My glory was I had such friends

On Tuesday this week (20th July, 2021) I was in Edinburgh to join a large gathering celebrating the 80th birthday of the Scottish writer John Herdman. It was a truly historic and convivial occasion, the wine flowing, a huge repast of delicious food, and many of John’s old friends and fellow conspirators from the Edinburgh literary scene and ‘The Heretics’ in attendance.

The fact that the party even went ahead was nothing short of miraculous considering that just the week before John had sustained a particularly nasty fall and broken between 8-12 of his ribs, probably multiple times! But it’s a testament to John’s huge strength and spirit that he was standing and chatting to guests for over four hours.

The party was held at writer and publisher Peter Burnett’s sumptuous home and for someone such as myself, who has spent years reading around and researching the Scottish Renaissance, it was a heady experience not only getting to see so many kenspeckle faces in one room, but also getting to talk to them. There was a very moving impromptu sing-song from Dolina MacLennan and I feel incredibly lucky to have been there.

John had two main gifts, one a picture portrait taken of him by Robin Gillanders and the other a festschrift book (co-edited by myself and Peter Burnett) entitled Not Dark Yet: A Celebration of John Herdman. This book really has been a labour of love, with an emphasis on the labour. It holds nearly fifty separate contributions from John’s friends, contemporaries, readers and students, all over the globe. It would be invidious to name just a handful of people and the book will soon be for sale and is well worth investing in if you are an admirer of John’s work.

John himself was deeply touched by both gifts and was at pains to express his thanks yet his work deserves vastly more attention that it has so far received. We were glad to try and redress this critical oversight. John quoted Yeats at the party when he said ‘My glory was I had such friends’ but he should have said it in the present tense. I too feel a sense of glory at knowing some of his friends, and in particular, of counting John as a friend.

Happy birthday John!

Degrees of separation

My academic background is in modern literature and many of the authors I studied were often the first members of their families to get a degree at university level. These were generally people born in the era 1910-1940 and they were invariably exceptions to the rule. However when I began my BA in English Literature in the mid-2000s I was told that I was part of a mass migration into university education, that there were more of my peers in university than not. As I came to the end of my first degree I realised that employment options for someone doing a literature based BA and who stubbornly wanted to do something cultural were very restricted, I decided to do an MLitt. As I began my MLitt I was told that there were record numbers of people doing Master degrees. Still, I stuck at it and got a Distinction. By this point I was so smitten with my subject that I decided to apply for funding to do a PhD. I was told by my ‘alma mater’ that I wouldn’t get funding, that the competition was just too strong, but somehow I did get it. As soon as I started my PhD I was told that there were unprecedented levels of people doing or trying to do PhDs. Intrinsically at all three levels of my higher education, I was told not really to apply, that they were already oversubscribed. This was the welcome to the world I had as a young adult with certain academic passions.

My wife likes to watch Gogglebox and while I find it funny at times, I worry that it tacitly (sometimes overtly) tries to uphold a rather right-wing, pro-monarchy and Tory agenda. I was a bit miffed recently to hear one of the younger talking heads on the show say that she had lost count of the number of people working in cafes with PhDs. The emphasis of her comment was on the preconceived folly of the idea of seeking a PhD, as if it is a classical act of hubris, doomed to fail. I only ever did a PhD to prove to myself that I had the sticking power to do so. I did a PhD in the spirit in which other people (nouveau riche, uncriticised and unchallenged) learn how to fly planes for their own enjoyment. I did it out of passion for my subject, not about embroidering a CV. What I have achieved has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not lots of other people are seeking the same (or similar) thing. The fact that we have immensely over-educated people in our country in clearly uncongenial employment is an indictment of the country and government itself, it has nothing to do with the supposed failings of the generation or individuals in question. At times it seems like ours is a largely philistine nation that is more interested in Homes Under the Hammer and Poujadist/Thatcherite profiteering than anything emanating from a university.

