by S. B. Kelly

Of Interest Only to Perverts? Scottish Poetry Today

October 28, 2009 | by S. B. Kelly

MARK VAN STAATEN, the Dutch cartoonist, has a lovely image in his little book This Literary Life. An avuncular figure comforts a distraught and dishevelled novelist, with the caption “But six hundred copies is a succès d’estime”. For many a poet, six hundred copies is the equivalent of a Da Vinci Code, a veritable verse blockbuster. Perhaps, at least in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, ’twas ever thus: the first printing of T. S. Eliot’s Poems of 1919 was 250 copies. Contemporary poetry, as W. N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis lament in the introduction to their excellent collection of poetry manifestos, Strong Words, “is regarded with some suspicion as a refuge for the pretentious and the wilfully obscure”. Liking “modern poetry” is often on a par with doing cryptic crosswords and writing to Radio 4 to complain about the calibre of questions on Quote, Unquote.

The systematic erosion of the value of poetry is in evidence everywhere. Thomas Moore, in the 19th century, enthused that “we can only approach the gods through poetry”. “Poetry is all that is worth remembering in life”, wrote the similarly awed William Hazlitt. By the early 20th century, it was still possible for Somerset Maugham to claim that “The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind”; but Octavio Paz’s more sombre view – “poetry in the past was the centre of our society… the exile of poetry is also the exile of the best of mankind” – was in the ascendance.

In Scotland, the decline is just as clear. When newspapers and cultural bureaucrats acclaim the UNESCO World City of Literature, it’s rare not to hear the phrase “J. K. Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith”. It’s never “Stewart Conn, Valerie Gillies and Christine de Luca”. It’s never even “Hugh MacDiarmid, Hamish Henderson and Norman MacCaig”. Novels sell, and if your business is selling culture, go with the EPOS ratings. This is not a forgivable exception, chosen with pique. In the last ten years we have had the Scottish Arts Council donating one hundred books to every school (none of which was poetry) and a stupendously bogus “Greatest Scottish Books of All Time” (none of which was poetry). When a chairperson at the Book Festival can confuse “Scots” and “Gaelic” poetry, the mind’s guy-ropes snap. I now live in almost perpetual fear of a Visit Scotland Porno tour of Irvine Welsh’s Leith.

Given this litany of misprision, it is wholly encouraging to be asked to write on the strengths of modern Scottish poetry. I will take “modern” for granted – all these books were published in the last few months. “Scottish” is a fluxing, questionable adjective, and one which poets seem particularly adept at questioning and challenging, shoring up and deconstructing, supporting and surpassing. As for “poetry”? Well, a definition might be in order here.

There are sure-fire give-aways for spotting a poem. Normally, this involves the lines not reaching the margin and running on, but not always. Sometimes they might be printed as prose; but then again, many of the speeches from Moby Dick can be recast as perfect iambic pentameters. Almost ubiquitously, but not quite, the book will use the words “poet”, “poems” and “poetry” somewhere on the back cover. Poetry, to use John Carey’s definition of art, is anything anyone has ever thought was poetry.

I am very happy with this syllogism, except for the fact that it gives no clues as to what good poetry, rather than mediocre verse or risible doggerel, might be. A personal definition is never a good strategy for judgement, except under English Law, but my own preference is rather simple. I like poems that I can read more than once, more than twice, and always differently. The world is a complicated place, after all, and language is just as complex. How many of us obey the signs that so often cross our eyes? “Make Sure Gate is Kept Closed” – is there someone there, at all times, doing the ensuring? “Prams Must Be Carried On Escalators” – did you spend hours waiting for a perambulator to snatch, in order to ascend? A lorry emblazoned with the bemusing message “Edinburgh is not an ashtray” has just gone past my window as I write this.

Simplicity is a fib. Simplicity is a wilful shutting down of the awareness that all words are chameleon. If I write the words “the sun was like a penny”, do you imagine circularity, bronze, value, lack of softness, portcullises or smallness? When poetry is at its utmost, it offers a suspension of those possibilities, a stilled point where multiple options are constantly available. Without casting aspersions, I’ve had to read a great many poems that would have been better as letters to a newspaper – everything was obvious, everything was explicit and everything was self-certain.

