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Hugh MacDiarmid & A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle
August 11, 2012 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Hugh MacDiarmid was born 120 years ago today. Best known for his long, comic, dark, epic, complex poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, he was a central figure in the Scottish Renaissance. He was the type of guy who would get kicked out of the Scottish National Party for being a communist and get kicked out of the Communist Party of Great Britain for being a Scottish nationalist.

Christopher Murray Grieve was born on August 11th, 1892 in Langhold, Scotland. He adopted a few pen names, but is known by the one he used for his most famous works: Hugh MacDiarmid. There's a lot to MacDiarmid and his work, so it can be hard to know where to start. A few possibilities below. They're incomplete: there are so many paths to go down from the poetry, to the politics, to the language, to the Scottish Renaissance, but we can celebrate his life a little here.

One way to meet the man himself is in the short film Hugh MacDiarmid: A Portrait by Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait. In it, you can see MacDiarmid at 71 in his home, and hear him read a few of his poems (More info about the documentary.)

MacDiarmid wrote many of his poems in Scots, and you can hear one of these , The Watergaw, and read an English translation of the Scots.* At the PennSound Archive (previously) you can hear MacDiarmid read more selections from his poetry. The Poetry Foundation has a few poems to read, and a nice short biography. It includes one of my favorite poems, On a Raised Beach, one of the poems where MacDiarmid, instead of Scots, tried to use the language of science as another dialect for poetry. (It reminds me of passages from Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars.)

But in some ways those are appetizers. Let's get to the main course. MacDiarmid's most famous work is the long poem A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle, published in 1926. It's written in Scots (but includes selections in other languages, as well as translations of other poems), extremely long, and covers a crazy range of subjects (Scottish nationalism, Scottish history & culture, Robert Burns, science, Labor, modernism, love, marriage, drinking, falling in ditches) is yet is more accessible than many shorter poems. And is incredibly funny. Here's how it starts:
I amna fou' sae muckle as tired - deid dune.
It's gey and hard wark coupin' gless for gless
Wi' Cruivie and Gilsanquhar and the like,
And I'm no' juist as bauld as aince I wes.
Possibly the best way to enjoy it is to hear the author reading it, while following along yourself. There's a version on Youtube, and the PennSound archive has MP3s. (Be warned the recording skips the first few words.)

To read along, this site has the full text along with some translations. (That may be a dubious version -- might be better to get a hard copy.)

If you'd like to visit some MacDiarmid sites in person, you can see the Memorial in Langholm. You can also visit the Brownsbank House where he lived from 1951 to 1978. If you're in Edinburgh, you can visit the Makars Court or see his bust at the National Gallery.

* The question of what language or dialect MacDiarmid used in his poetry is a vexed one. I've referred to it as Scots. Scots itself is a lively subject, as shown in this best-of-MeFi-worthy post and comments. Other people called what MacDiarmid wrote in Lallans, like the language of Burns or Stevenson. MacDiarmid referred to it as Synthetic Scots (and his critics mocked that as 'Plastic Scots') and seemed pretty comfortable with using a hodgepodge of old Scots, current dialect, English, and whatever else he cared to use, since that was good enough for Shakespeare & English. I'm just going to call it Scots and leave the nuances to the pros.
posted by feckless (30 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Two notes: One, I keep messing up and calling it "Looks at a Thistle" when it is properly "Looks at the Thistle. Apologies.

Two, this didn't really fit into the rest of this post, but I found this lovely response to MacDiarmid by Denise Mina (which has been performed by Karen Dunbar, A Drunk Woman Looks at The Thistle.
posted by feckless at 8:21 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is he as good as Ewan McTeagle ?
posted by Pendragon at 9:34 AM on August 11, 2012


He wrote some lovely poetry, but it was a shame that the language he used in them was rather derogatorily called 'plastic Scots', although his detractors perhaps had a point. He basically trawled the dictionary of the older Scots tongue and reintroduced a whole bunch of old and middle Scots words that people in Scotland didn't use anymore. He kind of expected to single-handedly start a renaissance of spoken Scots, but alas, he didn't. For example, on the last line of the poem you include, he says 'wes', which isn't Scots, it just nicely rhymes with the previous lines. The question of what is Scots is an interesting one, so thanks for linking those previous Me-fi posts.

Also worthwhile reading is the poetry of William Soutar, another important (but often overlooked) figure from the Scottish Cultural Renaissance of the early 20th century.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 10:48 AM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ugh, and just as a follow up, I'm *raging* that I didn't find metafilter until only recently, as that Scots language FPP looked amazing and I really wish I could have participated.... :(
posted by Scottie_Bob at 11:07 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, welcome!
posted by feckless at 11:31 AM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've been beating the drum for MacDiarmid since right after I joined, and I quoted him in extenso back in 2005, so needless to say I welcome this post. The Tait documentary was unbearably arty for my taste, but at least it's short and you get to see him in his natural surroundings. At any rate, I urge everyone to read A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, one of the great poems of the last century (and containing some of the best translations from Russian); it's a tremendous boon to be able to hear the author himself reading it.

> He wrote some lovely poetry, but it was a shame that the language he used in them was rather derogatorily called 'plastic Scots', although his detractors perhaps had a point. He basically trawled the dictionary of the older Scots tongue and reintroduced a whole bunch of old and middle Scots words that people in Scotland didn't use anymore.

So what? He made great poetry of them. Anyone who complains about "inconsistent dialect" or whatever (and I'm not including you in their number) cares more about labels than poetry.
posted by languagehat at 11:55 AM on August 11, 2012 [4 favorites]


This Seamus Heaney poem is all (well, until this post) I know about Hugh MacDiarmid, but I have always liked it:

AN INVOCATION

{Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)}


Incline to me, MacDiarmid, out of Shetland,
Stone-eyed from stone-gazing, sobered up
And thrawn. Not the old vigilante

Of the chimney corner, having us on,
Setting us off, the drinkers' drinker; no,
Incline as the sage of winds that flout the rock face,

As gull stalled in the sea breeze, gatekeeper
Of the open gates behind the brows of birds--
Not to hear me take back smart remarks

About your MacGonagallish propensities--
For I do not--but I add in middle age:
I underprized your far-out, blathering genius.


Those years in the shore-view house, especially.
More intellectual billygoat than scapegoat,
Beyond the stony limits, writing-mad.

That pride of being tested. Of solitude.
Your big pale forehead in the window glass
Like the earth's curve on the sea's curve to the north.

At your wits' end then, always on the go
To the beach and back, taking heady bearings
Between the horizon and the dictionary,

Hard-liner on the rock face of the old
Questions and answers, to which I add my own:
'Who is my neighbour? My neighbour is all mankind.'


And if you won't incline, endure
At an embraced distance. Be the wee
Contrary stormcock that you always were,

The weather-eye of a poetry like the weather,
A shifting force, a factor factored in
Whether it prevails or not, constantly

A function of its time and place
And sometimes of our own. Never, at any rate,
Beyond us, even when outlandish.

In the accent, in the idiom, in
The idea like a thistle in the wind,
A catechism worth repeating always.
posted by little cow make small moo at 11:59 AM on August 11, 2012 [7 favorites]


Yay! Languagehat is here. (And wow, little cow, that's a lovely poem -- that's new to me.)
posted by feckless at 12:04 PM on August 11, 2012


@Languagehat - I think I care more about the fact that 'language planning' of the kind McDiarmid proposed is always doomed to failure, and it was more than a bit presumptuous of the man to think that his poetry was so amazing that it would single-handedly ignite a return to some sort of golden age of Scots. His poetry, as it stands, is good poetry, and I would never take that away from him. But it does exist in a cultural and linguistic context that we can't ignore, and it wasn't/isn't representative of the kind of Scots that was being used by the average man on the street, even though that was how it was positioned. But then I read McDiarmid from my perspective as a linguist, rather than a literary critic, so obviously my perspective is biased.

Anyway, what McDiarmid ends up being held up as is 'this is proper Scots' by the middle-class, tweed-wearing, intelligensia who have little to no understanding of what 'proper Scots' actually is (or worse, see varieties like Glaswegian Vernacular as 'coarse' or 'vulgar' Scots). Of course, this ends up sounding like me beating the drum for the 'genuine vernacular', but it gets my goat that something which was essentially manufactured becomes some sort of shining example of Scots poetry. For that matter, I also dislike how people like Welsh and Leonard also categorised as 'Scots writers' when they're nothing of the sort.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 12:22 PM on August 11, 2012


How odd, I was just wondering yesterday if MacDiarmid was to be found on MeFi. Yesterday I was in Montrose, and noticed once again the plaque on the High Street which notes that MacDiarmid worked and lived in the town for almost a decade. Today, I'm sat in a cottage two thirds of the way up Glen Clova*, further inland in Angus, and now I find out that A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle was, apparently – according to this local council history page, so take that with as much salt as necessary – conceived "on a weekend at the Ogilvie Arms Hotel in Glen Clova," presumably a boozed-up jaunt to the country for the weekend, only 30 miles from where he lived in Montrose.

Reason for caveat: I grew up around here, and I've never heard of an Ogilvie Arms "up Glen Clova", though there is, and has been for over 200 years, an Ogilvie Arms in Kirriemuir, the largest local town that serves the glen, and where I went to school. Given, the poem was written almost 100 years ago, and there is a hotel at the top of Clova, which may have changed names in the interim. There's also the fact that if it'd been conceived by a pissed-up MacDiarmid in Kirriemuir, I'd have undoubtedly been told about it growing up, along with all the history of J.M. Barrie, whose birthplace there is now a museum, and original AC/DC lead singer Bon Scott, whose birthplace is not, but who gets a brilliant plaque, carved out of rock, lest anyone was worried about how he made his name.

One of these days, I have been promising for ages, I will get around to reading A Drunk Man ...; I think I – like many others – have a youthful attachment to the anti-MacDiarmid faction in the great "cosmopolitan scum" debates which caused ructions in Scottish literature in the 1960s, and as a result of which Macdiarmid often has been painted as little more than a reactionary harking back to a more pure Scottish age and literature, when druggies and gays and other modern inventions had happily no place.

*This is the view from the living room window.
posted by Len at 12:44 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Hugh MacDiarmid is also the central subject of what may well be my favourite painting, Poets' Pub by Alexander Moffat. Well worth visiting the re-opened Scottish National Portrait Gallery to see it, along with the mopey portrait of Naomi Mitchison which can be found nearby.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 3:24 PM on August 11, 2012


Oh, and Norman MacCaig on MacDiarmid:
After his death
for Hugh MacDiarmid

It turned out
that the bombs he had thrown
raised buildings:

that the acid he had sprayed
had painfully opened
the eyes of the blind.

Fishermen hauled
prizewinning fish
from the water he had polluted.

We sat with astonishment
enjoying the shade
of the vicious words he had planted.

The government decreed that
on the anniversary of his birth
the people should observe
two minutes pandemonium.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 3:29 PM on August 11, 2012 [8 favorites]


> I think I care more about the fact that 'language planning' of the kind McDiarmid proposed is always doomed to failure, and it was more than a bit presumptuous of the man to think that his poetry was so amazing that it would single-handedly ignite a return to some sort of golden age of Scots.

Dude, he was a poet. By definition he was presumptuous. Akhmatova in Russia had similar delusions, as did Pound, as did Yeats... It's just absurd to take seriously the political/economic/social statements of poets, artists, musicians, etc.; the job of all such people is to make art, and if they do it well their work is done. Apart from that, they may well be blowhards of exactly the kind you find down at the corner bar, except that in the case of writers they may put their batshit ideas in more impressive language.

> it wasn't/isn't representative of the kind of Scots that was being used by the average man on the street

So? Neither was what Burns wrote; is he also unacceptable on those grounds? No great poet writes in the language "used by the average man on the street," and why should they? Their job is to write great poetry, by any means necessary. Poetry is not documentation. I wouldn't think that needed to be spelled out.

> Anyway, what McDiarmid ends up being held up as is 'this is proper Scots' by the middle-class, tweed-wearing, intelligensia who have little to no understanding of what 'proper Scots' actually is

So? That's their fault, not his. Look what the Soviets did with Tolstoy. Writers are not responsible for what fools make of their work.

> it gets my goat that something which was essentially manufactured becomes some sort of shining example of Scots poetry

It is a shining example of Scots poetry. To not accept that is to not care about poetry. Sorry if I'm sounding harsh, but what gets my goat is people trying to force poets (or any writers) to be politicians, dialectologists, moral exemplars, or good citizens of any description. Everyone who speaks any form of Scots should be proud and grateful that they had a poet like Hugh MacDiarmid immortalizing it the way Sappho immortalized the Aeolic dialect. And I imagine there were purists on Lesbos grumping that "nobody talks that way" even then.
posted by languagehat at 4:45 PM on August 11, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thanks for making the post, very interesting - im quite fond of the video showing him walking along the kerb in george st.
Constantly finding your country doesn't merit a place between Saudi Arabia and Senegal in an online drop down menu, yet is globally recognisable ..... well, whatever language he used, his questions are still relevant.
posted by sgt.serenity at 5:42 PM on August 11, 2012 [1 favorite]


My favorite poem, In The Hedge-Back:

It was a wild black nicht,
But i' the hert o't we
Drave back the darkness wi a bleeze o' licht
Ferrer than een could see.

It was a wild black nicht,
But o' the snell air we
Kept just eneuch to hinder the heat
Meltin' us utterly.

It was a wild black nicht,
But o' the win's roar we
Kept juist eneuch to hear oor herts beat
Owre it triumphantly.

It was a wild black nicht
But o' the Earth we
Kept just eneuch underneath us to ken
That a warl used to be.
posted by Fritz Langwedge at 6:43 PM on August 11, 2012 [5 favorites]


Dude, he was a poet. By definition he was presumptuous. Akhmatova in Russia had similar delusions, as did Pound, as did Yeats... It's just absurd to take seriously the political/economic/social statements of poets, artists, musicians, etc.; the job of all such people is to make art, and if they do it well their work is done.

It's absurd to take seriously the political/economic/social statements of poets, artists, musicians etc? You mean, it's absurd to take seriously the work of the very people who are supposed to talk about, criticise and reframe political/social/economic issues? So are you saying that it's just window dressing with no real substance and that we should just appreciate it for its aesthetic appeal? If so, then I think that's more to miss the point of poetry (re: art) than anything I've said.

So? Neither was what Burns wrote; is he also unacceptable on those grounds? No great poet writes in the language "used by the average man on the street," and why should they? Their job is to write great poetry, by any means necessary.

Where did I say MacDiarmid (or his work) was 'unacceptable'? Please don't put words in my mouth. In any event, Burns was far closer to writing in Scots than MacDiarmid ever was. So was William Soutar, one of McDiarmid's contemporaries. And great poets don't write in the language used by the average man on the street? I think William Chaucer wants to have a word with you.

Poetry is not documentation. I wouldn't think that needed to be spelled out.

What? Of course poetry is documentation. It's just that some documentation is better than others at reflecting a particular state of a language. I didn't think that needed to be spelled out.

So? That's their fault, not his. Look what the Soviets did with Tolstoy. Writers are not responsible for what fools make of their work.

Fair enough, but it's still a point worth raising.

It is a shining example of Scots poetry. To not accept that is to not care about poetry. Sorry if I'm sounding harsh, but what gets my goat is people trying to force poets (or any writers) to be politicians, dialectologists, moral exemplars, or good citizens of any description.

Two things. First, I didn't say that it wasn't a shining example of Scots poetry, but rather that his poetry is often held up as 'the' example of Scots poetry, although of course, I'll concede to your point that a writer has no control over 'what fools make with their work'. Second, I'm just pointing out that there are political issues here which are pertinent to our discussion of MacDiarmid. To ignore that is to ignore the entire socio-cultural context in which his poetry (or indeed, any poetry) exists. And I didn't realise that this discussion was an 'either/or' thing. I can care about MacDiarmid's poetry, but I can also recognise that his work raises valid questions about what constitutes 'Scots' and how far his writing is representative of it. If I decided to write a poem drawing on archiac Middle English words but passed it off as ModEng, then I would quite rightly expect that to engender some discussion on the variety I used as not being 'real' ModEng. That shouldn't (and doesn't) in my mind detract from the quality of MacDiarmid's work, but rather should form an important part of any sensible discussion people have about it. Why can't we discuss both sides of this?

Everyone who speaks any form of Scots should be proud and grateful that they had a poet like Hugh MacDiarmid immortalizing it the way Sappho immortalized the Aeolic dialect. And I imagine there were purists on Lesbos grumping that "nobody talks that way" even then.

I don't know if this is directed at me, but where did I say I wasn't proud? Look at my user name; I'm immensely proud that we have poets writing in Scots, of whatever form, but that doesn't mean I need to be parochial about it, or that I can't put aside nationalistic feelings to have an informed discussion about the language politics of MacDiarmid's work. You seem to be advocating that we have to talk about MacDiarmid purely as a poet. That's like saying that we have to discuss Chaucer purely as a poet. Or Shakespeare purely as a playwright. Or Irvine Welsh purely as a novelist. They all raise important questions about language use, and it shouldn't simply be an auxiliary part of what we talk about.

I'm conscious that this conversation will quickly descend into point by point recursive mess (and I'm not sure if metafilter has a policy on that or not), but I hope it doesn't. In any event, I think MacDiarmid's poetry is good, but I think the language questions are more interesting.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 3:14 AM on August 12, 2012


The language questions continue with our important authors now. James Kelman is thought lesser of because of his words rather than the story they serve. ( Guardian link ).
Also 19th August Kelman and Liz Lochead are together at the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
posted by stuartmm at 6:50 AM on August 12, 2012


> To ignore that is to ignore the entire socio-cultural context in which his poetry (or indeed, any poetry) exists.

I don't give a damn about that, and neither will anyone except cobwebbed scholars in another century or two, when his poetry will still be going strong.

> In any event, I think MacDiarmid's poetry is good, but I think the language questions are more interesting.

I think exactly the opposite, so I guess there's not much point our discussing it. I'm glad you like his poetry, and I'm sorry your socio-cultural blinders don't allow you to appreciate it as much as it deserves.
posted by languagehat at 9:33 AM on August 12, 2012


[Scottie_Bob]> To ignore that is to ignore the entire socio-cultural context in which his poetry (or indeed, any poetry) exists.

languagehat: I don't give a damn about that, and neither will anyone except cobwebbed scholars in another century or two, when his poetry will still be going strong.

You know what, I was going to bite my tongue and not respond to this but thanks, I guess, for dismissing the past 100-odd years of social and political change and upheaval of an entire country whose poetry and language you profess to love, because nobody but cobwebbed scholars two centuries hence – in other words, nobody who matters – will give a shit about it. Ten points for style, I suppose.

Whether you like it or not – and I note that you're not normally so prescriptivist about things in general, but you seem to believe that yours is the only valid interpretation here and the rest of us can fucking lump it – MacDiarmid's writings, poetry included, were/are an ongoing part of a discussion/debate/battle about what it means to me Scottish; about working class self-determinism, including thorny, often violently-resolved debates on labour and unions; what being Scottish means in the larger context of being British; and the class system as it is exploited by nationalist polticians for their own ends, among other things. Scotland was given a devolved-from-Westminster parliament 13 years ago, and much more political power resides in Scotland than previously; and in less than two years time there will be a public referendum on whether to go for full independence, effectively ripping up the 1707 Act of Union. MacDiarmid was unquestioningly a catalyst in this process, whether through his writing or through his politics (he stood for Parliament more than once). What I think about this – positive or negative – is neither here nor there, but MacDiarmid, as a poet, as a public intellectual, is inseparable from what has happened to Scotland over the past 100 years in terms of the way it defines itself, its history, and its language.