Broken promises

I was reading in The Oldie the other day that Kingsley Amis’s most dreaded phrase in the English language was ‘Red or white?’.

While that interrogative certainly gives me the chills, my two pet peeves are 1). the question, usually posed to poets by non-poets: ‘Are you still writing poetry / still scribbling your little verses?’ and 2) – which is my cardinal peeve – the use of the unutterably trite phrase ‘shows promise’ in any review of any poetry collection or pamphlet.

Not only is ‘shows promise’ a supra-hackneyed formula, it is also extremely patronising. What it panders to is the heirarchical stratification of poetry and poets, from the A list to the Z list. A reviewer would never dream, for instance, of describing a first collection of poems as such from a young poet if they were published by a presitigious press. However, if the poet and publication in question is rather more unsung or obscure then the application of ‘shows promise’ becomes de rigueur.

Shows promise of what, I wonder? A promising young poet who will settle their bar tab? If the poet thinks enough of their work to put it out there in the public domain, and a publisher agrees, then we can presume they don’t consider it jejune or juvenile. Nothing is worse than working on a suite of poems for a year, two years or more and then having some mealy-mouthed reviewer say it ‘shows promise’.

I for one promise never to write that in any of my reviews!

Poetic licence REVOKED

The police often have a rather bombastic way of expressing themselves which is based upon demonstrating power via vocabulary and particularly via polysyllabic and longwinded effusions. However, if this is the means by which linguistic prestige and authority is gained, it’s misguided.

The poetry world isn’t that different. Both fields seem to have this general assumption that intelligence is gauged via grandiloquence. Something isn’t ‘stolen’, it’s ‘purloined’. The suspect didn’t just run away, no, they ‘absquatulated from the purlieus of the malfeasance’.

This is extreme, and of course, made-up, but it does show you that the places where elite language once were, are now the preserve of goons and florid language isn’t clever, at all. Poetry should really be trying to be accessible, not trying to exhibit and strut, and I suspect that people (poets) who use inkhorn language are actually trying to disguise a deeper deficiency in their work…

New poetry pamphlet

I’ve been so remiss about putting new material on this blog, and for that many apologies. Today I want to bring to your attention my new pamphlet collection of poems, brought out just a few days ago by Fras Publications in Dunning, Scotland. The pamphlet itself is spare but elegant – the poet Walter Perrie who runs Fras operates as something of a literary cottage industry. He selects, edits, designs, prints and distributes his publications which include the periodical Fras. I’ve long been a follower of Fras and have admired Walter’s pamphlets, particularly Alasdair Gray’s late poetry collection Guts Minced with Oatmeal (2018).

I’m proud to say that Walter has published a selection of my own poems – under the title Coping Stones. These are all poems written since my 2020 pamphlet from Mariscat Press called First Hare but these new poems happen to have been written under the grim long shadow of Coronavirus. This is not to say that these poems bore on about hackneyed and trite topical issues relating to the virus itself, but rather that the pandemic darkens the background of these poems.

Walter’s press is unrepentantly print-based, so it has no website to speak of. Copies of Walter’s previous publications, and my pamphlet, can all be ordered directly from Walter Perrie at the postal address: 10 Croft Place / Dunning / Scotland / PH2 0SB (all cheques are payable to ‘Walter Perrie’). You can also request a full price list of all Fras titles. It goes without saying that I have a stock of copies myself and these can be ordered by messaging me at this website (£5 with postage included). I’m happy also to send out free review copies to anyone interested in having a look or taking my pamphlet on.

Cheers. Here are a couple of poems from the pamphlet:

John Manson (1932-2020)

John Manson at Saltire Society, 2012

Some people lead such quietly unassuming and self-contained lives that there can sometimes be quite a delay between their death and the knowledge of their death filtering out into the wider world. The poet, translator and independent researcher in the field of Scottish literature John Manson is a prime example of this. He’s brilliantly profiled in this short film by John Hudson. He died in August this year, but it was only yesterday that I found out about his passing, and then only by happenstance.

