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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Vintage Sea: an introduction to the poetry of Marion McCready (part one)


My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.[1]Samuel Beckett

On Friday 17th June I made a (for me) rare appearance at an event in Glasgow, the release of two new chapbooks by Colin Will’s Calder Wood Press: Songs the Lightning Sang by Geoff Cooper (you can read a review here) and Vintage Sea by Marion McCready. I don’t know Geoff – he seems a decent enough chap who writes engaging and accessible poetry but this was the first time I’d encountered his work. Marion and I, on the other hand, have known each other for years, albeit only through comments on each other’s blogs and the occasional e-mail, and it was for her sake I made the effort.

It was a pleasant enough do. I make no secret that I’m no great fan of poetry readings and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number I’ve been to in the last thirty-five years. I mention this to underline the fact that to call my attendance ‘rare’ is something of an understatement. Marion was frankly surprised to see me quietly slip into the seat nearest the door. Actually gob-smacked would probably be a fairer expression.

We didn’t have much time to chat but neither of us being especially good at, or fond of, small talk we dived straight into why poetry readings are in some ways anti-poetry: we both agreed that the best poetry is something that you can’t possibly ‘get’ – I use the term loosely and will come back to it – in a single reading and yet, at a poetry reading, you’re bombarded with poem after poem. I conceded that I wasn’t opposed to hearing poetry read aloud as long as that wasn’t all there was to it, as long as I wasn’t being expected to figure out the poem for the first time there and then. I’m perfectly happy to listen to recordings of, say, Larkin reading his poetry because I’m already intimately acquainted with the work; I can now sit back and enjoy the sound of the poetry in its own right. And when it came Marion’s turn to read her poems I have to say I enjoyed the sound of her reading. It was interesting too because she read quite differently to how I, for example, would have read the same poems. I tried to explain to my wife how she came across but it’s much easier if you just listen to her yourself. Here’s a wee video of her reading three poems from the event. The sound quality could be better but if you turn the volume up it’s fine.

Marion reads 'Black Tulips', 'Autumn Trees' and 'Brenhilda'

Douglas Dunn, talking about his own poem ‘Loch Music’, a poem that’s not a million miles away from Marion’s poetry in both theme and tone, said this, “There's nothing especially advantageous about being a Scottish poet but it means you can rhyme 'Bach' and 'loch' and 'moors' and 'conifers', so we have one or two advantages.” He’s being a little facetious here but what I take from it, reading between the lines, is that there is such a thing as a Scottish sound. And by that I’m not talking about poetry written in Lallans (think Burns) or Gaelic or even the Glaswegian poetry of the likes of Tom Leonard but poetry that evokes Scotia.

There are many poets out there for whom place is an important factor in their poetry. Hart Crane is a quintessential American poet. The landscape – or in his case, the cityscape – that he found himself in inspired him and the same goes for R.S. Thomas and his connection to the Welsh countryside. I see Marion McCready as that kind of poet. What surprises me, however, once you learn a bit about her, is that that is that kind of poet:

I never studied English Literature beyond first year at uni, the reason being I was unwilling to drop either of my other two subjects: Classical Civilisations, which I loved, and politics.

At that time I was madly into party politics. I was the chairperson of my local branch of the Scottish Socialist Party and spent most weekends demonstrating or raising support for the various causes the Party stood for. Of course, this was all long before the infamous Tommy Sheridan scandal which well and truly binned the Party. Those were the heady days of comradeship, purpose and a sense of power. – Poetry in Progress, 5 November 2008

She left Glasgow University with a Masters in Philosophy and lists philosophy on her blog as her favourite subject of study and yet you would be hard-pressed to find any overtly (or even covertly if it comes to that) political poetry by her, or philosophical insights into the Scottish psyche, come to think of that. So if you’re expecting glimmers of Hugh MacDiarmid in her first collection you’ll be sadly disappointed (not a thistle or a drunk man in sight[2]), or not as the case might be; I was never a great fan of MacDiarmid to be honest.

Her favourite prose writers are Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; her favourite poet, Sylvia Plath and her favourite literary character, Sherlock Holmes and yet it’s hard to see the confessional in her poetry despite the fact that some is clearly autobiographical – even without having read her blog for years that’s obvious – with references to her husband and her second pregnancy jumping out at me. Nor are these puzzle-poems, ‘decoder-ring poems’ as my wife calls them, poems to be solved. And when I learned of her love of Russian literature I was very surprised, let’s put it that way.

