Tuesday 7 December 2021

A Scottish alternative?

On a lowered beach: Scottish alternatives

An email arrived suggesting an issue of Angel Exhaust about alternative Scottish poetry, to go with the issues we did on similar themes in Wales and Scotland. I have been thinking about this and also about why we didn’t do such an issue 20 years ago. The upshot is that I am going to write a blog about the matter, instead of actually producing a real publication.
The key to why there was no Scottish issue 20 years ago, after some discussions about it, was a conversation with Robin Purves and Peter Manson. I asked them how many shops in Scotland stocked Object Permanence, and the answer was “none”. It was obvious that there was no alternative sector in Scotland. Not only would no shops sell our possible Angel Exhaust, but there was no set of paths along which we could find alternative Scottish poets, so that we would probably go to press having missed significant and important people. A little magazine with no resources has to find downhill paths and this project was clearly an uphill struggle. (Another version would be that Object Permanence was the alternative sector. But they only ever published one Scottish poet.)
The reason why there is no ‘alternative sector’ corresponding to the one we found in England and Wales is mainly that the status of the Scots language is too hot a topic. The whole of Scottish literature is an ‘alternative’ compared to the anglo-american mainstream, yet the difficulties of writing in a dialect which is never used in schools are such that poetry in Scots is persistently sub-literary and reluctant to deal with abstract ideas. The result, over a hundred years now, has been an increase in the status of the language, much more interest by the primary sector of the schools system, a few academic posts, and a cluster of poets writing intelligently in Scots – but not writing something critical and innovative in the terms of Angel Exhaust readers. Like Scottish politics in general, this area is unstable and evolving.
When the email arrived, my reaction was that I knew nothing about Scottish poetry in the past 25 years. That was not a final answer, but it did suggest that we needed a native informant, or several, before such an issue could be assembled.

Clearly there is a sector of innovative poetry in Scotland. But, where John Goodby and Lyndon Davies found 38 ‘alternative’ poets for their Welsh anthology (Edge of Necessary), you obviously couldn't find 76 radical Scottish poets (i.e. for a population double that of Wales). Scotland did not have a counterpart to the deluge of formal innovation that happened in England in the 1970s, and even the second half of the Sixties. The reasons are interesting. And actually, there was an equivalent, if only on a smaller scale. Edwin Morgan, DM Black, Alan Riddell. But, it would be ridiculous to push this sector out of existence.I don’t really get the geographical basis for the poetic pattern, but I think the alternative thing was much weaker in the North of England than elsewhere, and so that it wasn’t “area-saturating” but dispersed and full of holes. Maybe the Modern thing could only capture people who weren’t already committed to something else, such as the nationalist thing or the Language Question.
I have Christopher Whyte’s book Modern Scottish Poetry. I guess I have read it three times... anyway it has classic status. I say this before noting that I jotted down in my copy a list of poets he left out: Joseph Macleod, TS Law, DM Black, WN Herbert, Alexander Hutchison, Walter Perrie, Frank Kuppner, Peter Manson, Peter Davidson. I now have to add Alan Riddell, whose work I encountered later. This list would give an outline for an alternative anthology of Scottish poetry. However, the rule is that little magazines deal with new poetry and preferably with unpublished poetry. A little magazine is inhibited from producing an anthology in which key poems are fifty years old. And the magazine-buying audience has limited interest in that sort of backward look. I should emphasise that Whyte designed a one-volume work with 20 poets, and that his omissions do not imply that he disregarded these other poets.
Some Scottish poetry of the past 20 years is exhibited in the anthologies The Smeddum Test, Aiblins, and Be the First to Like This. The first collects poems in Scots entered for a particular prize. The second is political poetry after the result of the 2014 Independence referendum; the title means “perhaps” and the theme is unused possibilities. The third is more like a generational anthology; a lot of the best poems are people who are not Scottish (but were resident there at the moment of the anthology).