This, however, seems fitting – I met John only once and again this was by chance. In 2012 I was a writer-in-residence for a month at Brownsbank Cottage in Biggar, the last home of Christopher Murray Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid) and his wife Valda. For anyone interested in MacDiarmid’s life and work one of the key scholars is John Manson, from his vital work in unearthing MacDiarmid’s WW2 poems to John’s huge academic magnum-opus Dear Grieve: Letters to Hugh MacDiarmid (Kennedy and Boyd, 2011).

One day I was in Edinburgh getting my messages in to take back to the cottage on the little bus to Biggar. At some point on Lothian Road, a face familiar from a photograph got onboard. I was pretty sure it was John Manson, and he was wearing the trademark black suit with tie. After a few minutes I moved to the seat behind him and introduced myself. Luckily it was John, and he was pleased to meet me – we’d corresponded when I was preparing to apply to do a PhD back in 2010 and one of the first expensive books I bought with my Carnegie scholarship money was a copy of Dear Grieve (now much thumbed).

I explained that I thought it was very apt that we’d meet on a bus heading for Biggar, after all so much of John’s intellectual energies had been focussed on a sympathetic rehabilitation and revelation of MacDiarmid’s vast body of work. John himself was just coming back from St Andrews where he had spent the afternoon with the poet Lillias Scott Forbes (then in a care-home and in her 90s – she died aged 94 in 2014). It struck me then as a magnanimous move – to spend all day in transit to pay someone a visit (he lived in Kirkpatrick-Durham), but John was extremely generous with his time and knowledge, not to mention patient with Scot-lit neophytes like myself.

My correspondence with John – always via letter, sometimes typed or word-processed, often handwritten – spans 2010 to 2017. The letters (40 or so) ended when I was in the preparatory stages of putting together a book on the poet Sydney Goodsir Smith. John helped me greatly in laying the foundations of that book and putting me in touch with people but unfortunately once I got involved in the writing and editing of it, I let John escape my mind and our letters petered out. He might, however, have forgiven me – John has a wonderfully arch poem about the self-absorption of the scholar:

There was a silent scholar near me

though many a time I saw him

[…]

and once he answered a question

I had addressed to someone else

and once he asked me,

‘Has anyone found The Monmouthshire Labour News?’

I assured him they had not

and he never spoke to me again.         (from ‘In the Library’)

Not only would his letters be bursting with valuable bits of information that he had worked hard to find himself and gave away so unstintingly, but they would also be prompt and punctual, sometimes even by return of post and enclosing all sorts of other things, such as translations or poems or articles John was working on at the time.

I feel bad that I met John after he had visited Lillias Scott Forbes in a home and for the last two years of his life I didn’t even send him a card asking after him. I had no idea he had moved to a care home himself in late 2018 and no idea until yesterday of his death. John’s great modesty prevented him from pushing his own poetry onto others and by today’s standards of over-production, his output was slender, whittled, pared down to the most necessary utterance. But my, could he craft an image when he wanted to. I’m thinking of his four line poem ‘Old Stab’ (a stab being a fence post) and the central image in it being as good as Georg Trakl’s opal which is said, on close inspection, to resemble ‘a village wreathed in withered vines’ (Will Stone’s translation):

The wood wears a grey skin

Lichen seals the ridges of fibres

The head is a ruin

Of concentric amphitheatres.

Richard Livermore (1944-2020)

As if this year wasn’t bad enough already, but grim news this morning from Edinburgh about my friend, the poet Richard Livermore. He died last night in St. Columba’s Hospice after a long bout with peritoneal cancer. He dealt with his terminal illness in a dignified, candid and often darkly witty way. I’m not going to go into a full-on eulogy here, I merely want to share with you what I think is one of the best pictures of Richard, taken in (I think the late 1970s or early 1980s) by the legendary photographer Sunil Gupta. Richard is on the right and his then partner Bernie is on the left. A few months before Richard died he entrusted to me his paper archive which also included photos. This picture is slightler longer than A4 and as such would not fit in the envelope so Richard just folded it in half!!!

