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Remembering Mairi MacInnes

Posted on 17 August 2018

It is with deep sadness that we report the death of Mairi MacInnes, poet and honorary graduate of the University.

The poet Mairi MacInnes – Mairi McCormick – who to her great pleasure was awarded an Honorary Degree from the University of York in 2014, died last September in her flat in York after a short illness, aged 92. Born in a Durham village in 1925, she was educated in Helmsley and Somerville College, Oxford. She married the American literary critic John McCormick, and followed him to the Frei Universität after the war and then to the USA, where she raised her 3 children in the wilds of Maine, then Rutgers, with time out in Mexico and Spain.

After a promising start with a poetry collection Splinters (1953) and novel Admit One (1956), Mairi’s literary career stalled. It was only with the publication of Herring, Oatmeal, Milk & Salt (1982) that she really launched herself as a poet. Returning to England with John and their three children in 1987, she spent the last 30 years of her life in Yorkshire.

Her subsequent watershed collections include The House on the Ridge Road (1988), Elsewhere and Back (1988), The Ghostwriter (1999), and The Girl I Left Behind Me: Poems of a Lifetime (2003). In 2014 she was awarded an Honorary Degree from the University of York, and the following year published Amazing Memories of Childhood, etc, a dazzling last collection, full of numinous poems about place and memory. Beside poetry, Mairi wrote another novel The Quondam Wives (1993) and a memorable autobiography Clearances (2002). 

MacInnes is a poet of place. As she says in ‘A Year’s Marriage’, ‘such places as we live/ Make common language with our love/ And with the sun and the next traveller.’ MacInnes was praised by Anne Stevenson for her ‘visionary realism’ and by the late Helen Dunmore (herself an ex-York student) for her ability ‘to create a powerful sense of the identity of place.’ Her formidable and generous presence added much to the identity of York in her later years, and will be missed by her many readers and friends in the University. Her best work stands alongside that of Donald Davie, Bishop and others of her generation. It testifies to her intuitive feminism and bears out her claim that writing a good poem’ is ‘an engagement with the truth …it shapes your life and, with luck, the lives of others’.

Hugh Haughton (Department of English and Related Literature).