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Jenny’s Story: Alexander Gray’s ‘Scotland’ Monday, 25 January 2010

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How can I nominate just one favourite poem?  It depends on my mood.  Norman MacCaig, Robert Burns (especially Tam O’Shanter for a fine narrative poem), Iain Crichton Smith, John Betjeman, even a 4-liner I wrote for my children about warthogs, might all feature.  And where do I keep them?  Some in my head, some in my heart, some in my book shelves, some on my e-book reader.

If I can’t even have two, then I’ll discard Hugh MacDiarmid’s, “… little white rose of Scotland/That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.”. I’ll plump, not for the more commonly quoted fourth stanza, “This is my country,/The land that begat me. . .”, but for the evocative first verse of Alexander Gray’s ‘Scotland’, that always reminded me of home in the equally unforgiving parched landscape around me during my years in Africa:

Here in the Uplands

The soil is ungrateful;

The fields, red with sorrel,

Are stony and bare.

A few trees, wind-twisted –

Or are they but bushes? –

Stand stubbornly guarding

A home here and there.

Jenny Dawe is the Leader of the City of Edinburgh Council.

BIOGRAPHY – HUGH MACDIARMID Wednesday, 6 January 2010

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Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) was born in Langholm, 1892; died in Biggar, 1978.   He worked as a journalist in Scotland and Wales, serving in the RAMC during the First World War. He adopted the literary name ‘Hugh MacDiarmid’, and the writing career that he himself described as ‘volcanic activity’ got underway in the 1920s. His output in poetry and prose was prodigious and always controversial. He wrote poems in Scots, mixing the literary with the vernacular.

A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926) is the most ambitious expression of his critical nationalism and fervent internationalism. MacDiarmid galvanised the Scottish Renaissance movement. A member of the Communist Party and a founding member of the National Party of Scotland, he was expelled from and rejoined both. His later philosophical poetry (in English) shows his vigorous intellect and engagement with science.

MacDiarmid is recognised as the towering Scottish literary figure of the twentieth century.

Find out more about Hugh MacDiarmid through the Scottish Poetry Library’s Poets A-Z.

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