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This item is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.

Re-reading the work of Hugh MacDiarmid for a lecture I was invited to give in Shetland, where - in Whalsay - he spent a difficult decade, I remembered how I encountered him first. That most English of poets C.H. Sisson was catalyst. He wrote in his independent-minded English Poetry 1900-1950 (1971). ‘There is nothing […] that MacDiarmid cannot put into verse, muscled if not vivid and certainly alive. In a sense such verse represents the longest distance travelled, in the period covered by this history, from the romanticism of the last century, for it is verse used once again as a common medium of expression, fit for any matter.’

Later, Edwin Morgan talked about the poet’s aspirations to escape the constraints of the easel, as it were, to work on a huge mural. Morgan said: ‘It has something to do with a man who is looking at everything and trying to find a way of talking about everything. It’s important because he’s looking back to the old, the very ancient and respectable idea of poetry as not just feeling but knowledge…’ He sees MacDiarmid as ‘a man casting his eye over the available knowledge of his time, and seeing what he can make of it in poetry’. No mention here in Sisson or Morgan of Lallans, or politics: they are considering the mainsprings of his work.

Sisson, on the last page of his huge book of essays The Avoidance of Literature (1978), again turns to MacDiarmid as an exemplary figure at a time of emerging nationalisms and national identities.

The English are, at present, mercifully free from the duty which appears to weigh upon Scottish, Irish and Welsh writers of talking as if they were themselves. Deliberate literary nationalisms - deliberate nationalisms of any kind - are a diversion and restriction of energy. Hugh MacDiarmid is an example of something different. Not only has his mind been open to an uncommon variety of influences, from a variety of quarters, but having made a success of a curious version of his local speech, he abandoned it altogether for the English required by his wider later subject-matter. And so it will be with any serious writer.

He has in mind writers whose poems are stored with knowledge and information, not sentiment and rancour; for whom language is a continuous fascination, and who do not continually foreground the self at the expense of the subject. He adds, to MacDiarmid’s credit (a credit he is seldom given in his native country): ‘The openness to foreign influences, so far from causing the drying up of the genuine native spring, helps it to flow. Moreover, a culture defines itself by contacts with other cultures, just as it is by moving about the world that a man begins to have some inkling as to what sort of a man he is.’

The reputation of Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘father of the Scottish Renaissance’, one of the great poets of the twentieth century, is on the skids among poets in Scotland, even as, elsewhere in the Anglophone world, his readership appears to grow. In his centenary year Edwin Morgan drove a stampede of Trojan horses within the gates.

I’ve always been interested in the later poetry and I’ve tended to defend it. Although we don’t know yet just where it will stand, I think there is an argument for it in that it represents a kind of large-scale poetry, that for all the use of other people’s work, all the collage effects, all the plagiarism - it’s a very strange process, but despite all that, something comes through which is simply MacDiarmid’s voice…

Here is some of the damage: ‘tended to defend’ (not ‘defended’), ‘although we don’t know yet where it will stand’, ‘other people’s work’, ‘plagiarism’… He entertained the possibility that the poet had passed his sell-by date. He uses the killer ‘e’ word twice: ‘He’s maybe become a part of an establishment that the youngest writers may feel to be somewhat remote. He probably doesn’t have quite […] the electrifying effect he had for those who read him when he was still writing. I think that probably has gone, and maybe in that sense he is an establishment…’ Morgan is numbered among MacDiarmid’s chief advocates, a disciple.

MacDiarmid is at a tipping point in Scotland for many reasons. There are changes in the ideological climate; the triumph of an attenuated, non-revolutionary nationalism alters the resonance of his political and polemical writing. His awkward personality obtrudes between poems and readers. Detours into fascism, Stalinism and much else, are not endearing. He’s toxic. But he is tonic, too, and it is that tonic that would benefit a modern Scottish literary culture.

The tonic has to do with his attitude to language and nation. No poet was ever more enchanted by language, but he was not interested in a language wedded to place. His writing in Scots - what David Daiches calls, not unkindly, Dictionary Scots (and he wrote Dictionary English, too, even in the great poems, to similar ends and producing similar effects and objections) did not attempt to tie language to locality, to raise up a regional variation into dominant registers in a Bakhtinian spirit of subversion and exchange, but to create an idiom that Scots, whatever their accent, might access, the elements drawn from different areas and periods.

Local language did not, he felt, flow into the larger world; rather, like a sea pool, it cupped its flora and fauna beyond the thundering tide of history. Language of locality held little magic. He was (for a time) after a Scottish language expressive and unifying for Scots, as English was for the English.

Some of his objection to Burns was to a language too closely wedded to a particular place, a rural order steeped in nostalgia - if not by the poet, by his advocates - which, while rebellious and radical at times, could never be taken as revolutionary. What would he have made of those writers who privilege the dialect of a local tribe, its accents and expletives, over a more common English? Theirs he would recognised as puny resistances, local rebellions, barricades of cobbles, in the end working against the large revolution required to repossess and remake a common language fit for a nation’s use.

This item is taken from PN Review 190, Volume 36 Number 2, November - December 2009.

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