Where would an eager reader begin in searching for genuine, startling, modern Scottish poetry? The Scottish Poetry Library is the obvious choice. This shrine, so close to Holyrood, is a treasure; and I hope that the MSPs take a minute to browse among the books there: a far more interesting selection than any chain bookseller can offer. The purely hypothetical poetic MSP, or any curious passer-by, might begin with three volumes: Handsel, Handfast, and Lament, all edited by Lizzie McGregor, and published by the Scottish Poetry Library and Birlinn at £7.99 each. These poems for the three great points of all lives (arriving in this world, loving, and departing) are a salutary and considered selection, balancing the secular with the sacred, and reminding us that despite the doom-mongers, poetry is still the first thing to which we turn at moments of the highest emotion. I’m slightly nepotistic about Hand-fast since it contains a poem written for my own wedding by Angus Calder. For a moment, outside of the ceremony, there was silence when he read it; a testament to the vestigial regard for bards. Although I still think of it as ‘for’ us, and although most of our memories of the day have been constructed by lines written before it happened, it seems open: a novelist would have specified our clothes, our parents, our choice of music and our meal; a poet has the luxury of being simultaneously exact and non-specific.

The library has also published a small anthology to coincide with the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edin-burgh, The Hand that Sees (£9.99). Twenty-one poets were commissioned to write work inspired by the artefacts and history of the College; and the result is a surprisingly various, consistently unsettling volume. Bolstered by beautiful illustrations and contextualised by the authors’ own comments, The Hand that Sees includes work by poets trained in the medical professions (Suhayl Saadi, Gael Turnbull, and an especial mention to Norman Kreitman, whose closing poem is supremely poised and poignant), as well as those who approach the exhibits from a less specialist background. It is a book where hope and horror collide, and the challenge of integrating scientific discourses – usually considered resolutely unpoetic – is more than met. Our browser, having been intrigued, might go on to look at three further books, this time published by the Scottish Poetry Library and Carcanet: Intimate Expanses, edited by Ken Cockburn and Robyn Marsack; At the End of the Broken Bridge, edited by István Turczi, and How to Address the Fog, edited by Anni Sumari (all £7.95). Intimate Expanses features 25 poems by Scottish poets, one for each year of the Poetry Library’s existence until 2002.

It is, almost, the perfect anthology: rather than bloating the reader with a surfeit of mediocrity, it tantalises and encourages. The selection principles are generous: the precision of an Alan Spence haiku is presented along with the wry enthusiasm of W. N. Her-bert; Alastair Reid’s surprisingly confessional poem ‘My Father, Dying’ jostles next to a Tom Leonard extravaganza against Received Pronunciation (proving there’s only an a-shaped-hole between R P and rap, or an i-shaped-hole between proper speaking and the grave).

The other two volumes contain poems in the original Finnish and Hungarian, with translations by Scottish poets. The formerly Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrasic has, as a motto to one of her essays, an old proverb: “in a small country, the nest of genius is well-hidden”. Scotland has always looked elsewhere for hope, inspiration and consolidation, and has produced an astonishing number of translations in search of fledglings from that nest to teach us how to sing; indeed the internationally renowned Michel Houellebecq was first published in English in Lines Review, by the poet and short story writer Gavin Bowd: Scotland was ahead, for a few years, of every other country in terms of recognising and responding to a major new literary writer. Add to that Urquhart and Rabelais, Scott and Goethe, Garioch and Belli, Morgan and Mayakovsky, Platen, Guillevic… the translators in these two books are in that important tradition: respectful and defiant; bending to another language’s demands whilst twisting to elude a mere prosaic parsing. The choice of Fin-land and Hungary is exceptionally clever: Turczi describes a country suffering “foreign rule, lost battles, lost territories and lost revolutions”, and Sumari might be describing Scots rather than Finnish when she writes of a language “adept at yielding neologisms whose associative and auditory qualities seem natural to the reader”.

