Issue 6 • Winter 2010 The Bell Rock Sonnet “Canst hear,” said one, “the breakers roar? For, methinks, we should be near the shore, Now, where we are I cannot tell But I wish we could hear the Inchcape bell.” – from ‘Inchcape Rock’ by Robert Southey
Light In the stormy night Red glass and silver reflector Parabolic director Floor on roof on floor Standing tall and sure Roof on floor on roof Zonal belted, North Sea proof 1440 dovetailed stones Connecting vertical bonds Steadying joggles, ledge for gannets Wedged and trenailed bricks of granite Sea washed neap tide flood submerged twelve feet of Forth From Dunbar sandstone strata ridge at Inchcape breaking boat backs to Arbroath
– Willie Hershaw
Lines by e.e. cummings: poems carried in heads, hands and hearts
Get carried away by poetry ‘There’s something so terrible and so sweet about it that it always just blows me away.’ Carry a Poem started just over a year ago, as we sat round the table in our meeting room, thinking about how we should celebrate our impending 25th anniversary. Among the many ideas thrown around (such as, memorably, adopting the number 25 bus route and adorning it with poems) one seemed to fit with what the SPL is all about: bringing people and poems together. Just as importantly, it looked achievable on our elastic but, in the end, finite resources of time and money. It was librarian Julie Johnstone who came up with the idea. At its simplest, Carry a Poem was to be a way of encouraging people to talk about poems that had mattered to them. It could be done on a shoestring, through our existing reading groups, our website and our blog, and our growing following on Facebook and Twitter. Then when we joined forces with Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, the shoestring became slightly longer, our ambitions grew, and the campaign took on a new shape. The result is that this year, for the first time, the Edinburgh UNESCO
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City of Literature Trust One Book One Edinburgh reading campaign will focus on a book of poems. Carry a Poem features 20 poems chosen by Scots from all walks of life, from people who came along to our Carry a Poem reading groups to those who got involved through Facebook and Twitter, to some well-known names we invited to contribute. As well as the poems, the book collects the personal tales behind them; there are as many different stories as there are poems, and as many reasons why a poem might matter.
poetry out and about and offer the chance to get involved – whether by sewing your poem onto a bag in a poetry crafts session, discussing the poems that matter, or following a Hunt the Poem treasure trail.
‘Keeping hold of the poem was a keeping hold of the hope.’
What do we want to achieve with all this activity? We hope to reach thousands of new poetry readers. To help people connect with poems that are new to them. To inspire people to carry a poem with them every day – in their heads, their hearts or their hands. We know people turn to poetry to find words for the great occasions in life: weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies. But we firmly believe that poetry shouldn’t be kept for best. Just like songs and stories, poems should be an essential, enriching part of our everyday lives.
Launching on 1 February, the One Book One Edinburgh campaign will distribute 10,000 Carry a Poem books all across Edinburgh, through arts and leisure centres, libraries, cafes, and primary and secondary schools. (We’ll have some available at the SPL, on a first come first served basis – they’ll go quickly!) 20,000 pocket-sized poem cards will also be spread across the city – just the right size to slip into wallets and purses. And throughout the month, a series of events with partners including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Writers Bloc will take
For those who can’t get their hands on a book or a wallet card, and won’t make it to an event, the Carry a Poem website (carryapoem.com) has scores more stories along with the most up-to-date information about the campaign. And we still want to know how you carry yours – add your story online!
‘Carrying it reminded me that some hearts are indeed sturdy and true.’
From Fifty Fife Sonnets: Coarse and fine parochial petrarchan poems for pleasure and perusal (Akros, 2006)
Willie Hershaw on his approach to the sonnet form, and how he came to write ‘The Bell Rock Sonnet’ The Bell Rock Sonnet was included in 50 Fife Sonnets because I was looking for all kinds of different approaches to sonnet writing. In structure, it owes a lot to Edwin Morgan. I read a lot of his concrete poems that were written in the sixties and influenced in turn by American poets (such as the Black Mountain poets) in the pages of Duncan Glen’s Akros magazine. I’ve always been fascinated by the lighthouse itself, seeming to stick out of the North Sea in a way that defies the elements, designed and engineered by a previous, pragmatic, non-poetical Stevenson. Its location is in the North Sea, not the Kingdom of Fife at all, although it has saved the lives of many East Neuk fishermen in its time. By putting it in 50 Fife Sonnets I could at least escape the charge of parochialism. Willie Hershaw’s latest publication, Johnny Aathin, tells the story of a shape-shifting being who witnesses key events in a Fife mining community. All proceeds from sales of the book will go to Leukemia Research. T o order, call 01592 782 927.
Sonnet season at the SPL Our Sonnet Season starts in February 2010, with an exhibition on the sonnet form curated by Julie Johnstone, and events including Shakespeare’s sonnets with Don Paterson, a Poems Aloud sonnets special and a Nothing But the Sonnet reading group. Full listings can be found at www.spl.org.uk/events
To offer a taste of the Carry a Poem book, here’s a selection of stories people have shared with us…
overwhelmed, besotted, ensorcelled… its still, quiet voice…
Carried away by poetry Robyn’s story
For many years I carried round in my wallet a little card with a short poem in slightly blurred ink, given to me by a dear friend. There was no author’s name, but I suspect it is from a Chinese anthology and probably quite ancient – I’ve never checked to see whether the translation was by Pound or Waley, for example, which it may be.
Henry Vaughan’s ‘The Retreat’ has meant a lot to me since school days. So many of us would never have dared to read (let alone love) poetry without the intervention of an inspired teacher. I was lucky to encounter someone who knew how to turn teenagers on to the Metaphysical Poets. This is my favourite — even more so now, forty years later, when I can relate directly to regret about mis-spent adulthood, and really value the innocence of childhood.
When ice on the pond is four feet thick And white snow stretches a thousand miles My heart will still be like the pine and the cypress But your heart, what will it be? In some ways it seems quite plaintive – “but your heart, what will it be?” But carrying it reminded me that some hearts are indeed sturdy and true – like the pine and the cypress – and that friendships endure, even though wintry periods.
John’s story I never try to learn poems, but one that stuck in my head and has never left (the only one, too) is Christopher Logue’s untitled piece from his ’69 collection New Numbers, it begins:
Woke up this morning in the middle of winter salt in my coffee sweat in my hair, the letter said “she’s dead we know you will miss her” woke up this morning in winter in winter. Whenever I think of poetry that has touched me personally, this is what comes to mind, and whenever I think of her, this is the poem I think of. I carry it in my head, but sometimes, when I’m away from home, and find myself without a book to read or someone to talk to, I seek out paper and pen, and I write this poem out neatly, and read it over to myself, then leave it behind when I go.
O how I long to travel back, And tread again that ancient track! That I might once more reach that plain, Where first I left my glorious train; From whence th’ enlighten’d spirit sees That shady City of palm-trees. But ah! my soul with too much stay Is drunk, and staggers in the way! Some men a forward motion love, But I by backward steps would move; And when this dust falls to the urn, In that state I came, return. It doesn’t matter at all that the religious message is lost on me these days: the essential call to goodness and simplicity is just as relevant to a non-believer. It’s the energy of the poem that captures me: the effortless tripping of the words, and the final message of hope, with a vision of a goal worth striving for — even if it’s a goal I may never reach.
