MAD SCOTLAND HURT YOU INTO SONG: The Poetics of a Stateless Nation

by Stewart Sanderson

(image attribution: Angus McCulloch)

In 1940, the English poet W.H. Auden declared that “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / in the valley of its making.” From its first publication, this apparently unambiguous statement was rendered complex by the poem of which it was a part, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”, as well as by real-life events. Auden had just left England for America, arriving in the new continent just as the Second World War plunged the old one into chaos. Later he would become an American citizen, leading some in Britain to accuse him of betrayal. This was unjust. Auden had made efforts to enlist, but was rebuffed by the British Embassy in Washington. Excused from the American draft on medical grounds, his war was to be a literary one; a conflict of self-scrutiny and debate. One of his harshest pre-war critics, Hugh MacDiarmid, was at that time a conscripted labourer in a munitions factory in Glasgow. The younger generation of Scottish poets had an equally idiosyncratic and, in many cases, fairly lively war. Norman MacCaig and Douglas Young went to prison for conscientious objection. Robert Garioch was imprisoned in an Italian POW camp, while Hamish Henderson parachuted in to join the anti-Mussolini partisans. Edwin Morgan served with the Red Cross in the Middle East. The Gaelic poets Sorley MacLean and George Campbell Hay fought in North Africa, Campbell Hay having first taken the same line as Young – that Scottish troops ought not to fight in English wars – and shortly afterwards taking to the Argyll hills for eight months. When he was finally arrested, the military police gave him a choice: go to prison or go to Africa. Campbell Hay elected to learn Arabic. This list might also include distinguished non-combatants such as W.S. Graham, Sydney Goodsir Smith and George Mackay Brown.

For all the poets just mentioned, the manner and place in which they spent the Second World War was emblematic for their poetry in its relation to the national sphere. MacCaig’s moral acuity, Young’s Nationalist bluster, Garioch’s existential angst and Graham’s distanced irony – the nature of their war can certainly be read, retrospectively, in parallel to the nature of their poetry’s relationship with the nation, in this case Scotland. The same is true of Auden’s public position, writing “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” and staring sadly across the Atlantic while the old world ripped itself apart. Denying Yeats’ potential complicity in violent events, Auden was also commenting on what he perceived to be his own inability to influence history as it unfolded. He denied poetry’s culpability, but also excused it from the responsibility of challenging an unsatisfactory reality. In this particular poem Auden claims that the best poetry can hope for is to sculpt some sort of space for itself and for its readers; holding a mirror up to reality and at least wounding no one. Poetry, indeed, is to be excluded from direct engagement with reality, though it may help us bear it.

It is hard to imagine MacDiarmid accepting Auden’s doctrine here. From the beginning, the Scottish poet had approached his literary and political commitments as though they were two sides of the same coin. Many professedly political poems are marred by the difficulty and emotional complication, for the poet, of their subject matter. The best of MacDiarmid’s work combines passionate, disinterested commentary on material reality with a metaphysical power scarcely matched by any other major twentieth-century poet. It would have been impossible for him to write a long poem like “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” had this not been the case. “On a Raised Beach” – arguably MacDiarmid’s greatest self-sufficient poem, in which he goes far beyond nationality and immediate political concerns – presents an unanswerable challenge to the unsatisfactory nature of our social reality.

Over the past decade or so, many changes in the Scottish political landscape might be ascribed to the material realisation of a cultural tradition. A plausible narrative could be drawn which would have the Union of 1707 provoking an immediate cultural backlash in the form of Allan Ramsay and his contemporaries, transmuted into a tradition of resistance which found continuity in the works of writers like Fergusson, Burns and Hogg. In the twentieth-century MacDiarmid would be the key determining figure, a radical firebrand who alienated many with his inflammatory rhetoric, but whose successors would ultimately canonise as the father of the modern Scottish imagination.

MacDiarmid died in 1978. A year later the Scottish electorate voted in favour of a devolved assembly. 51.6% of votes cast were for, 48.3% against. The conditions of the referendum stipulated that unless at least 40% of the electorate voted in favour, any Yes decision would automatically be void. The total turnout was 63.8%, with roughly a third of the eligible population voting Yes.