Good as these anthologies are, they are only portals into poetry. There is a parallel here with music: who would choose as their favourite album “Now That’s What I Call Music #1729” or “Hooked on Classics #47” instead of Haydn’s Nelson Mass or Kate Bush’s Red Shoes? The proper format of poetry is the individual collection, not the anthology.

Yet the past decade has seen a seemingly endless stream of anthologies. Next to my old copy of Tom Scott’s Oxford Book of Scottish Poetry, is Douglas Dunn’s Faber Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry, Robert Crawford and Mick Imlah’s New Penguin Book of Scottish Poetry, Lesley Duncan and Maurice Lindsay’s Edinburgh Book of Twentieth Century Scottish Poetry, David McCordick’s Scottish Literature in the Twentieth Century, Dorothy Macmillan and Michel Byrne’s Modern Scottish Women Poets, Meg Bateman’s Scottish Religious Poetry, as well as numerous critical studies, attempting to encapsulate millennia of literary production in a few hundred pages. There is, evidently, a need for such books – especially when you consider that putting “Scottish Poetry” into Amazon yields Paradise Lost as the first choice. Nonetheless, poets write collections, not the raw material for compendiums.

The publisher Carcanet, although based in England, is proving to be one of the strongest supporters of Scottish poetry, and the importance of its list can scarcely be underestimated. The massive MacDiarmid 2000 project, now on its sixteenth volume, is finally allowing the reader to appreciate the prodigious range of the most titanic genius of modern Scottish poetry. In addition, Car-canet publishes the collected poems of Sorley McLean, From Wood to Ridge, Iain Crichton Smith and the still regrettably marginalised Burns Singer. Edwin Morgan’s Collected Poems is supplemented not only with his Collected Translations, but an additional volume, Cathures (although Morgan com-pletists should also thank Edinburgh-based Mariscat Press for Morgan’s affecting biographical sequence, Love and a Life, his fantasia Tales from Baron Munchausen and the Sixty Poems of Attila Jószef, not to mention the Bannockburn pamphlet from the Poetry Library). The rest of the Poet’s Pub generation of Scottish poets are relatively well served: Polygon has published Collected Poems for MacCaig and Garioch, as well as George Bruce, Liz Lochhead and Kenneth

White. John Murray produced a handsome edition of the poems of George Mackay Brown. Only Sydney Goodsir Smith remains unaccountably neglected.

Carcanet’s strength, however, is in balancing contemporary poets with posthumous greats. In stark contrast to, say, Polygon, who recently shed their excellent list (including, for example, Robert Crawford and W. N. Her-bert’s staggering Sharawaggi) with unseemly haste, Carcanet’s commitment to the ongoing is wholly laudable. In the past year, it has published four exceptional books: Frank Kuppner’s A God’s Breakfast (£9.95), Iain Bamforth’s A Place in the World (£8.95), Richard Price’s Lucky Day (£8.95) and David Kinloch’s In my Father’s House (£8.95).

Kuppner’s poetry is immediately recognisable and impossible to imitate. A God’s Breakfast is really three collections in one: the first purports to be aphorisms from the ‘laughing philosopher’ Democritus, the second is an extended literary mugging of T. S. Eliot and the final section is a common-place book of observations, regrets, fantasia and day-dreams. Kuppner’s insistent theme, throughout, is the utter strangeness of the universe; he writes with the bemused urgency of someone who has only just noticed that nothing whatsoever makes any sense. Or, as he puts it:

Better to die happily than unhappily,I suppose. Not that it makes terribly much difference for long.

These mordant, rueful fragments might induce a surfeit of melancholy, were it not for the surreal shafts of humour that puncture the work. Kuppner risks playing with bathos and sarcasm, outright silliness and sheer smut:

By now, Thais, you are ancient, rank and withered,
And of interest only to perverts. Still. The world is full of perverts.

