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This item is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

Letters from James Sutherland-Smith, Ciaran O'Driscoll, Gerard Carruthers, Paul Batchelor
Without Honour


I was surprised by your approval of Benjamin Zephaniah's refusal of the OBE ( PNR 155). Perhaps I've become irremediably cynical, but it seemed to me that the gesture was of benefit to Benjamin Zephaniah only, the restatement of an easily won cliché by somebody who is a cliché himself. No doubt his agent is well pleased, if I may use an ancient intensifier. Zephaniah has undertaken workshops and visits outside Britain as a British Council writer-in-residence. The British Council, it is pertinent to restate, received a royal charter and coat of arms from King George VI and receives money from Parliament, which constitutionally is approved by the reigning monarch. So, Zephaniah may have refused a medal from Her Majesty the Queen, but he has definitely accepted her shilling.

Zephaniah's refusal demeans my friend, James Berry OBE who emigrated from Jamaica in 1948 and whose ground-breaking anthology of Caribbean writing, Bluefoot Traveller, enabled a range of voices to gain hearings and readerships in Great Britain. The doggerel that Zephaniah writes demeans the work of the first poet I ever heard read, Kamu Brathwaite, whose work never yielded an inch to either white establishment or facile craftsmanship, not to mention the enormous range of voices that have emerged over the last forty years with Derek Walcott, Archie Markham, Grace Nichols and Linton Kwesi Johnson immediately springing to mind.

Zephaniah's grounds for refusal turn history into a witless cartoon of goodies and baddies. It is convenient to forget that `the first point of sale' in Africa was often by African slave-takers to white slave merchants. It is convenient not to think of other slaveries; indentured labour to North America, convict ships to Australia, not to mention the slave trades practised by France, Spain, Portugal, Holland and so on, the slavery of the Romany to the nobility over parts of Eastern Europe. To appropriate Linton Kwesi Johnson, Inglan was not the only bitch. Zephaniah diverts attention from contemporary slaveries; the trade in girls from the Baltic States and from south-eastern Europe to the brothels of Western Europe. Zephaniah's understanding of `blackness' does not take in the Romany peoples whose life expectancy is ten or fifteen years less than the whites, the `gadjis', they live alongside in Central and Eastern Europe. Zephaniah's understanding does not take in, despite his having visited countries such as Slovakia, the present slow death of Romany culture and language.

I would argue that it is not in Zephaniah's interest to do so. Why yoke one's gift to the understanding of complex histories and the manifest contemporary degradation of women and ethnic minorities from countries barely two hours flight from Britain, when one can gain a public by reciting a simple old story? It is a story which, of course, creates its own distortion; the conflation of British Empire with slavery. By the time the British thought of themselves in imperial terms, slavery was a wrong that had been legislated against. I do not, of course, pretend that its effects had been remedied.

As I said at the start of this letter, I was surprised by your approval. Part of a poet's vocation is to understand and negotiate with uncomfortable truths. If this vocation does not accord with what is fashionably required then a poet is required to resist in order to preserve honour and truthfulness. I see nothing wrong with OBEs or MBEs. They came about as an effort to extend the head of state's recognition of merit to all of his or her subjects. The `Empire' they refer to was largely a Victorian creation with all the ambivalence and complexity that can be implied. Awards by any state have their roots in history. Why should the British not recognise and claim theirs?


Flying Herron


Reading Marius Kociejowski's evocative piece, `The Poetical Remains of Madge Herron' ( PNR 155), brought me back memories of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I lived in Kentish Town, and frequently encountered that larger-than-life woman.

Madge Hernia I sometimes called her, because a person could get a hernia from listening to her. But she was different from the barstool bore, who gives people hernias slowly and agonizingly; Madge could administer a quick one, painless, in a single sentence or phrase. The pain came later.

And perhaps it came deservedly to the stuffed Scottish owl reading his pitiable verse pitiably at the Poetry Round. I may have been at the Round on that very occasion, as the masturbatin' up on top of a haystack referred to in Kociejowski's anecdote is pure Madge Herron, and I am certain that I have heard it before.

