Archive for September, 2013

Alasdair Maclean, Poet. (1926 -1994)

For his books in print: http://www.birlinn.co.uk/Alasdair-Maclean/

In 1973 Scottish poet Alasdair Maclean published From the Wilderness with Victor Gollancz. The book became Poetry Book Society Choice. In 1976 he followed this up with Waking the Dead. Then silence. His last book a prose memoir, Night Falls On Ardnamurchan, came out in 1984, and only a few years after that, in 1994, the writer died.

It has been written his parents were the last crofters on the Ardnamurchan peninsula. Alasdair would not go back to it. His sister and family now occupy the croft, but the tradition has gone.

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Born in Glasgow he grew up on Ardnamurchan, near Sanna, until National Service whisked him away to the wider world to the east and India. Then ten years in Canada, and to return home. He enrolled at university as a mature student, and gained his MA in the early 1970s. He was in his 40s.

He retired in later years to Kirkcaldy, on the south Fife coast, where he lived alone until his early death.

Just jottings – what matters is that he grew up astride the major fault lines of his place and time. These he struggled to reconcile, in the end he retired from the fight.

He bestrode the cultural and economic divisions between Highlander and Lowlander; crossed over from crofter to university man, writer; broke the traditional bonds of crofter and soil, crofter and croft; and on a more global scale was stationed in India on National Service shortly before Independence.

The Herald Scotland wrote at the time of his death: ‘raised in the area where Alaistair mac maighster Alaistair was inspired to write the lyrical poem Sugar Brook Alasdair Maclean drew on his Gaelic crofting traditions for his poems in English…. His sardonic observations, sometimes reminds me of Norman MacCaig…’. He could also draw on a Burnsian sensibility at times, but in a knowing way. His earlier poems have the indeed sardonic and almost urbane tone of poetry of the 1970s. His later book reads as more mannered, the rhymes and rhythms come off more pat, there is less risk and more assuredness.

Ardnamurchan had long been part of the Lordship of the Isles, under MacDonald clanship. With the breaking of the MacDonald/Clanranald hold MacLean clanship became kin to the crafting communities there.

By bringing in one of the greatest poets of the 18th century The Herald acknowledges achievement and places Alasdair Maclean within a tradition. That the great poet was Gaelic and a Jacobite further defines Maclean’s status, his position towards Britain, Britishness and hegemony. Maclean wrote wholly in the English of the Scottish poet of the period, and allied himself with his peers across all borders. His material, however, was determinedly Scots, and following the Scots’ European connects.

To look for these fault lines we need to read from his first book, From the Wilderness (1973). It is instructive to set his early AT THE PEATS alongside Seamus Heaney’s early poems, probably written around the same time.

AT THE PEATS

In March we start our harvesting.

…………………………………………

in a peat bog,

continuing perhaps all summer

………………………………………………

………………………………………………………..

………………………………………………..

………………………………………………………

and once we appeared in the Scottish Field

………………………………………………………………..

Highland peasants, cutting peat.

The abundance of free fuel

is an important factor in the crafting economy

One of my father’s rare grim smiles,

like a lull in the east wind,

broke out when I read him that.

 

The music of that opening is revealing of a skill well learned, of pacing and rhythm that is quite admirable.

How harvesting (L1) is echoed in continuing (L4); how dig (L2) is echoed in bog (L3) and job and then released in done (L6).

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The Scottish Field used that pejorative term ‘peasants’ without a nuance of irony; it reeked of privilege and class division. R S Thomas, the Welsh writer, used the term about his parishioners in his famous books. I have often foundered on this rock in his work. If we compare Gillian Clark’s poems on her Welsh farming neighbours they are farm-workers, neighbours, ordinary people. How nuanced was Thomas’ use of ‘peasants’?

