Women and Poetry 1972-1999: The Contemporary Scene
Author(s): Margery Palmer McCulloch
Copyright holder(s): Margery Palmer McCulloch
Twentieth-century Scotland has not lacked women poets, with Scots-language writing in particular being richly represented by writers from the north-east such as Marion Angus and Violet Jacob in the interwar period and Flora Garry later in the century. It is, however, only since the publication of Liz Lochhead’s “Memo for Spring” in 1972 that one has been able to talk of anything approaching a female tradition in Scottish poetry, or of the dominant male tradition being intercepted and transformed by the new perspectives and formal approaches of women writers.
Lochhead has said of her early poetry: ‘My country was woman’ (1), and “Memo for Spring” is a collection distinguished by its focus on female experience. It is also a collection which predated the feminist theorising of the late 1970s and 1980s, being her creative equivalent of the later academic interrogation of women’s roles in society and the arts. Throughout Lochhead’s work one is aware of the strength of the speaking voice, the interaction of orality and literary device. Many critics of the early 1970s, however, did not seem sure what to make of it and she was often described as an autobiographical poet. Yet while Lochhead might be seen as the ‘poetic mother’ of the girls who speak in her early poetry, in that, as in all art, her own experience feeds into her writing, this writing is that of the professional poet, not the autobiographer: ‘To tell the stories was her work’ [my italics] (DFCP 70). She herself has said: ‘I think my drive is towards storytelling, recording voices, exploring ambivalences . . . what attracts me is the shifting point, the caught voice, anything which momentarily illumines the ways of the heart, the life of the soul.’ (2)
“Memo for Spring” is a youthful collection, but already it shows hallmarks of Lochhead’s individual style: the presence of a narrative, even while a poem is not conventionally a narrative poem; the capacity to create characters and voices, to construct a dramatic scene within a poem - all qualities which led eventually to her performance pieces and then to her translations/adaptations and original drama for the theatre. There is vitality of language and rhythm in this early poetry, an ironic transformation of clichés, often humorously self-reflexive in relation to the female speaker; a use of silence, as in music, to create tension or anticipation or ambivalence, drawing the reader or listener in as participant. And despite its focus on women and love, there is always sharp observation of social and geographical milieu. Lochhead’s later discovery that she could be interested in both gender and issues relating to her country is implicit in her poetry from the start.
Lochhead’s third collection “The Grimm Sisters” (1981) was written after a period spent in Canada on a Scottish Arts Council Exchange Fellowship and in awareness of the feminist debates taking place in North America and Britain. She had also by this time discovered the feminist poetry of Adrienne Rich. “The Grimm Sisters” is therefore itself more consciously feminist and operates through the refashioning of fairy tales, myths and ballads with women at their centre, so that these tales can then be used to interrogate accepted social commonplaces with regard to female experience in the modern world, a process continued in “Dreaming Frankenstein” (1984). Her poem ‘Mirror’s Song’ offers an interesting contrast with Silvia Plath’s earlier use of that enduring female symbol. For Plath, ‘mirrors . . . are terrible rooms/In which a torture goes on one can only watch’, and her poem ‘Mirror’ moves from the unemotional precision of the Mirror’s insistence on its ‘truthful[ness]’ to the terrror of the woman viewer who finds: ‘In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman/Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish’. (3) Lochhead’s mirror, in contrast, is iconoclastic, inciting her female viewer in aggressive language and rhythms to ‘Smash me’ and so allow her ‘best black self [to] whirl out like Kali’, goddess of destruction and creation. For the understanding here is that in order to give birth to a new, truer self the woman must be prepared to break with the past, destroy what she has been conditioned to consider ‘womanly’. An ironic and humorous literary subtext comes from an awareness that for the non-female reader the contents of the ‘alligator mantrap [and woman-confining] handbags’ (DFCP 67) probably require just as much glossing as did the classical myths and allusions which inhibited an earlier generation of aspiring but uneducated women from entering the male domain of high art poetry.
‘What the Pool Said, on Midsummer’s Day’ progresses this feminist agenda from female self-recreation to the reconstruction of the male ‘other’: ‘The woman was easy,/Like to like, I called her, she came. . . . But it’s you I want, and you know it, man.’ This rich poem plays with sexual and intertextual references, placing these literary qualities in interaction with the overall predominance of the speaking voice. At its most basic, the operating metaphor of the poem is our common fear of entering water - especially water in a cold, deep Scottish loch! But this is a pool especially dangerous for the male swimmer as its oblique references to the myths of classical sirens and folk tradition “Lorelei” suggest. The poem offers a reversal of the conventional male seduction scene. The female pool lies knowingly, ‘inviting, winking you in’ while warning ‘my wet weeds against your thigh, it/could turn nasty. I could have you/gulping fistfuls fighting yourself/back from me.’ Yet the pool does not offer danger only. Water is traditionally a symbol of rebirth, and although the male protagonist may wish for a return to a safer, more familiar seductive female image: ‘you/ wish I’d flash and dazzle again. . . . You want I should zip myself up/with the kingfisher’s flightpath, be beautiful?’ - what is being offered here, if he has the courage to enter into it, is a new partnership which will be more truly fulfilling for both participants than the old male sexual dominance: ‘I say just trust,/I’ll soak through your skin and/slake your thirst’ (DFCP 8-9). This is an erotic and ironic counter-seduction poem, energetically communicated through image, sound and rhythm, but it goes beyond the sexual to a deeper discovery of self for both men and women. As its author has said:
“I don’t like the splitting apart of the male and female that we have. What I would ideally like to do is give the male halves of themselves back to women, and the female halves of themselves back to men. We are divided within ourselves and the real task is the completion of selves.” (4)
In her later work, Lochhead has increasingly moved towards performance and theatre drama and has extended her exploration of female identity to the historical and present-day identity of her country. Through these moves she has also extended her language register to the use of Scots, with particular success in her adaptation of Molière’s “Tartuffe” (1985) and in “Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off” (1987). As with MacDiarmid in the interwar period, Liz Lochhead has been and continues to be a major innovative player in contemporary Scottish poetry as a whole.