I remember being with Madge on one of her few school visits, at a comprehensive in North London. A female teacher came forward breezily, creasing her face into a smile and extending a hand. Madge ignored the woman's hand but, loud enough for every pupil in the hall to hear, said to her: By Jaysus, but you look like you could do with a good ride.

The impact of Madge Herron was all to do with ingrained expectations of context and behaviour: nobody felt the pain at first because they didn't believe in the knife.

She had a simple theory of poetry. `It has to be ffftt!' she'd say to me, which I took to mean perfect; the sound ` ffftt!' itself, the simultaneous twisting gestures of her hand and the manic contortion of her features combined to connote the agony of poetic perfection.

`You'll never see him short of his cashew nuts' is the only line of hers I have retained. It referred to a rich Irish builder called Murphy, and occurred in a poem she read to me which also referred to the crucifixion of Christ.

I recall an afternoon when she lay on my narrow bed in a small dilapidated house in Leverton Street, and allowed one of my friends, a sort of London-Irish fakir who played a squeaky set of uileann pipes, to talk her into an exercise in mental levitation. But Madge was so earth-bound, even mentally, that she stopped at the ceiling. `How can I get past the bloody ceiling?' she exclaimed, and it took some persuading before she squeezed herself through the open window. Once through, however, there was no holding her: she told us she was away up beyond the moon, and wanted to stay there; and even if she cared to, she wasn't able to come down.

Then she remembered her dogs, especially the sick ones she wheeled along the High Street daily in her pram, and went hysterical: `What will the poor dogs do without me?' she wailed.

That afternoon, it took a good hour and the combined efforts and entreaties of the three or four others who were in my room to coax her slowly, gently back to earth.

Today, reading the postscript to Mr Kociejowski's tribute, I am saddened to learn that she has flown away up beyond the moon again, and this time definitely won't be coming down.


Furious Returns


I write regarding Fenella Copplestone's `The Furious Return of Robert Burns' (PNR 155), offered as a review of The Canongate Burns, edited by Andrew Noble and Patrick Scott Hogg. Ms Copplestone seems unable to engage in detail with the book she is reviewing and this is hardly surprising since her limited knowledge of Burns scholarship is evident. The meticulous work of J. De Lancey Fergusson on Burns's letters was, ultimately, far from `definitive', as your reviewer claims, since his work was updated in a substantially revised second edition published in 1985 (two decades after his death). Carol McGuirk's Robert Burns and the Sentimental Era did not first appear `in 1997' but in 1985. It is also not true `that some of [Patrick Scott Hogg's] discoveries had already been discovered in America [by] Lucylle [ sic] Werkmeister'. Has Ms Copplestone actually read Dr Werkmeister's work, or does she simply take on trust the claims of The Canongate Burns about this? I suspect your reviewer would be shocked to discover that Liam McIlvanney's Burns the Radical (2002) is book that sits less than easily with The Canongate Burns. As Dr McIlvanney would argue (I suggest she asks him), Burns's political sensibilities are more to do with 1688 than 1789. Amidst such nuances, however, and her belief that The Canongate Burns is so groundbreaking politically, she might bear in mind something that Dr McIlvanney has said to me, `No one since the 1920s has seriously doubted Burns's interest in radical politics.'

