Two poems by Hayden Murphy

For many years, the Edinburgh-based Irish poet Hayden Murphy has been producing wonderful keepsake poems to mark Bloomsday and since 1992 he has been collaborating with the artist and publisher Hugh Bryden. Hayden himself will no doubt be known to many of you as not only a poet, but a fine critic and man-of-letters as well as the editor of the legendary literary periodical Broadsheet (1967-1978). These two examples of Hayden’s Bloomsday poems are part of a series I will be publishing on this site in the run-up to Bloomsday proper. The first poem here, an elegy for one of Scotland’s greatest poets, Hugh MacDiarmid, hails from 1992 and the second, a birthday celebration for the 80th birthday of another of Scotland’s finest poets, Edwin Morgan, is from 2000. The latter is particularly pertinent now, considering that 2020 marks Morgan’s centenary. In the photo below, taken in 2014 at the Irish consulate in Edinburgh, Hayden Murphy (left) drinks a jar of Guinness with Hugh Bryden, his collaborator.

Scan_H&H 20200605

 

 

FEATHER  AND STONE

I.M. Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978)

 

Eel nouns, crowned

Teeth, capped on Riding

Day with sombre headdress.

 

Handed over the grave,

Blown needle thin

Are tree-drawn wind

Flayed words

Into memory.

                                                     Feather

Testimony of tribe.

Scribe, chieftain

Of rock-hewn terms

Of agreement. Water

Gently marking

Divides.

               Red

Woven into black

Meeting blue

Flat on the palm

Against the palm

Handing over the grave

A leaf grained feather.

                                                       Stone

Earthed. Against

Grey skin, the watching

Sky, a white veiled

Rose is worn. Stubborn

As black.

                  Plain,

Pale, brave.

 

Mole verbs, tapped

Tongue , horse-drawn

Freeman crowned.

 

 

 

ANAPHORA

For Edwin Morgan beyond 80

 

Grey blue

                                  River laid against

The key stone polishes

                                                         Low

Pebbles   sounding   out   an    eddy

Echo

              River fluid

                                                      Under

                                                    bridges

Hymns the sentence

                                              Greek blue

River rhetoric

                                  Moves to whisper

Out a liquid line

                                      Retelling

                                                           Sins

Recalling crossing journeys

Greek blue

                               Waters tippling over

An untidy tale as two

                                           Remembering

To cojoin within

                              Loose pages

                                                                All

All memory meandering

                                                     Between

Embrace

                     Condensed

                                                Greek blue.

 

Two poems by Gordon Wright

The other day we had an exclusive – two prose poems by John Herdman. Today another exclusive, two poems from Gordon Wright’s forthcoming new collection The Book Club for Bitter Hearts & Other Poems (Blackford Glen Books, 2020). Gordon Wright is a man of many talents but I did not know until relatively recently that he is also a poet. He’s perhaps best known as a photographer, specifically a photographer of Scottish arts and culture. He’s the author of one of my favourite books: MacDiarmid: An Illustrated Biography (Gordon Wright Publishing, 1977) and it’s well worth mentioning that as a publisher he brought out Liz Lochhead’s first collection Memo for Spring (Reprographia, 1972) as well as publishing vitally important work by the likes of Helen B Cruickshank, George Campbell Hay, Flora Garry and George Mackay Brown.

 

Doors and Windows
(For Christopher Murray Grieve)

What did I know about poetry?
Practically nothing!
I asked you what I should read
And you directed me to the bible
And the book of Proverbs.
I soon discovered many
Scottish writers who held me in thrall.
Your own work transcended borders.
And so, my education began.
Thanks for all that, Christopher.
You opened doors for me to walk in
And windows for me to look out.

 

Touching Base
(For my cousin, Kelly Hall)

When you, my American cousin,
Brought your two boys,
To visit the city of their forefathers,
I took you to the street where
The family home was perched,
High at the top of a sandstone tenement.

