The dream state
A new generation of Scottish poets is emerging and scooping the latest London literary awards. James Robertson looks at the role of poetry in contemporary culture and assesses the strengths of the New Wave.
magine poetry — not as some esoteric
minority sport for the weedy and unsporty.
but as an art-form capable of changing
viewpoints, sparking arguments in bars.
addressing real live issues. Poetry for
everybody, not for some cultural elite. Well, Scotland may not have a poetry culture like that of the old Soviet Union, where Yevtushenko could apparently fill a foootball stadium, but something’s happening. Hugh MacDiarmid, who could be a terrible elitist when he wanted. once wrote about a future Glasgow in which crowds swarmed to lbrox to listen to an intellectual debate, snapping up newspapers headlined ‘Turkish Poet’s Abstruse New Songs’ as they went. In reality. the venues are more likely to be bookshops. theatres, cafes. pubs, and the crowds counted in dozens not thousands, but more and more often, poets are making appearances outside the pages of their books or literary magazines.
In fact, it’s hard to be a poet these days and not also be something of a performer. The Scottish Arts Council’s Writers in Schools/Public schemes, publishers’ promotions, arts festivals — all encourage the poet to engage with an audience, and the punters to hear the work first- hand. Some critics decry what they call ‘performance poetry’ as if it somehow isn’t ‘quality’ writing. But performance poetry is reallyjust a term to describe poetry that‘ll stand up to being read aloud to an audience - nothing like that for honing a poet’s awareness of the pretentious, the tedious, the obscure. Writers
Carol Ann nutfy’s poetry is confident and risky,
accessible without being patronising, and very
much of the here and now.
like Liz Lochhead and Carol Ann Duffy make part of their living doing a circuit of reading events, and in doing so they not only get bums on seats but open up books to people who might not otherwise ever consider stopping at the poetry section in a bookshop.
In Scotland. poetry has been attracting even more attention in recent weeks. Last month it was announced that in two categories the annual Forward Poetry Prizes (only in their second year. but already being described as the ‘bardic Booker Prize’) had been won by Scottish writers. Carol Ann Duffy being one of them. Born in Glasgow in 1955. now living in London. she won the Best Collection prize of £10000 for her fourth book Mean Time (Anvil Press £6.95). The Best First Collection cheque for £5000 went to a 30-year-old Dundonian, Don Paterson. for Nil Nil (Faber £5.99). After working in Brighton and London as a jazz musician, Paterson is now back as writer-in: residence at Dundee University. In a recent interview he identified seeing a TV programme on Tony Harrison reading poetry to a Leeds pub full of ‘heavies in bikerjackets greeting all over their pints’ as the moment he started to read books again. as an adult. ‘I had never thought that poetry could make that connection with ordinary people.’ It’s good to think that the publicity surrounding his prize might bring his own work to the notice of other non—bookish people. Elsewhere Paterson has claimed that. for many. the primary motivations for writing poetry are ‘sex. money and fame’. This may be heretical. or even hilarious. but it’s a refreshing alternative to the idea of the poet in perpetual and unwordly artistic torment. stuck in a garret.
Both his and Duffy’s poetry is confident and risky. accessible without being patronising. and very much of the here and now. But the awards they have won are only part of a wider story. The past three years have seen fine collections by other youngish Scots — Robert Crawford’s Talkies (Chatto £5.95) and Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe £5.95) for example (and Kay’s second book, Other Lovers has just been published by Bloodaxe £5.95). And Polygon’s forthcoming Dream State: The New Scottish Poets (£9.95 January 94) edited by Donny O’Rourke, features 25 poets, the eldest being Carol Ann Duffy and the youngest Anne Frater, a 26—year-old Gaelic writer from Lewis. Add to this a cauldron of bubbling—under poetic activity — the off-mainstream writers appearing
For many, the primary motivations for writing poetry may be ‘sex, money and fame’ which is a refreshing
alternative to the idea of the poet in perpetual and unwordly artistic torment, stuck in a garret.
in the likes of Rebel Inc or Clocktower’s pamphlets, for example — and it looks as though there is something afoot in the land.
But this is not, it seems, a phenomenon sprung out of nowhere. The old rcliables - Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan. Sorley MacLean and lain Crichton Smith — have all produced superb collected editions in recent years, monuments to lives spent with the muse. while the middle generation sees poets such as Liz Lochhead, Stewart Conn and Douglas Dunn at their mature best. Dunn’s latest collection, Dante’s Drum Kit (Faber £6.99), is his strongest for years; and in l992 he edited the Faber Book of 20th Century Scottish Poetry (Faber £l7.5() h/b. £9.99 p/b). which linked Hugh MacDiarmid, through these other established names, to writers like John Burnside and Kathleen Jamie.
Many of the new male poets owe something to MacDiarmid, but that fierce spikiness has not always appealed. and especially not to women. Donny O’Rourke reckons that the younger poets. of both sexes. are ‘conscious of a tradition. without being self-consciously hobbled by it’. O’Rourke points out that some of the identifiable influences come not from literary sources but from popular culture — rock music, stand-up comedy. significant that the most consistent poetic influence is the eclectic Edwin Morgan, whose septuagenarian sprightliness. willingness to experiment with different forms, enthusiasm for filling his verse with computers. space travel, video-boxes. science and science fiction puts many a ‘young poet’ to shame.
But it is clear that a specifically Scottish culture is emerging out of the political mess of the 70s. The Dream State’. as O’Rourke puts it. is ‘vibrant and various. self-confident. self- critical’ — not just in poetry but in other literary forms. in music, painting and almost every other artistic activity. Crawford’s ‘Radio Scottish Democracy’ has someone searching the wavelengths for that elusive new station. [n cultural terms, it seems as though we’ve already tuned in, which might make the arrival of the new politics. when it comes. seem less surprising than we think; and more mature. more relevant, much more likely to last the pace. Poetry, of course. is no substitute for an authentic politics; but it may be a vital accessory. U
cinema. it is}
14 The List l7 December l993—l3 January I994