Let me re-iterate some of my own findings with regard to the `Lost Poems' and The Canongate Burns, which Ms Copplestone makes an attempt to obfuscate. In Studies in Scottish Literature XXXI (1999) I revealed that two poems identified by Patrick Scott Hogg as the work of Burns were, in fact, by Alexander Geddes. Anyone reading this article will realise that its findings show the deep flaws in Mr Hogg's research methods and his conclusions upon which so much of The Canongate Burns is based. In 2001, I discovered that another poem initially claimed by Mr Hogg to be by Burns on the basis of its signature `Aratus' was by an unknown radical publishing in London (see The Drouth No.3 [2002]). One of the centre-pieces of the supposedly recovered work by Burns in the Noble and Hogg edition is `The Dagger'. Unaccountably, The Canongate Burns does not relate a crucial piece of text appended to this poem at is original source in The Edinburgh Gazetteer: the locus of `Airdrie'. For my finding that `The Dagger' is by the Airdrie poet William Yates see The Burns Chronicle (Winter 2002). The essay in The Burns Chronicle also summarises many of the generic faults of The Canongate Burns, including its mangling of the Scots language, its confused textual apparatuses and its dubious logic. The Canongate Burns makes wild, unsubstantiated claims, for instance, that Burns `seemed' to suffer from venereal disease and that the Edinburgh drinking club the Crochallan Fencibles, to which Burns belonged, was a political society. What evidence is there for either of these conjectures? The Canongate Burns seems to have been hastily thrown together and contains literally thousands of mistakes: as your reviewer observes it might well `keep postgraduate students busy for a decade' correcting the most unreliable edition of Burns ever produced.

Your reviewer's knee-jerk leftism is a phenomenon which in the past I have called `the New Bardolatry'. It is as harmful to Burns as previous undeniably right-wing emasculations of the Bard. If Ms Copplestone would care to develop any of the vague comment she passes on my work in this area, I would be happy to arrange a public debate with her here at the University of Glasgow on the textual editing of Burns, and in particular on the detail of The Canongate Burns.


Fenella Copplestone replies:

First, let me say that Andrew Noble, in his Introduction to the Canongate Burns, pays tribute to Dr Carruthers by referring to his correction of Scott Hogg's attribution of two of the lost poems: `The two Geddes poems identied by our then colleague at Strathclyde, Gerald [ sic] Carruthers are "The Exhortatory Ode to the Prince of Wales on Entering his 34th Year" and "Ode for the Birthday of C.J. Fox".' He continues: `What should be stressed is that the retrieval of Geddes will be an enormously strong element in supporting this edition's argument for a pervasively literary and radical Scottish political culture at the end of the 18th century.' Presumably Gerry Carruthers, as he is known, was angered by the misspelling of his name, but he cannot claim to have been denied credit. Indeed, his work on Geddes was given prominence, since Noble had just written a paragraph on the significance of the radical priest, and this reference seemed to suggest a forthcoming book on Geddes by Carruthers.

My information on Dr Werkmeister came also from Liam McIlvanney's prizewinning Burns The Radical, in which he refers to Scott Hogg's discoveries in his Introduction: `In 1961, the American scholar Lucyle Werkmeister suggested that a detailed trawl through the files of the opposition newspapers of the 1790s might throw up previously undiscovered radical poems by Burns. More than thirty years later, and apparently without knowing Werkmeister's work, Patrick Scott Hogg undertook this task, reading through the London Morning Chronicle, the Edinburgh Gazetteer and other papers.' McIlvanney says that the research turned up fifteen poems which Scott Hogg published as the work of Burns. Although pointing out that Scott Hogg was wrong to assume that of all the poets active in the period 1793-6, only Burns could have composed these poems, he says: `In retrieving this material, Scott Hogg has performed an invaluable service to Burns studies.'

To deal with `The Dagger' point, I should again simply quote from McIlvanney. `To my mind, Scott Hogg and Andrew Noble have made a compelling case for regarding at least three of the "lost poems" "The Dagger" and the two "Ghost of Bruce" poems - as works of Burns, and they are treated as such in this study'. Later, in his chapter on `Burns's Later Political Poems and Songs', McIlvanney spends three pages on the significance of `The Dagger', a poem on the 1792 Commons speech by Edmund Burke, attacking a British subscription scheme which aimed to provide daggers for the French revolutionary armies in their struggle against Prussia and Austria. The poem appeared in Scotland on 16 May 1793, shortly after Charles Grey's reform motion had been emphatically rejected by the Commons, and in August came the Scottish sedition trials, when Burns composed `Scots Whae hae' to which I referred in my article. McIlvanney says the poem is `a rueful comment on the demise of free speech in a Britain gagged by state intimidation'.