What does ‘free’ mean in this instance? This is a key term to Maclean. For the Scottish Field ‘free’ was a purely monetary concept. For the Macleans’ it was highly abstract concept that sat very uneasily in their hyper-concrete lives. The digging of ‘free’ fuel began in March and was a nearly year-round activity (‘perhaps all summer/ when the weather lets us,/ till the job is done.’) to be fitted in between crofting work.

The divide between real life demands and publicised and journalistic portraits was vast, unbridgeable. There could be no ‘letters to the editor’; the language was the same form of English but the weighting was wholly different. The monetary ‘free’ was a wholly urban, indeed mainland, for which we also read Lowland/ central belt concept. The time-based economics of islander-crofting were put starkly against it in this poem. Maclean’s father had no language for response; the son’s education allowed him this but the cost to family and kinship was destructive. The division went even deeper in Alasdair: it was no longer a matter of miles and distance, of magazine terminology from outside, and rendered manageable by regional and cultural politics and attitudes – for Alasdair it became a psychic division.  His father’s chill east wind image captures the language shift, the environmental/weather impact and the solitariness of the crofting communities and work life. Highland had become to mean marginalised, both politically and culturally; economically the Highlands that had not been Cleared or turned to shooting ranges were floundering.

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Loss of identity in an increasingly false-identity media culture was about as bad as it could get. ‘It’s only at home that I forgo/ the luxury of knowing who I am.’ he wrote in HOME THOUGHTS FROM HOME.

The tone of this first book is very much the urbane common-sense tone of the period; the restrained and muted responses of the earlier Larkin period English poets is very much to the fore. We see his use of rhyme straight forward and skillfully used. He has none of the mouth music of the early Heaney, the ‘Catholic tone’. Against this we have the strict and stripped back Presbyterianism of the peculiar turn religion took in the Hebrides. Previously Catholic in Clan periods, the strictness of the religion betokens a continuing ultra-Knoxian backlash, to a continuing hunger for those explicitly richer beliefs.

Here Maclean was using the lingua-franca of English, and the ‘English tone’. By this time, however, that tone was changing.

Like Edwin Muir he took on the writing of English as a universal medium of communication. He purposely did not use Lallans or Scots terms in his work. Muir was an Orcadian. As such his culture was also if not more Norse; we only need to read fellow Orcadian George Mackay Brown to see this writ large. The crofting concerns and seasonal straitjackets were similar, but allegiances were very different.

Ardnamurchanmap

Education and National Service gave a wider scenario. Like Norman MacCaig his use of English allowed him to partake of European experiences. We see in WAITING-DAYS the ennui of the post-war European experience:

A waiting-day is pale and still, a dead day

in the middle of the living season,

………………………………………………

………………………………………………..

……………………

And faintly from some distant town square,

as I stood waiting in that town,

I heard a drum begin to gather speed

and heard too, a great axe come down.

 

We hear echoes of MacCaig also in THE BUZZARD:

The buzzard turns a circle in the sky,

making its ends meet.

…………………………………………

……………………………………………………

leaving a black hole

through which the souls of many little birds

fly up to heaven.

This is from a section titled The Peaceable Kingdom, a collection of thirteen shorter poems on animals and encounters with nature. It bears little resemblance to Jon Silkin’s early poetry book of that name from 1954, though.

Maclean’s over-riding subject became that of death. For this we can read death of tradition, of a way of life, of inheritance-denial, and of his own plight as a half-man, between cultures, traditions.

His second book Waking the Dead opens with TO MY READER:

‘It’s always death with you,’ I hear you say.

‘Death, death, death, death, death.

Your own if all else fails but preferably another.’

………………….

The skill is more assured: he can measure out his metre in that second line quite deliberately. What is more to the fore in this book is the humour. It’s dark as the occasion calls, but also self-ironising as here, and very welcome. It does tend to deflect, though. As this poem states, the subject of the poem becomes the vehicle rather than the destination – to use a travelling analogy.

