Since the Seventies, Northern Ireland has been the place for poetry - Heaney, Muldoon, Longley, Mahon, Paulin, and Carson. But the rise of the Scots surely says something more than the chance flowering of a generation. For one thing, the renaissance is not confined to poetry - it has happened in visual art, in fiction, theatre, and comedy.
No doubt there are many theories about this, but I'll stake my money on a peculiarly fruitful collusion between post-Modernism, the current political state of Scotland and, dare I say it, an intrinsic pugnacity in Scots speech.
Exemplifying this is Robert Crawford, a one-man Scottish poetry industry. Crawford was the commissioning editor for this book; he is an acclaimed poet, an academic with a slew of books already under his belt, and the editor of Verse, an influential poetry magazine with an striking international range. Crawford finds many dislocations in the contradictions between Scotland and England. You get the feeling that for him crossing the border is itself a textual experience. The technology of the new Scotland constantly rubs up against affectionate stereotypes of the old in his poetry, and he can't resist puns: Scotland is a 'chip of a nation'. He is nimble enough to guy his own procedures: in 'Alba Einstein' he plays with the consequences of a fictional discovery that Einstein was Scottish - 'as a wee boy he'd read the Beano'.
The senior poets are two very different figures: Carol Ann Duffy and John Burnside, both of whom bear the permanent marks of having left Scotland as children. Duffy has registered the dislocation in innumerable ways, both stark and subtle. Having to learn a new voice at the age of four, she's been inventing voices ever since. Daniel O'Rourke is not afraid of representing poets by their best work, however well known, so we have Duffy's ticket tout selling an ersatz England and the tabloid headline writer in 'Poet for our Times': 'I like to think I'm a kind of poet / for our times. My shout. Know what I mean?'
John Burnside's autobiographical note reveals that he doesn't like being pigeonholed, but he is a classic meditative poet, 'concerned with myth and language, faith and loss; with trees, water, earth and frost'. In fact, his poetry is more concerned with the moods conjured by such properties than the things themselves: evanescent states and imagined places, such as 'the scent of a garden surrendered to someone else,' abound in his work.
Kathleen Jamie was published at a young age over 10 years ago, and has become steadily better. She's on a roll now, having just taken third prize in the National Poetry Competition, and her forthcoming book, The Queen of Sheba, should establish her as one of the best of the New Generation crop. Wildly independent, she doesn't hang around the usual poetry circuit but travels widely instead. Her dithyrambic The Way we Live is a prime candidate for an anthem for our time.
Dundee has produced two very dissimilar poets: Don Paterson and W N Herbert. Paterson left school at 16, is aggressively working class (and enormously erudite); Herbert is a dandy, has a D Phil on McDiarmid, and raids the Scots lexicon for outre terms. 'Mappamundi' is an amusing Scots slant-eyed view of poetic bias: 'Ireland's / bin shuftit tae London, whaur oafficis / o thi Poetry Sock occupeh fehv / squerr mile.' Paterson's wit has been called Pythonesque; in practice he combines low-life with a teasing mock-scholarship. His tour de force 'Nil Nil' begins with the cod Pensees of Aussemain, 'so it is with all our abandoned histories, those ignoble lines of succession that end in neither triumph nor disaster,' and wanders through the lugubrious terrain of 'terrified fat boys with callipers minding / four jackets on infinite, notional fields.'
Jackie Kay brings a wide range of reference to her poetry - she is black, lesbian, was adopted and brought up in Scotland. Her Adoption Papers tells the story in the voices of the protagonists. Poetically, she owes something to Carol Ann Duffy and Liz Lochhead.
The least known of the established poets is Iain Bamforth. Born to Plymouth Brethren parents, Bamforth has practised medicine in Paris, Bavaria and the Australian outback. He has the most European sensibility on offer here, managing to incorporate the abstractions of intellectual argument into his poetry without losing excitement and the feel of the real. Rock 'n' roll it is not, but readers who like James Fenton's more austere offerings would be rewarded by Bamforth. In fact, it's time that Bamforth, excluded from both Bloodaxe's The New Poetry and the New Generation, was properly recognised.
Of the youngest poets, Stuart A Paterson seems the most promising. One of the most overtly nationalistic poets here, he has brio and a sense of form. There is work here in all three languages - Gaelic, Scots and English - though invention sometimes appears to be inversely proportional to the Scottishness of the language. The two Gaelic poets, Meg Bateman and Anne C Frater, seem conventional in these translations and an experimental poet like Herbert can be traditionally balladic in Scots. Saying this, of course, could mean no more than that I am English. The point is, though, that the new Scots poetry is no more just for the Scots than Derek Walcott is only for Caribbeans, or Seamus Heaney only for the Irish. We are all going to be reading the best of them. As Kathleen Jamie says: 'let me bash out praises - pass the tambourine.'Reuse content