Dr Carruthers says that `The Dagger' is by William Yates because the word `Airdrie' appears beside the pseudonym `Ane O' the Swine' in the Edinburgh Gazeteer. In the Burns Chronicle he reveals that it was McIlvanney who alerted him to `An Epistle, to Mr Robert Burns, the Ayrshire Poet' which appeared in the `Belfast Newsletter' for 5-8 September 1794. This is the only other known poem of William Yeats or Yates, an Airdrie butcher, and author of `Airdrie Fair', a poem in Airdrie Bards Past and Present, edited by James Knox and issued by the Airdrie Burns Club in 1930. It seems odd, therefore, that he does not mention in his letter that he and Dr McIlvanney disagree so profoundly about `The Dagger'.

I have read both the Yates poems - Carruthers appends the `Epistle' to his article in the Burns Chronicle - and I find it hard to believe that a critic so proud of his scholarship could assert that the poet from Airdrie, on the evidence of these two anodyne non-political pieces, could have written `The Dagger', and stake his reputation on that assertion. If you read the Canongate Burns, and I urge readers to do so, and then read Liam McIlvanney's chapter, you will find cautious but soundly argued textual and contextual reasons for adding `The Dagger' to the Burns canon. What Carruthers says is: `Given the poet's profession might there be a playfulness at work in the case of "The Dagger" (if Yeats is also its author) given the use of the pseudonym, "Ane O' the Swine".' Then, after his thanks to McIlvanney, he goes on: `I would be grateful to know the sources that James Knox was drawing upon (it would be good to know for certain, for instance, which is the accurate rendering of Yeats's surname - probably it is "Yates"). Airdrie Burns Club, past and present, might be interested to know, then, that at least two poems from a local bard contemporaneous with Burns have survived. And a very reasonable surmise would be also that a third has come down to us in "The Dagger"; the most credible circumstantial historical logic would point here to Yeats's authorship.' And that is it ! That is all there is to substantiate his claim, apart from his abuse of Scott Hogg for trying to explain away the Airdrie connection in the `Lost Poems' and the Canongate for not mentioning it at all.

Most of Dr Carruthers' letter comes from his review-essay `The New Bardolatry' in the Burns Chronicle (Winter 2002), including the `knee-jerk' reaction among those he describes as `uninformed, politically sentimental individuals' who have welcomed the Canongate Burns as a monument to `an unequivocally leftist Burns'.

It is important to realise that the Burns Chronicle - on the go since 1892, a small magazine full of Burns lore, many photographs of members world-wide carrying out charitable activities and special offers of commemorative bits and pieces - is the magazine of the Robert Burns World Federation, an organisation with great influence in Scotland and beyond. My article pointed out how the Burns `industry' has taken off yet again. This means jobs, power, advancement, and influence for those considered true Burns scholars. Had the Canongate Burns been endorsed in the Chronicle, the careers of the editors on the Burns circuit, particularly in North America, would have taken off and the sales of their book assured. When Carruthers tackles me on my spelling, he fails to notice that he has given J. De Lancy Ferguson an extra `s' in his name on the same line, probably because he is thinking of Ross Roy, who revised De Lancey Ferguson's monumental work, and whose photograph is elsewhere in the Chronicle, receiving an honorary doctorate from Edinburgh. In his article he charges the Canongate editors with having deliberately slighted Professor Ross Roy. This is to ensure that the readers who have a high regard for the Professor will be offended on his behalf.

He claims in the article that the McIlvanney book, when it appears, will soon show that the Canongate's assertions of Burns' radicalism are misplaced and suggests this again in his letter. In fact, when McIlvanney, at the end of his Introduction to Burns the Radical, talks of his choice of the term `radical' to use of Burns, it is from Andrew Noble's Introduction to the Canongate that he quotes: `Burns is not to be understood as some sort of barely rational political oddity. With Blake, he is a central poet of a long established revolutionary vision. Consciously or otherwise, the vast bulk of Burns criticism has detached him from his proper intellectual, cultural and political contexts so that, an isolated figure, his politics can be seen as subjective, whimsical, even eccentric.'