Taking these couplets out of context does not do justice to the manner by which Kuppner’s poems constantly pull the carpet out from under each other. At one point, he writes “The universe is too horrible not to be true”, a line countered elsewhere with “The universe is too lovely [not] to be true”. A God’s Breakfast, for all its chaos and contradictions, is no dog’s dinner, but an exquisite mosaic of shards.

A Place in the World is a far more oblique collection, and one that, at an initial reading, may appear bewildering. Almost exactly half way through is an astonishing poem, ‘A Nest of Boxes for the Opening of the Scottish Parliament’, that provides the reader with a primer into Bamforth’s aesthetics. Ostensibly, this kist is:

Not a black box and certainly not Pandora’s ironic box
(which wasn’t a box anyway, but a jar)
with only hope inside

It contains a clutter of Scottish totems: “post offices doubling as grocers”, “Beuys on Rannoch Moor”, “Pictish Made Easy”, it is “a box of the already-gone and the still-here.” Throughout the collection, Bamforth uses various prisms – the notion of civil society, the poetry of Baudelaire, the geology of Samoa – to address questions of Scottish identity and its relationship to the wider world, and in particular, Europe. If Democritus shimmers in front of Kuppner, Diogenes, the philosopher made cynical through disappointment, is the presiding Muse for Bam-forth. This is unsentimental work, and Bamforth takes care to qualify with asides and clarify with an awareness of ambiguities. Regarding a stone, he drifts into the territory explored by MacDiarmid in ‘On a Raised Beach’, and writes:

I cradled it, weighed it in my palm, a gloss on what can’t be
buried, one of the language-stones drawn from a cairn of groans:

A usual technique here is to use the line-break to generate a pause and reversal, as in “can’t be” followed by “buried”. Later he writes about guillotines that “exercise their right to silence / each critic”. In the final line of a poem, engagingly entitled ‘A Sport of Small Accidents’, Bamforth crystallises his vision as “routes, not roots”. This is challenging and mature poetry, wide-ranging in reference and absolutely committed to not taking words or things on trust.

A slight digression: From Poetry’s Waiting Room, by Donny O’Rourke, is a more conversational book that also addresses Scot-land’s European context. Published in a bilingual edition by Spätlese Verlag Nürn-berg (thank you, Scottish publishers!), this collection sprang from O’Rourke’s time spent in Nürnberg through the Hermann Kesten Stipendium. He has a charming modesty in his work, made, as he says, “from what I find in the / newspapers, on the wireless, / even on the television, most / of all, from the overheard / scraps of conversation”. But this is the art that conceals art: in poems like ‘Lilacs’, O’Rourke cunningly writes around not being able to write; ‘Rhubarb’ manages to be simultaneously off-the-cuff and neatly revelatory: O’Rourke finds multiple delights in rhubarb, before conceding that it “means” gabble. As with Bamforth’s book, politics occur here in sudden, glancing details: since “in Scotland / we live through our songs”, he asks his hosts to reciprocate. They reply “Sixty years ago we / sang too much, too often / too loudly and all together / the same songs always”. It is easy to be taken in by the jazzy geniality of O’Rourke’s work, but, like any good jazz, it is grounded in craft and angst.

Lucky Day by Richard Price brings us back to Carcanet. This book is like a series of mini-collections, ranging from an exuberantly virtuoso catalogue, ‘A Spelthorne Bird List’, to an achingly personal and utterly clear-sighted extended lyric sequence, ‘Hand Held’, for his daughter, who suffers from Angel-man’s Syndrome, to slyly nuanced political work. A consistent feature of his poems, across their multiple genres, is an attempt to ‘redeem’ the inarticulacy and cliché of actual speech, finding half-hidden, curiously expressive ulterior meanings in the commonplace. Price builds in hesitancies and ellipses, as in ‘Careless’ – take care to read that “care” in all its careful shades:

I care for you.