There was, of course, another ballot in 1979. The subsequent collapse, in future elections, of the Conservative vote in Scotland amounted to a crisis of democracy, in which the nation was clearly disenfranchised. To rehearse the situation further would be to invoke, once again, a catalogue of rank humiliations and blows disproportionately inflicted upon the poorest in society by the richest. It might be tedious; it would be familiar.

In 2011 the SNP secured 69 seats in the Scottish Parliament elections (65 were necessary to gain a majority). This was on the basis of 45.4% of the constituency vote and 44% of the list. It was arguably the result which the Scottish Parliamentary voting procedures had been specifically devised to prevent. On Thursday 18th September 2014 there will be another referendum.

What does poetry have to do with these political events? Can it be said to have influenced them, even caused them to happen? In a wider sense, can art hope to influence events in the real world? If not, if its function is merely as a form of palliative care for the troubled psyche, what does this say about art and artists? These questions were compelling for Yeats, uncertain if he was implicated in the deaths of Irish revolutionaries at the hands of British firing squads. If he was innocent, did this make his plays and poems mere pasteboard figures – player and painted stage and not the things they emblematised – subsumed in the overriding drama of the historical moment? They were equally compelling for MacDiarmid, who was never in any doubt as to the power of his work, but vacillated as regards its true nature. Auden served briefly in Spain and spent the 1930s as a left-wing mouthpiece, but also vacillated when he came to write “In Memory of W.B. Yeats.”

The National Party of Scotland, founded in 1928 under the auspices of the lawyer John MacCormick, was a typical short-lived nationalist party in that it had a sizeable number of poets on its books. MacDiarmid was expelled for his Communist beliefs. Notoriously, the Communist Party also expelled him for his Nationalist convictions. The NPS lasted six years, till 1934, at which point a merger with the right-wing Scottish Party led to the foundation of the Scottish National Party. Their wartime leader, the aforementioned Douglas Young, was a remarkable and controversial figure. Young was a Classicist, as well as a distinguished Scots-language poet and translator from eleven or so languages. His arguments for the restitution of the Scots tongue and for the political and cultural autonomy of ordinary Scottish people were meticulously researched, eloquently presented and, unfortunately, somewhat impractical. Of his two periods of incarceration during World War Two, firstly for refusing conscription to the army, secondly to perform war work in Britain, Young wrote:

“In sum, the issues were never adjudicated, and it was by no means apparent that justice had been done in either case. If there was a denial of justice, it was the more grave in that it involved the right of personal liberty, the most valuable right of the subjects of Scotland, under the Treaty of Union with England, the very origin and legal basis of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the British Parliament.” [1]

By basing his defence on the Act of Union, which had, after all, left Scots Law intact, Young attempted to challenge the assumption that conscription – imposed under English law – and similar external legislation could be applied in Scotland. Drawing upon a wide range of historical sources and precedents, his case remains compelling. However, it is no surprise when we discover that the authorities in both instances took a rather dim view of Young’s logically expounded demolition of Westminster’s legal power north of the border. Poetry, this time at least, made little happen.

Or did it? The key relationship essential to an understanding of the post-war evolution of what might be termed the pro-independence faction in Scottish letters may be that between the individual utterance and the place of that expression. The key progression might be that from the poetic articulation of a seemingly impossible situation, eventually moving towards some form of material resolution. For MacDiarmid and many others from the 1920s onwards, the restitution and expansion of Scots and Gaelic was an imperative of overriding importance. This was the reason Edwin Muir’s 1936 work, Scott and Scotland, was so mercilessly attacked – Scottish self-determination was seen to be inextricably bound up with issues of language, both national and regional. The constellation of talent which appeared in the immediately pre- and post-war years included writers of both persuasions, with Garioch, Campbell Hay and William J. Tait seeking to broaden the linguistic capabilities of Edinburgh, Gaelic-inflected Argyll and Shetland Scots, respectively. Campbell Hay, along with Sorley MacLean and Derick Thomson, was also a key figure in the revival of Scottish Gaelic. Goodsir Smith, on the other hand, tended in the opposite direction, writing in a macaronic fusion of local dialects and periods which defied critics’ efforts to pin it down. Nevertheless, it was very much a poetics of location, with Edinburgh and the Highlands, among other sites, invoked as liminal, historically imprisoned spaces haunted by the memory of the independent national past.