Lochhead was not the only woman beginning to publish poetry in the early 1970s, but she was the only one to break with past traditions in such an overt, sustained and artistically satisfying way. Other writers of the time such as Tessa Ransford, Valerie Gillies and Janet Caird were more in the nature of transitional writers so far as any female agenda is concerned. All university educated, they chose to use existing poetic models, modifying them where necessary for their own purposes. Janet Caird, who died in 1992, began to write poetry only in her sixties, and her work is particularly interesting for the way in which education and literary influences from the modernist period interact with female experience in our own time to produce a distinctive, economic poetry which has the intensity and concentration of Pound’s imagism yet encourages the reader to make the leap beyond the concrete visual image to the ‘message’ within. Caird’s late entry into poetry also allowed her to explore the experience of growing old, a less popular poetic subject than falling in love. In ‘Ageing’, the metaphor is that of the cat ‘laying a lethargic paw over fingers, / brushing fur across eyes’ but whose ‘claws dig deep / and the bite is mortal’ (NP, 9). ‘Time’s meanest jest’ is ‘to leave the will but lock away the tools / for making’ (JD, 17). In ‘John Donne, You Were Wrong . . .’, her perception is that essentially ‘we are all islands’, our human relationships ‘lighthouses, beacons, [which] criss-cross the dark . . . small skiffs beached on the shingle [which] must soon drift on/under the tyranny of the tide’ (JD, 50).
In Scotland, however, the question of which tradition to draw on or draw away from goes beyond gender to choice of language itself: Scottish-English, Scots or Gaelic. For the contemporary Sheena Blackhall and Ellie McDonald, as for the earlier Marion Angus and Flora Garry, tradition means the Scots-language poetry tradition of the north-east, while for Catriona Montgomery it is Gaelic. All three poets are language loyalists and all three, like Lochhead, began to publish in the 1970s. Blackhall and McDonald are both aware that they come from a heritage in which women have for centuries played a public role in the transmission of poetry, although they are appreciative of the revitalisation of Scots brought about by the work of male writers such as MacDiarmid in the earlier part of the century. Blackhall’s interest is in catching an image in her poetry through the ‘colour’ of words, their rhythms and onomatopoeic sounds, rather than in attempting to communicate ideas. We can see this in the many ‘praise poems’ she has written for different areas of the north-east countryside, as in ‘Allt Darrarie - Burn of the Stunning Noise, Glen Muick’ which brings MacDiarmid’s ‘Water Music’ to mind:
Slaverin, slubberin, gibberin, gabberin,
Roon wi a wallop, a sklyter, a sweel,
Yonder’s the burn - in its bairnhood, it’s blabberin -
Heich-lowpin puddock, wi virr in its heel!
Other poems such as ‘Pastoral’ and ‘Land Hunger’ recreate in poetry the struggle with the land given narrative form in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song”: ‘Oh lan - ye hae bled the reid frae his cheeks, / Ye’ve rypit his pooches o siller, / Ye’ve bladded his bride . . .’ (S, 15, 6).
Ellie McDonald was first encouraged to write in Scots by the poet Anne Stevenson during creative writing classes at Dundee University and is well aware that she is writing in a threatened language: ‘the more I can write, the more I can communicate this language to other people. I’m not just doing it for poetry, but doing something for my own language’. (5) MacDiarmid is one of her heroes and a presence in her poetry, which, like his own, seems able to move unforcedly between the everyday and the cosmic. Yet at the same time, her poems have a distinctively modern identity. There is no nostalgia about the disappearance of Dundee’s industrial heritage in ‘Jute Mill Sang’, and not much that is positive in its view of past or present:
Naebody kens whit’s tae be pitten in its place,
naebody greets for its demise.