We also here a sense of himself: he is now ‘scholar’, and a writer with a readership. He is no longer the crofter-boy, marginalized and forgotten – he has entered the academy and become an accepted and paid-up member. This new assurance becomes more apparent throughout the book. There is always that sneaking draft though, that blows through the chinks in the fit, from the east.

Seamus Heaney also drew on this difference that growth and occupation gave him; he strove to keep the two in harmony.

This second book takes an almost novelistic eye to his environment:

 

‘Stange creatures, pigs,’ the minister remarks to me,

one scholar to another,

‘……………………………………

…………………………………………………….

He keeps a reminiscent eye on the shore

where Mary Kennedy is gathering what driftwood

…………………………………………….

………………………..

MARY KENNEDY

Here is another take on that ‘free’ fuel. The juxtaposing of ‘scholar’ and ‘pigs’ here is quite masterly. The denigration of women by the Wee Free church is also shown here for what it is, a sour, blind and heartless perversion. And the church’s blind acceptance of the role of utter poverty, but without any comfort for soul… or body.

There are many novelistic and narrative pieces in this book, set in a time apart, the writer’s memory, rather than the mid-1970s. And yet the poems range wider, we have references to the Burning Ghats of India where outdoor cremations occur, Africa….

One section of the book is a collection of poems to the writer’s recently deceased mother. We discover she was a Lowlander, and the transference from one culture to another difficult:

 

You went in one day’s journeying from class

to race; one ghetto, that is, to another.

No voice came through these narrow entrances

to shout a welcome to the dark inside

where herring folk cooked supper over peat

……………………………..

AT HOME

No ‘welcome in the hillsides’, no famed Highland hospitality, but isolation and an alien way of life. The smothered yearning for another life must have been served cold in the family meals.

What is also noticeable about this extract is the spooning out of iambics, the dragged-out rhythm. The message was in danger of taking over; the music on too tight a rein. Scholarship and a readership had brought a sense of peace, of balance, perspective but at what cost? I suspect he was listening out for a new tone on the air at this time. Things were changing. What did he hear?

I heard the screaming of the people on

a summer evening, walking down the street.

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All screamed, and screamed so well that it was hard

to say which lot achieved the shriller tone:

…………………………………………….

………………………………………………………….

 

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But when I quizzed the lady at my side

she only said, ‘They have been told the news.’

……………………………………………

SCREAMS OF A SUMMER EVENING.

 

Echoes of Brecht, of course: the happy man is he who has not heard the bad news yet. This is the last poem of the book: Good night. Sleep well.

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I was given Poemcrazy (Three Rivers Press, 1996) by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge, as a present. It was as an antidote to Uncreative Writing (Columbia University Press, 2011), by Kenneth Goldsmith.

Poemcrazy is a joy to read, lively and breathless, colourful and sunny. It is a ‘how to write’ book, a ‘keep a journal – and use it!’ book. All good sound advice and examples. All sense and pioneering positivism.

So what is it about Uncreative Writing?
Words, writes K Goldsmith and his avatars, are everywhere, all the time, endlessly streaming out of every portal, terminal… . Tv, radio, newspapers, magazines, journals, academic transcripts, all media pours it out, that is its purpose: opinions, information, entertainment, explanations, distractions, misdirections. ‘I do not wish to add more’ Goldsmith echoes conceptual artist Douglas Huebler.

Part of the argument is that there is more than enough of it already. This is an admirably conservationist response: cut-back, if anything: never add to it! Ok, his reasoning and especially his examples and sources read exasperatingly Wrong at times… it’s the results that count. And some, quite a few of the results, of workshops, have come up with interesting and stimulating material.

UncreativeWriting

They do not ‘add more’ but re-combine, shape and edit what is already there, to show the vast combinations of possible results that are contained there. Is there an element of post-Oulipo here? There could well be.

One of K Goldsmith’s virtues is his compendium of memory-recall: he has access to a wide variety of fields of human activity. He can call on Gertrude Stein and Phillip Glass, Walter Benjamin and Liz Taylor. He extends the interrogation of identity, media and culture.

