed ruts
tangled at gateways, remembering too
blue sky and boyhood, I begin
counting days back; an abacus
of worlds clicks on my natal string
five, ten, fifteen years back
till Westfield Lane, a scoop and climb
of green between the swaying fields
propels me down into the slack
lands round the deserted house;
dark in this brightest day, it looms
cold and decrepit. The door yawns
at a garden scrawled with a few trees
flayed by salt winds. Just beyond,
the rank dyke threatens the last field,
and beyond that an eight-mile waste
of grey water stirs and waits.
Looking back at Westfield Lane
the eye has altered, the light passed.
The house echoes. I mount and ride
the other road, by graveyard and stack,
home through the silent village square,
chilled and listening. That track
led me too far into my need,
and yet a new need drags me back.
Robin Skelton was an impressive yet eccentric figure whose appearance with long hair and flowing beard corresponded to the popular idea of how a poet ought to look! He was described, in later life, as having the appearance of an ancient druid with his flowing beard, long white hair, talismanic pentagram, tattooed wrist and chunky rings.
Skelton was scornful of convention and social conformism. While in Canada, he became interested in the occult and came to believe himself to have psychic powers of healing after various experiences which he has documented in his autobiographical work, The Memoirs of a Literary Blockhead (1988).
With a colleague, Jean Kozocari, he took part in several investigations of ghostly occurrences and conducted exorcisms. Their jointly written book, A Witches’ Book of Ghosts and Exorcism (1990), details their experiences in this field.
In later life, he was initiated as a practising witch in the Wiccan tradition and wrote several works on witchcraft including Spellcraft (1978), Talismanic Magic (1985), and The Practice of Witchcraft Today (1988).
It is a sad fact that Skelton should be so rarely anthologized and so little known in his native country at the present time even though he is highly regarded in his adopted country of Canada where quite recently in 2006, nine years after his death, he has been honoured by the publication of a new collection of previously unpublished poems, Facing the Light (2006).
Fortunately even here he has not been entirely forgotten. On his death in 1997, both the Guardian and Times newspapers included obituaries of him and he is featured in the new 60-volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography published to mark the new millennium.
In his native village, too, there is a small plaque commemmorating him on the schoolhouse where he was born. It is to be hoped that in the not too distant future Robin Skelton will be ‘re-discovered’ and take his rightful place in modern English literature. The writings of this extraordinary man and gifted poet deserve greater recognition than is currently accorded to him in this country.
The Memoirs of a Literary Blockhead. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1988.
Portrait of My Father. Victoria, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 1989.
Works on Robin Skelton
Maclean, Anne, comp. Inventory of the Papers of Robin Skelton in the University of Victoria Archives. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria, 1990.
Turner, Barbara E., ed. Skelton at Sixty. Erin: Porcupine’s Quill, 1985.
Barton, John. ‘Crossing the limits: Robin Skelton, 1925–1997, in memoriam’, ARC: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine, 39 (1997): 91–2.
Brown, Dennis. ‘In Memoriam Robin Skelton (1925–1997)’, Critical Survey, 10 (1998): 109–10.
Crowther, P.A ‘Robin Skelton’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004)
Graham, Neile. ‘Incense: Robin Skelton’s Burning Sticks, Mallorca’, ARC: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine, [Ref.?]
Johnston, George. ‘Study of language: a response to Robin Skelton’s Ten Poems and his notes about them’, ARC: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine, 28 (1992): 54–6.
MacCulloch, Clare. ‘ “The Onward Journey” of Robin Skelton’, Antigonish Review, 20: 98–103.
McInnis, Nadine. ‘Robin Skelton: the spell of form: introductory remarks’ ARC, 28 (1992): 37–9.
Musgrave, Susan. ‘Poet Robin Skelton was Literary Magus of West Coast … [Obituary]’, Globe and Mail, 28 (28th August 1997).
‘Robin Skelton [Obituary]’, Times, 15th Sept. 1997, p. 23.
‘Robin Skelton [Obituary by PSH]’, Guardian, 29th August 1997, p. 23.
Sandler, Linda. An interview with Robin Skelton’, Tamarack Review, 68 (1976): 71–85.
Stott, Dorothy. ‘Robin Skelton: an important voice in our time’, Waves, 12:1 (1983): 5–19.
Woodcock, George. ‘Robin Skelton’; in: Contemporary Poets. 5th ed. / edited by Chevalier, Tracy. (1991), pp. 909–12.
Pete Crowther, 14th June 2007