I wrote about the language issue in Scottish poetry but forgot to include that chapter in my seven-volume work on poetry 1960-97. I wrote a draft of volume 1 in 1993 and that included the Scots material… the book eventually came out in 2003 with a new design which omitted that chapter. I then forgot to add it in to any of the other volumes. It is on my website www.pinko.org.

Whyte is quite critical of Sydney Goodsir Smith. There is an issue with authenticity which Goodsir Smith’s theatrical and highly coloured diction raises, not just for Whyte. The objection to English rule is that it distorts what is naturally there, in dependencies like Scotland. Something similar applies, in a more abstract realm of critique, to domination of the Scottish broadcast and print media by anglo-american commodified output. This shifts emphasis to unaltered Scottish reality, linguistic or otherwise, which is altered for the worse by processes overlaid on it. A return to the natural is success. This implies that literary processes, producing unnatural and enriched language, are a failure and to be rejected. However, if people are used to discussing adult topics in English and only mundane and domestic topics in Scots, it is unnatural to discuss serious topics in Scots. After the Reformation, Scottish priests normally preached in English, because of the prestige of the King James Bible and, before that, of reformed theologians in England. It is likely that even in the 17th century the middle class were speaking English, albeit with the well-known local accent or burr. So serious poetry in Scots is artificial and not at all naturalistic. Goodsir Smith’s diction is quite unrealistic, but it is broad enough to sweep the problem of realism aside. He worked as a theatre critic and this helps to explain his exaggerated but also expressive diction. Whyte dislikes this but we have also to ask whether linguistic naturalism allows poetry to exist at all. Nationalism bases itself on the imagination of a state of affairs which does not exist, and which is only accessible to idealistic speculation. It is credible that only exalted and non-democratic language can convey nationalist ideals. Goodsir Smith is not only involving unexplored possibilities but actually writing in a way which is unexplored and unheard-of.
As Whyte points out, the middle class in Scotland have for a long time spoken English, and Goodsir Smith’s family origins make it certain that he never spoke Scots when growing up. His exercise in writing poetry in Scots is artificial. But, this is a double-barrelled gun. If you apply rigorous naturalism, not only can you not discuss ideas in Scots, but also you cannot allow middle-class poets to write in Scots. I think we have now got the nub, of why “alternative” poetry has not done well in Scotland. Naturalistic writing in Scots is too formulaic and predictable, and artificial language meets with widespread hostility for not being authentic and for indulging in foreign practices.
The prevalence of English in Scotland is a reflection of the hegemony of the South in the last 400 years, and this is not much moderated by the related influence of American (since at least the late 18th century). This is true but it does not instantly tell us of beneficial effects from rejecting all the ideas of the last 400 years which were mediated by books written in English.

I have spent much time in the past ten years attempting to learn Scots Gaelic and, more recently, Irish Gaelic too. The collapse of the land-owning superstratum which had patronised high-grade poetry led, in both countries, to the decline of poetry into something much simpler, a folk practice with notable similarities to folk song. (The land was still owned in big estates by great families but there were large-scale shifts of ownership and the new dominant tier had limited interest in Gaelic, of either kind.) Literary Gaelic after 1750 is quite rare, and so a learner is likely to get involved in things like folk-tales. In fact, my interest in that part of the world has involved me in an interest in folk literature and so an unconscious acceptance that it is possible to have an intellectual interest in the voice of the people.
There are some similarities between the Gaelic trajectory and that of poetry in Scots and in Welsh. Having said that, I can see that it would take a book to explain exactly what the similarities and differences were. Things work differently in different societies. Hoping not to get called out on this, I want to suggest that literary and educated poetry can act as a depressant on folk and oral activity, that England has an unusually crushed and depressed tier of folklore (as collectors found in the 19th century), and that the vigour of recorded folklore in both Gaelic dialects is a thing of wonder.
This is a basis for talking about the importance of folklore in Scotland, although my feeling is that the respect for folk-song and dance, and so on) has produced crucial weaknesses in Scottish poetry, leading poets away from modernity and towards a diction which is compatible with folk-songs but not with abstract ideas. It has been a kind of warm cloud which disguises from people the fact that a poem or a volume is actually crap and sub-literary.