But, language – it has all already been used and re-used by people immemorial. Our older literature and history’s spews of words are exactly the K Goldsmith-effect, surely. We recycle words all the time. The ‘no more’ has been in operation as a political gambit a long time.

I do K Goldsmith injustices here, and the results must speak for themselves. His workshop and class-produced work is indeed stimulating. Some banal, no surprise there – we all have this about us; and some just a little bizarre – and that is certainly good for us.
Poemcrazy is all about tuning into life, and life that shouts its name. The cover is a joy, elegant in muted colours yet full of joie-de-vivre. The model must surely be a dancer: I admit I have a love of contemporary dance.

poemcrazy

She gives examples where poetry has given children locked in themselves, a role, an attitude, an anger, a door or window into a larger dimension. It is stirring stuff. A colleague of mine who also runs classes has spoken of how sometimes what she can only describe as ‘magic’ happens, something bigger than the parts.

Susan Goldberg  begins by taking us on a poemwalk. This is an activity that now seems to be taking off all over the place. On her walk: California, warm, balmy… Colourful … one thing she noted was a war vet, no legs, rolling his wheelchair into the creek and splashing with pleasure.

This is one of the shades/shadows in Poemcrazy world. I go for shadows. Louise Erdrich in The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Birthyear (1995), is another book I would stand alongside Poemcrazy on my shelf. They are both celebratory and life affirming. L Erdrich knows about shadows too.

Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge has a chapter titled Grocery Weeping. This is where I really connected, this was existential, anguished, this took the pulse of time and place. Friend after friend of the author conceded they too had broken down, wept in supermarkets, stores. What was it? The piled, over-accumulated ‘stuff’ of our lives – whether guilts, or just plain ‘things need doing’. Lives overburdened. Overfaced by the endless and useless open market system.

After the Iron Curtain came down Eastern Europeans found themselves confronted with choice-decisions everywhere, in everything; they were appalled*. We have been trying to navigate this increasing Sargasso all our lives, and still struggle: here they were pitched full into it. For me Grocery Weeping opened up the deep experiences of life, like a sea that touches many people, many shores.

For K Goldsmith words have actual weight, they are artefacts, objects in space, they take up room, burden electricity supply station trying to keep the internet going, and weigh down paper with ink. It is as if they were solid particles in our brains, clogging everything up. Words are commodities: excess are just dumped on tips and in despoilation pits.

Susan G Wooldrige’s words are also objects: she recommends testing their sounds by juxtaposing them, list and graph them to hear them with each other. Try mixing categories, give a noun colour, or sensation, for example. Make it new.

There is an attitude in these two books under discussion, of a kind of submissiveness to words.

If we take Ginsburg’s ‘Sunflower’ poem: your sunflower is very different from his, from the legless war vet’s sunflower. The difference is the bit that talks. Language is sunflower, communication is difference.

sunflowers

This is my problem with these approaches to language – their results can indeed be wonderful. But my world has a language that is full of shadows; the words suggest the whole experience, not contain, or even encircle it. My results are less certain; I want to be more embracing, more multi-dimensional, ‘cubist’.
I am coming to realise that it is perilous to cut off words from their shadows: the shadows keep us in perspective. We are a pitiful species on my dark days, and we are capable of the worst atrocities most days. Our moments of joy are rare and far between – and maybe, just maybe not earned or deserved. But that’s not how it works, we have the joy and it can be mixed in with the ugliness. Unless I hear both, the mix, it doesn’t speak to me.

I am also thinking here of the Black Mesa Poems of Jimmy Santiago Baca, how they engage with shadows, and strive for light.

To cut off language from its shadows and burdens is to leave it open to abuse. Advertising , Marketing – we all knew the violations of language, and by knowing that, the words always imply their real meanings.
But if their real meanings were no longer there? This happens a lot in use of linguistic image – so many times the ironic metaphor displaces the positive import it tries to support; the metaphor becomes the thing, and all implications lost.