An stour blaws frae the houkit out wame o’t
sclairtan the cars an buses that birl awa
tae concrete fields o spacelessness. (GF 36)
Her ‘Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party’ is a witty mixture of perspectives: on the one hand, the woman in the street’s view, treating art as if it were life - ‘Sic slaisters, yon table wi bottles / a glesses aa owre the place. / In the efternuin tae if ye plais. . . . An men in thir semmits . . .’; on the other hand, the sophisticated art watcher who is into ‘conceptual art’ and knows that painting per se is out of fashion: ‘Guid joab for Renoir he dee’d whan he did. / They widnae tak thon for the Tate. / Nae chance’ (GF 15). Like Blackhall, McDonald is an accomplished, versatile poet. Unlike Blackhall, however, her problem is lack of productivity. Although she began writing in the 1970s, it was not until 1991 that a collection of her work was put together and her output is, as she herself acknowledges, meagre: ‘maybe 30 poems I’ve kept in fifteen years’. (6) Yet, in regard to the need to transform Scots-language poetry to meet the conditions of the modern world while keeping contact with the traditions of the past, her poetry has much to offer.
Catriona Montgomery too began writing in the 1970s, but is best known for her collection “Re Na H-Oidhche” (The Length of the Night), published in 1994. Her poems include love poems, poems about the natural world, about her concern for the loss of language, about human suffering. These are strong poems, strong in their musicality and human relevance. Her ‘Tigrean Woman’s Prayer’ is a powerful lament inspired by newpaper reports of famine and war in Africa, its intensity coming from a poet whose history includes the Clearances and the laments of mothers under a more northerly sky. Her own personal sense of displacement is communicated in the poem to her daughter Eilidh:
I thought that I would have you
midst rock, sea-wrack and glen
and that you would learn Diarmid’s language
fluently from myself
not here: in this east city ... (LN 20-21)
This also is a modern woman’s voice, but, as with the Scots-language tradition, there is no certainty that conditions will allow it to multiply.
Despite the variety and quality of these poets who began to publish in the 1970s, younger women have on the whole followed Lochhead’s break with the male Scottish poetic tradition and have chosen to write in some form of Scottish-English as opposed to Scots or Gaelic. Much of the writing in the 1980s came from women gathering together in poetry workshops and publishing in anthologies such as “Hens in the Hay” and “Fresh Oceans” by Stramullion and the Polygon series of “Original Prints”. This was the decade of female anthologies, culminating in the publication of Catherine Kerrigan’s important historical “Anthology of Scottish Women Poets” in 1991, and the mood was predominantly feminist.
Apart from Lochhead herself, the most sustained and successful attempts to ‘write woman’, thematically and formally, in this 1980s period are by Elizabeth Burns and Carol Ann Duffy. Burns has said that she is ‘interested in the question of an identity for women working in what has been the mainly male domain of Scottish poetry’ and in ‘the idea of an unwritten history, of trying to recover, or rediscover, things which have been lost or forgotten, perhaps because they’ve been seen as female and insignificant’. Linked to this is her interest in ‘the unseen’, the ‘intuitive’ways that people communicate with one another. (7)
Burns’s first solo collection “Ophelia and Other Poems” (written in the 1980s but published in 1991) opens with a poem about intuition. ‘Sisters’ tells how ‘even when she moved / five hundred miles away / telepathy was alive between them / and love as strong as ever’. The sisters send gifts which pattern and complement each other and ‘even before the letter / saying, between the lines, “come”, / she is on her way’ (O 7). The exclusion of women from public roles and records is explored in poems such as ‘Work and art / We are building a civilization’ and ‘The Oddity’. The former proceeds through two companion sets of images: ‘Backs aching from carrying stones / Eyes blind from straining at needles’. The speaker uses the Brechtian technique of interrogating history in order to bring out what lies hidden, unacknowledged. The construction of the buildings on the Acropolis and the flax-picking, spinning and embroidery work involved in making fine decorative cloth both involve hard, physical activity: ‘Toe-bones crushed / Fingers arthritic’. Why should the one be celebrated and the other ignored, forgotten? Is it ‘because white marble in sun / because hilltop / because visible / because men’? The poem questions conventional divisions between male ‘art’ and female ‘folk art’, the one preserved, the other allowed to disappear, unrecorded, ‘locked away in labyrinth of backstreets’. It ends, however, with a positive image of continuity and strength, the ‘skin-frail silk’ of the embroidered poppies transformed to the poppies that ‘every spring converge in crevices / to flower again in scarlet / through the stonework’ ( 0 44-46). ‘The Oddity’ takes up the theme of woman as poet, ‘a crooked planet [who] does not fit / in the thin universe of this house’ (O 48). There are connections to be made here with Lochhead’s ‘Dreaming Frankenstein’ and with the fate of Sylvia Plath who is remembered in ‘At Plath’s Grave’: ‘She the freak, the poet / buried on this moor-top / where a harsh wind scrapes the sky / cripples the trees’ (O 53) - the wounding language emphasising her psychological wounding as well as her cruel death.