Image by Sunil Gupta

It’s ok to not be ok

That’s what the Samaritans say and you often find this mantra in places of extremity like bridges or rail-tracks. I recall having a blazing row with a university friend of mine from Madeira about how it was more seemly to hide your feelings – ala the stiff upper lip of the butler in Remains of the Day – but he maintained that we should pour out our emotions with wild abandon. Now, nearly fifteen years on, I agree with him.

To be honest, I don’t know what the done thing is. I tend to waver between apathy and lachrimae. But when it comes to writing poetry it seems that it’s not ok to say what you feel. In my most recent publications I’ve been criticised for laying myself bare and making myself too vulnerable via self-deprecation. There’s a thin line between not being ok and being self-pitying, it seems.

I think the problem is inherent in the marketing of poetry. There are so many people clamouring for attention in such a small arena. You have to play the big-shot at all times – you have to give out the impression that you’re a grand fromage when you aren’t. Modern poetry – that is to say the stuff that is successful now and wins all the (yawn) prizes – doesn’t dare for a second doubt itself. I find that a great shame. Poetry for me is the dramatisation of aporias or deep doubts within ourselves. But in order to sell poetry (and thus yourself) you have to be bumptious – these two drives are inherently incompatible. When did the sales-people take over poetry?

It’s ok to not be ok – but don’t for a moment get ideas above your station and think you can write poetry that matters from it – that will never sell!

New poems by James Aitchison

A few months back, I shared a poem by James Aitchison on ‘Lyrical Aye Poems’. In my introduction to that poem I explained that the Stirling-based poet had suffered a stroke last year and was still convalescing. Since then James has sent me a dozen new poems from which I’ve selected a handful for this site, I very much hope you enjoy them and I wish James a full and timely recovery.

 

Monsters

Sasquatch, Yeti, Loch Ness plesiosaur –
shy creatures hide from our monstrosity.

 

Head/Blood

The first ball game was played with an enemy head.
The first red carpet was the blood of the enemy dead.

 

Waymarks

The Ratty Burn was an ancient drainage course
that flowed so slowly the water seemed motionless
as it crossed the Carse to the Carron and the Forth.

The Ratty was just beyond the boundary
to the back garden of our new rented house.

The council enclosed the Ratty with concrete pipes
and built more homes for families from the slums.

I didn’t know the rats were water voles
and their presence a proof of cleanliness.

*
A colony of black rabbits – cast off pets
gone feral? – nibbled the overshadowed grass
by the A91 just south of Bannockburn.

They were only rabbits but I learned to look out
for those black waymarks on our journeys home.

I haven’t seen a roadside rabbit, black
or brown this year or last in Stirlingshire.

*
Motorway journeys were more bearable
when kestrels hovered above the verges,
eyeing the long grass for the merest twitch:
a grounded nestling, field mouse, grasshopper.

How many years of miles before I saw
kestrels hovering in their absences?

 

Time-spans

In my new passport the photograph appears
younger, or less old, by twenty years.
He’s like no one I know or ever knew.
The photograph is fictional and true.

*
The palaeontologist who excavates
footprints on the shore of a lost sea
and classes them as humanoid, back-dates
a million years of our pre-history,
the age of chimpanzees, the Pliocene
age of the primate with a deviant gene.

*
Poetry’s congenital: I was prepossessed
and found my first poems on an autocue
in my mind. But now a palimpsest
is a truer metaphor, or less untrue.