Words are not to be trusted. They pull a lot of baggage with them. It has to be dealt with.

I wanted to hear the women in the grocery store, how they got to cope, or not; the war-vet, how he managed between-times, or not. And I wanted to hear an acid-dripping quip, full of air and earth, its constituents fizzing together – like the moment caught by the throat, then fed, and freed to the night.

*When the Iron Curtain came down certain persons in Eastern Europe/Russia took it on themselves to apologise to the West for the failure of the Socialist ideal. I did not hear certain people of the West apologise to the East for the world they were coming into: ‘Open the door./ Even if there is nothing there. / At least there’ll be a breeze.’ wrote Miroslav Holub most pointedly, in Prague, 1968.

Make It New

Posted: September 14, 2013 in Chat
Tags: ,

1

What thin glitter shop windows wash us with;

the High Street is grimed with us, the prink

of a kicked drinks tin guttering to a grid.

You sensed a rhythm in this, a hymn of sounds

and noise. I only saw what appalled.

We both found it here, the iteration of us

in a sixties Lambretta, and the op-art graffiti

of the situationist. Everything on offer;

the High Street, a front for the redundant idea,

looks at us like old friends returning.

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And the flowers flaking from the lamp post, peeling

apart, mark where they died… the ghost bike:

never forget…

Make it new, the imperative

and peeling apart like the pain of bereaved families,

community. The pain made new by once forgetting.

People died here again. Bend your head beneath it,

know you are only one, that this is too much,

that you need us all. And never forget, know

to hurt is to live.

The Whys Man, or ? Man, George was a force for good: sculptor, artist, conductor of chaos and cultural and historical phenomenon. Punster and funster, with a serious side.

Was? He died in 2012. He was 90.

Centred around Glasgow and Clydebank he collaborated with the defunct ship-building industry in 1989, to use its expertise to make a statement – together they created the celebrated Paper Boat.
It was an ordinary folded paper boat, but scaled up and made sea-worthy. Along with assorted groups and interested parties the Boat was ‘launched’ with its own Paper Boat Song and choir. George was MC and choir leader.

Paper Boat Song

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The Boat represented the loss of livelihood and cultural and industrial heritage, of national sidelining and political maneuvering.
The Boat had a placement for a period on the Hudson River, New York.

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See the YouTube documentary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3T-md22ZETQ

Another of his head-line grabbing creations was using the locomotive building industry to help build a scaled-up train engine made wholly of straw. The material was emblematic – George was well-read and savvy, an heritage of the old Scottish education system. The train was suspended from a shipyard crane. At the end of its ‘life’ it was ceremonially burned ‘liking a Viking ship burning’.

george_wyllieTrain

He counted among his friends Joseph Beuys. As a self-taught artist his focus was perhaps wider than the schooled artist. His was very much Public Art. At the heart of each piece was enigma though, mystery, the question of existence, of our legitimacy as a species. On his web page it says of him: ‘There is never a guarantee within Wyllie’s work, but only a question, notably found in the centre of all things. He carried this out in an almost metaphysical or sometimes pataphysical way.’ The 80-foot Paper Boat carried quotations from Adam Smith’s ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments.’

George Wyllie was wily enough to accept a MBE medal in 2005. He was previously a Customs and Excise Officer. It was fitting; there was no division for him. Think of Robbie Burns, also an Excise man.
Forever an entertainer and showman, he put himself forward as candidate for the Scottish Senior Citizens Unity Party in 2007 local elections. He was 86.
Gone too soon, George; too soon.

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He brought great gusto and humour, and scale of achievement to the overshadowed, neglected and declining central belt of Scotland, and its historic connection to the wider world. He lifted lives up and gave back a sense of fun, meaning.

http://georgewyllie.com/