Formally, Elizabeth Burns’s poetry might be seen to epitomise what has traditionally been considered feminine: its images are decorative, painterly; it is gently musical, its pauses and silences giving form to the intuitive connections she believes are important. Yet this is in no way conforming or self-effacing poetry. Its themes are feminist, although these are brought to the reader quietly and decoratively, and the strength of her message gives validation to an imagistic approach which recovers and re-presents ‘femininity’. Natural world imagery has also been regarded with some suspicion by radical feminists, concerned about implications of essentialism in regard to an association with Mother Nature. In Burns’s ‘Going Back to Chapelton’, the story of a ripening and then fading love is told through imagery of farm and kitchen garden. The love affair is caught in synthaesthetic images of colour, sound and taste and through the flow of the lines: ‘July, barefoot, she is running outside/for breathfuls of the clean breezy air that ruffles / the sycamore’; ‘then there are bowlfuls of scarlet strawberries / unwashed, earthy, rough against the tongue . . . They eat them by the crackle of the applewood fire / summer and winter jarring together’. What validates the natural world imagery in this poem is its freshness, the specific way in which delight in the garden’s richness and the richness of love is communicated; and the way in which the traditional trope of summer delight and winter mourning is overturned, so that it is not the ‘slack fecund laziness / of summer months’ which marks the high point of the love affair, but a winter in which ‘so covered by the snow of love were they ... that they never dreamt of passion’s thaw’ (O 12, 13). In ‘Mother and Child in the Botanic Gardens’, the imagery of exotic plants and flowers and child reclaims the magic of the planthouses from the male public world of order and prohibition.
Carol Ann Duffy is an expatriate Scot, born in Glasgow in 1955 but brought up from the age of six in England. It might be considered, therefore, that her poetry has little to do with contemporary Scotland. Yet Duffy’s experience of childhood emigration from her Scottish home has been the impulse behind her many poems which explore identity and the functioning of memory, while her uncompromisingly female perspective since her first collection Standing Female Nude of 1985 has been a strong supportive influence for many Scottish women writers. The title poem is a witty debunking of the myth of the male artist and his muse, a recovery of female subjectivity, spoken by the cynical muse / model whose low register punctures the artist’s pretensions: ‘Six hours like this for a few francs. / Belly nipple arse in the window light, / he drains the colour from me . .. The bourgeoisie will coo / at such an image of a river-whore. They call it Art’. Georges, the artist - ‘They tell me he’s a genius’ - is not always content with Art - he ‘stiffens for my warmth’ and ‘possesses me on canvas as he dips the brush repeatedly / into the paint’. The model, however, is quite cynical and materialistic: ‘Little man, / you’ve not the money for the arts I sell’. And then, reclaiming her own image: ‘It does not look like / me’ (SP 20-1).
In another variation of the ‘woman writing woman’ theme, ‘A Clear Note’ tells the story of the lives of three generations of women - mother, daughter, granddaughter - each life-story related by the woman concerned, but with daughter and granddaughter adding their comments. Two generations of unfulfilled lives are recorded here, with the granddaughter having the possibility of more personal freedom, but carrying the knowledge of her mother and grandmother’s emptiness in her memory. The poem’s power comes from the vitality of its contrasting images of the women, their brave, imaginative spirits and the brutishness and dullness which imprisons them. Agatha and Moll - mother and daughter - each in their own time long ‘to swim in impossible seas / under the moon’ but are trapped by childbearing and by the power of their insensitive husbands. All her life Agatha wanted ‘the fields of Ireland only / and a man to delight in me / who’d never be finished with kisses’. Instead, she has a man who would ‘come home from work and take me on the floor / with his boots on and his blue eyes shut’. The brutal, mechanical nature of the ‘love’ act and constant childbearing - ‘Again and again throwing life from my loins / like a spider with enough rope / spinning and wringing its own neck’- breaks her spirit so that her final plea is ‘don’t bury him on top of me’ - which, of course, the family eventually do. ‘What does it matter, they said, now she’s dead?’. Agatha’s daughter, Moll, in her turn tells her daughter: ‘Never have kids. Give birth to yourself, / I wish I had’, for though her husband is not brutish, he has no imagination, no conception of his wife’s ‘black hole of resources’. The third story is more optimistic. The granddaughter Bernadette has escaped. She has her Granny’s long auburn hair and keeps her story alive in her memory. The poem ends with her sending in imagination the moon her Granny had longed for: ‘For Agatha, from Bernadette, the moon’(SFN 30, 27, 31, 29).
‘A Clear Note’ is not overtly didactic, yet its story-telling methodology brings a powerful enactment of the political and intellectual battles of women in the past to obtain the right to live their own lives freely and to fulfil the potential within them. Bernadette’s comment, ‘placing her [Agatha] years away / from the things that seem natural to us’ (SFN 31), points up the fact that so much of the unhappiness in the lives of women has been caused not by something essential in the nature of women, but by the social and religious systems of a patriarchal society and also by the lack of information about contraception which has meant the inability to control fertility and so take charge of bodies and lives.