I parked the car opposite the long stair
That made us puff and pant
And we sat in silence – staring at it,
Before you decided to climb and
See that old front door for yourselves.

Did I close my eyes? I can’t remember,
But as I waited alone in the car,
The film started before I could say a word
As three boys burst out the door carrying
A football and ran down the street.

A lady with a baby cradled in one arm,
A toddler at her side,
And a heavy bag of messages,
Struggles up the road.
She rests for a minute to prepare
Herself for the long climb.

I hear the sound of a clarinet playing,
A tune for ballroom dancing.
I hear the sound of a cornet playing,
A marching tune for brass bands.

A slim, attractive young woman
Arrives at the stair door,
On the arm of an American service man.
She rummages for the key in her shoulder bag.
He steals a kiss before they enter.

The RIP Race

I am starting to get to the age where my years are being bookended by the deaths of people from the poetry world, sometimes people I knew well, other times simply someone whose body of work resonated with and meant something to me. Last year, just after Christmas, my good friend the Anglo-Brugean poet Marcus Cumberlege died at 80, and just before him, Tom Leonard, a poet who, although I had prickly encounters with him, I never really knew personally but a poet with an oeuvre that meant more than diamonds and rubies to me.

This year (or rather at the end of the last) it was Alasdair Gray. Again, a man I’d only met a handful of times, but one whom I venerated as a writer and artist, and a generous soul who gave a feisty foreword to a book I’d edited (on Joan Ure) for nothing. His death was made more poignant for me by the fact that his sister is our neighbour, and we’ve often spoken about him and his work together. And now the news is coming through that Roddy Lumsden has died, at the rather poor innings of 53. Lumsden, like Leonard, had been hanging on from a shoogly nail for a while, so it wasn’t unexpected, but shocking nonetheless. I’ve no doubt he was a great aider and abettor of younger poets, but I never knew him. I saw him once, across a crowded pub in London – that’s it. Had I been a bit more outgoing and metropolitan, I might well have met him, or at least introduced myself. The extent of my contact with him is the few volumes of his I have on my shelves – I admired his almost Urquhartian logodaedaly – his playful dance in the company of exotic and abstruse words.

But what all this has brought out is this – when the news of the demise of someone culturally significant drops, why is there suddenly this frantic race to be the first to offer some sort of encomium? Alasdair Gray’s death generated a supra-tsunami of tweets and obituaries and tributes. You go on YouTube and like a rash, every video featuring the deceased is peppered with ‘RIP’ bromides. I remember as a child my father getting almost giddily excited when someone majorly famous died and being the first to announce it to us. I’m as guilty as anyone else – I mean, I wrote memorial blogs of a sort after the deaths of Marcus and Tom Leonard. But in most instances I managed to say to the face of the person / poet what their work meant to me (as if it ever mattered what I thought) while they still walked the earth. Even with George Ramsden, the antiquarian bookseller, on my last visit to his shop barely a month before he took his life, I told him that York for me was almost a bibliographic desert with the saving grace of his shop.

Death will, and always has, put a much higher value on the work of an artist, particularly a tragically premature death – the way signed copies of Seamus Heaney’s poetry collections skyrocketed in value when he died, because there won’t be any more (although the fraudsters on eBay might see to it that there are…).

But I’m also nagged by the vague memory of reading an account of a trip by Dylan Thomas to Edinburgh. At the time (I think the late 1930s, maybe early 40s), Hugh MacDiarmid was a desperately poor and increasingly marginalised figure in Scottish letters and Dylan Thomas gets up to address an audience and says something along the lines of: ‘this great man is suffering now, he needs your money and support now, don’t wait until he’s dead and pour money into erecting a statue to his memory…’. And when Thomas died young at the age of 39, MacDiarmid fulminated against all the elegists, opportunists and vultures profiting off their (often negligible) associations with the Welsh bard – they could say anything they wanted because he was ‘safely dead’ and now a prime target for being embraced into the canon and becoming a fetish of the tourism board. Again, I paraphrase from memory – I’ve not been able to find the source since, but am confident I haven’t imagined it.

