21 Jun 2015

The Scottish Literary Revival

The Scottish Literary Revival
Welcome to the Scottish Soviet.
An anthology of twentieth-century poetry edited by George Bruce (1968)

This volume titled The Scottish Literary Revival appeared in 1968, a gift it seems to Hugh MacDiarmid, acknowledging him as leader of all Scotland's letters, its culture even, and inflating his work to epic proportions.  

The opening lines of the introduction, an essay titled The Scottish Literary Revival, are:

It is now generally agreed that no Scottish poetry of great consequence was produced between the death of Burns in 1796 and 1922.’

It should of course say: '1922 ... when Hugh MacDiarmid’s first collection was published.'

The collection progresses as a hymn to MacDiarmid, and could well have continued with: ‘It is now generally agreed that no Scottish poetry of great consequence was produced by women in the twentieth-century.’ 

Indeed, of the 38 poets of the twentieth-century featured, two manage to be women.

Maybe two out of 38 is good considering how male-dominated Scottish poetry was, but it seems that to the Milne's Bar crew, it  didn’t occur to them that women might have written poetry also.

However ... take away MacDiarmid and what have you got? There may well have still been a revival, because it is not impossible to see the emergence of Scots as a tool of Modernism, happening without him.  But he certainly made it his own, and made it personal. Early on, in the 1920s, when there was both a CM Grieve and a Hugh MacDiarmid on the scene, Grieve used to write reviews and essays in which he praised MacDairmid's work, claiming that this young Hugh really was a saviour. 

Perhaps MacDiarmid’s real contribution was therefore to Modernism, and not to Scottish literature. It’s great that Scotland has one of the finest European Modernist writers in its pantheon, but the rest of the world isn’t quite up to speed in ranking him alongside Pound, Eliot, Joyce and Lewis, where he properly belongs. 

And it appears to have been damaging in general to have such a dominant figure. We have good poetry in Scotland today, plenty of it and in different forms, and from different genders too. What we don’t have is a leader figure setting the tone.  We don't have a kaiser or a secretariat, by and through which culture must be judged.  There are not opposing schools of poetry in Scotland, and there are not even any discussions, political or cultural. Every poet, it seems, is for example pro-independence ... and if they are not, they are pretty quiet about it.  'Discussion', as it is therefore called today, is pretty much the same chat that MacDiarmid and others were having at the 1962 conference: ideas for the future, and reflections on Scottish identity.

When George Bruce says ‘It is now generally agreed that no Scottish poetry of great consequence was produced between the death of Burns in 1796 and 1922’ what he means is: ‘Our friend Chris believes that no Scottish poetry of great consequence was produced between the death of Burns in 1796 and 1922 and we all believe it too.’

And Bruce quotes Chris, from the first edition of The Scottish Chapbook (1922), saying that Scottish writers ‘have been left behind in technique and ideation.’

Oddly the introduction to The Scottish Literary Revival goes on, not to talk of those that are within the collection, but immediately singles out one that is not: Charles Murray.  

Charles Murray in George Bruce’s opinion, is of minor interest, but at the end of the day, everyone must agree with MacDiarmid’s analysis that Murray is entirely limited, and even incapable of producing poetry. This is how movements, canons and political propositions succeed: they immediately start by throwing some people and ideas out, so that every one can see what they are NOT. 

Discussion of Charles Murray carries on for nearly a page of George Bruce’s introduction to The Scottish Literary Revival — An anthology of twentieth-century poetry — presumably to demonstrate that although Charles Murray wrote and published in the twentieth-century, his is not the sort of example we wish to follow. 

In fact, Bruce, writing with MacDiarmid breathing over his shoulder effectively damns Murray out of the canon for ‘pawkiness and whimsy’ — but Murray wrote and spoke in Scots, and MacDiarmid was not quite up to speed in that department, generally preferring English and creating a synthetic Scotch out of Jamieson’s — not the Irish whiskey, weirdly enough, but a Scottish etymological dictionary, popular in the early decades of the century.

This sort of example, making mockery of Murray, feels like a warning to others. If you write like Charles Murray, the essay seems to say, you are probably going to be sent to the salt mines.  

The MacDiarmid boosting continues for several pages, until a kind of genealogy emerges; whilst Charles Murray was taken out the back and shot, Norman MacCaig and George Mackay Brown are seen as good disciples.

What MacDiarmid managed to foist into poetry isn’t at all bad, and in pursuing the vernacular, he is also pursuing the people. This was always a part of MacDiarmid’s mission, even though it failed; but in The Scottish Literary Revival we see the initial stirrings of the working class movement that eventually led us to Kelman, Trainspotting and their like, with Maurice Lindsay praised as making his poems ‘from the experiences of the people.’

Yes! And how did Maurice Lindsay come to this? George Bruce has the answer on Page 6: Lindsay used to be young and foolish, and into WH Auden.

“Then he discovered the rich Lallans poetry of MacDiarmid.”

Even the young ‘uns in the anthology (such as Iain Crichton Smith — born in 1928 he is the third youngest of the 38) have to cut their teeth by making calls to 'the people'. Indeed, virtually the same thing is repeated: ‘His subjects are the people and places that are about him.’ Something Charles Murray also wrote about, by the way.

Life really was dangerously Soviet, around MacDiarmid.  The story of this amazing M'Diarmidian Revival then is that the century started with a nation of dangerous Thrums, writing about domestic irrelevancies.  As the century progressed, the iron man MacDiarmid rocked life into the land and its letters. One wonders if it really was that straightforward.

MacDiarmid’s poetry is revered — a short poem like The Watergaw has received so much attention, comprising twelve lines that have had hundreds of further lines of criticism heaped around them, over them like sauce. The Watergaw is a fine poem, but there are many other fine poems both within and without this anthology.

Curiously, by the end of the anthology The Scottish Literary Revival, the Lallans all but dried up. The real speakers of it, many of whom are too pawky to be poetically authentic, and the synthetic speakers of it, all but appear to finish.  

Robin Fulton (b.1939), Stewart Conn (b.1936), Iain Crichton Smith (b.1928), Alastair Reid (b.1926), Iain Hamilton Finlay (b.1925), and many others of the more recently represented, all appear in English — perhaps indicating that Scots served the high modernist experiment, the forced revival and the brute reminder that Scottish culture must be acknowledged and developed by the Scots.

Then of course MacDiarmid himself had stopped writing in Scots around 1930; or at least his Scots productions were pretty thin on the ground after that.

Perhaps it’s time to repeat MacDiarmid’s experiment; this time using MacDiarmid himself, and not Jamieson’s.  That would mean a synthetic-MacDiarmidian-synthetic Scots, brought to life from the poetry of MacDiarmid and amplified with our own postmodern concerns.

At least we would be able to do it, without MacDiarmid himself breathing his fumes of opprobrium over our shoulders ...

The Scots Leid Associe