Carol Ann Duffy has published several solo collections and a “Selected Poems” in addition to “Standing Female Nude”. In “The Other Country” (1990) and “Mean Time” (1993) she brings together mothers and daughters, childhood and the faculty of memory in an exploration of identity both personal and related to place. The theme of national identity is a commonplace of Scottish poetry and fiction, but Duffy, writing at some distance from Scotland, psychologically as well as physically, and in the more mobile and culturally diverse society of the late twentieth century, shows that a satisfying sense of self and place is not easily achieved. Key poems here are ‘Originally’ and ‘The Way My Mother Speaks’. In the former, a child’s language communicates a child’s confusion as the family ‘came from our own country in a red room / which fell through the fields . . . My brothers cried, one of them bawling Home, / Home . . . I stared / at the eyes of a blind toy, holding its paw’ (SP 65). For Duffy in this poem, ‘all childhood is an emigration’ but she understands that for some this emigration can be too abrupt, too painful. Is a sense of self ever recovered? ‘Do I only think / I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space / and the right place?’ In ‘The Way My Mother Speaks’, the mother’s voice and Scottish phraseology keep the adult woman in touch with that ‘first space’: ‘The day and ever . . . What like is it?’ (SP 66, 88), while ‘Never Go Back’ shows how impossible a return to the past is: ‘Never return / to the space where you left time pining till it died. . . . You shouldn’t be here . . . Forget. Already / the fires and lights come on wherever you live’(MT 30-1). In these poems, Duffy transforms her own childhood emigration into words and images which speak more widely of the experience of displacement, chosen or forced. In showing how impossible it is to reconcile what is remembered with what now is, she also shows how fragile our personal memories of our past are, how difficult it is for our certainty of our childhood experience to be reconciled with what those who were then the adults tell us that experience was: ‘Nobody hurt you . . . The whole thing is inside your / head / What you recall are impressions; we have the facts . . . There was none but yourself to blame if it ended in tears’. And then, ‘What does it matter now?’ (OC 24). But it does matter. It matters that in ‘A Clear Note’ Agatha’s brutish husband was buried on top of her, despite her pleas; and that her diary was burned after her death - ‘a catalogue of hatred’ - so that her question ‘Who will remember me?’ (SFN 30, 31) might not have found an answer, had her granddaughter not listened to her mother’s stories and so kept her grandmother alive in her memory. Duffy is a philosopher by training and her exploration of identity, untrustworthy memories and lost places is more complex than can be discussed here. She has a deservedly high reputation in British poetry and her success is a marker of how far poetry by women has travelled since the early 1970s.
In ‘Alphabet for Auden’, Duffy playfully warns: ‘Verse can say I told you so / but cannot sway the status quo / one inch’ (SFN 10). Having some poetic sisters, however, can make one feel less of an oddity; and the public success of writers such as Lochhead and Duffy has encouraged others. In addition, the raising of awareness as to why it has been so difficult for women in the past to become poets and the changes in society which are allowing more women to assume public roles have contributed to the confidence of the 1990s.
This more positive environment is reflected by the number of new poetic voices appearing in the 1990s and by the breadth of their interests . Jackie Kay, who has written plays and a novel and has published several poetry collections since 1991, is one of these. Another is Kathleen Jamie, whose first collection appeared as early as 1981 when she was nineteen, but who has gained a wider reputation with “The Queen of Sheba” (1994) and “Jizzen” (1999) Both writers are among the best of younger poets writing today, female or male, and both bring together the vital interaction of the oral and the literary in their work in a way which relates it to that of Lochhead.
Jackie Kay came to prominence with “The Adoption Papers” (1991) which tells the story of a black adopted female child brought up in a Scottish working class family through the voices of birth mother, adoptive mother and the girl herself. Kay’s own background lies behind the experiences documented, and it is perhaps this unusual upbringing that has developed in her as poet her preoccupation with identity: not the search for a national identity which preoccupied the male writers of the interwar Scottish Renaissance period; nor the specifically female identity explored by Lochhead and the poets of the 1980s; but an awareness of identity as multiple as well as marginalised and a celebration of what one might call this positive lack of specificity in relation to identity. In the poem ‘In my country’ a suspicious woman may question origins, but the speaker is confident that she comes from ‘Here. These parts’ (OL 24). In interview with Rebecca E. Wilson, Kay confesses her irritation ‘that people can’t contain both things, being Black and being Scottish, without thinking there is an inherent contradiction there’. And it’s not just the Scots who find her an anomaly. Black people too think her accent ‘funny’ and say ‘they’ve never met such a person before’. (8) Kay’s own ‘multiplicity’ and her awareness of the problems and pain that being different brings are put to positive creative use in collections such as “Other Lovers” (1993) and “Off Colour” (1998) which explore psychological and social scenarios of marginalisation, of not fitting into what the poet Angela McSeveney in a different context calls ‘pre-arranged pigeonholes’ (CO 38). ‘Gastarbeiter’ from the “Other Lovers” collection tells of the fear and alienation of the immigrant worker in a new culture where even ‘the trees were tall strangers’. Kay has said that her poems begin with ‘images rather than words’ (9) and it is the images in this poem which bring the tragic story to us, through their immediacy and through their associations with past victimisation:
In one bed they all slept, rolled
tight, a bandage on an open wound,
gaster, bite her; sleep is always light
when stars are the shapes of swastikas
and the limbs of hate move clockwise. (OL 22)
On the other hand, in the splendid “Bessie Smith” sequence of the collection, the images are full of positive power. It is the Blues singer with her wonderfully versatile voice who overcomes the tragedy of slavery and gives the people back a celebratory sense of themselves and their history. In ‘The Same Note’, ‘Every note she sang, she bent her voice to her will ... She could tell every story she wanted to tell’. ‘The Right Season’ resonates with the rhythms of the Blues:
On she would come, The Empress, The Voodoo Queen
Blast the blues into them so people remembered who they’d been.
