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This review is taken from PN Review 69, Volume 16 Number 1, September - October 1989.

METICULOUS CHRONOLOGY Alan Bold, MacDiarmid [Christopher Murray Grieve]: A Critical Biography (John Murray) £17.95

Readers of modern poetry curious to know where Hugh MacDiarmid was on a June evening in 1930 (at a Mayoral banquet in Liverpool, in full evening dress complete with miniature medals) or what he published on December 15 1921 (a letter to the Aberdeen Free Press calling for a revival of 'spiritual values') will find such things, meticulously arranged in chronological sequence, in this, the first biography of the great poet who died ten years ago. Alan Bold is strongest on facts, so much so that psychological insight, or the flavour and significance of experiences, are overwhelmed and lost in a mass of particulars. It is a rare sense of having MacDiarmid revealed to us in a bright light that we get from this sentence contributed by the son of a Shetland fisherman, Johnnie Laurie, who was with MacDiarmid on board the drifter Valkyrie early in the summer of 1933: "He was the only man I knew who never slept - that was a week at sea - he just lay in a bunk, leant against a beam six inches above his head, and wrote." It's a key moment. Taken together with other instances and matched with the poems (in this case the 'Shetland Lyrics'), it concentrates crucial facets of MacDiarmid's behaviour - the almost desperately incessant writing, the appetite for data to feed it, and the power of symbolizing a broad (often historical or evolutionary) meaning in the immediate image, as in these verses from 'With the Herring ...


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