L’s story and something told her that it was her son as yet unconceived. Mine is John Hegley’s ‘PhanTom’. It’s a whimsical little poem but it struck a chord with me. I’d come across it in a newspaper, at a time, many years ago, when I was having
Signs and wonders Prizes abounding: Robin Robertson won the Forward Prize for the best single poem with ‘At Roane Head’, and Don Paterson won the Forward Prize for the Best Collection with Rain (Faber), as well as carrying off a Poetry magazine prize; Roddy Lumsden was also the beneficiary of a Poetry prize for poems published in that magazine over the past year. And J.O. Morgan won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for Natural Mechanical (CB Editions): a very Scottish subject. No Scottish poets in the T.S. Eliot Prize shortlist this year, though.
Burns brooch: made for Lorraine Kelly by Knitty Kitty, and worn on GMTV!
to come to terms with the fact I wasn’t ever going to have a child, and it’s been in my purse ever since. Very yellow and fragile now. I don’t really know why I keep it – well, I suppose I do – because I now have a lovely daughter – and I suppose keeping hold of the poem was a keeping hold of the hope.
Nada’s story T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ entered my life in a bang, as some poems do. The place was Heidelberg, Germany, in a friend’s kitchen. He was making us breakfast and then he started reciting the poem, with no warning, no context, as he was making pancakes. ‘Let us go then, you and I, /When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table…’. I was simply overwhelmed, besotted, ensorcelled and hooked! It was like hearing Mozart for the first time: there was a profound humanness to the poem, a story about love, all these tables and oysters and seedy hotels in half-deserted streets and then that call again: ‘Let us go then, you and I..’. I’ve been in love with the poem ever since, I carry it my head and recite it every time I’m baking, and of course, when I make pancakes.
Claire’s story there’s nothing I’d be saved by more than the time you fell asleep in my arms I first came across Edwin Morgan when I studied the Stobhill series in about second year of high school. I really liked the flimsy Xeroxed poems I was given, so I dug some more Morgan out of the school library. This particular poem, ‘When you go’, struck a chord with me even at the tender age of 13! I loved all his work, but it stood out from all the rest.
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When I first discovered the poem, I loved its simplicity – at the time I was being forced to analyse literature to within an inch of its life in class, and I liked the fact that this poem couldn’t be picked to bits, it was an open and shut case. I was always a poetry geek and I remember showing this to friends and saying ‘look, not all poetry sucks!’, with varying results… Now, I’m more emotionally involved with the poem. It always, without fail, makes me cry when I read it… and every time it happens, I’m a bit shocked. I know it off by heart after all, but there’s something so terrible and so sweet about it that it always just blows me away. I don’t know any other poem that has quite the same effect.
Andrew’s story I first encountered the poem on the London underground, 1996. A simple rural soul, accustomed to vast East Lothian skies, I was teetering on the edge of noiseinduced madness when… there was George Mackay Brown’s ‘The Poet’, on a poster, speaking of ‘the interrogation of silence’, the true task of the poet. It made me smile, seeing ‘The Poet’ and its hymn to silence in the aural hell-hole of the underground. But the ludicrous context also made the voice of the poem louder and clearer; it fairly boomed amid the echoing cacophony of chatter, squealing brakes and clashing metal, all crushed into the claustrophobic rat-runs linking the platforms and levels. And, ironically, though I’d ‘read’ the poem dozens of times before, I hadn’t really heard its still quiet voice until then. And I thought: yep, that’s just right. I do actually carry it now! On a wee bit of folded paper in my wallet, sandwiched between my supermarket loyalty cards.
Speaking of whom, the tribulations of editing a literary journal loom large in the new volume of his correspondence. This may strike a sympathetic chord with some readers. Apologising to one contributor for his article’s not being published a year after acceptance, Eliot writes: ‘I can only say that there are others – in fact nearly all of my contributors at one time or another – whom I do not dare to meet in the street. Conducting a review after 8pm in the back room of a flat, I live qua editor, very much from hand to mouth, get myself into all sorts of hot water and predicaments, and offend everybody.’
Peter Stothard, Editor of the TLS, stated recently that almost 40 per cent of the TLS’s poetry reviews over a year were of books by writers outside Britain. This is impressive, given the scant attention paid to translations in the press generally, and even to other literatures in English. There has been a reduction of poetry reviewing in the UK press in general, we notice.
We read in the Vogue blog that Australian skincare brand Aesop, identifying a shared desire to ‘compose and distil’, have created four kits with products tissuewrapped in sheets of poetry: one each for Keats, Rossetti, Shelley and Blake. We can almost imagine the first three, but stumble at Blake – although as he was reputed to wander round his garden naked, perhaps Australianstyle skincare would be the right match.
As this PR goes to press, the Prime Minister of Belgium, Herman Van Rompuy, has just been elected the President of the EU Council. Reports have seized on his writing haiku in his native Flemish as a distinguishing attribute. One of the haiku, entitled ‘Fly’, was translated as: ‘A lost fly/ flies wanderingly in a plane/ Thus she is flying twice.’ It’s certainly a change from the pastimes of other European leaders.
tender keeping… open the window…
Reprints & Revivals
From the Director As I write this, the last leaves are drifting from the trees, and there’s the sense of contraction that winter brings. We close curtains and turn inward to sources of warmth. There is a whole Scottish mindset that is wintry, piercingly described by Bill Duncan in his Wee Book of Calvin: ‘Winter’s never far at the back o a harvest,’ says his grandmother. So it was salutary for us to be reminded by a genial Irishman that libraries represent an opening out, an expansion. Seamus Heaney, ‘a quarter of the honorary presidency’ as he put it, visited the SPL in October as part of our 25th anniversary celebrations. ‘It makes me feel like an honorary Scottish poet,’ he remarked, ‘part of the brotherhood and sisterhood’. This was not just a compliment for the occasion: Heaney knew MacCaig, and Crichton Smith, and MacLean; he has translated MacLean and, this year, the work of the Scots makar Robert Henryson, in The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables (tempted as he was to call it ‘Four Fables and a Testament’, Henryson drew him on to more). He had heard MacDiarmid read in Ireland on more than one occasion, he said, and been struck by the combination of ‘hearth speech and high art speech’ in a great European modernist poet. He recalled three library experiences he treasured: going to the Huntingdon Library in California, descending to its depths – a ‘nuclear shelter effect a bit like yours here’ [the Edwin Morgan Archive] – and being struck by ‘a sense of the sacredness of what was held in trust, a sense of tender keeping’, the Kilmarnock Burns being the book he most coveted there; seeing the earliest Irish Psalter in the Royal Irish Academy library – the manuscript known as the ‘Cathach’ or ‘Battler’ because it was traditionally carried three times round the field of battle; and the ‘opening of the magic casement’ in the Belfast Public Library in 1961 or ’62. This last was not, in fact, a Keatsian moment but Heaney’s first encounter with Ted Hughes, opening Lupercal at ‘View of a Pig’: ‘The pig lay on a barrow dead. /It weighed, they said, as much as three men.’ ‘Good God,’ said Heaney to us, ‘I thought nobody else knew this besides me.’ He evoked the sense of excitement and change that can come from reading, the enlargement and possibility. And staying with his country childhood, he relished the word ‘stack’ in its different, library context, recalling the ‘promise, the richness, the golden reliability of the corn’. Appropriately, too, given the current anxieties about epidemics, he quoted from the great Czech poet and immunologist, Miroslav Holub, on the role of art – thinking of poetry in particular. Holub, he reminded us, thought of the arts as an immunity system, working against malignity in the greater body, constantly, silently and stealthily.
