Plundering our periodical stacks in search of ‘state of poetry’ writing at the turn of the century – as 2000 was the year I stepped into the Scottish Poetry Library as Director – I found two items of particular interest. One was Edwin Morgan’s Edinburgh Book Festival lecture, ‘Scotland and the World’, published in Chapman 95; the other was Michael Schmidt’s editorial for PN Review 131.
Asked what struck me as the major change in literary life between my arrival at and departure from the SPL, I could only answer ‘the world wide web’. Morgan quotes Nicholas Negroponte saying ‘Ten to twenty years from now, kids won’t care much about countries’ and wonders whether this would be true. Someone from Jay Leno’s Tonight Show had come across Morgan’s name and thought they might like a Scottish poet on the show: could he send a video of himself reading a few poems? ‘So I made a 10-minute video and sent it off. I am still, as they say, waiting by the telephone. But the interesting thing is that they got, from the internet, something specifically Scottish and acted on it.’
Schmidt opens his editorial with the re-launch of the Penguin classic translation list, thinking too about Seamus Heaney’s ‘bestselling Beowulf’ : ‘The decade, century and millennium end in Britain with Beowulf, Ovid, Virgil, Homer and other classics alive and well enough, as widely read as ever.’ He closes with a paean to being able to riffle through a great library while sitting at one’s own desk: ‘The great ally the classics have as they fight their way back from the brink… is the electronic media, the most generous and democratic mode of memory ever devised, a rich and randomly accessible collective unconscious humming in the corner of the room.’
Some things that seemed to be an advantage with the web turned out to be a disadvantage – the expectation of free content, for example – and then became a bit of both. Randomness is both marvellous and dispiriting. Bookshops disappeared; new ones re gradually reappearing. Yet podcasts, film poetry – these were not forms we thought about in 1999, and they couldn’t be distributed and enjoyed without the web.
The major difference locally is the Scottish Poetry Library itself. The most obvious physical sign of a belief that poetry is necessary and would continue to flourish was the purpose-built, elegant library opened in 1999, Lottery-funded, capital project no. 001, in place before the parliament down the road: this building staked a claim for poetry at the end of the last century and it confidently continues to do so in the present. Because of the web, though, the difference the SPL makes is not only local. It has become a universal resource, bringing people and poems together across the world. Countries – national and linguistic distinctions – remain important, happily and unhappily.
As to the ‘state’ of poetry: book festivals and specifically poetry festivals – all hail, StAnza! – are flourishing, with the Edinburgh International Book Festival leading the way; poetry in performance, which never went entirely underground, attracts enthusiastic audiences, from the sedate to the slammers. Ease of production allows handsome pamphlets to circulate without the weight of expectation and cost attached to books. ‘Women poets’ – they’re everywhere, even though the gender gap has not closed: Carol Ann Duffy, Liz Lochhead, Jackie Kay – how much do we owe to makars from Scotland? Christine De Luca’s Referendum poem, ‘The Morning After’, has been accessed nearly 10,000 times on the SPL website, with 2.1k facebook ‘likes’: it’s a different form of publication, reaching readers poem by poem.
And the poetry itself? The ‘dream state’ poets from Scotland that Donny O’Rourke anthologised in 1994, when they were under 40, are now some of our most outstanding voices; not only Duffy and Kay but also Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson, John Burnside… too many to name. Edwin Morgan has died but left a legacy to encourage Scottish poets aged 30 and under: there were 37 entries for that Award this year. We have access to a much wider range of voices outwith Scotland, thanks to publishers such as Carcanet and Arc, to Literature Across Frontiers – now 15 years old – which enables poets from all over Europe to work with each other, to the revitalised Modern Poetry in Translation.
I believe – maybe rashly – that we’ve seen an end to those boring headlines about the death of poetry. They were always wrong, but I hope they’re so manifestly wrong now that no editor will print them anymore. As Harold Pinter said, ungrammatically but passionately: ‘When you have a unique sense of language like [W.S.] Graham or Shakespeare you come across a line which just hits you midships and sends you all aflutter.’ That’s why we are, and will remain, poetry readers.