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Niall Campbell

Niall Campbell

Niall Campbell

(United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1984)
Then, the head gathered some of what
the heart already knew of quiet:

the hush, the burr, the meadow-weed,
that this is all, and this enough.

(‘Concerning Song/Silence’)

When I think of Niall Campbell’s poems 'hush' is the word which surfaces. A hush contains all sorts of noise – the sea on the shore, the blood beating in the ear. And a hush can also be a command to listen; Campbell’s work asks us to listen for the subtle music often missed in the modern world. His quiet lyricism combines with brilliant evocations of sensory experience to captivate readers. Moontide, his first full-length collection was published by Bloodaxe in 2014 and won the £20,000 Edwin Morgan Poetry Award and the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, as well as being shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and the Michael Murphy Memorial Prize. Princeton University Press, in the US, published a selection of poems from Moontide along with new work in 2016. In 2019, Campbell’s second collection, Noctuary (Bloodaxe), was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection.
Campbell grew up in South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, when getting to the mainland could take up to 12 hours. The sights, sounds and smells of the place are sometimes present in his poems but its influence on his work is both subtler and broader:

I’ve never really viewed Uist as some sort of pitmine that I’m digging in to; nor some muse that speaks to me. Uist and my life there plays a huge part in how I understand the world. The islander vantage is probably the only vantage I’ll ever have – but it is that, ‘how I understand the world’, rather than Uist being the sum total of my worldview.
(Interview on Poetry Spotlight, 2016)

Campbell began writing poems when he left Uist to study English Literature at the University of Glasgow. A few years later he took an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In 2011, Campbell received an Eric Gregory Award and the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. The latter came with a residency in Grez-sur-Loing, France, and several poems from Grez can be found in Campbell’s pamphlet, published by Happenstance Press in 2012. After the Creel Fleet evokes landscapes and human connections to them with perceptive, pared down imagery – as in the title poem:

The frayed lengths knotting into ampersands
tell of this night, and this night, and this,

spent taut between the surface and the sea-floor—
the water coarsening each coiled blue fibre

These descriptive powers, conjuring real objects and solid locations, are mixed with emotional emphasis and elliptical tales that impressed readers. In 2013 he won the Poetry London Competition and received a Jerwood-Arvon Mentorship.

Campbell has spoken of his love for mythologies: “the purest form of storytelling”: “their scale is often unashamedly large: they are about human luck, the complications of love, and how we face death. But always twinned with a sense of wonder” (Poetry Spotlight). Moontide, published in 2014, demonstrates Campbell’s dual concern for the immediately material and a broader vision. In ‘Fleece’ we focus on the man who sheared the mythical golden ram: “Such craft for the hands: leavening the gold / from the pale underskin”. Elsewhere a singer performs a thousand songs and a folk story loses its plot. The world can be hard, cruel and painful, but in ‘Songs of Kirilov’ Campbell makes an argument for a sort of stoicism, a refusal to ignore the beauty, joy and wonder of an imperfect world:

Rain in the air, the smoke rose and rose smoke;
the wife of the small town’s perfumer dead,
how he burns her last clothes in the garden.
Their red hours he spent redressing the air
around her. Tonight, the evening breeze
although so painfully sweet, is still sweet.

Just as Moontide was realised to critical acclaim, Campbell became a father for the first time. Noctuary (Bloodaxe, 2019) is dedicated to his son and the poems are shaped by the tendernesses of the early years, and early hours, of fatherhood:

What do you make, young father, of the lateness,
are you a little drunken with the dark?
Yes, my head swims; I lean this head against
the solid wall, and hum to these new cares.

(‘First Nights’)

A ‘noctuary’ is a journal of the late hours and we find the poet in reflective conversation with an infant, the quiet house, and himself. Among the navigation of the “new cares” and joys of parenthood are meditations on work and love: “what matters / is this whole life being dedicated, / haunch and hoof and back” (‘Packhorse’). There is greater formal invention here too, with calls and echoes allowing for a different musicality. In ‘Clapping Game’ an asterisk representing a clap of the hands in place of words. ‘Language’ interrogates the way our words work with and for us, an interesting inversion of the usual suspicion of the slipperiness of semantics: “I felt something of how the word opened / and welcomed this bat into the meaning of it”. Roads, rails, routes – real and imaginary, run through this book – an interesting motif because the setting is often static:

The world, I think, seems larger in my first collection while in this book it is often just the size of a dark room. If my first collection was about understanding one’s place in the world then this second collection is about understanding what it is to be committed and devoted – the tiredness and the bliss of it.
(Forward Arts Foundation interview, 2019)

‘The Address’ speaks to a poetry community (although they are actually absent, instead it is an infant child who is present – recalling Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’). It sets out a personal mission for poetry: “I stood for nothing / but a desire to be there; present in the world”. Campbell worked as a debt advisor for a charity while writing the book, witnessing great hardship, but, he says “to write is to acknowledge myself as being part of a troubled time, but still to be committed to the ‘and yet’” (Humag interview with Maria Isakova Bennett, 2019). It’s a thought manifested in ‘Blackberries’, where children explore an abandoned, crumbling house: “Things fell apart, still it was good. We ate / the fresh blackberries we found in the hearth.”

In some ways, Campbell shows a certain detachment from the poetry community – he seems not to take the scene, the highs and lows of awards, or himself too seriously. But he takes poetry itself extremely seriously – his expectations and hope for it echo the commitment and devotion in life which he hymns in his work. Now living in Leeds, Campbell’s approach to and feelings about the purpose of poetry, seem unlikely to change, and his islander’s eye will continue to alight on much overlooked beauty. But he is working at present on a different kind of project; writing a full-length opera with the composer Anna Appleby, to be performed by the BBC Philharmonic.

Read a poem and an essay by Niall Campbell on Prac Crit
Listen to Niall Campbell reading for the Scottish Poetry Library
Read poems by Niall Campbell on Wild Court

© Emily Hasler
After the Creel Fleet (Happenstance, 2012)
First Nights: Poems (Princeton University Press, 2016)
Moontide (Bloodaxe, 2014)
Noctuary (Bloodaxe, 2019)
Poems of Niall Campbell
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Prins Bernhard cultuurfonds
Lira fonds
J.E. Jurriaanse
Gefinancierd door de Europese Unie
Elise Mathilde Fonds
Stichting Verzameling van Wijngaarden-Boot
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère