BOOK REVIEW / A case of Border lines: Tom Adair meets the poet Douglas Dunn, now under fire for his anthology of Scottish verse

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The Independent Culture
HE WILL be 50 this October. His hair is thinning, flat to his scalp as though he's ironed it for my arrival. He gazes intently through tortoiseshell glasses and declares that he's a liberal, while firing off opinions like a barbarian testing blow darts. Within the 'culture of connivance', as he calls it, he might have been pigeon-holed as a renegade, or an old- fashioned socialist radical. But Douglas Dunn confounds these tendencies. Aim for zig, and you find him at zag.

In the early 1980s, while still in England, his first wife's illness rocked his life, and after her death he published Elegies, his wonderful, stirring memorial. 'At the time these things simply happen, they don't happen to you as a writer.' But the writing became a necessity: 'Somehow in writing about extreme emotional states your craft develops, you've got to play your technique against something extremely important.' Elegies won him critical praise and the 1985 Whitbread Book of the Year Award. This most intimate of books brought him a wider readership. At the opera, a stranger came up and told him how much the poems had moved her, the kind of reaction he treasures.

Dunn moved back to Scotland in 1984, the end of a journey begun in 1964 when, newly married, he had emigrated to the States as a librarian ('a profession that's not as dull as I make it sound. But stamping books isn't my kind of fun'). America welcomed him by drafting him to fight in Vietnam. He shows me his call-up papers, received on New Year's Eve 1965 (he keeps them inside his copy of Robert Lowell's Selected Poems). 'We went to a nightclub and ended up dancing on the tables.'

Back in Britain he shared librarian's duties at Hull with Philip Larkin. The Vietnam fugitive by then was a coming man on the poetry scene of the early 1970s. 'I used to show Larkin my poems,' he says, 'and Larkin responded by saying 'Don't expect me to reciprocate'.' He laughs, and lights a cigarette. 'The older you get the less you need that boost. You become immune; not just to criticism but also immune to praise.'

He plucks his beard, filling out every inch of the solid pillar of society he's become. A professor of English at St Andrews (though his playing of clarinet and sax subverts the image), he teaches Shakespeare, and Romantic and Victorian poetry, and sits on Arts Council quangos. 'But really, I've never been that rebellious. More the reliable type; house captain, prefect, the winner at Renfrew High School of the Colonel Walter Brown Prize for Leadership.' He giggles at the memory, coughs, and sucks on his cigarette. 'I once thought of the ministry as a career.' I look astonished. 'Nothing to do with religious faith,' he quickly adds. 'I thought what a wonderful scam for anyone writing poems: a little parish down in Wigtonshire, visit the elderly twice a week and toss in a sermon.' A cushy number.

It sounds to me like The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry, newly edited by Dunn (Faber pounds 17.50). The book has a bracing, polemical - some might say sermon-like - introduction, and plenty of geriatrics in residence. This however, has been a far from cushy number, more of a thankless task. Already knives are being sharpened, rumours mongered, and pundits predicting a little literary dust-up north of the Border.

The book has been 14 years in gestation since Faber commissioned it. 'There were hardly any younger poets then who'd published a book,' Douglas Dunn explains. Was it worth the wait? I suggest that its quality seems thinnest among the book's rookies, who read like catchweights beside MacDiarmid, MacCaig and Maclean - the collection's Mount Rushmore. Dunn agrees.

So why then omit the most conspicuous poet writing in his prime, Dunn himself? 'It's a matter of principle,' he asserts, 'and dignity. It's only in an egomaniacal country like Scotland that this is an issue. How do you judge your own work? Besides, in order to evade contentious issues, which were going to crop up anyway, it is better to leave yourself out.' The point is, who's in and who's out? If you're not in the Faber anthology, you don't exist in Scottish poetry this century. The golden greats (Muir, Crichton Smith and Edwin Morgan, along with Garioch and Graham) are on parade with their greatest hits. The ghostly omissions mostly deserve to remain anonymous. 'I did read all their stuff,' Dunn says, and swallows the sentence quickly with a glass of red wine.

One might quibble that he should have been more severe, but there's no doubting his integrity. 'The poems had to move me, to make some mark on me,' he says, adding: 'In terms of my reputation there's nothing at stake apart from a kicking from certain old men.' His reputation needn't worry. To ripple the pool of critical discourse would be a service to Scottish writing. As Dunn notes in his introduction, this century's climate has been hectic for Scottish poetry, 'one filled with thrilling turbulence, and in which the stakes have been high - the survival of a national identity.'

Those who tilt at the windmill of Scottishness, sensing that turbulence but seeking its source, would do well to plunder and ponder Dunn's introduction and roster of poets, as well as his own work. 'We are,' says Dunn, 'deeply insecure.' Why? 'Because Scotland's a piece of geography masquerading as a nation. Politics in this country are ossified. If you are a nation, go ahead and be one.'

Behind that remark lie the despair and resolve of the Scottish psyche, with its anxious quest for a sense of identity. But the question of what constitutes a nation requires a vision of what that nation might become as well as what it is now, a sense of poetics as well as politics. The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry should be read by all future contenders for Scottish leadership. If Dunn Can't Do It, It Can't Be Done.

(Photograph omitted)

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