‘We keep poetry for Scotland, and we keep it for you – we only hold it in order to share it.’ So, against those winter blues, take to poetry, and metaphorically at least, open the windows. Remember the enormous variety of speech and experience the SPL holds – ‘holdings’ was a library word Heaney liked, too, for its ‘sense of treasure being kept’. We keep poetry for Scotland, and we keep it for you – we only hold it in order to share it. It’s cold out there in more ways than one, but the Scottish Poetry Library is staying open to all.
…we were sitting at our computers for three or four-hour stints at the Library, wearing hats and scarves, brushing past plastic-swathed shelves, hearing the kitchen cupboards being wrenched from the walls. This was the SPL’s ‘Disruption’, consequent on the slow seep of water into the basement. As you may know, the cost of repairs severely depleted our reserves, and that damage is very difficult to repair. We appealed to our Friends for help, and were heartened by the response: despite the generally adverse financial circumstances, Friends donated over £10,000. We need to continue building up reserves, but it is equally pressing to consolidate budgets for basic Library activities: buying books, the education programme, events, maintaining the website. All of these are likely to be curtailed in 2010-11, and even beyond.
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Given this situation, it was inspiring for us, for Friends and potential friends, to hear from Seamus Heaney in October how important libraries are, and that easy access to their services must be maintained. Such ‘institutions can change a culture’, he said, and used the founding of the library at Harvard with a gift of £700 as an example of ‘the mysterious unpredictability of giving to a good cause’. How can you help us maintain and improve the SPL? Becoming a Friend is a great support, especially if you keep your subscription up to date (we are currently losing money on over 200 outdated subscriptions). If you are already a Friend, could you make it your mission this year to recruit someone for the SPL? You may wish to donate a book/ books to the SPL, or subscribe to a periodical on our behalf. Julie Johnstone or Lizzie MacGregor would be very pleased to discuss that with you.
Four books by Ted Hughes. Each an example of his interest in artistic collaboration, of different ways to present a book, of books that have a particular singular theme – not necessarily narrative in form. The pictures in these books are not presented as a mere aid to the richness of Hughes’s wording, nor to make the poetry more accessible to younger readers. On each the phrase is “drawings by” not illustrations. The pictures are distinct within themselves. Their artistry to match in pen and paint what Hughes achieves in language. 1963 – the earth-owl and other moon-people Six years before Buzz & Neil set their prints into the lunar dust, Hughes showed the terrors that might await them. The fluctuating length of lines and simplicity of the rhymes fit perfectly the playfulness; as intriguingly inventive in form as the host of hostilities the moonscape provides. On the moon, even numbers can kill. R.A. Brandt provides the drawings. They are hazy. Shadowy. Like barkrubbings. A specific indistinctness that allows the horror depicted to complete itself within the viewer’s mind. 1978 – Cave Birds (an alchemical cave drama) The foot-long format of this book suggests why it received no reprint. On the left of each double page: a poem, as rich in death and viscera as ‘Crow’. On the right: an ink drawing by Leonard Baskin, as scratchily feathered and bloated as the drawing for ‘Crow’. The similarity of form and execution is clear, though the story within: less so. Does each picture match each poem? Sometimes it would seem: no. As though two separate trains of thought had come together in one book, both offered up for careful vivisection. 1984 – What Is The Truth? That same big-page format. The story: God and his Son descend by night to the hill top of a rural village, to summon souls from sleep and hear of creatures that the villagers have encountered. The farmer’s soul sings of partridges to be shot, the farmer’s son of his tamed badger, Bess. Chalk and charcoal drawings by R.J. Lloyd intermingle with the text; busy imagery, space-filling; many show the bright circle of the moon. The songs are long, are stories in themselves. The book’s question will be answered by its end. 1986 – Flowers and Insects (Some Birds and a Pair of Spiders) The most conventional of the four books. Individual poems with a naturalistic bent. With here and there a watercolour by Leonard Baskin; impressionistic plants, sharply detailed beasts. A deft examination of minute complexity in living things. These works exemplify how poetry need not merely be collective, how poetry need not merely be words. If only they were back on the shelves – they wouldn’t linger there for long.
When friends believe One year ago…
J.O. Morgan on the titles he’d like to see back in print.
Would you like to support our education programme or contribute to work in remote places? Lorna Irvine or Juliet Rees would be glad to hear from you at any time.
J. O. Morgan’s book-length narrative poem, Natural Mechanical (CB Editions, 2008) won the Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize.
Even if you can’t contribute financially, you can spread the word about the SPL, increase our borrowing base (borrowing remains free – and don’t forget you can do it by post), increase the number of visitors to the website by sending people links to the home page when you see a poem you like, or to the blog, or direct them to the podcast from the Reading Room. We’re convinced that the SPL is vital to Scotland’s cultural life, and sheer numbers are a way of convincing others how valued it is. As Anna Crowe’s poem says: ‘Who knows what we can do? When friends believe In us, the chrysalis grows tight and splits And, struggling out, we fly.’
Can you support our work across Scotland?
the epitome of the obscure… flowering and fading…
The Librarian’s desk think that in this age of online research and digitised sources such ancient ephemera and laborious methods are barely relevant, or even ridiculous, but some of these are pieces that have probably not been digitised and are perhaps unlikely to be so. How easy would it otherwise be to find a short obituary of the poet William Jeffrey, including photograph, from the Glasgow Bulletin of February 1946?
Between January 1946 and November 1948 someone, we know not who, made a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings, many from Scottish newspapers, and largely on literary topics.
It’s a hardback, ruled, office-type book, which cost 1/9; the gluedin articles are mostly from The Scotsman and The Observer, with the occasional chip-in from the Leamington Spa Courier. It’s been in the Library for years and is the epitome of the obscure, interesting and valuable material we like to collect for the cuttings files. I am photocopying and classifying the relevant items, which will then be catalogued and filed. You might
One of the best features of this collection is that we can present a ‘This is Your Life’-style folder for many poets, following a career from early brief reviews, notices of prizes, through major critical articles on the mature work, and in the course of time, the obituaries. I can vouch for the enthusiasm with which the cuttings files are greeted by users of all sorts – all that information in one place! We have recently made an effort to define an acquisitions policy for the cuttings. The collection had grown somewhat haphazardly over the years, and was overdue a thorough pruning and reorganisation. Our policy now is to collect everything we can get our hands on about Scottish poets – for if we don’t, who will? For non-Scots, we will now only add
obituaries, major interviews, and perhaps reviews of major collected works, the idea being to have an immediately accessible biographical summary and an overview of the poet’s achievement. To follow the emphases in the bookstock, we will concentrate on the Celtic cultures, Irish and Welsh; and on Europe, New Zealand, and North America.