PortpatrickandMarion 041I asked Colin why he decided to approach Marion with a view to publishing her poetry. In part he said, “I think Marion has a distinctive poetic 'voice', and her choice of subjects, images and words is clearly her own.” I have to agree. Just like you can pick up a poem by Larkin and know within a few lines that it’s a poem by Larkin, there is definitely a feel to a Marion McCready poem. If, however, I was to pick a single word to encapsulate Marion’s poetry, the one I keep finding myself coming back to is ‘sonorous’. There have been many poets who you could tag as sonorous and it’s not always a compliment, either. Back in 1820 a French critic described no other than Lord Byron’s prosody as “vague sonorous poetry which we term imitative and descriptive, and which resounds in the ears without ever penetrating the soul or the understanding.”[3] So, am I saying that Marion’s poetry sounds good but lacks substance? No; this is why I opened this article with the quote from Beckett. No one would ever suggest that Beckett’s writing wasn’t able to penetrate the soul even if it might be a little hard to understand, but what he is saying that the bedrock of his writing is its sound and that’s also true of Marion’s poetry:

I love language, I love words. I love playing around with images, sounds and language but I also know that that amounts to very little if there isn't a poem in amongst those words, sounds and images, if there isn't that unknown thing that makes itself know to me (at least partially) by the end of the poem, of what the poem is actually about. – Poetry in Progress, 12 January 2010

I never realised how fully involved I am in my poems, I know that sounds like a daft thing to say. I think part of it is my love of sound repetition in poems, be it rhyming, internal rhyming, assonance, alliteration etc. This means I find it relatively easy to memorise a number of or chunks of my own poems – the sounds get stuck in my head and, like an annoying song, parts of my latest poem can clog up my brain for days. – Poetry in Progress, 19 November 2008

I was aware of this long before I heard her read aloud but sitting there not looking for meaning but only permitted access to the sound of her poems the importance of the sound the words make was very clear to me: it was, if you’ll forgive me being twee for a moment, music to my ears. Let me illustrate with a few snippets from her collection starting with this wonderful onomatopoetic line:

Shushing leaves fill the sky with the rush of the sea

(from ‘Brenhilda’)

I’m waiting inside. Inside I’m waiting
to open the door to your hair curling in the breeze.

(from ‘I Carried my Sand-Freckled Face)

Clouds cover, hover,
peter out to blue,
then gather their diaspora.

(from ‘Becoming Spring’)

Plucked from the page only the sounds remain and yet, ironically, sounds are one of the least dominant features of these poems. She describes the blood birds falling from cone to cone and the veined waves tilting towards the shoals but the sounds are all quiet:

…my voice
has thinned to a damp psalm.

(from ‘Becoming Spring’)

The cry of her oilskin tongue,
lost to the wind.

(from ‘The Herring Girl’)

You whisper ‘crossbills’
and a bird rises in my throat.

(from ‘We Met by a Charm of Crossbills’)

Images dominate…

I gather my images, page after page of groups of scenes that I try to find meaningful homes for. The images are the easy part, a walk by the river or in the gardens and the images come but not just nature description, images with real emotional weight. But finding the right narrative home, the story that these images come from is the real struggle. – Poetry in Progress, 24 May 2010

…and many of them related to water: sea-fields, archipelagos, lochs, the North Sea, the Clyde, the Firth, the Fyne, “boats filled with Nessmen”, river-suns, ports, brine, coral, sun-pools, islands, tides, beaches, sand banks, skerries, ferries, ships, piers, waves, shallows, ripples, puddles, foam, eddies, surf…

On days like these I close my eyes
and wade into the sun-bell of your arms,
reaching for your words as they rise,
a flotilla of songs on the horizon.

(from ‘Words’)

Marion was born on the small Isle of Lewis and brought up in Dunoon, Argyll and it’s obvious that long before she had any interest in philosophy or politics the thing that touched her was the landscape around her. Talking about an upcoming trip back to Lewis in 2010 she had this to say:

I spent every summer there as a kid on my gran and seanair's [grandfather’s] croft, I'm looking forward to reliving this part of my childhood and taking my own children there to experience the long white sandy beaches, the machair, the huge Atlantic waves, the sprawling moors. – Poetry in Progress, 3 July 2010

Isle of Lewis

In the poem by Douglas Dunn I mentioned earlier he includes the following couplet:

The intellects of water teach
A truth that’s physical and rich.

I think this is something that Marion could relate to – I’m also reminded of Larkin’s poem ‘Water’ – and Marion herself has said “Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows that water features very prominently in my poems.” I asked her to expand on this:

I live next to the Firth of Clyde. I’ve spent most of my life living beside this body of water and I can’t ever imagine not living either on the coast or next to a substantial body of water. I find water at once soothing and exhilarating. I adore swimming underwater edging out into the deep, feeling the great expanse of it widening around me. Water gives me a great sense of physical and mental freedom, I associate myself strongly with it.