Note on the language problem
The decline of Scots was sociologically led, and as the upper classes of society began to speak English the semantic domains which were normal in Scots began to wither and contract. Drummond of Hawthornden may have been the first poet to write in English, but there is evidence that texts were being written in English already before the union of the two countries under one king in 1603. Over hundreds of years, Scots became a sociologically and cognitively incomplete language. It did not express the full life of society. We have to emphasise the power of sociology over speech behaviour, and of normal speech behavior over poetry; someone who sets out unilaterally to repeal the unconscious legislation of a society may end up being acknowledged as a genius, and may write poetry which is embarrassing, incongruous, off-pitch, and in the end unnatural.

The essential difference is between unambitious, oral type poetry, and ambitious, intellectual poetry which incorporates ideas and the realm of intellectual prose in general. This is what MacDiarmid insisted on. So we have to be careful in identifying what was written under the influence of M. Probably, the “Lallans renaissance” did not start until the 1940s; it had taken that long for a group of young poets, inevitably nationalists, to come along who admired M enough to take on his ideas. Poetry was being written in Scots during the 1920s, but it was banal and quite contemptible with MacD’s ideas. During the 1930s, we find William Jeffery (yes, he was David Kinloch’s grandfather) write intelligently in Scots, but only a few poems. They are collector's items. Instead, it is around 1940 that we see a group of university-educated poets (Douglas Young, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Maurice Lindsay, etc.) take up the idea.
For working-class Scottish children, the gap between the way they speak and the language they have to write school work in or read books in, is wide and confusing. This affects their performance in tests and disadvantages them in the academic struggle – the start of all the other disadvantages. This is undeniable, there is no point denying it. So it has been inevitable that the “alternative”, in Scotland, has been tied up with the language question. There is a second part to this. MacDiarmid's big argument was that the semantic range of Scots had to be extended very radically in order to produce significant literature. Poetry had continued to be written in Scots throughout, but his point was that it had been anti-intellectual, based on popular song, sentimental, and really sub-literary, ever since Drummond of Hawthornden started writing in English, around 1610. MacDiarmid lost his campaign...writing in Scots since 1950 or so has been pervasively in a sub-literary style. The poetry has followed the restriction to limited cognitive domains which the language itself is kept to. The moments when poets other than MacD used Scots in an ambitious, or 20th century, way are few but charged with vital significance. What strikes me, looking at catalogues, is how much of the recent poetry in Scots is directed at children and the school system. It connects with that traumatic moment for seven year olds when they realise that what they speak isn’t English. It favours things like nursery rhymes and folk tales which are mainly oral, are palatable for seven year olds, and are closed off from the world of literature for adults. My impression is that teachers in the primary sector are very keen on this kind of thing, and that the relevant poets spend a lot of time actually in the classroom. They can make a living in that way.

It is clear that MacDiarmid's project failed. Scots is an alternative but it is not producing poetry we can get involved with. The discourse never says that MacD failed, it is a taboo theme. People are not as interested in international importance as in the question of social mobility.
The attempt to reach out to children under 11, to encourage them to do creative writing in their own dialect, is a way of salvaging them for the system in a way which strengthens the system and actually weakens resistance. The proposal is not to have children writing exam answers in Scots, which has never happened. After winning them over, the education system offers them a complete diet of English. This pattern does not lead to a widening of the social scope of the Scots language. Instead, it stays in the playground.
The modern scene sees both poets who are under strain because they speak English but write in Scots, and writers under strain because they speak Scots but write in English.

