In the pamphlet of poems by Joan Ure (co-edited by Alistair Peebles and myself) The Tiny Talent (Brae Editions, 2018), Ure has a poem ‘In Memoriam 1971’ which is a piercing cry from the heart, mourning the loss of important women in Ure’s personal and intellectual lives. Ure is keen not to make these women seem like martyrs, but there is nonetheless a sense that these heroines for Ure have been killed prematurely by neglect, oppression, mistreatment and longstanding misunderstanding. One instance of overlap between these two spheres (the personal and the intellectual) is in her friendship with the Edinburgh poet Crae Ritchie:
Then last year the poet, Crae Ritchie,
my friend for not long enough,
a waver of flags for peace and joy.
It’s a shame that the mention of this name in the poem needs a gloss, as ‘Crae Ritchie’ might not mean very much to many people. However, in the way that Joan Ure was the pseudonym of Elizabeth Carswell, ‘Crae Ritchie’ was the poetic moniker of the nurse, activist, social worker and peace campaigner Rhoda Fraser. Ure is associated with Glasgow, and Ritchie with Edinburgh, where she was a vociferous campaigner against nuclear armament and the Holy Loch, the Vietnam War and other causes relating to peace and women’s rights. Ure mentions that she died in the year previous to her elegy above, and Ritchie / Fraser after years of major depression disorder, took her life via an overdose, dying on Murrayfield golf course in March 1970, at the age of 52.
My interest is more in Ritchie than in Fraser, although there are clear points of intersection between both Fraser’s public life of protest and humanitarianism and Ritchie’s more private life of the mind. I’d argue that nowadays, Ure is marginally more well-known as a writer than Ritchie, but in their time Ritchie was certainly more successful in material terms in that one of the major Scottish publishers of poetry of the 20th century – William MacLellan of Glasgow – published her first pamphlet collection: Come in World (1963). Not only this, but Ritchie also managed to publish poems in prestigious period journals like Saltire Review, Lines Review as well as a host of other outlets. At the time of her death, she was in discussion with David Morrison of Caithness Books about the possibility of bringing out another collection. This did not surface until 1973 as Confrontation (part of Morrison’s well-received ‘Modern Scottish Poets’ series) some three years after Ritchie’s death.
However, in addition to her work with the Edinburgh branch of C.N.D and as Hon. Secretary of the Edinburgh Peace in Vietnam Committee she also took to the streets, not only flyering but also to distribute her poetry to aid her causes. A rare survival, assumed to be the only extant copy, Kindling is an undated (presumed late 1960s) selection of 14 poems by Ritchie, sold on the street to raise funds for ‘British Medical Aid Committee for Vietnam’.
Five poems from this ephemeral publication made it into her final full but posthumous collection Confrontation. To give a flavour of these poems, they are often bracingly polemical poems but written in a heightened, almost polite tone:
While signing on, when hands grow thinner
some strange displacement overturns
worlds of this scented money-spinner
who dies and dies, yet no-one mourns.
I cannot grieve at his own dinner
or tell him that the city burns.
(from ‘Table Talk’)
In her first collection, Ritchie lays out something of her modus vivendi as a poet – that poetry is an essential life-line for her:
I find there is a deep need to create something in many people: this is often unacknowledged, perhaps even unrecognised, and certainly discouraged by the pressures of our time […] I hope poetry will become as necessary as bread and as free as water in our time.
Both collections taken together show that Ritchie was not some sort of day-dreamer or conceptual / abstract Utopian – the poetry gives clear evidence of her practical field work in the streets, of her political agitation and struggle. However, it is clear to see how, at the time in which Ritchie lived, having the ideals she firmly held onto could be a recipe for grave disappointment, an attrition of the fighting spirit over the years. Her aim as a poet, she argued, was shared with John Berger: ‘to transform the actual world into a hospitable one’ and her plan was to use poetry as a ‘source of renewal’. Come in World certainly deals with social matters in subversive ways, but it is inviting and non-didactic, like the title suggests and it seeks to unite the scientific and artistic realms in their efforts in trying to make a hostile world, a hospitable one. Ritchie’s message is to question our safe assumptions:
The measurements we give
when we stand up and speak,
what words we use, to whom,
tone and sense and calling –
do they fit in the hive
of the world’s room
to bring understanding?
Ritchie also espouses uncompromising individualism, as in ‘The orra man’:
He had no place; others rose
and fell, came and went. He did
nobody’s jobs, kept a calm sough,
noticed how it all was, stayed put,
thought things out, heard his own kind
of music, weighed up the universe
and made his particular mark.
Confrontation (1973) shows Ritchie engaging and grappling much more with the forces of darkness in the world, and often just beating these forces to a standstill or impasse. Little is won, other than the knowledge that Ritchie is there, fighting a righteous but beleaguered corner. The poems have a more steely and adamantine quality to them, as if hewn themselves from harder base materials. The poet’s energy is flagging, so she must hoard her energy in poems ‘like nuts against the storm’ (‘Frostbound’). The poet clearly needs her energy, as is pointed out in the title poem:
Energy cries upon us to
investigate all dark secrets:
the clues are still painful
and we shall outgrow them
slowly put with cleaner hurt.
It is hard to think of greater subjects for a poet to write about than existential crises in an uncaring and unjust society, and these poems give us a fascinating glimpse into the working of Ritchie’s mind up to the point where she was finally overwhelmed by the impossibility of overcoming. Many of the poems are permeated with mentions of pain: ‘pain’s dark continent’ (‘In Mollie’s Room’), ‘rigour of despair’ (‘The Teacher’), ‘crux of misery’ (‘Labour Bailie’) and ‘pain’s cold indignity’ (‘Blood Ties’). These poems make for uneasy, but necessary reading, as symptomatic texts of not only the marginalisation of women poets, but the marginalisation of their significant life and death causes as well. These poems are not rhetorically propagandistic, as Ritchie clearly stood up for what she believed in and practiced what she spoke of. Although in Confrontation a nadir is clearly reached, these are also the strongest of Ritchie’s poems and really do deserve serious reappraisal.
The Vietnam War was still raging needlessly on for five years after Ritchie’s death – the better world she had sought in Come in World never came about – and yet, in a moment reminiscent of Adorno’s oft-quoted line about poetry after Auschwitz, Ritchie states in the last line of the last poem in the book (‘Vietnam’) that ‘Nothing will ever be the same again’. The phrase is double-edged like the title of the collection – there is a great loss of innocence, but also the possibility of something, anything being better. The world itself is confronting Ritchie in all of its obdurate nastiness but Ritchie too is confronting it head-on in these startling and heroic poems, and never backing down.