The above might lead you to believe that Marion is predominately a ‘nature poet,’ a term that is in danger of becoming a derisory term these days. Nature is her setting (she says herself, “nature, by and large, is my key inspiration for writing a poem and the clothing I use for writing about other things” (23 September 2008)) – as far as I could see, only the poem ‘The Red Road’ had an urban location – and references to the modern world, things like ultrasounds, circuit boards, even cars are rare, which give most of these pieces a timeless quality if not exactly a placeless one; there is hardly a poem that doesn’t evoke some part of Scotland but this is Scotland-the-country as opposed to Scotland-the-nation. It’s not that the poems are devoid of people but they are types of people rather than individuals, the herring girl, the cockle-picker’s wife, Nessmen, priests, Greenock girls, pier-hands, hes, shes and wes. Many of the poems are in the first person but as I said earlier these don’t feel like confessional poems, reportage more likely; it just so happens that she was there and it could have been anyone telling us about the wrecked sugar ship or waiting for the Greenock ferry.

I have mixed feelings about learning too much about any author (of prose or poetry) before I read their work. I believe – very strongly as it happens – that a work of fiction should be able to stand on its own without any additional information. This is where I’m probably not the ideal reviewer for this pamphlet because I have read many of the poems that appear in this collection when Marion first posted them in draft which she has a habit of doing, leaving them up for a few days and then she deletes the post. The problem is when I read a poem like ‘Brenhilda’ (St Ronan's sister), which was inspired by The Guga Hunters by Donald S. Murray, I can remember our exchange and how I made a flippant remark about Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung – the most famous of the valkyries was Brunhilde – besides knowing nothing about saints, well, what was I to think?

Is a poem a bad poem if you need additional information to appreciate it? I believe it is. Which is why I would have done one of two things with the poem, actually my favourite poem in the collection, ‘The Red Road’ – I would have added a footnote to explain why the poem was written or I would have left it out. Poets have used footnotes before – look at T.S. Eliot’s footnotes to ‘The Waste Land’ or Beckett’s notes to ‘Whoroscope’ – and they have their place. First here’s the poem sans commentary:

The Red Road

The morning scent of spring
colours the sky
above the Red Road

close your eyes.

Swallow this bitter butterfly,
let its wings expand in your throat
(as we tie ourselves together with rope).

Mother, father,
at cloud-height,
the clouds form crosses in the sky.

God will catch us.

The frost-thumbed grass will cry
with our broken bones alone
(the furniture of our souls),

for we are citizens of the sky.

If you don’t know the story you might assume that ‘Red Road’ is being used as a metaphor (especially since there’s an earlier poem entitled ‘Bramble Street’) – red indicative of blood perhaps? – but although that would work the simple fact is that Red Road is a real place, the location of the infamous Red Road flats home to a great many of Glasgow’s asylum seekers. On 7 March 2010 the following report appeared in The Guardian:

Police are investigating a suspected suicide pact after three people apparently threw themselves from a high-rise block of flats in Glasgow.

The identities of the two men and a woman were still unconfirmed last night, but unofficial reports said that they were Kosovan nationals whose applications to stay in the UK had been rejected.

The bodies were found yesterday morning at the foot of a tower on the Red Road complex in the Springburn area of north-east Glasgow. Several witness reports, later categorically denied by Strathclyde police, said at least two of the three were tied together when they fell.

The flats, many of which are unoccupied, were among the highest in Europe when they were built in the 1960s.[4]

The lack of context, for me at least, completely changes the poem; it diminishes it. I cannot read it now and interpret it any other way. I asked Marion why leave the poem to stand on its own merits:

I considered adding a footnote but ultimately decided against it. Adding a footnote would reduce the impact of the poem to a particular event, time and place allowing the poem to become too easily dated. Pound famously said: “poetry [actually he said ‘literature’] is news that stays news”[5], I didn’t want the poem to become old news. Although it is based on a specific incident, I believe a good poem should be able to rise above the specifics and have a more universal and long-term impact.

It’s a fair point, one which the Scottish poet Archibald MacLeish echoed when he wrote:

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

(from ‘Ars Poetica’)

With this singular exception most of the references to real things and places, although unfamiliar to most people, e.g. The Captayannis in poem of the same name can be looked up easily. In this case Wikipedia tells us:

The Captayannis was a Greek sugar-carrying vessel that sank in the River Clyde, Scotland in 1974.