There is that macaronic poem by Drummond, around 1610:

Nymphae, quae colitis highissima monta Fifaea,
Seu vos Pittenwema tenent, seu Crelia, crofta,
Sive Anstrea domus, ubi nat haddocus in undis,
Codlineusque ingens, et fleucca et sketta pererrant,
Per costam et scopulis Lobster manifootus in udis
Creepat, et in mediis ludit Whitenius undis :
Et vos Skipperii, soliti qui per mare breddum
Valde procul lanchare foris, iterumque redire,
Linquite Skellatas botas, Shippasque picatas,
Whistlantesque simul fechtam memorate bloodaeam,
Fechtam terribilem, quam marvellaverat omnis
Banda Deum, quoque Nympharum Cockelshelearum,
Maia ubi Sheepifeda, et solgoosifera Bassa
Swellant in pelago, cum Sol bootatus Edenum
Postabat radiis madidis et shouribus atris.

A really creative use of language, and satire on the existence of various registers of language. But he wrote almost all his work in English.

Mike Hart used to buy the poetry for Compendium Books in Camden High Street, which was a basic resource. I used to prevent him from working by chatting to him, bad really. On one of those occasions, he told me about the poetry scene in Glasgow around 1967. People had got the idea of pop poetry from the Liverpool thing. So they read their poems in imitation Liverpool accents. Logical.

Charles Lind told me an anecdote about Sydney Goodsir Smith, as theatre critic for The Scotsman, attending a performance while drunk and falling out of a balcony into a lower balcony. Subsequently he lost that job, since the whole theatre had seen this happen. I looked on the internet and found a range of ingenious alternative explanations of this event, none of which I find credible. I don’t really like his poetry, but on reflection I find it has a theatrical quality which is low on authenticity but solves certain problems by being broad and exaggerated, and so just lurches beyond the question of linguistic authenticity.

I have quite a few issue of Lallans, the magazine of the Scots language movement. It used to annoy me by throwing out literary standards. But on re-reading I am more optimistic. There is a splendid poem in shetlandic dialect on MacDiarmid's geological threips:

On a shingly beach at Linga Grieve hed
his wilderness experience: wrat his epic
at owsed da wash o culture, da swittle o ideas.
Only da stons apö da ayre were irreducible.
Da briggistanes o Sodom man a shiggled
tae der very atoms wi da weicht o wirds:
wirds fa dae skröf o sciences, geology
an fae a teet at testaments, a nod at Norn
an odd conglomerate.

Man, I doot if dere’s a raised beach
onywhaar on Whalsa. (Da Nordern Isles were
relatively droonded i da Late Devensian,
no raised. Wis glacio-isostacy a wird too far?

Christine de Luca declares, in her poem, that there are no raised beaches on Whalsay and MacD wasn't standing on a raised beach at all. Interesting. MacD lived in a house called Sudheim (south home) which was corrupted to ‘Sodom’, not sure I believe that. Anyway, this is Purely Fabulous and justifies the cost of the North Atlantic.

Friday 3 December 2021

An Impartial collection
(part 2 of previous post)

O’Tuama quotes an account of a Great McCarthy by a “spy” (spiaire) around February 1729:
“that he has been struck and inhumanly pursued by a milesian prince of a drunken and extravagant character, commonly called McCarthy Mór… as being a person who lives extra legem and matters not indictments nor any other prosecution.”
This is memorable because it is so forthright, but it is hardly likely that the person being described would describe himself in the same terms. Being robust does not also mean that something is the last word. Are we to take it that self-awareness is always wrong, and that it is the employment of the historian to puncture and disperse this self-awareness? Indeed, O'Tuama quotes O’Rahilly’s funeral eulogy on this McCarthy, which is not much of a character sketch but does present him as the soul of the old order, which is passing out of view with his death, in 1729. (‘Milesian’ means that his family reached Ireland with the milesian invasion, in mythical prehistory, and not with any later group of ships.)
The interest is in the superimposition of two views of the same thing. Two is not the upper limit. Superimposition, and the abandonment of the single robust narrative line, are so central to what makes life interesting for a modern historian that they are not going to go away. They will continue to be the staple of historical research, and not just in Ireland. It’s just that this way of opening up the past is never likely to upset the underlying pattern of “bad government, foreign government” which is familiar to pupils in secondary school.

