He was born in Bellshill and grew up in Cambuslang. He was educated at the private Hutchesons' Grammar School and in the same city at Glasgow University, where he received his M.A. degree. He then went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he received his D. Phil.
His paternal grandfather was a Minister in the Church of Scotland and he considers himself a "Christian with a Presbyterian accent, rather than a Protestant", which he feels has rather assertive overtones in the contemporary West of Scotland. He has written on the relationship between science and religion as well as religious poetry.
His main interest is in Post-Enlightenment Scottish literature, including Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson, but he has a keen interest in contemporary poetry, including Edwin Morgan, Douglas Dunn and Liz Lochhead.
He is a prolific and successful poet himself and concerns himself with the nature and processes of creative writing. He has a particular interest in the work of T. S. Eliot and other aspects of Modernism.
He is interested in the relationship between literature, particularly poetry, and modern science, including Information Technology. He says he shares an appreciation of poetry and science as kinds of discovery quickened by observation and imagination. He even goes so far as to claim that It "is part of the poet's delight even duty, to use such [scientific] words and experience in poetry".
The geography and place names of Scotland feature very prominently in his own poems and he takes a lively interest in the developing politics of contemporary Scotland, as well as science, politics, religion, landscape, and environment and spirituality, his poems deal with gender and sex (particularly married sex).
Crawford writes in a modern English, with a few nods to dialect words, with an occasional made-up word or a word borrowed from technical science. The main forms he uses are short and lyrical. He has translated from the 17th-century Latin of the Aberdeenshire poet Arthur Johnston.
He was a founder of the international magazine Verse in 1984 and worked as poetry editor for the Edinburgh publisher Polygon in the 1990s. With Simon Armitage, he is co-editor of The Penguin Book of Poetry from Britain and Ireland since 1945 (1998) and, with Mick Imlah, he co-edited The New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse (2000). He publishes poetry and occasional works of criticism in the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.
He has won several prizes, notablyYoung Eliot: A Biography. 2015
"HONEY". Qualm. October 2006.
A Scottish Assembly. Chatto & Windus. 1990. and this included a poem called Cambuslang)
Talkies. Chatto & Windus. 1992. ISBN 978-0-7011-3928-5.
Masculinity. Cape Poetry. 1996. ISBN 978-0-224-04371-7.
Spirit Machines (1999)
The Tip of My Tongue. Jonathan Cape. 2003. ISBN 978-0-224-06968-7.
Full Volume. Jonathan Cape. 2008. ISBN 978-0-224-08087-3.
Testament. Jonathan Cape. 2014. ISBN 978-0224098076.
1988 Eric Gregory Award
1993 Scottish Arts Council Book Award for Identifying Poets
1999 Scottish Arts Council Book Award for Spirit Machines
2007 Saltire Society's Scottish Research Book of the Year for Scotland's Books; The Penguin History of Scottish Literature,
He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In August 2011 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy.
Co-authoredW. N. Herbert (1990). Sharawaggi: Poems in Scots. ISBN 978-0-7486-6066-7.
Robert Crawford, ed. (2006). Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-925812-3.
Susanne Ehrhardt; Paul May; Lucy Anne Watt; Robert Crawford; Sarah Maguire; Mark Ford (1989). New Chatto Poets: Number Two. Chatto & Windus.
His work has met with critical acclaim.
The voice of this poetry is engaging and likeable.
– Peter McDonald, Literary Review
His Selected Poems is a revelation. Crawford is a very fine poet indeed. This book is aglitter with surprise, with new ways of seeing, of hearing, and of feeling... This astounding collection, rich also in wit, is a book to be homesick for.
Hugh MacDiarmid once wrote a poem which contained the line: "Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small ?" Over the past dozen years, Robert Crawford has devoted much industry to soothing MacDiarmid's incredulity. Crawford specialises in poems about Scottish places and people, eulogising not only literary figures but scientists and engineers, such as Henry Bell, James Clerk Maxwell and John Logie Baird, men associated with railways, steam and primitive models of the television. The native genius blends with native chippiness in lines such as: "When World War II ended / Baird equipment broadcast victory in the Savoy / But not one diner said cheerio when you faded".
Leaving this aside, what's appealing about Crawford is the musicality of his language, the surety of his lines and use of enjambement, all abundantly on display in his new Selected Poems. The pieces included here from his first collection, A Scottish Assembly (1990), still feel fresh and energetic, the work of a young writer in the best sense – inventive, varied, alive with the possibilities inherent in the act of putting words together.
This is primarily a book about contemporary poetry, and what poetry can do now, as seen through its engagement with aspects of contemporary science. It is only fleetingly a book about 'science and poetry', where the relationship between two kinds of discipline might be propounded, and it is all the better for letting such moves remain incidental.
Robin Purves has found him a bad poet:
In his collection of essays, Identifying Poets, Robert Crawford claims to use Bakhtin to examine "the way 20th Century poets construct for themselves an identity which allows them to identify with or to be identified with a particular territory" (1) and how they "come to be taken as spokespeople for these territories". (2) A skim through the contents page of his first book of poems, A Scottish Assembly, ....an orgy of naming which at least suggests, before I have examined a single poem in detail, that Crawford's own poetic project is an attempt to "construct for [himself] an identity which allows [him] to identify with or to be identified with a particular territory" (3), a strategy which ought to result in him being "taken as spokes[person]" (4) for the territory called Scotland, if the argument in Identifying Poets is to be believed. The following essay reads Crawford's poem "Scotland" in an attempt to isolate the points where its rhetoric and syntax go hand-in-hand with a mystificatory and unreflective politics of place.