But why do we wait? The day before Alasdair Gray’s death it was his birthday. How many wished him a happy birthday who also went on a day later to regurgitate tired truisms about his genius?

Bibliomania

It might sound mightily snobby, but I don’t consider someone who wants to collect a copy of every single thing published by a certain author a true book collector, or bibliomane. These people might well be completists, but there is something mechanical about their collecting. I started off with the love of a certain book but then became obsessed with the almost fetishistic materiality of every single copy of that book in existence. For instance, there are adventitious, external or meta stories that can attach themselves to old books – it’s not just the printed story / poems on the pages of the book, it’s also the markings and marginalia that the acquire in their passage through time that can make them truly talismanic. For me, the sign of a true and helpless collector is the hoarding of copies of the same book, because each copy tells a different story.

IMG-2252

Lookie here at these three copies of Hugh MacDiarmid’s modernist poem masterpiece A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle all from my library. This ground-breaking book was published in 1926 by the Edinburgh publisher William Blackwood and Sons. The first two copies are first issue bindings, the third is a second issue binding. According to Blackwood’s records, there were 525 copies in total (both primary and secondary bindings) printed. According to MacDiarmid, they struggled to sell any copies. Who knows how many were ultimately pulped and how many have survived nearly a century on earth? The book would have been printed with a thick, sugar-paper sandy coloured dustjacket, but I’m afraid these copies are well and truly beyond my reach (selling for between £400-1800 each). For the cash-strapped collector like me, the only chance of getting a nice copy is by finding a good association copy minus the dustjacket that the bookseller hasn’t noticed.

IMG-2254

Copy 1 (left-hand side of first photo) has a slightly worn patch on the front. This was the first copy I acquired, from the erstwhile ‘Old Town Bookshop’ in Edinburgh in (I think) 2012. I recall it was priced at just over £100, and in order to buy it, I had to trade lots of books from my collection. It was a book I was desperate to own, in any condition, and this was the first copy I found. On the inside front leaf there is a very unobtrusive fountain pen signature of ‘T. Henderson’. It was only after doing some research in the nearby National Library that I worked out that ‘T. Henderson’ had been ‘Thomas Henderson’, otherwise known as ‘Theta’. It was Henderson, in his capacity as editor of the Scottish Educational Journal who had the foresight to commission articles from MacDiarmid in the 1920s that went on to become the seminal collection Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926), published the same year as A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle.

IMG-2255

Copy 2 (centre of top photo) is without doubt the star of the trio. A much more presentable copy, this bears the pencilled ownership signature of ‘Geo. Ogilvie / Dec. 1926’. It also has a stylish later barley-and-hops bookplate for ‘Anna M. MacLeod’, who was Professor Anna MacGillivray MacLeod (1917-2004), the first woman Professor of Brewing and Biochemistry in the world. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to see why she wanted to own a copy of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle then!

IMG-2256

When I bought this book, the seller warned me that it was ‘heavily annotated’. The annotations affect about 70% of the book and are clearly by the same hand that wrote ‘Geo. Ogilvie’. The association between Hugh MacDiarmid and George Ogilvie is better documented than that of Thomas Henderson and MacDiarmid. In 1988 Catherine Kerrigan edited and introduced The Hugh MacDiarmid – George Ogilvie Letters which was the first attempt to highlight the great significance of this particular friendship on MacDiarmid’s poetry. Born in 1871, Ogilvie died in 1934, but he had been MacDiarmid’s English master at Broughton School in Edinburgh. MacDiarmid cited him repeatedly as a major formative influence on his writing and his decision to write poetry. After returning from Salonika and the War, MacDiarmid actuated a correspondence with his old English master which was to prove mutually fruitful. George Ogilvie appears to have annotated his copy thoroughly in order to write a letter of praise and support to his umquhile pupil. On 9th December 1926, the very month George Ogilvie wrote in his copy of A Drunk Man MacDiarmid was to write dolefully to him off the cool reception the book was having:

Many thanks for your kind and reassuring letter. I always suffer from reaction after putting out a book: and am ridiculously sensitive to what reviewers say – even when I know their incompetence and malice. I say to myself: what can reviewers be expected to make of a thing like that Drunk Man – and yet I am horribly vexed when they make nothing of it or something utterly stupid…

The letter is long, running to three pages, and is a rare moment where MacDiarmid drops his guard and bluster and reveals the doubtful and vulnerable artist behind the writing. MacDiarmid trusted Ogilvie this much to write a letter of such moving candour, and Ogilvie’s personally annotated copy of MacDiarmid’s magnum opus is an important artefact in that story.

IMG-2253

Copy 3 (right of top picture) is perhaps my most treasured copy. I bought this from Deirdre Guthrie in 2018, the daughter of John Guthrie who was given the copy by Sydney Goodsir Smith in 1944. The book had for many years lived in Bellapais, North Cyprus, where the Guthrie family moved from Scotland in the early 1950s. John Guthrie was an early friend of Sydney Goodsir Smith, they got to know each other when both were medical students at Edinburgh University in the 1930s. Both were born in New Zealand and both were fond of a dram. They met again in Edinburgh after Goodsir Smith dropped out of his studies and went to Oxford to study something more congenial – history. It is well documented that this particular book had a meteoric effect on Goodsir Smith, who had long been trying to find his voice as a poet. He was given a copy in a pub by inspirational school-teacher Hector MacIver and it set his course as a poet for the rest of his life. What is fascinating about this copy given to John Guthrie is that you can clearly see it has been a copy owned by Goodsir Smith (he’s written ‘2nd copy’ and then crossed it out and changed the date from 1942 to 1944). John Guthrie has added his own name to the dedication, although Goodsir Smith has written ‘To the Bold;’ – Goodsir Smith’s nickname for Guthrie. In a fit of evangelical glee, he probably pressed this copy on Guthrie while both were out boozing in 1944.

So, there you have it, three copies of the same book, but they tell completely different stories and all three are, to me, essential. If other association copies came my way at the right price, I’d buy those too – that’s the extent of the disease!

Verse for wear

The fraught relationship between alcohol and creativity is one of the most hackneyed topics out there – a slew of books are published each year on it. And the exaggeratedly bibulous ghost of Dylan Thomas hovers crapulously above all such narratives and accounts. But there’s a reason for all that – it’s an eternally fascinating, if morbid, subject. My interest in imbibing and scribbling is both academic and personal, as someone (I’ll admit) who sometimes struggles with alcohol themselves. Much of my research for my PhD was on generally male Scottish poets born in the late 1900s or early 20th century, those who loosely formed (willingly or reluctantly) ‘the Scottish literary renaissance’, led by big boozer Hugh MacDiarmid. I recently came across this gem, in a 1992 catalogue for an exhibition of MacDiarmid manuscripts and rare publications called ‘The Thorn in Scotland’s Rose’, the letter is dated 1962 (when MacDiarmid was 70):

Letter to G. Ross Roy from the Edinburgh antiquarian bookseller Kulgin Duval, who had recently published [MacDiarmid’s] The Kind of Poetry I Want and had arranged for MacDiarmid to inscribe the Roy copy. Unfortunately, Duval notes, ‘Christopher is here but alas too too drunk to sign your book, but he’ll do it, he says so, you’ll get it soon’. Two months later MacDiarmid was capable of inscribing the book…

Admittedly the letter was sent the day after Hogmanay, but MacDiarmid had a problematic relationship with drink to say the least – it was a major reason (alongside the financial) behind his self-imposed exile on Whalsay, in the Shetland archipelago in the 1930s and early 1940s. His second wife Valda had for many years valiantly managed to curb his consumption, but he was a devil for Glenfiddich particularly. When he descended on Norman MacCaig’s flat in Edinburgh from Biggar, he was known to go on drinking sprees from which he would sleep solidly for three days in order to recover.