Took them to the sad place. The place they were scared to go.
Took them to the mean place where they knew they’d been low.
Somebody was waiting. And it might have felt like home.
Somebody knew them; somebody could see right into their soul. (OL 11)
In The Red Graveyard, it is the black child in the white home who discovers herself not only through Bessie’s voice which ‘has changed the shape of my silence’ , but through the sight of her face on the record cover:
Christ, my father says, that’s some voice she’s got.
I pick up the record cover. And now. This is slow motion.
My hand swoops, glides, swoops again.
I pick up the cover and my fingers are all over her face.
Her black face. Her magnificent black face.... (OL 13)
It is this vital exploitation of image, sound, rhythm, and the capacity to make human connections through these linguistic elements that make Jackie Kay among the most exciting and significant of poets working today.
Vitality of language and the power of the speaking voice are qualities found also in Kathleen Jamie’s poetry, but here they are accompanied by an ironic perspective directed towards Jamie’s Scottish identity and towards her own and human behaviour in general which reminds one of Lochhead. As with many of these younger poets, on the other hand, feminism or a preoccupation with writing as a woman are not issues which concern Jamie who insists: ‘I certainly don’t think of myself as a woman poet . . . . I’m sure if I was born a male in Paraguay I would still be an artist’. Yet, although she may not care to address them explicitly, the questions which activated Lochhead’s generation are not so easily denied. In her interview with Rebecca Wilson, she acknowledges that ‘female voices’ are the ones she hears in her head: ‘I didn’t actually realize I was writing in female voices until recently. It’s just so natural. Who knows what goes on inside men’s heads? Not me!’ (10) And discussing the building of a poetic reputation in “Talking Verse”, she offers the view that ‘I’m afraid you’ve still got to be male, white, and on the spot’. (11)
Jamie’s sharpest irony is directed at her country, Scotland: ‘This place winds me up. I want to take it by the thrapple and shove it headlong into the next millenia’ [sic]. ‘Though part of me feels I ought to, I don’t want to contribute “a poetry of National Service”’; ‘I have a dark longing to bring chaos out of order’. (12)
Jamie’s exasperation with the psychology of her country and its history is humorously conveyed in the ironic registers of the short poem ‘Arraheids’, where ‘oor gret museums o antiquities/awful grand in Embro’ house ‘grannies tongues’ which mutter : ‘ye arenae here tae wonder,/whae dae ye think ye ur?’ (QS 40). The theme of moving on from Scotland’s past is taken up also in ‘Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead’, but this time its imagery moves the preoccupation with country into a wider questioning of how we deal with history and, more intimately, how we deal with the human life cycle. The structuring metaphor of the poem is the ‘coup, the dump beyond the cemetery’ where all the town’s rubbish is emptied out. Here, instead of Lochhead’s ‘mantrap handbags’, we have Mrs Scotland’s ‘stiff,/old ladies’ bags, open mouthed’, their treasures spewed out on the dump. The register catches the surprised amusement of the speaker as she looks at all these out-of date artefacts: postcards ‘in careful school-room script’ from former popular Scottish holiday resorts detailing the unreliable Scottish holiday weather; knitting patterns; the ‘Dictionary for Mothers’, the ‘John Bull Puncture Repair Kit’; yet at the same time the poignancy of the situation is communicated, and a certain embarrassment at someone’ s life being laid bare in this public way: ‘Couldn’t he have burned them?’ But what we are seeing here is not just the aftermath of a house-clearing after a death. It is the death of a way of life where roads were once cycled, brambles picked and where Mr Scotland’s joiners’ tools were part of a craftsman tradition. And so the poem ultimately asks us what we should do with the past, what we should keep, what let go, both in Scotland and by implication in the wider context. How do we deal with change? - for change will inevitably come, whether we want it or not: the future will perform for us ‘this perfunctory rite:/the sweeping up, the turning out’ (QS 37). An acknowledgement and cautious celebration of the inevitability of change, accompanied by a hint that perhaps human beings are not in essence so very different through the ages, are communicated in the witty ‘Fountain’. The poem contrasts classical Arcadia with the modern shopping arcade with its ‘shallow dish/ of the fountain’, its ‘perspex foliage’ and plastic bags ‘printed/ Athena, Argos, Olympus’. The speaker is ironically self-aware: ‘We know it’s all false’; yet the tone pivots on ‘A wee stroke of luck ?’, self-mocking yet at the same time pointing towards the continuity of life epitomised in ‘the dowser’s twitch/up through the twin handles of the [baby’s] buggy’ (QS 17).