Even ‘drookit’, one of the few Scotticisms that finds its way into the book, is not hard to find c/o Literal Barrage:

(droo·kit) Dialect, chiefly Scot ~adj.
1. drenched, soaked through. (used in “Ah fell in the burn an’ got drookit”)

Yes, this is a book of Scottish poetry, but if you have that shortbread-tin perception of Scotland you’ll be disappointed. The poems here are primal, even a poem like ‘Ultrasound’ feels very un-twenty-first century:


Mists drag
their foamy nets
across the lochside hills.

In the darkness you shine
like a silver fish.
Flesh leaping: arms, feet, head;

a heartbeat, unseen,
The black screen of my womb,

a brackish bed
of reef, kelp, coral.
Skin webbed to translucent skin,

child of my monochrome dream.
The road here ends in evergreen
where the wind chudders

over the Fyne,
and waters rise and fall
on pebble shores.

I think this a good example of what Marion was talking about when she refers to nature as something she clothes her subjects in.

I’m always interested to hear how other poets structure their poetry. When is it a poem and when is it chopped-up prose and is it just a poem because someone says it is? This is why I was pleased to learn that real effort goes into these poems:

I think I think too much about the process, I'm too self-conscious, too aware when I start writing. I've got this mad idea in my head that I want every poem I write to count, to be really meaningful to me, to tell me something. And because of this I struggle to write a poem just for the fun of it. It's counter-productive, this self-imposed pressure is immensely unconducive to writing. – Poetry in Progress, 24 May 2010

I mainly break my lines according to natural pauses when I read it aloud and what I particularly want to emphasize. For a long time (so it seemed to me) I was stuck writing in three-line verses, I found it hard to shake that off. Now I've found a freedom in not keeping to the same number of lines in every stanza but this introduces the problem of when to have a stanza break and how does it look on the page if, for instance, I have a three-liner followed by a two-liner followed by a one-liner! – Poetry in Progress, 4 March 2010

It's a rejection letter that Marion received from Chapman, Scotland's quality literary magazine, the editor, Joy Hendry, said to her that her poems had reached the 'final selection' but hadn’t made the final cut. That in itself is something of an achievement but what is noteworthy is that, rather than your bog-standard rejection slip, she got a personal response which she wrote about in her blog (10 September 2008):

The letter says: "I very much like these poems, and enjoyed reading them. You have real poetic talent. There's a lovely sense of the music of words, of rhythm and a sense of form and focus. Descriptively, these are first rate".

Now, I’m reading in between the lines here, but I’m wondering if what Joy found missing was content. Marion continues:

So what's the problem? The letter goes on to say "I'm looking for that extra 'something', a 'third dimension' of meaning, reference and relevance, which is largely missing here".

There are lots of different kinds of poetry. Marion and I write very different kinds of poetry and both are equally valid. My poetry could only be regarded as better than hers if you’re looking for straight-talking, predominately literal writing where meaning dominates, not that feeling is ignored but it definitely is subservient. This is what Marion says about poetry:

I don't feel the need to comprehend a poem to enjoy it, was it Pound [actually it was Robert Lowell[6]] that said a poem should be an event in itself not just the recording of an event. I look for a poem I can experience rather than read and empathise. I loved Plath's poetry long before I knew anything about her life or understood what a good number of her poems were about, for me they were an experience of words on the level of the senses. – Poetry in Progress, 11 July 2008

Marion’s poems are things to be experienced. Her readings are events in themselves. In sounding out her poems by way of durational, intonational, pitch, stress and loudness variation she ramifies the text. To ramify means “To extend; to spread (in various directions); to grow in complexity of range.” (OED) When I listened to her read without the text in front of me I was forced to confront her poems anew – quite literally these were different poems to the ones I thought I knew – and I got to experience the poem rather than read or simply hear the poem read. Did I get the poems? I don’t know. I certainly got something from her reading and I think part of what I got was an appreciation – if not necessarily a comprehension – of what she is on about above.

This seems like a good point to bring in the lady herself but you’ll have to wait for that. In the next part of this introduction to Marion McCready’s poetry a few questions about poetry: writing it, reading it, reciting it and getting it.

In the meantime let me provide links to a number of poems still available online:


[1] Samuel Beckett in a letter to Alan Schneider quoted Disjecta: miscellaneous writings and a dramatic fragment, p.109

[2] For those unfamiliar with MacDiarmid’s poetry I’m referencing his most famous poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’

[3] The London literary gazette and journal of belles lettres, arts, sciences, etc for the year 1820, p.297

[4] Severin Carrell and Aidan Jones, ‘Three dead in suspected suicide leap from flats in Glasgow’, The Guardian, 7 March 2010 (edited 8 March 2010)

[5] Ezra Pound, The ABC of Reading, p.29 and the actual quote is: "Literature is news that STAYS news" although innumerable textbooks misquote him and fail to reference the quote anyway.

