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Ken’s story: ‘Why I Became a Scots Nationalist’ Monday, 7 December 2009

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I have an odd repertoire of poems and song lyrics in my head. They lodge there, from one year to the next, without any effort on my part, while other poems I know I like flit in and then out again. The lodgers are mostly short, rhyme, and their rhythm has an inevitability about it; a jukebox that playing Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, Goethe, Stevie Smith, Bob Dylan… and Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Why I Became a Scots Nationalist’.

I discovered MacDiarmid’s poetry in 1980, just before I spent a year in Germany as an English language assistant in a secondary school. Before I faced a class there was a big training weekend, and as I recall I learned this poem for a recital one evening.

The title is, if not quite a red-herring, at least disingenuous, for its not a poem about party politics. After placing himself, with typical bravura, beside Pushkin, the greatest of all the Russian poets, MacDiarmid writes a hymn to physical love, to Scotland, to poetry, perhaps without quite the intensity of the early lyrics, but nonetheless with great mental and rhythmical clarity. After a fluid opening, the only part I have to make an effort to remember is line 10 and the words, ‘Open but’. Then the last three lines are a cinch, the metre and rhymes moving the poem to its destination like a well-tuned engine.

I still have the copy of the Penguin Selected Poems where I discovered it nearly 30 years ago. This was co-edited by John Manson, who I came to know many years later and who continues, independently, to study and publish on MacDiarmid’s life and work. On the cover is the marvellously dramatic portrait of the poet by R.H. Westwater that I think hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, though given the current renovation now is not, sadly, the time to check.

Ken Cockburn is a poet, translator, editor and writing tutor living in Edinburgh. His website is www.kencockburn.co.uk

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1. Carry a podcast! « Our sweet old etcetera… - Wednesday, 10 February 2010

[…] in the Highlands‘; Ken Cockburn, who recites his poem, Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Why I Became a Scots Nationalist‘; Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin on Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘The Bonnie Broukit […]


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