What Iain Crichton Smith couldn’t say.
In ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’, Iain Crichton Smith’s exploration of what language is, and what we lose when a language is lost, the poet quoted Wittgenstein – ‘That thing about which you can not speak – be silent about it.’ I read ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ for the first time as a student. It shocked me. It was the first time I had a sense that an individual’s spoken language was a vulnerable, precious thing, and that poetry might matter.
It’s hard to write about Iain Crichton Smith writing about how hard it is to write about language. But writing poetry, for me, has always been an alternation between effortful tongue-tiedness and sudden flu-encies. I think of poetry in physiological terms first. My editorial process is grounded in linguistic practicality. I edit by reading new work aloud and replacing the words I stumble over, playing sounds off each other, letting my breath dictate phrase-length. Rehearsing and rewriting to the point of self-hypnosis. Then something peculiar and emotional happens. The language begins to fall into easy rhythmic furrows, relaxing over historical floodplains. Fragments of unintended language are carried on that current, like those disjunctive threads of brain-babble that sometimes stray through the subconscious at the brink of sleep. Crichton Smith was also fixated upon the language that reaches us beyond our intention and control, critically concerned with language’s limitations, possibilities and worth, and so I want to say something about effort and fluency, and what rides on these things, in speech and poetry.
Recently I attended a seminar in Berlin held by the British Council. On the bus journey from airport to hotel, two of the guest writers agreed that the worst thing in the world was a boring conversationalist. And indeed the other writers – especially Tim Parks and the satirical cartoonist Martin Rowson – proved to be frighteningly fluent. I sat between them, mute, fearful of the moment the dullness of my conversation would be exposed.
I find speech painfully effortful, which accounts for my fascination with it: the agendas, the protocols of interruption, the dishonesties, the hinterland of the unsaid. Of course there are good reasons to be nervous about speech, when so much rides on our ability to communicate verbally. Especially in the U.K. The German participants were startled that so many of us still expect to divine a person’s upbringing, politics, income and even morality as much from the way that they speak as from what they have said. Sometimes, in fact, despite what they have said.
When I first came to Shetland to write Almanacs, in 2002, my initial encounters with Shetland Dialect affected me acutely. When I spoke, I spoke strangely: the unfamiliar sounds, grammar and lexicon forming almost involuntarily. This wasn’t about acquiring a language, this was a language acquiring a speaker. Acutely aware of the changes in my speech, I wrote furiously. When I returned to Shetland as a writer-in-residence in 2005, after a long period in which I’d found it impossible to write poetry, the same thing happened. I couldn’t help but write poems. Why should that have happened?
Gertrude Stein wrote, ‘We all know that it’s hard to write poetry in a late age; and we know that you have to put some strangeness, as something unexpected, into the structure of the sentence in order to bring back vitality into the noun.’ When languages meet in the mouth, voluntarily or otherwise, the repercussions can be subtle, compelling and unexpected. My new, heightened awareness of spoken language compelled me to find a new poetry of my own. I felt each word in my mouth like meat, or as Crichton Smith visualised it, flowery cud. I am sure that my compulsion to learn the Shetland Dialect had its roots in a desire to become invisible, to ‘belong’ in that community. In a way I was denying myself my own voice, even if I experienced this as an ecstatic thing; perhaps the poetry I wrote at that time represented a corresponding insurrection of my linguistic identity. But Crichton Smith’s Gaelic speakers were denied their language by state and church, and for them the risk was of a permanent loss of their linguistic, and therefore personal, identity.
It’s hard to find the words to speak about language and the loss of language. In ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ Crichton Smith longed for a ‘higher language, like a hawk in the sky’, to help him envisage what might happen if Gaelic was lost. Crichton Smith allows us to be party to his tussles with stubborn language. There are works in the New Collected Poems where language becomes a cage, or as he put it himself, a maze. ‘Were you ever in a maze? […] If you cannot get out of the language you cannot get out of the maze.’ A poem works best when it observes certain conversational courtesies, to incline the reader to wander into it of their own volition and collaborate in the act of making sense with the poet. A certain ‘openness’ of rhythm, syntax, image, and voice might be implied. Some work needs to be left to the reader; this may explain why that irritating dictum ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ is so often offered to new poets. People tend to respond to hectoring in poems just as they do to hectoring in conversation. I had real trouble with a few poems of this kind in the New Collected Poems, such as ‘The Leaf and the Marble’ –
conscious man will kill and smash
frail secret envelopes of the flesh –
hack at beard and at moustache –
because he’s armed
with ideas made of patchy trash
that grief ’s confirmed,
or loneliness or heritage,
or a new-learned unfocused rage.