 

A Small Child

A small child hears snakes hiss
in her parents’ whisperings

learns the first of guilt
in her parents’ undertones

is abandoned by her parents’ silences

fears snakes
when her mother switches off the light

is unborn in her parents’ absences

knows that the meanings in her parents’ speech
mean more than the meanings of spoken words

may be loved and yet feel desolate

 

A Paper-boy in Winter

When Mum wakes me at half-past six I moan
and groan. But I’m quite happy on my own.
I don’t feel lonely when I’m all alone.

Sometimes my round feels more like fun than work.
There’s lots of bright street lights in Oakhill Park;
even in winter it’s never really dark.

I saw a fox jump out of a litter bin.
And a strange blue-backed bird, a peregrine –
I looked it up. And a roe deer, twitchy-thin.

I used to tell my friends these things at school.
Friends? They called me a liar and a fool.
My Mum says ‘Just ignore their ridicule.’

I love the falling snowflakes’ spooky glow
around the street lights. And everywhere I go
I’m first to leave my footsteps in the snow.

Up and down garden paths from Oakhill Drive
to Millhouse lane, on snowy mornings I’ve
this feeling: I’m the only boy alive.

The Invasion of the Poetry Body-snatchers

One of the very first times I read a poem at a literary festival, the woman who was compering the event stood up at the lectern after I had read and asked what my mother thought about being cast in one of my poems as rather drunk and rather mad. The poem in question was ‘Spinning Plates’ with its opening line ‘My mother was mad as mercury…’. The idea of the event was that this person would quiz the poet about their poem and they would then get a chance to respond. So I stood up and said ‘My mother doesn’t read much poetry but I credit her with the intelligence of knowing that a character in a poem is not necessarily a real-life person’.

Perhaps my answer was a little too barbed and snitty, but it is one of those fundamental issues in poetry that gets my hackles up, rather like being asked the question ‘Are you still writing poetry?’ Both problems often come from people who are not poets or afflicted with the poetry bug themselves. And only recently a neighbour of mine, with the best will in the world, wrote a lovely and flattering email to me after having read my new pamphlet First Hare but they too said that they found it ‘uncomfortable reading’ considering that they knew my mother, me and my wife. They feared that I had spoken in too raw and candid a way about my life and my loved ones.

The thing is that poetry in bookshops, if it ever makes it that far, is it is often (bizarrely) classified as ‘non-fiction’. This too gets my hackles up because for me poetry is as fictional a form as novel writing – both take often real-life experience and transmute it via the imagination into something altogether other. I tried to explain it to my neighbour in a way that I hope wasn’t patronising, but I see it like this:

You can make a purely factual point in writing. For instance, you can write ‘The Battle of Hastings, 1066’. No historian will disagree with you (I hope, though Starkey might!). But where does this get us? You could write a book about the Battle of Hastings that is the most meticulously researched and factually sound of the lot of them but in the end it might end up a bit dull and worthy for its slavish adherence to facts. It would certainly be the case if you put it in the form of a poem. However, if you wrote about an ancestor who fought in that battle it suddenly becomes more interesting because it is closer to home. It doesn’t matter if this ancestor actually lived or not. But then again, if they did and you wrote a scrupulous and factual account of your family history, you’d probably discover that we are more boring than the family stories make out.

This is what I do in my poems – I use the real, material world in my poems and turn actuality and my experiences into something altogether more dramatic but imaginary. Poets like novelists are just yarn spinners. You can write something factually correct that is emotionally and aesthetically wrong but you can also write something that is an utter cock and bull story that is in fact emotionally resonant. It is about the feeling and atmosphere a poem conjures up, not whether or not it can be verified in a rational and scientific way. You sit down to write a poem with a vague sense of the narrative you want to convey and sometimes as you start to write you find your hand being hijacked by another force and a different poem unfolds. As such, the speaker of my poems is not necessarily me but someone (a la Norman MacCaig) speaking in my position.  My family are not necessarily the family that populate my poems, Though they might recognise aspects about themselves, they have been replaced by something else.