You… could care less. You cannot persuade tenderness –

Price, along with the other poets considered here, was one of the so-called Informationists. Their agenda, broadly, involved reclaiming the various specialist lexicons and syntaxes – scientific, commercial, political and technological – and finding metaphor under mere data. In Price’s case this is often achieved by juxtaposition with ‘traditional’ verse forms, such as lullabies, nursery rhymes and songs, in a manner reminiscent of the late Veronica Forrest-Thomson. For example, one sub-section of the book is entitled ‘Marks and Sparks’: the nickname of a high street store is transformed into a meditation on the thrills and bruises of love. This may sound academic, but consider the height of this collection, the ‘Hand Held’ sequence. Confessional poetry can be slightly manipulative; however, these poems are not splurges of unedited emotion, but honed and sophisticated objects. They range from the brutally frank (“People will not love you / when we are dead”) to hard-won epiphanies (“whatever your clear eyes are meaning / you mean it brightly”). Those who think contemporary poetry is a parlour-game for pseuds ought to read this astonishingly moving, filigree-fine book.

David Kinloch’s In My Father’s House has, indeed, many mansions. It is a ‘concept album’ collection, that includes bitter-sweet elegies and reminiscences of Kinloch’s own father, alongside more problematic images of patriarchs; most notably in a sequence of Holocaust-survivor Paul Celan’s poems translated into a vigorous and uncouthy Scots. There are times when a ‘single-issue’ gathering of work can become rather too programmatic: Kinloch avoids any potential repetitiveness through the vast, and experimental, range of forms. In addition to the Scots language translations, there are variations on Palestinian poems, long dramatic monologues (including the exceptional ‘Baines His Dissection’) and prose-poems, a notoriously difficult mode that Kinloch inhabits breezily. In ‘Painting by numbers’, the reader gets a keek into the particular method of composition:

One day he came across an old dictionary of the Scots language […] He wanted neither abstraction nor representation but a fluid, tactile métissage. He wanted to paint sound dissolving into meaning and meaning frittering away into the joy of not having to mean anything at all.

Kinloch’s work hovers on the hiatus between ‘public’ meaning and ‘private’ denotation. The poetry is full of impersonations and metamorphoses – this is a world where “Cardross was Caer Paravel” – a concern which Kinloch shares with Morgan, and which has been linked to a specifically ‘gay’ aesthetic. Yet when he does address questions of sexuality, it is with a winning directness:

The interviewer asks me about ‘your homosexuality’
as if it were a mildly embarrassing essential adjunct I carry
like a colostomy bag.

Like the other volumes, In My Father’s House is much more than the sum of its parts: its particular tone can’t be captured in a single word – perhaps a combination of resigned celebration and stricken praise.

One final poem, which will present future editors with no end of headaches: Peter Man-son’s Adjunct: an Undigest, published by Edinburgh Review at £5.99. This ambitious, 76-page work, compiled over seven years, is an avant-garde overdose, a kind of information sewer-highway. It braids together obituaries, found texts and chance pieces of eavesdropping in deliberately aleatory combinations: the result is disorientating, hilarious, astute, embittered and unforgettable. If Finnegans Wake attempted to create a “night-scape” of dreams and subconscious meanings, Adjunct: an Undigest is its insomniac, hyperactive twin. A quote – taken at random – seems the only appropriate way of conveying this unique and unsettling voice:

Reba McEntire and Keith Carradine help distinguish this disease-of-the-week drama from the usual made-for-TV pap as a couple dealing with the reality of breast cancer. Mira Beaglehole.William Crosbie is dead. Yeast: a Problem. By Charles Kingsley, Rector of Eversley. Grab the sloping whiteness and ride it. Business Information Publications Ltd = it is doubtful porn contains lesbianism. Henrietta Moraes is dead. One of his colleagues remembers him as an intense young man who drove an ambulance. Gene Siskel is dead. Gorilla “bites buttocks” of fugitive. Futile fuzz.

When all these possible poetics are thriving, why do we persist in publicising Scot-land as the land of Leith liggers, Ladies Who Lunch, sodden coppers and boy wizards?

From this Issue

Lost Leaders

by Paul Hutcheon

Bleeding Wallace

by Colin McArthur

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