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This review is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.RETURNING TO MACDIARMID
Two little magazines are particularly associated with contemporary interest in Hugh MacDiarmid's poetry: William Cookson's Agenda and Duncan Glen's Akros. There was a double issue of Agenda on MacDiarmid in 1967/8, and now Duncan Glen has followed up his earlier double issue of Akros (April 1970) with the present one. In fact, Duncan Glen-poet, critic and editor-has contributed greatly to the revaluation of MacDiarmid which has been going on during the last ten years or more. This issue of his magazine is, as usual, well produced-including pencil portraits of MacDiarmid and drawings by John Hodkinson as well as a handful of early uncollected Scots lyrics by MacDiarmid, a recent bibliography and a range of critical essays.
The first three essays concentrate on MacDiarmid's use of Scots during the 1920s. J. K. Annand's piece on MacDiarmid's Scots vocabulary doesn't add a great deal to earlier discussions, but he does thrust-justifiably, I think-at 'the productions of the phoney "Lallans School" of the forties and fifties' and the essay contains a passage from one of Grieve/MacDiarmid's letters to Annand in 1926 which gives the clearest statement I know of MacDiarmid's early purposes with the revived language. Kenneth Buthlay's essay, 'Shibboleths of the Scots', is a more detailed and more specialist discussion of MacDiarmid's Scots, emphasizing the sound-values of the language. Buthlay argues that there are characteristic sounds in Scots, lost to English, which are consciously exploited by MacDiarmid not simply for comic and satirical effects but as an essential part of the enactment of his meaning. He suggests that 'the voiceless velar fricative' in particular (the ch, as in 'braw bricht moonlicht nicht') is 'the shibboleth of the Scots'; and he goes on to argue that the different sounds of the Scots words, as compared with English, indicate a different scale or structure of feeling and also, ultimately, a different moral and social perception.
Stephen Mulrine writes on MacDiarmid's prosody and argues that 'A Drunk Man presents an audible unity, a metrical vehicle whose constant is the iambic foot, underpinning every larger structure the poem offers'. Mutrine shows that the variations of stanzaic and metrical scheme, in conjunction with the basically uniform metrical foot, contribute to the effect of the poem as a whole, carrying the shifts and conflicts of mood, tone and subject matter. He concludes that the poem 'is no more a "gallimaufry" metrically, than it is in terms of its subject matter, or of its vision'. The argument is intricate and as convincing a demonstration as I have seen of the poem's subtlety of organization.
The next three essays are mainly on the poetry written in the 1930s; though there is nothing, surprisingly, on MacDiarmid's political verse. John Herdman writes well on To Circumjack Cencrastus and insists properly on its importance. Yet the poem still needs a more positive discussion in its own right, rather than being considered as a transitional work. Nonetheless he makes an important point in saying that, in Cencrastus, 'discursive abstraction failed him' and that, after it, MacDiarmid was led to explore 'the poetry of fact'.
John Manson's discussion of the symbolism of water in MacDiarmid's later poetry is interesting but sketchy. George Bruce's essay, in Festschrift (1962), which also examines the links between theme and symbolism, is more substantial. There is some flimsiness too about Ruth McQuillan's piece on 'On a Raised Beach'. McQuillan brings to light an earlier version of the poem (which, as she suggests, should obviously be printed somewhere even though-judging by what is quoted of it-it is considerably inferior to the final version: a less austere and intractable vision); and she usefully extends our understanding of MacDiarmid's debt to the late nineteenth century Russian religious thinkers-Vladimir Soloviev particularly. But I'd like to have seen her dealing more with the poem itself; as a more detailed comparison of the two versions of it, for example, might have enabled her to do.
Finally, Philip Pacey writes a critically (though not always grammatically) uncluttered account of the ideas and preoccupations of In Memoriam James Joyce, and although I find excessive his claim that 'the whole poem is . . . an embodiment of Teilhard's cosmic love, embracing infinity', his comments on the poem's materials and organization are sensible and perceptive. Pacey has also written an Akros pamphlet (65p) on Hugh MacDiarmid and David Jones.
None of these essays takes us radically much further into the later poetry than the fine early pieces by David Daiches, Burns Singer, Edwin Morgan and Roderick Watson, but they are evidence of the widening interest in this aspect of MacDiarmid's work and provide some important incidental insights into its shape and substance.
This review is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.