Further on Nom de Plume (or, Further on, Nom de Plume) by John Stammers

Posted: August 25, 2012 in John Stammers Page
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In the earlier piece (On Nom de Plume, by John Stammers) I established fairly definitely that the structure of enquiry and overall layout of Non de Plume, was a close referral to a Michael Donaghy poem, Our Life Stories. The Stammers poem begins:

The bunch of flowers in the vase, what are they called?
I’ll call them Anstruthers for no other reason
than that…………

Well, here is another possible connection.

In 1999, Scottish poet Robert Crawford published an outstanding book, Spirit Machines, with Cape Poetry.

One early piece in the book is the poem Anstruther. It is written in typically Crawfordian witty, laconic and rumbustious manner; it begins:

Here the great Presbyterian minister
with his lifebelt and memorial lighthouse

sails with the captain of many clippers
towards the Salutation Bar.

We take it, then, that the minister in question is Anstruther-notable Dr Thomas Chalmers. We take it he sails off to take up a post in the Isles, overseas, or is it inward where sobriety is left high and dry, and the choppy firth of conscience and belief tests his mettle once again. Is this to be his new parish? In life he was co-founder of the Free Kirk, a break-away group which later became a dominant assembly. Along with his break-aways went many Gaelic-speakers, and Highlanders (hence my reference to the Isles).

The stanzas I have in mind are 5 to 8:

…we stand and stare up at the stars

 near the electrician’s. They look so close
they could be catching lobsters and called
not the Plough but Breadwinner 111,
Shearwater of Cellardyke, North Carr Lightship

 Morning Ray, Fisher of Men.

First, a note about Anstruther itself. It is a largish town on the coast of north Firth of Forth, near St Andrews. It has a number of notable features – one is a seeming cricket pavilion just outside town. This is in fact the surface portal of a large underground nuclear bunker. It is reputedly large enough to house top military people from USA and Britain.

Another feature of the town was the Beggars’ Benison, a type of hell-fire club for the top people of the area. Its activities were… quite hilarious.

One notable personage from the town is Radio One dj Edith Bowman. Then we have our man, Dr Thomas Chalmers, as mentioned co-founder of the Scottish Free Kirk and renowned Presbyterian minister. Anstruther forms part of the constituency of MP Menzies Campbell. Small world. I wonder if he would have been up for the shenanigans of the Beggar’s Benison? The mind boggles at the prospect!

Further information on the Beggar’s Benison can be found in Robert Crawford’s book Robert Burns and Cutural Authority (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Oh, and Anstruther is pronounced Ainster in the Scots.

In Crawford’s poem names are identity: we have here, in the early days of partial devolution of the late nineties the continuing assertion of Scottishness, of the necessity of naming in order to establish legitimacy, independent identity and history, and self-sufficient nation-hood.

What connections can we establish with the Stammers poem? We know from interviews that Stammers has gained a wide and extensive knowledge of contemporary poetry from among other ways, browsing the Poetry Society bookshelves. Also we have the Don Paterson connection, as mentioned earlier. Don Paterson, W N Herbert and Robert Crawford are all part of a Scottish grouping strong on technical matters.

Internal evidence of the Stammers’ poem offers neither the Scots’ pronunciation of Anstruther, nor knowledge of the town or place. We only connect on the querulous naming strategy.

Crawford’s suggested naming of the stars and constellations in terms of local landmarks, economic practice, and religious heritage, differs in nature from the suggested fallibility of the Stammers’ approach.

With Crawford we cross time like a lobster boat on the Firth; we also take with us our contemporary knowledge and approaches when we do this. This is basic historicity, but potent nonetheless.

With Stammers the misnaming is, as said, a gesture of fallibility, that is, a recognition of fellowship; it also carries the contrary recognition of the cultural ambience of a select educational level in its referencing of Derridean techniques. And further, of course, the now select few who read modern poetry, and will note the Donaghy reference. Such ambivalence is evident in the Crawford piece, but has a different strategy, and explores a different intent. With Crawford there is always the up-to-date referencing of cultural and technological achievements, but not at the expense of the claims of history. Hence, throughout the poem is the ever-present use of the present tense. In Crawford there is always the co-existence of time scales. This is part of his legitimising of Scottish political and cultural identity.

Both poems are buzzing with the quotidian details that constitute the substrata of cultural lives.

And the electrician’s in the excerpt above, from Crawford’s poem? Is this a local-colour, authenticising detail too? Or is it a pawky contemporary reference to the energizer of life, the great Himself?

I am reminded here of an earlier Gaelic poem (Derick Thomson?) set in the Isles, where the locals (the Wee Frees who broke away with Chalmers, but refused the Episcopalian majority) believed the air was so clear they could see God at his dinner.

The point I am circling here is how both writers approach what in an earlier piece (Urban Writer) I summed up as, in quote, the ‘sociolects of power’. Both writers, consciously in Crawford, and subconsciously (the assumed centrality of the London cultural identity) in Stammers, portray in their writing the claims of nationhood.

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