So many of the poets whose work I admire were, I think we can all agree, borderline or fully fledged high-level functioning alcoholics: Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown, George Campbell Hay, Ruthven Todd (particularly!), W. S. Graham, Burns Singer – the list goes on out the door and around the block and back. Just look at this 1972 film about Hugh MacDiarmid by Oscar Marzaroli, called ‘No Fellow Travellers’ – the first scene is a beery, smoky Milne’s Bar full of pickled poets arguing the toss about their master’s ‘greatness’.

A retired professor friend of mine said that he had spoken to W. S. Graham in the early 1980s when he was on a reading tour of Scotland (his last visit to his native Scotland). Graham was drinking whisky out of a pewter tankard (and this was before the reading started) and when my friend volunteered to buy him another, Graham pointed to the tankard and said ‘In there’. In there went another double measure and Graham lifted the tankard to his lips with both hands, trembling. My friend says he will never forget the sound of the pewter chattering against Graham’s teeth as he forced the barley-bree down.

Of course, a lot of Graham’s drinking was to do with chronic anxiety about performing in front of an audience as well as the usual thanatic drive in the artist for self-destruction. Drink made him an extremely volatile reader of his work and it led to brilliant but also bathetic and bellicose performances where he told the audience to ‘Fuck off!’. George Mackay Brown was a painfully shy man who drank to overcome social nerves and it is well documented that while he lived in Edinburgh as a student in the 1950s and early 1960s (sometimes even being arrested for public drunkenness), his great love was the artist Stella Cartwright (who can be seen in her prime here, in this lovely short film by Margaret Tait), a woman destroyed by alcohol addiction that she acquired in trying to keep up with the drouthy poets. She died in her late 40s, more or less deserted by the fair-weather friends of her misspent youth.

Alan Bold (1943-1998), the poet, writer and biographer of MacDiarmid, saw himself as a direct descendent of these Renaissance poets and much of his journalism affectionately toys with their drinking antics (see here). (He can be seen as the first of the impassioned speakers in the MacDiarmid video, above – he’s the chubby man with the beard who says ‘It’s a question of a man who can write bloody good poetry!’ in the opening shot). Yet, behind these funny, larger-than-life anecdotes, Bold is measuring himself against his heroes as a drinker and trying to show us that alcohol is not a harmful thing, if greater men have used and abused it and have written such great works as A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle using alcohol as a central motif. Bold himself was certainly no slouch in the quaffing stakes – a contemporary of his says that when he travelled in from Fife on the train to Edinburgh to research his latest book in the National Library, he’d always have with him eight cans of Guinness, which was supplemented, presumably, by a lengthy liquid lunch in a nearby howff. The conjecture surrounding his early death in his mid-50s is centred on his heavy drinking. It appears that the near-death of his close friend the artist John Bellany in the mid-1980s, from alcohol-induced cirrhosis, did little to dampen his fondness for the jar.

broom

Perhaps one of the most harrowing and moving accounts of alcoholism in literary Edinburgh in the 1950s and 1960s is the grossly undervalued and more-or-less impossibly scarce short book Another Little Drink by ‘Abraham Adams’ (pseudonym for the writer, librarian and latterly owner of ‘Stromness Books and Prints’, John L. Broom, who died in 1991). Published in 1973, safely after Broom’s recovery from severe alcoholism (over two bottles of whisky a day, and whatever he could down in the pub), the book was published by poet and fellow librarian David Morrison’s and Edna Morrison’s press ‘Scotia’. Morrison, a practicing heavy drinker himself but also survivor of the Rose Street scene must have seen in the book a number of uncomfortable truths. Marketing itself as ‘The story of an alcoholic’s decline, fall and return to life’, the book at the time fell between two stools – not didactic enough to be a self-help guide or technical or academic enough to be a study, but having enough knowledge of the pathology of drinking to not make it merely a ‘warts and all’ gossip book.