If you think nobody but cobwebbed scholars cares about that, you're sorely mistaken, but I hope you didn't realise how insulting what you said – or how you said it – came across as.
posted by Len at 9:58 AM on August 12, 2012




In 1923 in a paper entitled ‘Theory of Scots Letters’, Hugh MacDiarmid described Scots as:

"A vast unutilised mass of lapsed observations made by minds whose attitude to experience and whose speculative an imaginative tendencies were quite different from any possible to Englishmen and anglicised Scots today. Just as, physiologially we have lost certain powers possessed by our forefathers---the art of wiggling our ears, for example, so we have lost word-forming faculties peculiar to the Doric for the purposes of psychological and nature description. There are words and phrases in the verncular which thrill me with a sense of having been produced as result of mental processes entirely different from my own and much more powerful. They embody observations of a kind which the modern mind makes with increasing difficulty and weakened effect."
posted by clavdivs at 12:17 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


@languagehat - Totally disagree with your comment about 'cob-webbed scholars'. I think the points I raised are important to people both inside and outside the academy, but I think we can agree to disagree, especially since we're coming at this from two relatively opposed perspectives. We just can't read MacDiarmid as 'just a poet', it's folly. I have tried to find a middle ground, but you seem to be fairly well-entrenched in your dogma here. In any event, I'm surprised that you think I have 'socio-cultural blinders' on when I'm the one trying to bring that into the discussion here. I read MacDiarmid at university. I've written essays about him. I've extolled his work to others. I'm sorry that I'm not fawning over him like some crazy fan boy...

@Len - Well said!

@Clavdivs - an interesting quote, thanks for bringing it up. But his point is just, well, nonsense... It's kind of up there with the idea that certain languages have words that are 'untranslatable', which just doesn't make any sense. The fine folks over at Language Log have written about it a few times, here and here.
posted by Scottie_Bob at 3:01 PM on August 12, 2012


> thanks, I guess, for dismissing the past 100-odd years of social and political change and upheaval of an entire country whose poetry and language you profess to love,

Don't be silly, of course I'm not dismissing it.

> MacDiarmid's writings, poetry included, were/are an ongoing part of a discussion/debate/battle about what it means to me Scottish; about working class self-determinism, including thorny, often violently-resolved debates on labour and unions; what being Scottish means in the larger context of being British; and the class system as it is exploited by nationalist polticians for their own ends, among other things.

Of course they were/are; it would be foolish to deny it.

You and Scottie_Bob are both missing my point. I'm not saying MacDiarmid exists in some ethereal realm apart from everything else Scottish (if I did, he'd probably take time off from arguing with the saints and bop me in the head for it); he was very much part of the rough and tumble of Scottish political and intellectual life, and he would have been as mad at me as Pound for saying you should ignore his political and economic views and focus on the poetry, because that's all that matters. But it is. I'm sure MacDiarmid would place far more importance on his Three Hymns to Lenin than on his early lyrics; he would be wrong. Pound would tell you the John Adams and Chinese Cantos were infinitely more significant than "The Return" ("See, they return; ah, see the tentative/ Movements, and the slow feet...") or "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," but he would be wrong too. Once you start valuing poetry for what it has to say about the world, you wind up with idiocy like Auden deleting some of his best lyrics from his Collected because he no longer agreed with the points they were making. Poets are no more a judge of what's important than anyone else. All they're good for is writing poetry.

Now, lots of people, probably most people, don't care about poetry, not really. They may like a few lyrics they were exposed to in school, they may genuflect before the usual marble busts (Shakespeare if English, Pushkin if Russian), but they've never felt what Emily Dickinson was talking about when she said "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Those people treat poets as sources of impressive quotations and useful or amusing ideas. But Shakespeare isn't Polonius any more than Charlie Parker is a music box; art may well be the finest thing the human species produces, and I can't tell you how much I hate it when people reduce it to "messages" and treat it as fodder for political analysis. Poets have suffered a great deal throughout history because of that mistake; of course, they've contributed to that themselves, but that doesn't make it less of a mistake. "I' the how-dumb-deid o' the cauld hairst nicht" is worth more than the entire Scottish Nationalist Party.