‘Our policy now is to collect everything we can get our hands on about Scottish poets – for if we don’t, who will?’ It’s not all about individual poets, though. We also collect articles that can give a snapshot of the state of the art at a particular time: ‘poetry books of the year’, and indeed reviews of anthologies, give useful insights to a period. Since their sources are quicker off the mark than books, the cuttings can provide a more immediate response to current events – reactions to nominations for Poet Laureate, responses in poetry to war and terrorist attacks. Those who are interested will find material to help them trace the flowering and fading of Scottish literary magazines; details of past
competitions and prize-winners; comment on poetry festivals and the poets who appeared in them. My ideal would be to gather as much material as possible on minor 20th century Scottish poets – the big names are more likely to be welldocumented – and literary criticism from the Scottish Renaissance, both first and second waves. It would really enhance the value of the collection as a unique resource. I would like to express our great appreciation of the work done by dedicated volunteer Alexei McDonald, who has been creating catalogue records for the cuttings for eight years, and Sheena Black, who does the cutting and pasting.
New Scottish titles at the SPL This list collects the Scottish poetry titles that have come to the Librarian’s attention over the last six months. A full bibliography is also available on request. We hope you will find this list useful, either for requesting books and pamphlets to borrow from the SPL or in buying them. If you find any titles difficult to track down, or have any other questions, please consult us. Advice of forthcoming titles is welcomed, and should be sent to Julie Johnstone at the SPL. Donations of new Scottish titles are also warmly received.
Single collections Norman Ackroyd & Douglas Dunn, A line in the water (Royal Academy of Arts, 2009) Discovering Matthew Anderson, policeman-poet of Ayrshire, Donald L. Reid (2009)
Kevin Cadwallender, Dances with vowels: new and selected poems (Smokestack, 2009) Maoilios Caimbeul (Myles Campbell) & Mark Goodwin, The two sides of the pass = Dà thaobh a’ bhealaich (Two Ravens, 2009) Allan Cameron, Presbyopia (Vagabond Voices, 2009) Thomas A. Clark, The hundred thousand places (Carcanet, 2009) Andrew Dodds, A new selection of his poetry (Midlothian Council, 2009) Carol Ann Duffy, New and collected poems for children (Faber, 2009) Bashabi Fraser, From the Ganga to the Tay (Luath, 2009)
Crìsdean MacIlleBhàin, Dealbh athar (Coiscéim, 2009) Jane McKie, When the sun turns green (Polygon, 2009) Henry Marsh, The guidman’s daughter (Maclean Dubois, 2009) Don Paterson, Rain (Faber, 2009) Richard Price, Rays (Carcanet, 2009) Alan Riach, Homecoming (Luath, 2009) Andrew Murray Scott, Dancing underwater (Cateran, 2009) Ruth Shepley, Home thoughts from Muscat (2009)
John Glenday, Grain (Picador, 2009)
Gerry Smith, I am a text-based artist (Stone of Tabby, 2009)
W.S. Graham, Approaches to how they behave (Donut, 2009)
Kenneth Steven, Making the known world new (St. Andrew, 2009)
George Henderson, Merse local rhymes and other poems (Eskbank, 2009)
RLS in love: the love poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson, Stuart Campbell (Sandstone, 2009)
William Hershaw, Johnny Aathin (Windfall, 2009) Philip Hutton, This is anything (2009)
James Andrew, Birdsong and flame (K.T., 2009)
Gordon Jarvie, La Baudunais et autre poèmes de Bretagne (Hauts-Fonds, 2009)
Elspeth Brown, A crab in the moon’s mouth (Markings, 2009)
Gerry Loose, that person himself (Shearsman, 2009)
John Burnside, The hunt in the forest (Jonathan Cape, 2009)
John McDonald, Fume o paet reek (Hub, 2009)
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Alan MacGillivray, the saga of fnc gull (Crowlin, 2009)
Single collections – pamphlets Jean Atkin [et al], Goosechase (2009) Sheena Blackhall, Cats in a gale, Danse macabre, Figurehead, Peacock, A visit to planet Auchswitz (Lochlands, 2009), The barley queen, The ship of fools (Malfranteaux Concepts, 2009) Dave Coates, Cover story (Forest, 2009) Pete Faulkner, The curtained wood (Dawn, 2009) Lynne Freeman, Steel in my blood, salt in my lungs (2009) Graham Fulton, Pocket fugues, and, Suspect novelties (Controlled Explosion, 2009) Lesley Harrison, One bird flying (Mariscat, 2009) Russell Jones, The last refuge (Forest, 2009) Maurice Lindsay, A walk in winter (Park House, 2009)
David Troupes, Parsimony (Two Ravens, 2009)
Christie Williamson, Arc o möns (Hansel Cooperative, 2009)
Paul Turner, Homecoming (Greyfriars, 2009)
Hugh McMillan, The spider’s spin on it (Roncadora, 2009) Jane Overton, Mindufacturing (Dawn, 2009) Jane Pearn, Further to (Siskin, 2009) Michael Pedersen, Part-truths (Koo, 2009)
Anthologies In the event of fire: new writing Scotland 27, edited by Alan Bissett and Liz Niven (ASLS, 2009) Orkney futures: a handbook, edited by Alistair Peebles and Laura Watts (Brae, 2009) Silver: an Aberdeen anthology, edited by Alan Spence and Hazel Hutchinson (Polygon, 2009) Addressing the bard: twelve contemporary poets respond to Robert Burns, edited by Douglas Gifford (SPL, 2009)
General Scottish literature, Gerard Carruthers (EUP, 2009) The Edinburgh companion to contemporary Scottish poetry, edited by Matt McGuire and Colin Nicholson (EUP, 2009) The Edinburgh companion to Robert Burns, edited by Gerard Carruthers (EUP, 2009) For a’ that: a celebration of Burns, edited by Kirsty Gunn and Anna Day, illustration by Brigid Collins. (Dundee UP, 2009) A model of order: selected letters on poetry and making, Ian Hamilton Finlay, edited by Thomas A Clark (WAX366, 2009)
Harriet Torr, My father’s pot (Koo, 2009)
love does not rust… golden dust and gold dust…
Watching poets work Once a year, in partnership with Literature Across Frontiers, I facilitate a translation workshop in Scotland. We began in 2002 at Moniack Mhor, went to Shetland in 2005 and to Crear in Argyll in 2006, to which we’ve been returning. It’s a beautiful, isolated place where the intensity of the workshop process is countered by the surrounding space, and the ever-changing view across the Sound of Jura to the Inner Hebrides.You know the islands are there, although sometimes the land is indistinguishable from the clouds. Such a blurring of boundaries, and sudden illumination, is an apt metaphor for the work. Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) encourages literary translations between lesser-known languages,
in these workshops using English as the bridge (elsewhere it might be French or German). This year we brought together poets from Poland, Romania and Germany, and added Donny O’Rourke to the mix. Over several days, I have the privilege of watching the poets work – occasionally acting as sheepdog at their heels. Translation is the closest form of reading, and it is not an entirely comfortable process to have your poems minutely scrutinised by your peers. Sometimes this involves physical demonstration – ‘How do you mean, hold hands in the air?’ – sometimes a back-story (‘Well, I’m using two Indian folk-tales here’); often a cultural reference: ‘In Poland we say “Love does not rust”.’ (This saying inspired a lovely new poem.) We learnt that there was no Romanian equivalent of ‘nightcap’, that Scots gave a good edge to German memories of childhood in the shadow of the Wall – ‘we played “people’s polis” an defektur cheils’.
