Posts Tagged ‘Scottish poetry’

I rather like sheep.
I was reading Norman MacCaig’s Collected Poems again recently, and was struck this time by his sheep poems.
There are three I want to concentrate on; the poems are based wholly on sheep, but treated in different ways.
I was wondering: do these three therefore delineate the development of a style?

I have in mind SHEEP DIPPING from his second collection, The Sinai Sort, 1957; SPRAYING SHEEP, from A Round of Applause, 1962; SHEEP DIPPING, ACHMELVIC from Measures, 1965.

All these collections of the verse he accepted and owned as his true verse, continued Norman MacCaig’s interest in metrical and rhyming stanza forms. The following collection, Surroundings, 1966, marked his departure from strict rhyme, and his embarkation onto freer verse forms from there on.
It can be seen that these three collections mark almost ten years of writing and publishing.

SheepDipping2

SHEEP DIPPING from The Sinai Sort. The poem begins:

Eyes, with one glimpse, can gather in
The simple details of the scene
Yet cannot gaze enough at all
The figures in it. For even those
That stand in idleness reveal
A ritual significance.

Norman MacCaig’s opening lines are always his most telling, and arresting. Even here he was recognising and imparting to us his cognitive workings: vision is paramount. But he is aware, and this is another theme throughout his work, that vision is only a partially objective function. How the brain works and how the mind interprets what the eyes convey, are just as important to the experience of seeing as what is seen. Memory provides the main input: what has been seen previously fills out the details of what is seen now, how closely they match, and where they differ.

There is also the Wordsworth reference implicit in this: what is recollected in tranquility. Norman MacCaig valued his education, and, as a teacher all his life, the passing on of knowing was part of his make-up. This is nowhere more explicit than in these earlier poems. He took pains to explain to us what he was saying, whether by pains-takingly laying out his arguments, as here, or by using a language that was clear, and made no great demands on the reader academically.  Having said that, Norman MacCaig wrote for people with his own academic background or grounding; he chose to promote his classical heritage in humanistic subjects.

He was enough of an academic to know the rest of that Wordsworth reference and that most leave out (my great thanks to Martyn Crucefix for this: http://martyncrucefix.com/): the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

This last point is pertinent to this poem. In this poem he presents the scene as a religious metaphor  of baptism, that engages with the distinctive version of Calvinism of the culture and region he was writing from. He often described himself as a Zen Calvinist, admitting to the indelible impact of growing up in a particular place in a particular time. It must be remembered he was born in 1910.

By engaging with the event in this way it is worth questioning whether he was trying to read the lives of the people deeper, more fully. Alternatively, was he holding their beliefs at a distance to examine them with the wry, incredulous smile of the patronising humanist academic?

This poem is full of these long sentences. He breaks the rhythm and structure in stanza three:

And dogs, hysterical with smells,
Sit high on haunches – sudden brawls
Explode, and scatter round a stick;
…………………………………………..

The language has become more imagistic; the distinctive ‘binocular vision’ of sight and recollection shorts-out the discursive tone, and the scene is no longer described but presented to us as is. The short phrases and placing of stress-words, like Explode, catch our attention, and the sound imitates, you might say, the rattling of a stick at the dogs. Smells transmutes into brawls, as though order breaks down into a sprawling disorder.

Each book is a collection of poems around a theme. The theme of this book is concerned with finding the language, the stance, the state of being of the poetry. Many concerns vie for precedence; he tries to hold them all in balance.

By the time of A Round of Applause, 1962, his style had become more immediate:

Old tufts of wool lie on the grass.
The dipping’s over. But once again
The small quicksilver flock come pouring
Down from the hill towards the pen.

Standard form iambics and tetrameter are still being used, and used well. Rhythm has changed, though; now we have moves towards speech, conversation rhythms: ruminative, full of pauses, short. And what I particularly like here is the rhyming of again with pen, a speech rhyme on the northern pronunciation. The internal rhyme of dipping with the end-line pouring gives the momentum, that takes through the rhythm and sound ladder of that last line, to end on the closing monosyllable, pen.
I think we should resist the closed solipsistic loop of reading that pen as a metonym for the writing act itself; what the technique crafts for us here is a scene and event that also contains its commentary, on classical lines. All is objectified.
In this poem he presents us with the scene: the task of skill is to catch the scene: all is vision:

The dogs run on the ruined walls,
Swinging their tongues, their minds all sheep.
…..