O he’s a vulture in a cage.
The diffuse, abstract nouns ‘ideas’, ‘grief’, ‘loneliness’, ‘heritage’, and ‘rage’ are hard to relate to emotionally. The tight rhyme scheme gives you that very maze-like sensation of being trapped in the artefact of the poem. The poet’s message or intention is overtly displayed. It may be a laudable message, but it’s already all wrapped up, it’s closed; all that’s left for the reader is to agree or disagree with the sentiment.
In ‘On Looking at the Dead’, though, Crichton Smith lets us participate in his effort to communicate. He has posed himself a conundrum: how to articulate an absolute – death, a state he described in ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ as ‘outside the language.’ Creative language – naming and describing – is how we make sense of our world, but ‘no metaphors swarm / around that fact’. He considers that he cannot talk about death unless he refuses the human compulsion to liken things to other things in simile and metaphor, so he resists engaging with the ‘play of imagery, the peacock dance’, in favour of a dogged, nuts-and-bolts language characterised by repetition. But we cannot help but liken and compare and play with language – that is what it is to be human – and so Crichton Smith can’t help but present each ensuing image – ‘the bridal dance’, ‘embroideries eastern or the rest’ – only to dismantle it – ‘It only is itself. / It isn’t you. It only is itself.’
Straining stubborn language, Crichton Smith does succeed in constructing a working model of loss. This is less like an elegy than a version of the Buddhist death meditation, where the aim is to take to heart your personal dissolution.
Concerned with silence and fluency, Crichton Smith cannot stop probing at the immeasurable unsaid, and the unwitting gate-keeper at the brink is so often an old woman, the ‘terrible granny’. That decapitalised ‘g’ alone makes her monstrous, excising her from the circle of family relations. If these poems, as the volume’s editor Matthew McGuire suggests, are an attempt to ‘achieve a level of intimacy that was absent from the poet’s Lewis childhood’, it certainly took a lot of writing before Crichton Smith could arrive at empathy and equality, to separate his fear of the old woman from the fear she has been subject to, as he does in 1969, in ‘Old Woman with Flowers’:
O dear God
wherever you are, I am almost driven wild
by your frightening flowers whose blossoms
are turned to bone
for an old woman to look at, in a small
In ‘The Widow’ (1959); ‘Old Woman’ (1961); ‘The Witches’, ‘Old Highland Lady Reading Newspaper’, and ‘Face of an Old Highland Woman’ (1965); ‘Old Woman’ (1968); ‘Old Woman with Flowers’ (1969); ‘To an Old Woman’, ‘The Old Woman’, ‘The Little Old Lady’, and ‘The Old Woman’ (1975); and ‘Old Lady’ (1994) she is a terrible product of nature and dogma, her face a hashed Highland geology; a remote and hostile star (remember the brutal lump of rock – ‘black and fixed and here’ – in ‘On Looking at the Dead’); incapable of forgiveness. She’s ungraced by colour and therefore language. That’s the most fearful thing, she’s silent and unknowable: the ‘set mouth’, ‘the slow silences’. Her body and brain are muted too –
The bowed back was quiet. I saw the teeth
tighten their grip around a delicate death.
And nothing moved within the knotted head
but only a few poor veins as one might see
vague wishless seaweed floating on a tide.
In his uncollected poem ‘The Old Lady’, the old woman is given back her own history and crucially, she’s allowed a voice to define herself – ‘And what exams! / I could understand anything in those days.’ This new edition of Crichton Smith’s collected poems permits the reader to follow the progress of the poet’s attitude to this recurring figure, towards reconciliation in the later collections. In A Country for Old Men, we are introduced to the old lady that is ‘gallant’ with literature and dignity. The black figure of the Old Woman who haunted Crichton Smith’s earlier work can finally be pushed down into the ‘stones and flowers and small hills of the dead […]. [T]he ancient stones of Callanish’ can – newly saturated with colour (and language) – be ‘swathed in pink and blue […]. [H]er grey coat is almost hidden by that yellow and red / on a May day.’
This New Collected Works is a generous book. It lets the reader participate in Crichton Smith’s tussles with language and witness his subsequent fluencies. Suddenly the thing that could not be spoken about, must be spoken about. The island and the poet succumb to a current of language: ‘Island, rise up and put on a fresh music.’
NEW COLLECTED POEMS
Iain Crichton Smith
CARCANET, £18.95 398PP