The process requires hard work, intense concentration, immense generosity, and a good seasoning of humour. Working, eating and reading together is a rare opportunity for these writers. Although they give a performance at the end, they don’t simply parachute into a festival and then go their own ways; some lasting associations are formed. They try on other voices, learn new ways of working, have their own poems carried into different cultures over the bridge of mutual trust.
‘I find it hard to make the transition back to a world of buildings and commerce, talking to people who aren’t concerned how the crow flies into another language as the raven.’ Once I see the relationships being established, the exchanges starting,
Photo: Gerry Cambridge
then I am both part of and apart from that community of endeavour. It’s an inspiring experience, and like the poets, I find it hard to make the transition back to a world of buildings and commerce, talking to people who aren’t concerned about the difference between ‘golden dust’ and ‘gold dust’, or how the crow flies into another language as the raven.
When I see the SPL’s name in a Czech literary weekly, or in a collection of Icelandic translations, I’m proud that the Library has this international presence, and that the encounters between Scottish and European poets are memorable, sustained and sustaining.
Looking for heroes in the land of Braveheart I often work in schools, especially around National Poetry Day in early October. This year I travelled from southwest to north-east Scotland, undertaking readings and workshops on this year’s theme of ‘Heroes and Heroines’. Wigtown, ‘Scotland’s Book Town’, is out of the way, but that’s part of its charm – it’s not somewhere you simply pass through. The workshop, part of the annual book festival, considers the poetry of Edwin Morgan, a hero to many people. Even at festival time, Wigtown is quiet. When I arrive at the Baptist Chapel it’s deserted, and it’s some time before 30 teenagers and a teacher appear to animate it. We read Morgan’s ‘Making a Poem’, and then do likewise. The road back to Edinburgh skirts Dumfries, where Robert Burns died in 1796. He’s the subject of the next workshop, in Musselburgh. Burns, the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, is still a hero to many Scots, though his legend sometimes simplifies his complexities. I ask the pupils if and how they know his work. They can all bring something to mind – hearing a song at a wedding, reciting a poem at primary school, attending a Burns supper.
The Scottish Parliament: rich in visual metaphors
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In Edinburgh there’s a session at the Scottish Parliament building,
designed by the Catalan architect Enric Miralles, who died before its completion. Burns and Morgan were both represented by women at the opening ceremony back in 2004 – Burns by Sheena Wellington who sang ‘For A’ That and A’ That’, while Liz Lochhead read ‘Open the Doors’ by Morgan, who was ill and could not attend. Like the building, his poem is variously and unpredictably patterned, and looks back to history and forward to the future. Today we circle it in the rain, which makes the inside all the warmer. I love the building and its metaphors – boats, leaves, hands – and to me Miralles is a hero for conceiving it and (with the help of his stubborn earthly collaborators) completing it from beyond the grave. At Cupar in Fife, with the SPL’s Lorna Irvine, I read heroic poems about parents, uncles, sportsmen and fictional characters. Who, we ask, are your heroes? Michael Jackson, the Suffragettes, Frank Lampard, Picasso, come the replies. But no poets and, more strikingly to someone of my generation, no Scottish footballers. Lorna ends with a modern classic, ‘The Queen of Sheba’ by Kathleen Jamie, and a girl tells us that she’s her neighbour. A local hero too. In Aberdeen, the pupils are preparing for a recitation competition. I enjoy reading them the old ballad, ‘Sir Patrick Spens’, whose doomed hero drowns sailing back from Norway. Is it only recently that we’ve allowed our heroes happy endings?
The final stop is Kirkwall on Orkney. I’m grateful I can fly nowadays. The weather is fine when I’m teaching, but turns blustery later, so I take shelter in St Magnus Cathedral. George Mackay Brown wrote well and often of St Magnus, the 12th century martyr who is another, archaic kind of hero. Later I’m taken to the Italian Chapel, a converted Nissan hut built by Italian POWs during World War Two. It’s like an opera set – its painted surfaces facsimiles of leaf and marble – and it’s surely a heroic achievement to create something of such beauty in wartime and far from home.
‘I love the building and its metaphors – boats, leaves, hands. To me Miralles is a hero for conceiving it and (with the help of his stubborn earthly collaborators) completing it from beyond the grave.’ Returning home I pass through Aberdeen bus station, which has moved since I last used it. The former site is now a glass-fronted shopping centre, which opened its doors at the end of October. In the middle of a recession, that takes courage, but even so I can’t find it in my heart to consider its developers heroic.
little songs… a moment’s monument…
Getting to know … the sonnet The sonnet (literally, ‘little song’) is one of the oldest surviving poetic forms.
Problem is, no one can agree on what that is. One precept we can stick to is that writing a good sonnet should be hard work because it demands a kind of thought that whilst being highly compacted is also clearly articulated, just as a diamond results from the intensive compression of coal. The general consensus is that any subject matter is fitting, as long as it is subjected to this kind of process. Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Skylight’, for example, is proof that the profound exists in the ordinary, that the sonnet is a little quest to unearth that profundity, a means by which we can dig deeper into the richness of our everyday experience.
This is partially explained by its origin in the love-lyric (in the thirteenth century Italian love-lyrics of Piero delle Vigne and Giacomo da Lentini, to be more precise). However, it’s more complex than that. Dante and Petrarch would have considered love as tied up with creative prowess, the beloved as muse, etc. Implicit in the sonnet’s origin as love-lyric is the idea of contrariness, a pull and push between love and reason, unity and disunity, tension and release. Say no more.
From all this we might conclude, strangely enough, that the very themes embodied in the sonnet are displayed at large in its evolution over time: the struggle between tradition and innovation, between structure and content, and between reason and love. This comes very close to suggesting that the sonnet is not simply a poetic form (nor for that matter is any form), but has a kind of multi-dimensional inner life of its own in which the sonneteer, past and present, participates.