It would probably be correct to say that most, if not all, of the major twentieth century Scottish poets were deeply concerned with their place – the location of their utterance – and the form which that utterance took. The reasons for this are various, but principally reside in Scotland’s disrupted, stateless nationhood – a dissonance apparently crying out for resolution – and the resultant uncertainty of language in a country which possessed more varieties of words than official narratives could comfortably accommodate. Scots, for instance, had virtually no central support or recognition. The cultural politics of the Union dictated that, as always, the tongue of the elite – English – was prioritised and imposed upon the general populace. Nevertheless, despite the denial even of linguistic status, as well as the systematic expurgation practised in schools and via broadcast media, Scots persisted – and continues to persist. However, the strange dichotomy of, on the one hand, a non-official, unrecognised language, despised and rejected by the central authority, and on the other a rich, pan-European tongue with a literary history going back as far as the Middle Ages, presented Scots writers with a curious, fruitful paradox. For a poet like Tom Scott, writing out of Edinburgh or undergoing a linguistic epiphany in Agrigento, the place of writing was a shadowy realm, underpinning the visible, apparently actual Scotland. The language of writing was an equally shadowy melange of times and locations, which sought to unite the utterances of many voices, living and dead, resolved in a restored Scottish state, in which the historic speech of the people would be heard. This was, to say the least, a complicated proposition.

Gaelic speaking writers such as MacLean, Thomson and Iain Crichton Smith were faced with a different, equally convoluted and agonising situation. Gaelic, while rejected by the central authority and, often, its own speakers, was recognised as a language. Its difference spoke for it in this respect. However, the seemingly continual decline in the numbers of Gaelic speakers and the near impossibility of their political realisation as a single community were painful issues to confront. What is fascinating, from the perspective of poetry as political action, is the degree to which poets (often in positions of influence as teachers or academics) seem to have been integral to combating the terminal decline of the language. This said, with around sixty thousand living native speakers, Gaelic is far from a won cause.

Norman MacCaig becomes a particularly fascinating poet when we consider the Gaelic and Highland background of his poetry, as well as the everyday context of his life as a teacher in Edinburgh. MacCaig’s mother was a Gaelic speaker from the tiny island of Scalpay, yet he wrote his poetry in English. Beginning in a dense neo-Apocalyptic mode, after his first two books (which he disowned) MacCaig broke into an exquisitely crafted, formal style, whose metrical precision and delicacy of rhyme belied the poet’s real feeling and passion. Later in life, his poetry entered a third stage, whose characteristic mode was the short free verse evocation of thoughts, places and living creatures. MacCaig wrote many marvellous animal poems – in which the pathos of experience is never undercut by the poet’s desire to keep his own personality and opinions separate from the things he describes. He was also a great poet of urban and rural landscapes, with Edinburgh and the far north-west of Scotland essential points on his mental map of the world. While not often an overtly political poet, the long work “A Man in Assynt” makes clear his contempt for the outrageous disparities which continue to prevail as regards Scottish land ownership:

“Who owns this landscape?
Has owning anything to do with love?


Who owns this landscape? –
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or
I who am possessed by it?” [2]

MacCaig was in favour of community purchases of estates and – while not one to take public stances on many things – believed that poetry’s key justification might well be its role in sharpening the human mind, both sensually and cognitively. He was a perpetual opponent of lazy, superficial thought; his poetry’s apparently disengaged stance contains powerful political implications.

