One of the many upheavals in the cultural world over the lifetime of this reviewer has been a reappraisal of Pastoral poetry. We weren’t entirely fair to the Pastoral as a genre in my youth, regarding it as an artificial and rather sentimental construct – all those highly cultivated (and presumably rich) people pretending to live the simple life and envying the happy peasant his careless poverty.
Writing in the Pastoral isn’t just about playing Marie Antoinette – a bucolic holiday for spoilt or disappointed urban readers. It can also be a response to times of great social and political upheaval. Virgil’s early work was written during the civil wars that led to the foundation of the Roman Empire, while William Langland wrote Piers Plowman in the turbulent times following the Black Death.
If we accept, on the basis of these examples, that Pastoral poetry is often about re-negotiating what’s actually important in life, our place in the universe as individuals and as a species – it follows that this is a genre of poetry whose time has come again. In a poetry scene dominated by eco-writing and place writing of all kinds, the work of Renfrewshire-born poet Jim Carruth may be the one of the nearest things we have to twenty-first century Scottish Pastoral.
Carruth (who has been Glasgow’s Poet Laureate since 2014) published Black Cart, the first of the three books which make up The Auchensale Trilogy in 2017, before it was reissued by Polygon alongside Balefire in 2019. The trilogy (which takes its name from the farm on which Carruth grew up and which he has described as ‘a love poem to a rural community in Scotland’) was conceived as three cycles of three, inspired by nine agricultural Muses, and is completed by Far Field, published this year also by Polygon.
Across its three separate collections are poems written over twenty-five years with many of the same themes, motifs, and topics recurring and intertwining throughout – such as the poet’s birth while his father was looking after the cows, family relationships, the death of his parents, the threat to the Scottish agricultural tradition, and the way farming life is often presented in art and literature).
Carruth addresses the pastoral tradition directly – in groups of poems in Far Field inspired by the Glasgow Boys or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in Landscape with the Fall of Icarus in Black Cart, and even with reference to Marie Antoinette:
The difference between those who treat this
As a pretence, a dressing up, a rural escape
Never as a regular chore essential for living
And the manner of the experienced herdsman
Is that common touch, a hard-won empathy.
Playing the Milkmaid in the Hameau de la Reine, Far Field
Quotations from Virgil form the epigraphs to Black Cart. Home, the central section of Bale Fire, is a sequence of twenty poems which echo Homer’s Odyssey while elsewhere, poems about barn dances and harvest festivals take a harsh look at the realities behind the notions of rural jollity.
I particularly recommend Black Cart’s title poem here. The Black Cart Water originates in Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire, but it is also a euphemism for a hearse, and this poem is as dark as the familiar folk song Widecombe Fair.
Carruth (who was born in Johnstone and grew up on his parents’ dairy farm) writes about the alienation between town and country, as in School Milk (Bale Fire) or You Smell of the Farm (Far Field), the loss of detailed knowledge of landscape and the needs of livestock in Transferable Skills (Bale Fire); the brutality which grows out of dealing with the harsh realities of this life (Don’t give anyone Drowning Kittens (Black Cart) without a content warning!), the narrowness of the social circle of small villages where isolation allows domestic violence and mental illness to go unnoticed, (Bale Fire); the strain on family relationships juggling questions of inheritance and caring roles; the risks and hardships, the poor and precarious return for back-breaking work.
He is influenced by American rural poets like Robert Frost and Wendell Berry, but finds particular inspiration closer to home, in Patrick Kavanagh whose dedication to the small farming community where he lived most of his life fuelled much of his poetry, and who shared many of the same concerns.
Lines are blurred between humans and animals throughout these books. Carruth’s wife whistles for her children as she does the sheep (My Wife’s Whistle, Far Field), a woman assessing the qualities of a horse uses the same eye to assess her husband (A Good Judge of Horse Flesh, Far Field) in MacIntyre’s Big Horse (Far Field) the horse gets a better funeral than MacIntyre himself, and the discussion of cattle diseases neatly parallels the births, deaths and illnesses within Carruth’s family.
The impression given – though it is sometimes used to comic effect (as in part 1), or mock horror (in part 2) of Tenderness (Far Field) – is of a deep knowledge and passionate love (albeit barely spoken – you know the joke about the Scotsman who loved his wife so much he almost told her?) that encompasses the land, the beasts and the people.
So, while the books are embedded in one particular locality, we should not read them simply as ‘local’ poems. A discussion on eco-poetry at this year’s StAnza Poetry Festival pointed out that a micro-focus on one place may provide a more universal insight than something which purports to be wider, bringing to mind the line from a song by The Saw Doctors’ which says, ‘No matter where you’re from, everyone’s local’.
We can all share this hard-won empathy, of which Carruth has said [in an email to this reviewer]: “I have always been aware of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Epic which talks about the local as having both universal importance and links to the classical – which I think in part led to the Odyssey sequence where staying put in a particular place is a journey itself, and a story worthy of being shared.”
Across these three collections, the overall notes are elegiac – the farming population is aging, and it is becoming harder for the next generation to carry on in the same way. There are footers recording field names, lost farms and names of the poet’s predecessors, saved from threatened oblivion.
But it isn’t all bleak. The Daughters of Proteus and Oh Sweet Sweet Silage (Black Cart) are light-hearted and celebratory. There is a sense of loss about many poems and a foreboding of more to come, but the final poem in Far Field is Planting Aspen Saplings, in which the poet and his son plant trees to restore degraded land.
Parallels with some of the Romantic poets come to mind, but Carruth is closer to Kavanagh Berry or John Clare than well-to-do men like Wordsworth, who wrote about soldiers, shepherds and cottage children from the desk of a gentleman of means and thinker, as well as a poet.
Carruth’s lived experience, like Clare, Kavanagh and Berry was to grow up as a member of the working agricultural community. Though frankly admitting his inaptitude for the job of taking on the family farm:
The trouble with ploughing is
that so poor was I at the tractor driving basics
hapless with the harrow, scraper and trailer
I was never given the chance to try one furrow
The Trouble with Ploughing, Black Cart
he still keeps:
the partial commitment
of relief milkings on Saturday
or a help at harvest time
Inheritance, Black Cart
and his perspective looks, ever and always, from the ground up not the desk down.
Click here to read Jim’s selection of poems from his ‘Auchensale Trilogy’.
About our contributor
Elizabeth Rimmer is a poet, editor and occasional translator who is widely published in magazines and online. She is influenced by her experience of growing and using herbs, producing a modern translation of the Old English Charm of Nine Herbs in 2017, by her study of geopoetics, permaculture, (especially concerning the growing and use of herbs), the mythological traditions and folklore of northern and western Europe, and by the mystical and philosophical traditions of Christian monasticism.
She has published four collections of poetry with Red Squirrel Press, Wherever We Live Now, (2011), The Territory of Rain, (2015), and Haggards (2018), and The Well of the Moon (2021). She has edited nineteen full poetry collections and eight pamphlets for Red Squirrel Press, and anthologies for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) and the Scottish Writers Centre. She is a member of the Scottish Centre for Geopoetics. Read more on her blog at www.burnedthumb.com.