A very different writer is Angela McSeveney who came to prominence in 1992 with “Coming Out With It”. In some respects McSeveney’s poetry returns to the ‘writing woman’ approach of the 1980s, but hers is a bleak view of womanhood and especially of the female body. which shows that the feminist revolution has still some way to travel. While young women now have independence and opportunities beyond the dreams of their mothers and grandmothers, the advertising industry and the fashion world have created images of new womanhood which, for those who do not fit the stereotype, can be as psychologically debilitating as the previous restrictions of a patriarchal society. Lochhead’s speaker in ‘Fat Girl’s Confession’ had sufficient confidence in herself to laugh off ‘Fat is a Feminist Issue’, as she ‘ravished the refrigerator’ even while huffing and puffing in her ‘Stephanie Bowman Sweat-It-Off Slimmersuit’(TC 12-13), but McSeveney’s girls are more vulnerable. Poems such as ‘My breasts / walk ahead of me’, ‘Stretch Marks’, ‘The Fat Nymphomaniac’s Poem’ all communicate the psychological distress of the fat girl in a slimness-obsessed society where the Hollywood big-breasted heroine is out of fashion. The speaker in ‘An Ugly Lover’ cannot believe it when a man ‘claimed’ to love her: ‘always I am wondering / what blow are you softening me for - / where will it fall?’ (CO 56). For this poet, ‘writing the body’ also means writing about illnesses or bodily functions which are specific to women, and which, even although talked about more openly in contemporary society, still arouse fear: the fifteen year old’s discovery of a lump in her breast in ‘The Lump’: ‘My life rose up in my throat / and threatened to stifle me’; the monthly ritual in ‘Breast Exam’ which all women are now encouraged to carry out, but which leaves one permanently with a latent fear of discovery: ‘It can’t always happen to other people’. Pregnancy is not the idealised mother and child of the advertising world but ‘a maze of scars / on my mother’s belly . . . Three years gave back only corpses / for her trauchle’(CO 23, 60, 26).
McSeveney’s writing style is harsh, like much of her content. She has said that this ‘bare’ style was developed during her university years when she was psychologically ill and trying to get to grips with her problem ‘on the page’. Just as Lochhead said that she would not have needed to write some of her poems had she been able to read the feminist writings of the later 1970s, so McSeveney says that if she had had a psychiatrist in time, she ‘wouldn’t have been writing’ her poems. This might suggest that McSeveney’s poetry is ‘therapy’, not poetry proper, but such a view would ignore the gap between, to rephrase Eliot, the woman who suffers and the mind which creates, the transforming which happens in poetry. As with reviews of Lochhead as an ‘autobiographical’ poet in the 1970s, McSeveney acknowledges that many of her readers assume that ‘the person in the poem is me always’, but she herself is insistent that there must be an imaginative input, that a poem has not ‘landed flat on the page ready made’. (13) Her poems are carefully and imaginatively constructed. In ‘I’m Unemployed’, for example, the prosaic two-line stanzas pattern the emptiness of the speaker’s situation just as the choice of the word ‘erased’ is exactly right for what unemployment has done to her. The incongruity of her comparison to ‘a bluebottle in the ointment’ communicates the otherness of her situation as seen by the public official, the nasty ‘stickiness’ of the problem she represents. There are no ‘prearranged pigeonholes’ in which her ‘wavering outline’ can fit (CO 38). Another kind of erasing is documented in ‘Janey’ where the child abuse is stated abruptly at the outset of the poem: ‘She was raped when she was seven’. The absence of rhythmic flow in the stanzas patterns the cutting-off of Janey’s life - ‘After that she didn’t grow’ - which is emphasised also through the only simile: ‘sitting quiet / like a wee doll’. She is no longer a person. The poem is a complex of contradictory responses: the mother’s self-defensive laughter; the unspoken worry about what can be done with her; the undisguised relief when she dies at sixteen of Spanish flu and the doctor’s pragmatic comment: ‘It’s a happy release for her . . . He should have murdered her too’ (CO 53). Unable to deal with the situation, the adults further the abuse by trying to push it and the girl out of their lives. Who cares about Janey? Only the poet, it would appear, who uses her name five times in this short poem, thus giving her back her human identity.
As with Carol Ann Duffy. there is awareness of dislocation between memories of childhood and the reality of the adult world in McSeveney’s scenarios. For her speakers, too, childhood has been a painful emigration as in the poem ‘Gone Wrong’:
But in the back of my mind
a child persists.
‘Don’t blame me’, she says . . .
What are you doing Woman?
I’ve been a disappointment in you.
In ‘The Freedom’, that disappointing woman recovers some equilibrium as, taking off her glasses before going into the swimming pool, she ‘sashay[s] from the shower room’, enjoying her body like the ‘fat black woman’ in the poems of Grace Nichols, one of McSeveney’s heroines (CO 65).
