Lesley Duncan and Alan Riach (eds), The Smeddum Test, 21st Century Poems in Scots: The McCash Anthology 2003-2012 (Kennedy & Boyd £12.95)
The Glasgow University McCash endowment established an annual Scots poetry competition in 1973 and this anthology showcases some of the best entries from the last ten years. In some of those years a theme was set. In 2012 it was Thomas Campbell’s ‘The Pleasures of Hope’.
Campbell, with his heroic couplets and patriotic war songs, is not an obvious inspiration for contemporary poets working in Scots. However, ‘The Pleasure of Hope’ has a radical heart – against slavery and for Polish independence. Perhaps that is why entrants were directed to it ‘with the prospect of a referendum on independence for Scotland on the horizon’ and a smeddum test in the offing.
Not so long ago poetry in Scots was male, precious, prescriptive and succinctly skewered in a Tom Leonard doodle: GRAN’ MEETIN’/THE NICHT/TAE DECIDE THE SPELLIN’/O’ THIS POSTER/ADMISSION: THRITTY PEE (A HEID). The editors of the McCash anthology are keen to demonstrate that all of that has been ditched, taking a ‘liberal and relaxed view of what constitutes the Scots language’ and approaching gender balance in their selections.
In some respects this anthology is indicative of the progress that has been made. Earlier selections are dominated by descriptive nature poems. There are an awfie lot of bens, glens, howlin’ seas and birds of one kind or another (geese are a favourite for some reason). Scots is expressive and adaptable in this area and, understandably, some poets want to take advantage of that. William Hershaw’s poem ‘The Swallow’, for instance, lists the various bird noises he hears ‘abuin the sklentan loch’. It would struggle in Standard English but here it ends ‘I’m lippent til the scraigh/ben ma lug, the wheeple/o the preiching buird’ which is tough to replicate in any other language.
Still, it is a relief to see other themes kick in as the years progress – Malawi, the attack on Glasgow Airport, the death of Private Gentle. By the time the anthology reaches 2012 it is not just the injunction to behold the referendum that makes poetry in Scots different from the way it was in 2003. The most recent prize was shared between two women: Pippa Little and Rowena L. Love. ‘Shivereens’ and ‘Pentit Leddy’ respectively are subtle and beautifully rendered approaches to Scotland’s future. By comparison, some of the male poets use a bludgeon.
It is good to see poetry in Scots moving in positive directions. However, some mysteries remain. One is that several poets have multiple inclusions – one has eight poems, another seven – which raises questions about the number or quality of poets working in Scots. Another is that all 101 poems hug the left margin and innovation in form is still very much the exception. Finally, for a language that, according to the introduction, was once regarded as ‘subordinate, or, worse, merely slang’ it is surprising that its poets have so little anger in them. The politics of language should have them fair beelin but, for some reason, it doesn’t.