It’s as if, unsatisfied with the harmony of an even-split, the form has to be more deeply split. The sonnet has endured because it reflects the contrariness at the heart of human nature and is, to quote Don Paterson, ‘perfectly fitted to the shape of human thought’. John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnet XIX’ (‘Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one’) brilliantly grapples with contradiction and contrariness: ‘I change in vowes, and in devotione. / As humourous as is my contritione /As my prophane Love’. And ‘Holy Sonnet XIV’ leaves us with that memorable paradox, ‘for I/ Except you‘enthrall mee, never shall be free, /Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee’. Aside from subject matter, a deeper contradiction embodied by the sonnet is that, traditionally, it is asymmetrical. It’s as if, unsatisfied with the harmony of an even-split, the form has to be more deeply split. Traditional sonnets consist of two stanzas, an octave (eight lines) and a sestet (six lines). The Shakespearean sonnet dispenses with this and instead is marked by its final clinching couplet (although still adhering to the same unravelling of philosophical reflection which the sonnet is so enduringly disposed towards). Another traditional characteristic is the volta, or ‘turn’, which comes between the octave and sestet. Phillis Levin remarks that it ‘introduces into the poem a possibility for transformation, like a moment of grace…we could say that for the sonnet, the volta is the seat of its soul. And the reader’s experience of this turn reconfigures the experience of all the lines that both precede and follow it’. The volta cuts into the preceding argument like a flash of insight. Don Paterson points out that for all the various traditional rules for sonnet writing – the fourteen lines, the rhyme scheme either Petrarchan
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Heaney’s ‘The Skylight’ is proof that the profound exists in the ordinary
or Shakespearean, the octave/sestet division, the volta between line 8 and 9, etc, - ‘A great sonnet … will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it’s not supposed to do. Though we should remember that the poet had to learn the “rules” before they could deliberately break one of them’.
A great sonnet will often surprise you by doing at least one thing it’s not supposed to do Now for a quick history. One of the reasons why Shakespeare had such an impact on the sonnet, besides adapting it to the difficulties posed by a lack of rhymes in the English language, is that he took a risk thematically, reclaiming the figure of the beloved from tedious overpoeticisation through an attitude of increased realism. He fused tradition with innovation to produce the brilliant line we all know: ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun….’ In the early seventeenth century there was a movement in theme from Shakespeare’s earthly sentiment back towards the sacred. Yet this sacred, as we can see in Donne, has been re-envisaged. The sonnet becomes a means of direct address to the divine, whereas previously, by and large, a lover or beloved, or muse, had been addressed.
Wordsworth revitalised the sonnet in the nineteenth century, as Shakespeare did in the sixteenth. We see a move from constraint towards expansiveness. This is partly achieved by a shift of emphasis from sonnet as rarefied pressure chamber, to sonnet as capable of speaking the language of the common man. Wordsworth’s approach would have come as a refreshing change, contributing to the sonnet’s longevity and granting enough stability to the form for poets such as Shelley and Keats to deconstruct his agenda. And indeed they did. Enter the Victorian poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, with sonnets such as, ‘A Sonnet is a moment’s monument’. Wordsworth’s visionary gleam comes up against the stark reality of time. In ‘A Moment’s Monument’, Jennifer Ann Wagner tells us that ‘Rossetti understands the sonnet to be a kind of death in life, a formalized stasis. The isolation of the moment holds no revelatory vision, because revelation for Rossetti is obscured by temporality and therefore by thought, memory, and artistic form itself.’ The Victorians, however, did much to sentimentalise the form. The contemporary poet is in the unique, though quite confusing, position of being able to scan back over the centuries and weigh up differences of approach, thematic and structural. However, to overlook the essential spirit of the sonnet would be clumsy, if not an infidelity.
Rachael Boast has recently completed her PhD at St Andrews University. Her poems have appeared in Addicted to Brightness, Markings, Poetry Wales and The Yellow Nib. She is working on a first collection, and a study of contemporary poetry in relation to the Book of Job.
William Shakespeare, ‘When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see’ (XLIII) John Donne, ‘Holy Sonnet XIX’ William Wordsworth, ‘The world is too much with us’ John Keats, ‘When I have fears that I may cease to be’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘A sonnet is a moment’s monument’ Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend…’ Thomas Hardy, ‘At a Lunar Eclipse’ R.S. Thomas, ‘The Bright Field’ César Vallejo, ‘Unity’ Seamus Heaney, ‘The Skylight’ Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Epic’ Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Hour’ Francis Leviston, ‘Gliss’ John Glenday, ‘Imagine You are Driving’
Joyce’s last hurrah There are many ways to say Goodbye: a smile, a tear, a joke, a pause in the doorway with a pearl of wisdom thrown over the shoulder. But to say an appropriate goodbye is easy when the involvement has been a rewarding one. The Scottish Poetry Library has been a source of personal pleasure, pain, surprise and challenge, and to be an intimate part of its life for six years has been a privilege. A marvellous physical space that houses books and aspirations, shared with a rare team of people who have enthusiasm and vision – such an experience has been a joy. It enriched my love of poetry, enhanced its pleasures, and reminded me that all creativity is underpinned by commitment and hard work. Though a haven, the Library exists in the real world, the world of chaos, change and uncertainty, but it will adapt and flourish. The words it contains show the flexibility and resilience of the human spirit. It is an oasis not a mirage, and will continue to welcome, nourish and refresh all who enter its doors. I will now be one of those travellers, coming to read, reflect and listen. So it is hello to a different but continuing relationship. To quote that incomparable philosopher Dr Seuss: ‘Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.’
Joyce Caplan Chairman of the SPL Board 2004-9
diamonds in the mire… an eye for verse…
Inside the Global Poetry System You could say that poetry is everywhere: in the songs of birds and in oblique graffiti sprayed onto skips.
I can only read Denise Mina or Andrew Greig on holiday because it is always so hard to stop. Episodic works are safer. Armchair travelling has its attractions but bedtime travelling is even better. Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson has given me enormous pleasure, particularly since their horseback travels from August to November in 1773 take place in such atrocious weather. Boswell brightened my adolescence when I discovered the outrageous passages in his 1762-1763 London Journal, a copy of which appeared so innocently in a family bookcase. Boswell is the ideal tour manager to arrange Johnson’s gigs. It is fascinating to see how the intrepid pair take Highland chiefs to task for abandoning old clan customs.
Now over these small hills They have built the concrete That trails black wire: Pylons, those pillars Bare like nude, giant girls that have no secret.
Here’s an interesting exercise: log onto http://gps.southbankcentre. co.uk and type in the postcode for where you’re sitting, then watch
The best books to read in bed are those that you can put down quickly when your eyelids refuse to stay open.
We find poetry in times of sadness, cut deeply into tombstones, and we find poetry in times of joy, in the playful rhyme of a birthday card. Depending on how you define it, poetry is on our ipods and in our memories. When I see pylons I think of Stephen Spender’s evocative ode to those elegant blemishes:
Until recently, the idea that poetry is all around us was just something one might overhear at a not very exciting party, but the SPL and the Southbank Centre in London (along with a half-dozen other partners) have put this theory to the test. The idea is to literally map where people find poems. The GPS site features a map with hundreds of ‘Poetry Pins’ scattered all over the world, from Africa to Antarctica. On the site you’ll catch found poetry, poetry engraved, poetry tattoos and much, much more. And the best thing is, everyone can contribute.