This detail has its analogue in the previous poem; what is explained to us there, though, is implied here: the ruined walls of a culture and lifestyle sliding into disrepair, marginalisation, losing its boundaries. And ruined rather than broken, the chosen word’s final d-sound has a finality about it. This is broken, beyond repair (- or, and I am assuming on good authority this is a Gaelic community he describes, before BBC Alba the Gaelic TV channel (my joke)).

The sheep go to the dip as quicksilver, but come out

… bounding high over
Nothing at all…..
…………………………………
… golden fleeces, every one.

The Nothing becomes one, he reverses the No (-thing) sound to give one. The unseen element, the Nothing, is the magical element because it is seemingly irrational, has no instigator.

Joy in, and of, transformation; but joy nonetheless.

With this the poem’s intent becomes a very different matter than that of the previous. Where the first holds to a restricted meaning, this poem opens up the folios of classical literature and makes them come alive now. The poem transfigures.

The figures who stand in idleness, in the first poem became a motif throughout his work. He strove to find the hero in the seaweed, to quote Leonard Cohen (That’s all I’ve ever tried to say, responded Bob Dylan). To do this he sought out the ordinary man, the humble man, the man on the periphery.
In a later and memorable poem he wrote

I sprawl among seapinks – a statue
fallen from the ruins
of the air into
the twentieth-century….
(from WAITING TO NOTICE, Surroundings, 1966)

He is the marginal man, in effect, and he refuses the political rant and the business man’s double-speak.

Norman MacCaig, 191o to 1996

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Measures, from 1965 gives us the last of my chosen sheep poems:

The sea goes flick-flack or the light does. When
John chucks the ewe in, she splays up two wings
That beat once and are water once again.

His title is specific, like the person named, like the details the language and eye catches: Sheep dipping, Achmelvich.  Again the northern Whenagain rhyme.
The setting is Assynt, looking almost directly across the Minch to Scalpay and Harris of the Outer Hebrides. That is where Aunt Julia lived, his mother’s sister, who Spoke Gaelic very loud and very fast, as he was to write later. He published the poem to her in Rings on a Tree, 1968. It is one of his major elegies. It ends:

But I hear her still, welcoming me
with a seagull’s voice
across a hundred yards
of peatscrapes and lazybeds
and getting angry, getting angry
with so many questions
unanswered.

That ending is magnificent in its dualities: who is being addressed? Who is angry? Whose are the questions? Why are they unanswered? They are the Aunt’s, the writer’s, the Gaelic culture’s… they are anyone and everyone’s who has stood in this position relative to another.

His later masterly poem on this subject of loss, MEMORIAL, from The White Bird collection, 1973 begins:

Everywhere she dies. Everywhere I go she does.

And anyone who has experienced loss will concur with this, how the sense of loss, grief of loss, overtakes all one’s awareness.
The masterly skill is in presenting this, without comment, explanation, or avoidance, and allowing it its own place to speak.

When we read this last sheep poem we notice first of all how concrete the images are, we note how masterfully he sets the scene – no long descriptions of air, brine, sea smell because it’s in the title and that first short line: to see so clearly and sharply as he describes it we mentally supply the need for sun, sand, sea; he induces a state of mind, of attention, that attends to what is seen and backgrounds the endless self-concerns. He can do this, seemingly downgrade the social commentary, the political concerns for a dying culture, because that is all explicit in his previous work, his developing oeuvre.
Any published writer writes by developing what has already been established of her/his concerns in her/his previous work, and that work’s response to the writing of peers, and one’s wider reading.

It could be argued this last poem loses out because its concerns seem to be wholly the sensual record of the event. But that is because the scene still existed, the events were still occurring – it was not dead, and the elegiac tone perhaps would have done them a disservice.
In this the elegiac tone would put one’s own personal limitations of empathy over the on-going community’s life; set one up as apart; presume one’s knowledge and abilities greater than those involved in the community.
Instead Norman MacCaig celebrates what is there, in a non-metaphysical context. That is, without the long shadow of religion informing it, only the shadow-play from the eyes on the cave wall of the skull (to distort Plato’s image).

This is one of the main pleasures in reading Norman MacCaig, that he can praise and applaud and celebrate.

In The Tree of Strings, 1977, he has a set of masterly praise poems, in the old Scottish tradition. And with the wry Scottish humour of praising the unexpected: a dog, a road, a thorn bush, a boat.

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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.

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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.

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