Edwin Morgan’s apotheosis came with the publication of the landmark volume, The Second Life, in 1968. The factor uniting the poems collected in this book was their formal and referential diversity. “The Siesta of a Hungarian Snake” sat comfortably beside “The Second Life” itself, a revelatory poem surveying Glasgow’s re-emergence from dingy industrial shadow, coming out into the bright sunlight of the 1960s:

“Many things are unspoken
in the life of a man, and with a place
there is an unspoken love also
in undercurrents, drifting, waiting its time.
A great place and its people are not renewed lightly.
The caked layers of grime
grow warm, like homely coats.
But yet they will be dislodged
and men will still be warm.
The old coats are discarded.
The old ice is loosed.
The old seeds are awake.
Slip out of darkness, it is time.” [3]

However short-lived The Second Life’s energetic optimism might prove to be, as a statement of allegiances and intentions – personal, local and national – the title poem and collection as a whole remain key symbolic milestones for twentieth-century Scottish poetry. Odes to MacDiarmid, Ian Hamilton Finlay and the painter Joan Eardley elegised the diversity of artistic perspectives being brought to bear on the country, while Morgan’s ludic experimentalism shed light on the formal elegance of his traditionally metrical and free verse work. The many translations which he was, as always, producing and publishing at this time spoke for the ambitions of many Scottish writers, who sought to look beyond potentially constricting cultural paradigms. Poetry had made something happen, and that something was poetry – persisting, if not in the valley, then in the glen of its making.

In 1969 another Glaswegian poet, Tom Leonard, published his first book – Six Glasgow Poems. Drawing upon Ian Hamilton Finlay’s previous use of Glaswegian in his brilliant Glasgow Beasts an a Burd, Leonard radicalised Finlay’s ludic use of language, linking speech, place and class in an extremely provocative manner. Leonard’s Glaswegian really does have its roots in “the stigmatised speech of the working-classes.” [4] Which is not to underplay the obstacles practitioners in more recognised forms of Scots have had to confront and, to an extent, still do face. It is, however, of some relevance to the way in which Leonard has situated himself almost in opposition to the Scottish Renaissance and Scots language movement:

“In Scotland the only poet who has had any bearing on my work has been Ian Hamilton Finlay, obviously in his Glasgow Beasts an a Burd but also as someone to whose work over the years I have returned, with or without direct result, simply to think about fundamentals of form. Hamilton Finlay is therefore the poet among the modern Scottish poets who has meant most intellectually to me. The one who has touched my heart most has been W. S. Graham.” [5]

Ian Hamilton Finlay and W. S. Graham; emphatically not Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns – in terms of personal canons, Leonard is reading from a different style sheet to Scots-language poets like Garioch, Goodsir Smith and Tom Scott. He is also, to some extent, reacting against the formal nature of their work.

The most important division between a poet like Tom Leonard and his precursors seems to be their relationship with the nation. Leonard seeks an international solidarity whose force derives from class conflict. The Scottish Renaissance and its primary continuers sought restitution on the grounds of a national tradition whose roots lay scattered in various past historical moments, not always understood in terms of dialectical materialism. Moreover, from the late 1960s on, the debates around national identity and sovereignty gradually lost a little of their linguistic character, although Scots and Gaelic naturally remain important and divisive areas to this day. While both languages are increasingly recognised and even centrally supported, their symbolic role as the drivers of national political sentiments is much less apparent than it appears to have been for the first-generation Scottish Renaissance and its immediate successors. Superficially at least, this may be true of culture in general. After all, conscientious political actors who aspire to some degree of power will inevitably frame their arguments in terms of states, institutions and economic frameworks. The less conscientious will simply rely upon repetitive sound bites, supplemented by a mutilated narrative of recent political history. As with so many things, the character of the Scottish independence debate has changed since the middle third of the twentieth century. Its dependence on various versions of the ‘cultural argument’, both acknowledged and concealed, has not.

