Brownsbank Cottage Trust held a fundraiser at the Corn Exchange in Biggar last night. Robert was going – he’s sympathetic to the Trust’s aims and in any case, two pupils from the school were singing – so I tagged along, intrigued enough by the poetic line-up to overcome usual reservations about being ‘the Heidie’s wife’.
Brownsbank is special. Well, to Scots who enjoy poetry, it’s special. Though maybe, nationally, it is almost on a par with Burns’ Cottage in Alloway.
Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve) lived at Brownbank with his wife Valda from 1952 until his death in 1978. Valda died in 1989. The Biggar Museum Trust restored the Cottage and the Cottage has sheltered and supported several significant Scottish writers in residence since (Brownsbank Fellows).
MacDiarmid’s poetry can be found with a simple name google so I’ll not post links. Last night James Robertson (deservedly big ‘giant’ of the Scottish literary scene and former Brownsbank writer-in-residence who credits his time there as life-transforming); Aonghas MacNeacail (ditto Brownsbank – but also one of the most significant Scottish poets writing in Gaelic in Scotland today – his name translates to Angus MacNicol or Nicolson and his nickname’s Aonghas Dubh or Black Angus) and Alan Riach (poet and Professor of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University), read from their own work. They read against a backdrop of paintings by Sheila Mullen all of which had been inspired by individual poems by the three writers (http://www.sheilamullen.co.uk/).
Aonghas was breath-taking. Life-affirming. He read this poem from his 2007 collection Laoidh an Daonais Òg / Hymn to a Young Demon: ‘A’ Dèanamh Ìme’ (‘Making Butter’) :
chan eil a shamhla ann –
tionndadh ’s a’ tionndadh a’ ghileid òraich
am broinn dòrcha na h-eanchainn
ag èisteachd ri suirghe is
dealachadh is pòsadh
nan lid luasganach leaghtach
ag èisteachd airson nam boinne
blàthaich a’ sileadh air falbh o
ghramalas òrbhuidhe dàin
(‘there’s nothing like it – / turning and turning the golden whiteness / inside the darkness of the brain / listening to the wooings and / partings and weddings / of soluble tossed-about syllables / listening for the drops / of buttermilk trickling away from / the golden yellow firmness of a poem’, trans. Aonghas MacNeacail)
The Gaelic first. Soft on his tongue. Reminding me of Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) whom I have always loved. Then the English version and comprehension. What a beautiful metaphor for creation. For the makar.
James and Alan are very excellent writers. I prefer James’ novels to his poetry. His poetry is finely crafted but his novels are big, human, insightful and beautifully constructed. Alan? – he is a very English Scottish writer. I’ve always found his poems lacking in heart. They taste manufactured. Perhaps I just need to try harder with him as he appeared a very sound and humble man.
It’s a shaming admission – but I’ve not gone to
many any poetry readings before.
Destructive preconceptions I suppose. Some of which were confirmed. But most of which were blown away – making me angry with my own shallow responses and unreflecting prejudice.
I think it’s been a class thing – in the sense that working class Scots don’t go to poetry readings. Poetry readings are pretentious. The folk who go to things like that are the luvvies who like their pain and their poverty to be virtual and written.
More significantly it’s also an innate Scottish Presbyterian thing: Poetry? Of what use is that? Does it butter parsnips? Is it of practical assistance or purpose? Can you earn a worthy living at it?
I’ve touched on all that before I think: here
But I think, too, that poetry has always been such a private experience for me. I have written since I was able to hold a pencil. And though I’ve occasionally wondered what other people would make of my poetry I’ve had little desire (beyond family) to find out.
But now that I’m aware of at least some of the ‘reasons’ I will seek readings out again.
I am also wondering about my own work. Is there anything poetic about what I write that could be read with pleasure by others? And for my poems (here and here for instance) – their multitudes call to me from desk drawers and notebooks and pen drives – can they be found a published home?