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Monday, 5 January 2009

Best Scottish poems 2008



About this time last year I did a wee post highlighting the best Scottish poems of 2007, that is, the poems that Poetry Online has deemed the best poems. I thought I would do the same this year.

This year, in their introduction, the editors make this observation about Scottish bookshops:

Enter a high street bookshop on a quest for contemporary poetry and you're likely emerge disappointed. Apart from a few staples, there is little to tickle one's fancy. Not that the situation's much better for poetry from earlier generations. Recently we wanted to find a good collection of Robert Frost's poems. No bookshop we browsed in had anything of note.

It's not a new situation although I do see it getting worse. I remember in my teens being able to walk into The Third Eye Centre on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow and there were loads of magazines and chapbooks from all across the UK but that place has since been turned into an art gallery with the tiniest of bookshops inside and precious little poetry.

The mainstream bookshops have always veered away from anything but the most populist of material, e.g. The Nation's Favourite Love Poems and other suchlike titles. I couldn't tell you the last time I set out to buy a book of poetry in the real world although it's fun to see what turns up in second-hand book stores.

Anyway, much to their delight the editors, Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor, were presented with a trolley-full of books from which to make their selections, a whole 60 books and periodicals. Their hopes raised they were soon dashed as they found themselves wading "through the poetic equivalent of slurry" but they kept on and a number of gems floated to the surface. (I have no idea if gems would float in slurry – work with me folks). Twenty poems were selected and can be found on the Scottish Poetry Library website; you can read the full introduction here.

A lot of the poems are by the kind of people one might expect to see on a list like this, Tom Pow, Tom Leonard and Carol Ann Duffy, but the real delight for me was to see the name Claire Askew. As you might remember I interviewed Claire a few months back as a way of promoting her new venture One Night Stanzas. Her poem is 'I am the moon, and you are the man on me'. As in previous years the poets get to leave a comment about their work and the editors also comment on it. It's a delightful poem, typical of what I've read of Claire's work. (BTW anyone objecting to my floating gems analogy earlier will probably have stuff to say about the "pseudo-science" in Claire's poems too.)

Apart from Claire's the other poem that struck me was 'To All Intents and Purposes' by Frances Leviston, another youngster. The poem begins:


I have struggled all my life to never
write about the pepper mill

its corset shape
of common wood
and secret machinery goings-on
of grinding, grinding kernels down to drift
like ash from a chimney


It's a well-contracted piece, a good character study and also a memoire; quite poignant. This is part of what she says about writing the piece:

To All Intents and Purposes' begins in the contemplation of an ordinary object - a small wooden pepper mill - and opens outwards from that single point of attention into the larger images and memories that the object invokes. Because of the mill's shape, and its function as a tiny processor of raw product, I found myself writing about domesticity, about the constricted lives of women, and about a heavy industrial past in which, it seemed, the individual life, especially the life of a factory worker, was not much more than an overhead.

I decided to look her up, as I do, and I was pleased with what I found. Like Claire she is a poet who believes in passing on what she's learned. In an interview on the Channel 4 website of all places she was asked: What do you think the commercial future of poetry is?

FL: Poetry isn't about commerce. People who are trying to make poetry more commercial are trying to make it into something else altogether. The problem is that commerce bends everything into its own shape. But poetry won't bend. That's part of its identity. As soon as it bends, it becomes something else.

But if you ask me about the commercial future of activities that are related to poetry, that's a different matter.

I think things are getting better. There are more literature festivals now than there have ever been, which means more readings for poets. And there seems to be an increasing amount of teaching work, residency work, and commissioned work.

That kind of commercial value is in selling your knowledge, not your poems. It's consultancy.

Consultancy. I like that word. If we have more people like Claire and Frances who are willing to teach and they connect with young poets who have passed the know-it-all stage then I really can see things getting a lot brighter for poetry in the years to come.

Anyway that was what I took away from this year's list. Of course you'll probably have you own favourites but I would encourage you to have a read of what's on offer.


Dave King said...

What you say about potry and book shops rings all too sadly true. Small ones are being gobbled up by big ones , who in turn get gobbled up by even larger ones. And each time it happens the poetry shelf gets smaller. On my last visit to our local bookshop I could not find it at all - but perhaps that was just for Christmas! I also agree with you about the pepper mill poem - and about your final point: the possibility of consultancy work. That seems a hopeful way forward.

Jim Murdoch said...

It seemed like a positive post to start off the new year, Dave. I do have to say I'd love to know what the 60 books/periodicals the judges were presented with to choose from. I wonder too if any websites were looked at since it's regarded as being published. Methinks not.

Art Durkee said...

I applaud Frances' attitude, and her clear distinctions around commerce/poetry. There is a huge debate going on right now around American poetry, the MFA degree, and so forth, and it's very confused on exactly those points that Frances states so clearly. (Lots of folks asserting economic viewpoints by pretending they're aesthetic ones, for example.)

Consultancy is a great concept, and a great way to think about it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim --

Thanks so much for the mention and for this lovely post. You can imagine how shocked and pleased I was to be even considered!

I think you're right -- websites are not taken into account as far as I know. I think all but two or three of the poems in the selection came from collections. Mine and a couple of others were from print journals. It's a shame, but I suppose that the wealth of Scottish poetry out there on the web would make for a much bigger longlist to choose from! It's probably just a matter of logistics.

Thanks so much again!

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

Thanks for highlighting these, Jim. I'm aiming to read more poetry this year, so it's nice to have some pointers! I'm familiar with Claire of course from the interview you did with her (plus I'm now subscribed to One Night Stanzas), and your recommendations always seem to be worth following.

And I know what you mean about buying poetry in bookshops (and amused by the search for the Robert Frost book - my Mum rang me a few months back to ask if I had her collection of Frost poems (I didn't, but she found them eventually)). Luckily, the second-hand bookshops near where I work seem to have piles of poetry... although of course that's not much good for trying to find new stuff. :(

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Art, that word does jump out at one doesn't it?

Catherine, I'm also blessed that I'm only a bus ride away from the west end of Glasgow and there are a few really good bookshops there that I've been visiting for years.

And, Claire, you're very welcome. I was delighted to see you on the list. It is an interesting point about how the judges make their selection. Surely this will need to change. What's more interesting is reading in between the lines. Most of these print journals I'm sure will be the top end magazines and yet they still talked about having to wade through "through the poetic equivalent of slurry" – that's a very telling phrase. What are these mags putting out?

Anonymous said...

Like Dave says. Although locally we're lucky in David's Bookshop in Letchworth, an independent that carries a substantial and constantly renewed selection. Interestingly, WA, the owner and manager, professes little interest in poetry himself, but maintains stock from an acute awareness of the general dearth. Which I think is rather noble!

Jack Payne said...

Too close for comfort. Glad to escape.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally, Dick. It's the one thing I really don't like buying online. I'll pretty much read any book I order but I'm fussy when it comes to poetry and it is surprising how many people don't provide a decent sample online to help you decide. I expected the Web to be the perfect environment for pushing poetry.

And, Jack, not quite sure what you're escaping from but glad to see a new name making a comment. Maybe you could clarify.

Ken Armstrong said...

Claire's poem is great isn't it? Who cares about physics and stuff, it's funny and sexy and it's got spacemen in it. :)

Jim Murdoch said...

You're right, Ken, there are not enough poems in this world with spacemen in them.

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