O’Tuama suggests that O’Rahilly’s depiction of Tadhg O Croinin was influenced by the figure of Sancho Panza in Cervantes’ novel. It is hard to avoid the reaction that this would cast the McCarthy landowners as Don Quijote figures – with O’Rahilly’s bardic poetry corresponding to the unreal and exalted chivalrous romances which Don Quijote read. It is notable that Sancho was sane and saw the world as it is.
O’Tuama quotes a 1922 history of the McCarthy family which I tried to access in an on-line version which had been scanned in such a way as to make it unusable. I did randomly pick up this bardic account of the high life at Dun Togher, around 1625:

Their strongholds were filled with beautiful women, and quick-slaying cavalry viewing them; mirth, drunkenness, playing on harps, poems, songs, bards, and the bacagh shouting and roaring, and soothsayers were at their feasts; there too were gamblers in mutual discord, and large-bodied vagrant gluttons contending.
This very castle was the building where O’Rahilly set one of his poems, ‘An file i gCaisel an Tochair’. (Bacach comes from Latin baculus, staff, and probably means beggars, unable to walk properly; although the editor is unwilling to use this translation. The poem is about generosity so the beggars are a natural part of the picture.) The bard is Donal na Tuile. This portrait probably does concur with Tadhg’s understanding of himself. By 1700 the castle was in the hands of another family. A tag of verse states that this Tadhg died sheltering in a slit of the mountain, after his lands were forfeited.
According to Colm Lennon, Togher means a causeway through a marsh.

I found some irish texts on-line and extracted this O'Rahilly poem. the translation dates from 1900, I think.

IV. GILE NA GILE. The Brightness of Brightness I saw in a lonely path, Crystal of crystal, her blue eyes tinged with green, Melody of melody, her speech not morose with age, The ruddy and white appeared in her glowing cheeks. 5 Plaiting of plaiting in every hair of her yellow locks, That robbed the earth of its brilliancy by their full sweeping, An ornament brighter than glass on her swelling breast, Which was fashioned at her creation in the world above. A tale of knowledge she told me, all lonely as she was, 10 News of the return of Him to the place which is his by kingly descent, News of the destruction of the bands who expelled him, And other tidings which, through sheer fear, I will not put in my lays. Oh, folly of follies for me to go up close to her! By the captive I was bound fast a captive; 15 As I implored the Son of Mary to aid me, she bounded from me, And the maiden went off in a flash to the fairy mansion of Luachair. I rush in mad race running with a bounding heart, Through margins of a morass, through meads, through a barren moorland, I reach the strong mansion — the way I came I know not — 20 That dwelling of dwellings, reared by wizard sorcery.
They burst into laughter, mockingly — a troop of wizards And a band of maidens, trim, with plaited locks; In the bondage of fetters they put me without much respite, While to my maiden clung a clumsy, lubberly clown. 25 I told her then, in words the sincerest, How it ill became her to be united to an awkward, sorry churl, While the fairest thrice over of all the Scotic race Was waiting to receive her as his beauteous bride. As she hears my voice she weeps through wounded pride, 30 The streams run down plenteously from her glowing cheeks, She sends me with a guide for my safe conduct from the mansion, She is the Brightness of Brightness I saw upon a lonely path.
THE BINDING. O my sickness, my misfortune, my fall, my sorrow, my loss ! The bright, fond, kind, fair, soft-lipped, gentle maiden, 35 Held by a horned, malicious, croaking, yellow clown, with a black troop ! While no relief can reach her until the heroes come back across the main.