Angela McSeveney contributes a strong new voice to English-language poetry in the nineties, as does Kate Clanchy, whose “Slattern” was published to much acclaim in 1995, followed by “Samarkand” in 1999. “Slattern” is a young woman’s book about relationships where women call the tune: ‘I put them all at sea’. (SL 1) This is witty, clever poetry, turning the historical tables. As we have seen in relation to Kay, Jamie and McSeveney, Clanchy’s confident voice is characteristic of much of the poetry of the nineties, including that of older writers who have found new assurance in the heightened profile of poetry by women. In the Scots-language context, Liz Niven takes on MacDiarmid and his Drunk Man in a turning of the literary and sexual tables in ‘Extracted Fae A DRUNK WUMMAN SITTIN OAN A THISTLE (misquoted is a’body’s property)’ while Magi Gibson’s ‘Queen Maeve’ poems are companion pieces to Lochhead’s ‘What the Pool Said on Midsummer’s Day’. (14) Tessa Ransford’s 1998 collection “When It Works it Feels like Play” makes greater use of poetic personae than is usual in her earlier poetry, exploring human relationships with a new freedom and bringing together the creativity of art and the creativity of mothering with the insight which comes from having experienced both. Valerie Gillies continues her collaboration with clarsach player and composer Savourna Stevenson and with visual artist Will Maclean. Valerie Thornton, like Elizabeth Burns, writes a quiet, delicate poetry which under its ‘feminine’ surface is distinctively her own and assuredly female.
The situation of poetry in Scots and Gaelic is still uncertain, however. The majority of contemporary women write in English, although writers such as Lochhead, Jamie and Kay manipulate Scots and English registers successfully. Despite Liz Niven’s bold Drunk Wumman, there would appear to be few younger writers who are choosing to follow the Scots-language path chosen so committedly by Blackhall and McDonald, or the Gaelic of Catriona Montgomery. In the 1980s Meg Bateman wrote some fine poetry in Gaelic but has temporarily stopped writing. A younger Gaelic writer is Anne Frater, whose poems are included in the Polygon Dream State anthology. Frater’s love of her language and the wish to see it survive is a strong motivation behind her poetry. It is not certain, however, how many new poets will join her. Two newcomers in Scots are Alison Kermack from Frater’s generation and Christine de Luca who belongs with the middle group of writers discussed, but whose poems in Shetland Dialect and English were collected in 1994 and 1997. Her Shetland Scots is dense and richly onomatopoeic, pulling the reader or listener into stories of Viking landfalls and everyday work. The poems of ideas and the contemporary world are, however, in English.
In contrast, Alison Kermack’s demotic Scots poetry is contemporary and ideological, following Tom Leonard’s “Intimate Voices” in breaking down ‘thi langwij hyrarky’ and showing ‘how itz dafty say wun wurdz mare impoartint thin anuthir wurd ur wun way i speekinz mare impoartint thin anuther wy ’. (15) Her poems are clever and often amusing in the way demotic phonetic spellings throw up new relationships between words, new implications. There are serious political points to be made in poems such as ‘Saltire’, ‘The Shadow Minister’ and the feminist ‘Askinfurrit’. Ultimately, however, there is a danger that Kermack’s approach remains restrictive.
Scottish women, young and older, are now using a new-found confidence in their gender to produce mature poetry of quality which is diverse in theme and style. As Lochhead advised her colleagues in relation to the male poetry tradition: ‘You have a territory to explore insufficiently mapped out or exploited. You have something to write about. The problem of getting them to admit you into their ‘canon’ is a very real one, but in a certain sense it’s not your problem. Your job is to write it’. (16) And they have. Scottish poetry will never be the same again.
1. Colin Nicholson, ‘Knucklebones of Irony: Liz Lochhead’ in “Poem, Purpose and Place: Shaping Identities in Contemporary Scottish Verse”. Edinburgh, 1992, p. 223.
2. Liz Lochhead, Meantime: “Looking Forward to the Millenium”. Edinburgh, 1991, pp. 72-3.
3. Sylvia Plath, “Collected Poems”. London, 1981, pp. 210, 173-74.
4. Liz Lochhead, “Poem, Purpose and Place”, p. 204.
5. Ellie McDonald in Gillean Somerville and Rebecca Wilson, eds, “Sleeping with Monsters”. Edinburgh, 1990, pp. 141, 143.
6. Ibid, p. 144.
7. Elizabeth Burns in “Dream State: the New Scottish Poets”, ed. Daniel O’Rourke. Edinburgh, 1994, p. 40.
8. Jackie Kay in “Monsters”, pp. 121-22.
9. Ibid, p. 123.
10. Kathleen Jamie in “Monsters”, pp. 93, 94, 95.
11. Jamie in “Talking Verse”, ed. R.Crawford et al. St Andrews, 1995, p. 101.
12. Ibid, pp. 102, 100.
13. Angela McSeveney in Talking Verse, p. 131.
14. Liz Niven, “Stravaigin”. Edinburgh, 2001, p. 39; Magi Gibson, ‘Queen Maeve’ sequence, “Wild Women of a Certain Age”. Edinburgh, 2000, pp.14-17.
15. Alison Kermack, “Dream State”, p. 192.
16. Liz Lochhead, “Meantime”, p. 73.
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Women and Poetry 1972-1999: The Contemporary Scene. 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved January 2021, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=1435.
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