Reading in bed
Fictional discomfort works as well. I have been reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona in which the London government of 1751 has no such admiration for Highland ways. Ian Nimmo’s Walking with Murder chronicles his lifetime’s expeditions to walk out the details of David Balfour and Alan Breck’s breathless flight through Scotland. It is wonderful to read in bed how Nimmo does not take a tent on his first expedition but sleeps in the open under stars or rain.
the Poetry Pins pop up all around your location. Right now, there are three poems near me. One is a rather poetic Big Red Door; another, a ‘twitter-fied’ poem created at the West Port Book Festival. If you are curious about what poetry has been mapped near you, don’t hesitate to log on. Or, go for a little poetry walk around your neighbourhood with a camera and an eye for verse. I led a couple of these GPS walks in Leith and Stockbridge and turnout was unexpectedly high. We spent time sharing poems about the Water of Leith, found concrete
poetry by the Shore, and even a triptych featuring ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. We found poetry on benches, hunted poems in shop windows and scratched onto loo doors. We’ll be posting our findings on the GPS site and I encourage you to do the same. So, the next time someone says ‘Poetry is obsolete’, you can prove that, in fact, it is everywhere around us.
Ryan Van Winkle SPL and Edinburgh City Libraries Reader in Residence
Malcolm Lowry’s collected poems are by my bedside. He has fine lines like: ‘The lighthouse invites the storm and lights it.’ But these are diamonds in the mire. The good images in his poems do much better when they end up in his wonderful prose. I have been rereading his interlinked story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. The last of these stories brought me to love Lowry after undergraduate irritation with the protagonist of Under the Volcano wasting himself on tequila when the world is full of untasted wines. The Forest Path to the Spring is a lyrical celebration of the years spent with his second wife in a shack on the shore on the north side of the Vancouver inlet. I saw the site of the shack in July during the conference to mark the centenary of Lowry’s birth. My conference contribution was to describe his influence on two films of Orcadian Margaret Tait. Her three beautifully produced volumes of poems are very special to me and I always keep one of them in the leaning tower beside my bed. She is sometimes witty and jaunty, sometimes emotionally intense. I have never been able to read aloud the last few lines of her lament for Allison, a sister-in-law who died young and unexpectedly. I wish she had written more. Michael Romer is owner of wine merchants Peter Green & Co of Marchmont, suppliers of wine to many Scottish Poetry Library events.
Treasure troves of poetry Close to the well-beaten paths of Harvard Yard with its formidable libraries, a number of bookshops continue to stake their claim as rich troves of poetry.
Photo: Ben Newcomer. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence
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There’s the classic Harvard Book Store, which was offering free candy on Halloween, passed around by all its booksellers in imaginative literary costumes, including a stunning Edgar Allan Poe complete with Raven. With a tall bookcase full of anthologies plus another three which represent what is being taught here and which poets are currently teaching, it is a good starting-point. The Harvard Coop is one of the best haunts for browsers. ‘Poetry? It’s right behind the Moleskines!’ It boasts traditional Harvard wooden chairs, or you can perch on high in the Coop café to read your new book – if you can get past the expansive shelves displaying an enticing range of current literary journals. It can be busy, but it’s a great place to linger over new discoveries.
For bargains, Raven Used Books is a welcoming basement with two of its bookcases given over to poetry. The famous one: that’s the Grolier, one of only two poetry bookstores in America (the other is Open Books in Seattle). Where else can you find so many volumes of poetry in one place? Students appreciate being in a place that has a history, unchanged since it opened in 1927. Here the poets meet: one will come in and five minutes later, another. Some refer to it as ‘The Headquarters’, others speak of how much they feel encouraged here. Everybody from e.e. cummings to Paul Muldoon has frequented it, and portrait photographs hang high on the booklined walls. This is a treasure among bookstores, where
the latest volumes are in stock. If the real life of contemporary poetry is in the small presses, then few of the conventional bookstores represent these, but the Grolier does. When you want to visit an amazing treasury of modern poetry, then the Woodberry Poetry Room in the Lamont Library is the place to go. Unlike the more majestic and ostentatious rooms at Harvard, the Woodberry succeeds in removing any intimidation from the artform. It is simultaneously broad yet intimate, the only room in the world entirely designed by Alvar Aalto. Around its 1940’s turntables you can give your attention to the sound of the poet’s voice. The Woodberry honours a continuum, giving equal weight to the aural, the visual and the textual life of the art.
It’s a playful room, all about total pleasure: it allows for both the communal and the solitary nature of poetry. Here students gather to watch rare footage of great poets or attend live readings, and sound recordings of influential new work are made each month. Visiting poets are invited to sit at ‘The Poet’s Desk’ with its unsurpassed view of Harvard Yard. And an old cardboard box contains the sacred relic, a gleam of gold tinfoil around Robert Lowell’s cigar, presented to the Woodberry on the birth of his daughter.
Valerie Gillies Valerie Gillies was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Writer’s Bursary to put together a volume of collected poems and to write new work in America. She is currently based in Boston.
the distant cheering…
The Scottish Poetry Library is a unique national resource and advocate for the enriching art of poetry, particularly Scottish poetry.
Tuesday 19 January, 7.30pm Owen Sheers: Poets’ Guide to Britain Poet and novelist Owen Sheers embarked upon a poetic journey round Britain this year, peeking at the locations and landscapes behind the poems of Plath, Mackay Brown and others. It was aired as part of the BBC’s Poetry Season, and his findings have been compiled in a new anthology. Join him for a more intimate audience as he reveals more about his discoveries. £5/3
Our award-winning building in the heart of Edinburgh’s literary quarter offers free reference and lending facilities. Visit us and explore:
Throughout February Carry a Poem! We join forces with Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature and other partners to encourage all of Edinburgh to carry a poem. From reading groups to craft sessions and a Poetry Olympics, see www.carryapoem.com or www.spl.org.uk for all the details.
• over 45,000 items of poetry, including our new Edwin Morgan Archive • an unrivalled collection of contemporary Scottish poetry • a wide range of other poetry • CDs and tapes • poetry magazines • poetry bookshop • resources for teachers • poetry reading groups • readings and events In addition to our core collection in Edinburgh we maintain 13 Scottish partner collections, located in libraries and arts venues from Dumfries & Galloway to Shetland. Many of our services are also available by post or online at www.spl.org.uk including:
CANONGATE Museum of Edinburgh
.BUS - 35 Crichton's Close
St Marys Street
• online bookshop • postal borrowing • online catalogue search and reservation • education resources • ‘lost for words’ poem-finding service • readers’ website with recommendations, reviews, forums and more • Scotlandwide poetry events listings • Friends subscriptions, with benefits including free copy of Poetry Reader and free postal borrowing • full details of our partner collections.