Dr Carruthers ends his attack in the Burns Chronicle: `I have no hesitation in diagnosing that with the publication of The Canongate Burns there is now a "new bardolatry" abroad, intent on press-ganging and even traducing history. Does Scottish culture and scholarship (relatively small communities where individuals are sometimes a little embarrassed about being as frank as they might be) have the courage and the resourcefulness to oppose this phenomenon?'

Clearly he wants his chosen readership in the Herald and the Burns Chronicle to see him as some sort of heroic figure throwing himself into the path of the terrifying juggernaut that is bearing down upon Burns Studies but, in fact, the poisonous treatment he has meted out to the Canongate Burns and the disproportionate influence he has been enabled to wield within Scotland, given the silence of all the senior academic figures involved in the teaching of English in Scottish universities and their refusal to intervene in this unseemly affair, is enough to finish the whole thing off.

Since 2002, no one has challenged Dr Carruthers on his assertion as a Burns scholar that Yeats/Yates wrote `The Dagger'. His letter has repeated that claim and brought it to wider attention. At present there are only two candidates in the frame, Burns and William Yeats/Yates. It would be interesting if readers,or their students or pupils set themselves the task of deciding on textual evidence without abuse of either Dr Carruthers or anyone else, which of the two is the more likely author. And even more useful if one or more other poets of the 1790s were presented as possible contenders.

Finally, for those who are interested in Burns and who do not care to follow a peculiar, one-sided Scottish feud further, you can read online a four-page review of the Canongate Burns in the Cercles Revue by Frances McFarlane of the Université de Rouen. Unfortunately I was wrong about downloading Dr Carruthers' piece in The Drouth, but no matter, as a member of the editorial board, he is bound to have some copies by him.

Pearl before Swine?


I am suspicious of any critic who professes only to like Pearl (the most accessible of Barry MacSweeney's many volumes), but to say that MacSweeney would be `much better served by a slim volume that included Pearl and a handful of other poems' is openly grotesque: would Blake be better served if we read only Songs of Innocence? Among many other techniques, MacSweeney deployed hyperbole, theatricality, incantatory repetition and grandiosity. Roger Caldwell ( PNR 154) clearly feels that such techniques are off limits: his complaint is that MacSweeney was not a completely different poet.

Caldwell chooses the weakest, least representative lines he can find and reprints them without MacSweeney's lineation and typography. He says there are `a number of poems that move, that surprise, that raise laughter', but doesn't name them or quote from them. He also suspects that the lines he doesn't like `may once have had some emotional discharge'. (Does he mean emotional charge?) Finally, we are treated to vacuous critical shorthand such as Pearl's `sentimentally Wordsworthian moments', or the `anti-intellectualism' of the Beats. Where did Caldwell get these one-liners? A Christmas cracker? The rest of the review is a critique of the life rather than the work. Caldwell detects a `sense of a poet fuelled by anger' (yes, except when he's fuelled by love, social comment, memory, sorrow, prophecy, politics...) but reckons `it is not apparent that the piling-up of epithets results in greater self-knowledge'. This is jaw-dropping. Caldwell has somehow missed MacSweeney's theatricality, his sense of display: MacSweeney would always enact a dilemma rather than comment on it from a safe distance. As to Caldwell's claim that he can tell when MacSweeney `is more authentic', well, he must have inside information.

Barry MacSweeney (who died in 2000, not 2002) was a poet of extraordinary range. Prolific and adventurous, his ambition and mastery of so many styles, voices and personae make him essential reading. Caldwell comes on like Detective Inspector Commonsense: dull, monotonous, antiintellectual. It is predictable that, when faced with challenging work, he should project his own shortcomings onto it.


Roger Caldwell replies in PNR 157.

This item is taken from PN Review 156, Volume 30 Number 4, March - April 2004.

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