The book was clearly an important part of Broom’s recovery, and like Jack London’s John Barleycorn, it’s an alcoholic’s memoirs, with a focus on how drinking became such a large domineering part of a life. Much of the book is taken up with vivid descriptions of the sheer messiness of alcohol taking a hold on a life (after an evocation of literary Edinburgh in the ‘golden’ years of drinking) – the hallucinations and DTs, the wet beds, the blackouts while driving, the drinking through Antabuse treatment, the loss of jobs and the lasting stigma of addiction (thus the pseudonym). There are sometimes funny imbroglios and compromising situations but Broom is never preachy and the book is ultimately a positive one, with an emphasis on recovery. So often such books ring a falsely rhetorical note, but Broom managed to get and stay sober for decades. So did my late friend, the poet Marcus Cumberlege, though he did so with the assistance of a firm belief in a higher power. The fact that Broom’s book has not been republished baffles me, because I think it would be more readily understood, even enjoyed and benefitted from, these days.

I don’t have any gory stories like John Broom to tell, but I’ve been reassessing my drinking over the last few years. In the past I did try to fortify myself with drink before poetry readings and it’s taken me a long time to realise that the stuff actually undermines what I do. I recall one particularly cringey reading where I could actually hear myself slurring and stumbling over words – that was a bit of a wake-up call. It’s a matter of principle to me now that I don’t drink before I read, but that only accounts for a very small part of my time / life. I also emphatically don’t drink in order to write – anything I’ve written in the past under the influence has been total bilge. But again, that doesn’t really say much and I accept that there are some poets who need alcohol in order to write, to open up a part of their brain or imagination. I’ve heard that Angus Calder worked this way as a poet – getting drunk and writing drafts of poems that he would find scattered around the day after and try to edit and type up.

All drinking gives me is false hope – if I drink then write I think each idea is an epiphany (much the same when smoking cannabis) and then in the cold light of day, it’s gibberish. My problem is the drinking between poems, in the time when I don’t have a poem to write or something more meaningful to do. My other downfall is literary / poetry festivals. Being a rather introverted and reticent character, I really struggle to mingle at poetry events where so much of what seems like bonhomie is in fact note-taking, networking, reconnaissance and schmoozing. Once my reading is over, I want a drink in my hand in order to cope with it all and off to the pub I go, because there I can also hide from poetry people I find intimidating. It’s sad, but that’s how it’s been for me.

I’m also something of an alcohol tourist – I love finding the pubs with important literary connections and I love discovering new beers. My problem is that in my (mal)formative early years of drinking, I made an indelibly romantic connection between literature and drinking, and instead of questioning that, I swallowed it by the pint. But as times goes on, I’m finding it’s less and less the wonder product it once was, with each occasion when I feel groggy or short-tempered or thin-skinned. After the age of thirty, a hangover of any size has become unbearable. I remember once watching an interview with Raymond Carver about his own alcoholism where he says that he had it bad because, unlike many alcoholics, he loved the taste of alcohol. That set off something of a tocsin in my head, because my experience of drinking is also deeply gustatory. I can certainly relate to George Mackay Brown’s account, via biographer Maggie Fergusson, of his troubled love affair with the bottle:

One Saturday morning the following May, the Stromness Hotel opened its bar for the first time in twenty-seven years. George went in, downed two glasses of beer, and was hooked. Those first glasses, he wrote, were ‘a revelation; they flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries. I remember thinking to myself “If I could have two pints of beer every afternoon, life would be a great happiness.”’ It was not long before two pints ceased to satisfy […]