Alasdair Maclean, Poet. (1926 -1994)

Posted: September 29, 2013 in Chat
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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.

bleak

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.

…………………………………………………………

……………………………………………………………….

 

All screamed, and screamed so well that it was hard

to say which lot achieved the shriller tone:

…………………………………………….

………………………………………………………….

 

……………………………………..

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.

shark

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