Sunday, June 10, 2007

"What is Scottish Poetry?" Revisited

My post on the back of part 1 of Yang-May Ooi's interview with Rob Mackenzie is generating the most discussion yet on Tonguefire (still piddling by other blogs' standards, I know). Katy Evans-Bush has reminded me that she addressed the same issues with Rob in an earlier interview for the e-zine Umbrella. Here's the relevant bit from the interview, the rest of which is well worth a read:

Do you see yourself as a “Scottish poet”, and if so, how would you define that tradition?

That’s a hard one. The answer is “Yes” but I am also just a poet.

There is no single Scottish tradition. I suppose you could say that some Scottish poets stay at home and write exclusively from a Scottish landscape, and focus on everyday details to explore universal themes. Other Scottish poets, while concerned with Scottish identity, engage in a dialogue with other cultures, traditions and languages. Hugh MacDiarmid wrote exclusively in Scots, and indeed completely renewed the language, but he was concerned with a worldwide political arena. Edwin Morgan wrote a great sequence of sonnets exploring the city of Glasgow, but translated poems from all over Europe and beyond. Contemporary poets such as Don Paterson, Robin Robertson and Richard Price, who often focus on the Scottish landscape and psyche, have also published translations of Antonio Machado, Tomas Transtromer and Apollinaire. And Paterson has just released versions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.

I lived in Italy for a while and identify with the cross-cultural, international engagement that has typified much Scottish writing. I’m interested in questions of identity and nationality, but not in a narrow nationalistic sense. I’ve translated poems from Italian by the likes of Montale, Ungaretti, Quasimodo, Saba, and a contemporary poet from Bologna, Davide Rondoni. I guess these activities are typical of what being a “Scottish poet” is about.

You sound as if you find it very energising for your own writing that Scotland has such an exciting crop of contemporary poets. What qualities would you say contribute to that?
Yes, it’s very energising. I really like a lot of the contemporary grouping of big-name Scottish poets – Edwin Morgan, Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, etc. – the list could go on for some time. There’s also a burgeoning scene of lesser-known poets, often known only through chapbooks from small presses. Helena Nelson’s HappenStance Press, Duncan Glen’s Akros, James Robertson’s Kettillonia, Hamish Whyte’s Mariscat and several other small publishing houses are producing stuff of real quality.

My favourite is probably Edwin Morgan. His poetry is so varied, and each poem achieves just the right tone and voice. There’s no single form you could associate with him. He can do anything from the wildest experimentation to the most perfectly crafted Italian sonnet. He wrote some of the finest blank verse of the last century. I get the impression that, outside Scotland, he is criminally underrated. I also very much enjoy John Burnside – his lyricism, his questioning, philosophical mind, and the imagination that goes into his imagery, are astonishing.

What I like about most of these poets, and what informs my own work, is that they don’t find an “authorial voice” and stick to it with every poem. Instead, they give each poem its distinctive music and structure. I know that a Collected Poems unified around a single “voice” are what some poets seem to dream of for themselves these days. I know that creative writing classes appear to urge poets to “find their voice”. I know voice is trendy and variety isn’t. It makes marketing easier as there is a clearly defined product to sell. It focuses attention on the poet – his/her voice becomes a symbol of their personality and authenticity. But the poems can suffer. Style is another matter. Poems can be written in a multiplicity of voices and yet still have an identifiable style. Just as a great musician’s style can be heard whether playing a lyrical lament or a celebratory reel, so a mature poet’s style is evident even if the voice varies from poem to poem. Too many poets play the same sluggish, mid-tempo march all the time. I’m all for difference.

Also, on the back of looking Googling for "Young, Chinese and Scottish" by Kevin Macneil in answer to comments by Yang-May, I came across an online essay "Infinite Diversity in New Scottish Writing", by Suhayl Saadi. I've not read it, but it looks like it could well be an interesting contribution to the debate.


Rob said...

Always nice to start a discussion on issues that matter!

By the way, I've tried several times to subscribe to your blog via Bloglines, but it tells me your blog doesn't have an RSS feed.

Andrew Philip said...

Well, it does have an RSS feed. There's a feedburner feed (button on the sidebar). Moreover, I think every blog in Blogger has an Atom feed. I certainly seem to be able to subscribe to anything hosted on Blogger with the Google reader.

What's New on Tonguefire