It is hard to come to terms with the shift from the early 1980s, when Scotland was virtually unrepresented, had been denied domestic democratic representation and was swiftly waking up to the degree of contempt in which its indigenous cultures were held by those in power, to the present day, where despite all the uncertainty, Scottish independence is very nearly a tangible possibility. Certainly, there was a process of cultural re-envisioning, wherein the nation’s writers, artists and musicians expressed creatively what could not be uttered in material terms. We find this trend repeated throughout the past three hundred years. Nevertheless, tempting though it is to link these developments – the political and the cultural – directly, we do, I think, sense the ghost of Auden shake his head and wink at us when we do so. Does poetry make anything happen? When it appears to do so is it in fact the case that poetry has itself been made to happen by the overriding logic of history? Is history in fact the valley of its making, in which it exists, and how are we to understand the active-passive interplay between these two verbs?

In their well-known Dialectic of Enlightenment, written in America during the Second World War, the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer propose the following image of the intellectual (in this case as producer of enlightenment, for which read culture) in relation to the populace. Odysseus, sailing past the Sirens’ island, wishes to hear their song, in which all knowledge is contained. This is the absolute: death, allegorised as shipwreck on the rocks surrounding the island. To cheat destruction, he plugs the ears of his crewmen with wax, deafening them to the seductive power of the Sirens’ song. He leaves his own ears unplugged and ties himself to the mast, allowing him to hear the Sirens, but not to respond to them:

“Anyone who wishes to survive must not listen to the temptation of the irrecoverable, and is unable to listen only if he is unable to hear. Society has always made sure that this was the case. Workers must look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side. […] Thus the workers are made practical. The other possibility Odysseus chooses for himself, the landowner, who has others to work for him. He listens, but does so while bound helplessly to the mast, and the stronger the allurement grows the more tightly he has himself bound […] His comrades, who themselves cannot hear, know only of the danger of the song, not of its beauty, and leave him tied to the mast to save both him and themselves […] The bonds by which he has irrevocably fettered himself to praxis at the same time keep the Sirens at a distance from praxis: their lure is neutralized as a mere object of contemplation, as art.” [6]

Political arguments claim to go beyond contemplation, towards a putative rationality, but derive their force from their ability to provoke emotions and sentiments. Politicians, who are defined by their convictions, depend upon the rhetorical force of their arguments to achieve material change, the realisation of human potential. Art attempts to realise human expression, initially in the abstract, but subsequently in the actual, material dimension of its audience’s lives. Some great poets, the solipsistic Rilke, for example, listened too intently to the Sirens and denied the reality of the political sphere. Others, including the civic-minded Auden, accepted its importance but doubted whether they could affect material change through their poetry. Most pragmatic politicians, although they may humour culture and its producers, are sceptical as regards its relevance to what they understand to be practically possible. Few recent Scottish poets, whatever other differences may have separated them, have denied that their poetry tends towards a political realisation. The failure of Unionist politicians to tie themselves to the mast and appreciate culture’s relevance, its generative force as regards sentiments of all kinds, is quite possibly the defining fact in Scotland’s hastening journey towards self-determination.

[1] Douglas Young Poet and Polymath (MacDonald: Loanhead, 1974) p.79.

[2] Norman MacCaig The Poems of Norman MacCaig (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2009) p.222.

[3] Edwin Morgan Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996) p.181.

[4] John Corbett Topics in Translation 14: Written in the Language of the Scottish Nation: A History of Translation into Scots (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1999) p.3.

[5] Attila Dósa Beyond Identity: New Horizons in Modern Scottish Poetry (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009) p.175.

[6] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noer, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) pp26-27.

One response to “MAD SCOTLAND HURT YOU INTO SONG: The Poetics of a Stateless Nation”

  1. […] “In sum, the issues were never adjudicated, and it was by no means apparent that justice had been done in either case. If there was a denial of justice, it was the more grave in that it involved the right of personal liberty, the most valuable right of the subjects of Scotland, under the Treaty of Union with England, the very origin and legal basis of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the British Parliament.” [1] […]

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The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is an online journal which publishes critical reviews, essays and interviews as well as writing on translation. We accept work in any of the languages of Scotland – English, Gàidhlig and Scots.

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