‘the fairest thrice over’ refers to James II, the Stewart king, and the heroes over the sea are Jacobites in exile. "Brightness of Brightness" is just an intensifier, like "king of kings" in the Bible and in related Christian texts. It is there applied to concrete nouns and not abstract ones. Another poem:

I shall shave the bristles, I shall crop the nails Of the snub-nosed, wheezing hangman, The scarred fellow, scabbed, loud-voiced, spiteful, Shorn, sole-spotted, stumbling. 65 From the top of his head, in which droves of vermin are wont to be, Covered over, gathered together in foul lumps, To the soles of the club-footed fellow, who is stiff-necked, Aged, hollow-voiced, gnawed. I will tear the ragged wretch, who is planed, poor, 70 Vicious, into wounded bits ; The starving miser, the hangman trickster, The powerless cripple full of reptile spawn. A fellow full of vermin, of running eyes, a dirty gaunt wad, A fugitive vagabond is the liar, 75 A slender hunchback, a greasy swallower, Who swallows every rubbish into his greedy maw. I will gnaw the feet of the villain caitiff, Branching, broken, wounded ; And his two hard heels on which are chilblains, 80 Holes and scorched cavities. Crooked nails made of iron Are covering and shield for his fingers ; And his two shanks, sprained, broken, scalded, Peeled, seared, full of scars.

I shall peck at his knees and the junctions of his nerves ; Which will take from the wrong-doer his power of walking, And his two hips like a pair of bare boards And his waist tawny and feeble, His rotund belly hung above that ; 90 As a cess-pool, wide-arched ; A brutish, greasy, greedy maw, Has the curlew of the false teaching. A narrow breast, slender, bristled, yellow-skinned ; Eyes of a thief dim of sight ; 95 Hair of a he-goat ; back with two ridges, Yellow, bulging, putrid, rough. An ignorant clown, a stroller deserving of the gallows, An old burned stalk from the sea-side, A wretch of odious manners, a conceited simpleton, 100 A harsh enemy of the Irish nobility. A pecker at a small potato, a trifler about the house, A scraper of the greasy pot ; A scabby wretch, a raw-boned ragged fellow. A shameless simpleton of consumptive coughing. 105 His throat emits a storm of wind Which sickens thousands into dire pain The surly carcass from which comes a stench Through his rough open jaws.

Domhnall is he, the hated of the neighbours, no A remnant without the power of making a single poem ; Sinister son of Donnchadh, large-skulled, husky, Jealous, churlish, nerveless. Decrepit is the lean withered creature, faded of foot, Crooked, a grease-sweating object ; 115 He is deceitful, destructive, quarrelsome, vicious, Cunning, contentious, cowardly. He looks like a monkey, frightened, when it goes In anger running against the side of a wall ; Or like a rat running through a cellar, 120 Hotly pursued by strong cats. Ye poets of Munster, ban ye This yellow-skinned clod ; A noisy little bard, put cards beneath him, It is plain that it is madness he has written against me. 125 It is not proper for the learned ever to listen to Lays from a mouth which does not compose smoothly ; It is a shame for the nobles of a fair proud land To write praise of his poems or his verses. [in his black hair are strong nits, and ashes, 130 And active crooked-legged vermin ; A forked comb tears the lumps Which gobbles the guest with a noise as of a bell.

His hair may be compared to that of the demons On the brink of darkened Acheron ; 135 Brian O'Brosnaghan, a slothful churl, The worst fish on the Kenmare strand.] THE BINDING. A poor, empty, wretched miser, a withered branchlet, Starved hangman of porridge in a crooked mouth, An ill-shaped wretch, who barters his friends for a very trifle, 140 It was he who made, unawares, an attack with his tongue on Aodhagan Fionn. [Domhnall, son of Donnchadh, the long-necked fellow of grinding teeth, The corrupted sluggard of the goats, who does not speak justly ; Also, as I hear, empty was his lordship Until through the rabble of Dromann, you burst, you old remnant.]

I suppose 'ceangal', or binding, means a final stanza which ties the themes up.