[6] The phrase was delivered in one of Lowell's lectures, and is quoted in Robert Lowell, interviews and memoirs, by Robert Lowell, Jeffrey Meyers, p.291


Marion McCready said...

Thankyou so much for this, Jim. I'm over the moon to have such a detailed and insightful review of my pamphlet!

swiss said...

nice work jim, enjoyed reading that and sorry to have missed you at the reading

Danish dog said...

Well done, Jim! I too think Marion is a tremendously gifted poet. To call someone a nature poet or a religious poet is often demeaning, but for me poetry can aspire no higher.

Elisabeth said...

I enjoyed this post enormously, jim. I enjoyed watching and hearing Marion read her poetry on that too-soft video clip and I particularly enjoy your thoughts on poetry, especially the sort of poetry that Marion writes, with its emphasis on tonal qualities and sound, almost above meaning, though to me there is much meaning there too.

I shall check out Marion's blog now. She seems such a thoroughly decent person and a poet to boot. Thanks for the introduction, Jim .

Jim Murdoch said...

You’re very welcome, Marion. It was a bit of work trawling through all your old posts looking for quotes but worthwhile I think.

Glad you liked it, Swiss. Sorry I missed you too.

You’re right, Danish dog, and this is something I quiz Marion about in the second part of this article.

And, Lis, yes, that just about nails Marion, in fact I think she ought to consider that for her epitaph: “Here lies Marion McCready, a thoroughly decent person and a poet to boot.” I like the sound of that.

sunnydunny said...

Many thanks for this measured and thoughtful review.

Marion McCready said...

Thankyou Duncan, that's very kind of you to say.

Elizabeth, Jim, thankyou for writing my epitaph, lol :))

Rachel Fox said...

Jim Murdoch in public... why Marion your poems are miracle-workers indeed!

Jim Murdoch said...

Colin, thanks for that. I have to say I was a bit worried when I decided t take this on – Marion and I have such different styles – but it turned out okay.

And, Rachel, what can I say? I doubt I’ll be making a habit of it. I’m tucked up in my ivory tower right now and perfectly content.

Dave King said...

I am a great fan of Douglas Dunn - and not a few other Scottish poets, if it comes to that - but I have to take issue with him on the advantages of having the two languages. Seamus Heaney has written and spoken about the advantages of the larger word pool. It isn't just a matter of more rhymes. There are infinitely more possibilities of nuance, of overtones of meaning that come from the derivation of words, for example, of rhythm, and much more.

I have always understood that Eliot's notes on The Waste Land were intended just to pad out a slim volume. I have never found them of much use, and in any case, his intention was to produce difficulty, not clarity.

More importantly, I found the snippets you quoted of Marion 's work quite delightful. They were/are enough to convince me that I must have the book.

One last thing: I, like you, have not been much of a poetry reading goer. I've been to a few local ones organized by the local bookshop in connection with competitions. They would have the poems posted on the walls, so that there was some opportunity to read them and - to an extent - familiarize yourself with them before the evening began. I still wasn't converted.

Jim Murdoch said...

As I said in the article, Dave, I suspect Dunn has his tongue firmly in his cheek here, at least that’s my reading of it. I agree that Eliot’s notes on ‘The Waste Land’ are unhelpful – Beckett’s on ‘Whoroscope’ are better – but really the only point I was making is that it is okay to add notes to a poem. I understand Marion’s decision but had the collection been mine I would have included a note. There’s no right answer. As for poetry readings, I do like the idea of being able to read the poems myself beforehand like that but I would prefer if we got a wee pamphlet to read along with the poet and take away afterwards. If we did that would we buy the books on offer? Perhaps not. I have to say I only bought Marion’s collection. As I said I’ve nothing against Geoff but I specifically went to support Marion.

Marion McCready said...

Thanks Dave, I appreciate that!

Jim, it was quite a novelty to read to an audience where some had their heads bowed following my poems in the pamphlet!

Jim Murdoch said...

Unaware of what the correct protocol at such events even though I had a copy of the poems in my hand by then I decided to sit up straight and pay attention. As for Geoff, not having a copy of his poems to refer to, I'm afraid I can remember absolutely nothing about his reading. Which is a shame; poetry was never intended to be so ephemeral.

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