Scottish Poetry Library
Poet Kona McPhee in defence of the amateur
Tuesday 2 March, 7.30pm Don Paterson: Shakespeare’s sonnets A close look at some of Shakespeare’s sonnets with a contemporary master of the form. £5/£3 Thursday 22 – Saturday 24 April Tom Pow: Dying Villages Residency During this unique residency, Tom Pow will be unpacking the suitcase of poems, stories, images and sounds he has gathered while exploring the dying villages of Europe, from Spain to Russia. He will also be presenting a range of artefacts from the Dying Villages Museum. Come, look, listen and engage. www.dyingvillages.com Free Wednesday 12 May, 7.30pm Chase Twichell “Unsentimental poems with a sinewy intellectual toughness … a stark, sometimes bewildered clarity.” So said Robert Pinksy of Chase Twichell’s work. We’re delighted to have her read to us in Edinburgh, in conjunction with her forthcoming book, Horses Where the Answers Should Have Been: New & Selected Poems. £5/3 See our full programme at www.spl.org.uk/events
Reading groups: Open Monday-Friday 11am-6pm and Saturday 1-5pm 5 Crichton’s Close, Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8DT T: 0131 557 2876 E: firstname.lastname@example.org The SPL is grateful to funders for their support of this publication. Director: Dr Robyn Marsack Chair of Board: Ian Wall Honorary Presidents: Seamus Heaney, Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan, Derick Thomson
www.spl.org.uk www.readingroom.spl.org.uk Poetry Reader is the newsletter of the Scottish Poetry Library and is sent free to all Friends of the SPL. Our Friends have always been the mainstay of the SPL, from its creation to its future. Friends membership supports the SPL and brings some great benefits including free postal borrowing, discounts on selected events and books, and a subscription to the Poetry Reader. Become a Friend of the SPL for £25, or £15 concession/low-waged – call us on 0131 557 2876 or visit www.spl.org.uk to find out more.
Keeping it up
Nothing But the Poem No special knowledge or preparation needed, just enjoy discovering some new poems and sharing new ideas. Led by Lilias Fraser. …on Saturday mornings, with coffee and croissants: 11am – 20 February, 24 April, 22 May …on Thursday evenings, with a glass of wine: 6.30-8pm – 11 March, 13 May All £5/£3 Call us on 0131 557 2876 to book your place. New Books Monday 1 February, 6.30pm-8pm: Carry a Poem special. Join Lilias Fraser for a closer look at this year’s One Book One Edinburgh reading choice, and pick up your free book at the same time! Monday 15 February, 6.30pm-8pm: A look at this year’s T.S. Eliot Prize-winning title Monday 1 March, 6.30-8pm Monday 3 May, 6.30-8pm All £5/£3 Call us on 0131 557 2876 to book your place. Getting into Poetry (i) + (ii) Tuesday 2 and 9 February, 6.30 – 8pm Think reading poetry might be for you? Come aboard for two sessions. £10/£6 Saturday 27 February, 11am-1pm Missed our other two Getting into Poetry sessions? Inspired by the One Book One Edinburgh Carry a Poem to reignite your love of poetry? Or coming to it for the first time? Let Lilias Fraser guide you towards the light... £10/£6 Call us on 0131 557 2876 to book your place.
A while ago, I acted as a marshal at the 9km mark of a local 10km race. Less than half an hour after the starting gun fired, the front-runners came through, leading a pack of lycra-wrapped humanity that variously pounded, loped and finally plodded past me during the next forty-five minutes. My marshalling station was at the top of the course’s final hill, and the last few runners were clearly having a hard time of it. A knot of spectators had built up, and applauded each runner as he or she passed, shouting encouragements: ‘Well done!’ ‘Nearly there now,’ ‘Fantastic effort!’ ‘Keep it up!’ The last runner was an exhausted lady who was only just managing to stagger along, and I’m almost certain I heard the distant cheering when she finally crossed the finish line a few minutes later. Of course, none of this is at all unusual. Spectators at this kind of event are generally very even-handed, and celebrate the efforts of the speedy and the straggler with equal enthusiasm. This seems only fair – after all, it isn’t that the people at the back are necessarily trying any less hard. Furthermore, as a society, we generally congratulate people who get off the sofa, turn off the TV and make the effort to do some exercise. We think it positive, even admirable, that people should go out and run in a race that will take them three times as long as the winners to complete. We applaud them for their effort and determination, not their velocity. I came away from the race feeling inspired, but wondering why our attitude to the arts can be so different. I once played violin in a run of shows put on by an amateur light opera company, where the company’s director had cast himself as the young-and-handsome male lead. He was stumpy and middleaged, and – to be honest – a somewhat idiosyncratic singer, with a vibrato wider than the M8 and a face that explored progressively deeper shades of beetroot as he sang. Nonetheless, it was clear that he was giving it his all, night after night. It was equally clear that some of the audience had come along chiefly to laugh at him, which they did, unrestrainedly and sometimes to the point of tears, during his impassioned solos. Certainly, the man’s mis-casting of himself in the lead role was a little vain, and his overblown delivery did have a certain inadvertent comedy. Nonetheless, I was progressively more offended by the audience reaction as the performances went on. Here was a man so passionate about his artform that he’d brought together a group of ordinary people and put on a successful show. Why was that any less of a ‘fantastic effort’ than the challenge of running a 10k race? He was no Placido Domingo, but should that really make him the butt of mass ridicule?
‘The intrinsic worth of the creative activity is rightfully assessed only by the person who bothered to get off the sofa and do it.’ Whether it’s mocking sniggers at a local art show or knowingly raised eyebrows at an open mic poetry event, the put-downs applied to ‘amateur’ creative output do nothing but harm. Contrary to stereotype, not every weekend painter riles about her masterpieces being neglected by the Tate, and not every unpublished poet wages hate mail campaigns against the editors who’ve rejected his work; in other words, putting people down for their heartfelt and determined creative effort can’t always be justified as the rightful swatting of hubris. On the contrary, it’s frequently an attack on something precious – namely, the vibrant but eminently crushable bloom of genuine enthusiasm. Let’s be blunt: plenty of amateur creative output can be assessed, not unreasonably, as ‘not very good’. Poor technique, imitative execution and inadequate self-editing are genuine faults that cause real flaws. Fair and cogent criticism of poorly-done work is not fundamentally objectionable, and can be both helpful and positively received. Scoffing at such work, however, is not criticism; rather, it is the dismissal of the creative act behind the work as having been not worth doing. That worth – the intrinsic worth of the creative activity – is rightfully assessed only by the person who bothered to get off the sofa, or out of the shopping mall, and do it. By all means, let’s celebrate the Olympian glories of our creative professionals and the celestial work they produce – but let’s not demean the outputs of the rest of us in the process. I certainly know what I’ll say the next time I encounter somebody who’s bothered to get up and have a go at something creative – even if the end result happens to be the artistic equivalent of a twenty-minute mile. ‘Fantastic effort! Keep it up!’ Kona McPhee is running a series of Poetry Surgeries at the SPL in 2010. For details, see www.spl.org.uk/events or call 0131 557 2876
ISSN 1755-3377 Poetry Reader is published by the Scottish Poetry Library. © Scottish Poetry Library and individual contributors 2010. Produced by Productive.uk.com and printed on 100% recycled paper.
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