Ken McLeod’s introduction to Poems, published today
Iain Banks the literary novelist and Iain M. Banks the science-fiction writer are too well known to need introduction, but Iain Banks the poet has hitherto been almost undetected. A single poem, ‘041’, published in a poetry magazine; two poems (‘“Slight Mechanical Destruction”’ and ‘Zakalwe’s Song’) book-ending Use of Weapons; some lines from ‘Feu de Joie’ (which he excluded from this collection) embedded in The Crow Road (and with much more of its content saturating A Song of Stone) have been his only publications. But he took his poetry seriously and worked on it carefully, though he shared the results (about which he had no false modesty) mainly with friends.
As can be seen from the dates, Iain started writing poetry almost as soon as he arrived in high school, and continued until 1981. Why he stopped I can only speculate. The manuscript – handwritten, contents-listed, page-numbered – of the collection, characteristically titled poems where the heart is, from which he selected (and sometimes slightly but significantly revised) the poems here, has something of a sense of completion.
Readers of Banks’s prose will find in these poems many aspects of his writing with which they’re already familiar: a humane and materialist sensibility, an unflinching stare at the damage people can do to each other, a warm appreciation of the joy they can give to each other, a revel in language, a geologically informed gaze on land and sea,a continued meditation on what it means for us to be mortal embodied minds with a fleeting but consequent existence between abysses of deep time.
I too started writing poems in high school, and I’ve continued to write them, on and off, since. Only ‘Faith as a Grain of Poppy Seed’ has been published in a poetry magazine; others have appeared in publications of various science-fiction communities and conventions, and one, ‘Erosion’, was included in the text of my novel Intrusion.
Some time in 2012, well before he had any inkling of his illness, Iain said to me that he wanted to see his poems and mine published, preferably together. I demurred; he insisted, and I agreed. He had the risible notion that my poems would provide his with some kind of covering fire. I think the truth is quite the reverse, but in defence of my works’ inclusion I can say that – because over the years we read and discussed each other’s poems – there is an element of dialogue and evidence of mutual influence.
He continued to work on this project during his illness. A few final revisions to a handful of poems were only found after Iain’s death, and I’ve incorporated them here. For finding the final corrections and the original manuscripts, and for much else, I thank Adele.