I'm sorry I'm pissing you off; we all care about MacDiarmid and it's kind of silly for us to be yelling at each other on his account. But this stuff is obviously deeply important to each of us, so none of us can just let it go. I'll be happy to buy you a drink if I get the chance, and I suspect we'd get along fine, but I can't sit still for poetry being placed on the level of manifestos and newspaper editorials.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 PM on August 12, 2012


languagehat: I'm sorry I'm pissing you off; we all care about MacDiarmid and it's kind of silly for us to be yelling at each other on his account. But this stuff is obviously deeply important to each of us, so none of us can just let it go. I'll be happy to buy you a drink if I get the chance, and I suspect we'd get along fine, but I can't sit still for poetry being placed on the level of manifestos and newspaper editorials.

Don't worry, you're not pissing me off, I'm just getting a bit tetchy :)

Anyway, thanks for the considered and erudite response. If you'll forgive me, it's almost 2am here and I have work in the morning. If you can be arsed, I'd like to get into this much more thoroughly (without fighting), but since this isn't a Paul Ryan Announced As Romney's VP thread, I doubt a fuller response, given at a more leisurely pace, will get lost in the hustle and bustle, and hopefully I can do that tomorrow.

Oh, and offer of bought drink taken. I will obviously do likewise if it should be my turn. (Mine's a Laphroaig, if you're asking.)
posted by Len at 5:55 PM on August 12, 2012


we all care about MacDiarmid and it's kind of silly for us to be yelling at each other on his account.

Seems more than appropriate to me. One of the things I love about him is his pugnacity, as in his response to Housman:
‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.
Now, if you pushed me, I'd probably disagree with both Housman and MacDiarmid on the point being made, and if you pushed me more, my sentiments are probably closer to Housman's. But starting a poem "It is a God-damned lie ..." and pulling it off? Does it for me, every time.
posted by feckless at 6:46 PM on August 12, 2012


Awesome thread, thanks to all participants. Best fun in ages.
posted by Wolof at 7:00 AM on August 13, 2012


> Oh, and offer of bought drink taken. I will obviously do likewise if it should be my turn. (Mine's a Laphroaig, if you're asking.)

I'll join you in a Laphroaig if you'll join me in a Lagavulin. And thanks for taking my table-pounding so well!

> But starting a poem "It is a God-damned lie ..." and pulling it off? Does it for me, every time.

Yup, it's pretty hard to resist.
posted by languagehat at 8:02 AM on August 13, 2012


languagehat: I'll join you in a Laphroaig if you'll join me in a Lagavulin. And thanks for taking my table-pounding so well!

Ooh, Lagavulin? Good call.


Maybe this is me continuing to miss your point, but the idea that the only thing that poets are good for is to write poetry seems like a remarkably reductive thing. Not that all poets should be political activists and agitators for this that or the next thing, but the idea that poetry should be considered entirely on the merits of how it works as pure language seems kind of odd to me. I mean, if you're going to say – of poetry – fuck all that noise, just consider it as a thing in itself, then how is anything open to interpretation or analysis?

I think, in some ways, you and I maybe just differ – to a huge, categorical degree – in what we want/expect/get from poetry, and to what extent we consider it to interact with, well, everything else. I get the idea of considering every poem in isolation, just as its own lovely little concatenation of words and sounds and associated feelings – which, unless I'm misreading you, is your position (and if I am misreading you, then I apologise) – but it seems to me folly to divorce said words/sounds/feelings from the context in which they were created.

If John Donne can write some of the most heart-stoppingly true poetry about the nature of love (and I'd hope we would both agree that he did) and we're completely free to analyse how he did so and why it works, then why can't another poet write so forcefully on less starstruck matters and have us do likewise? I mean, do we just sack off any interpretation of Paradise Lost that isn't about the words themselves, but gives context to how and why it was written? Do we look at Shelley's Ozymandias and decide that any relation it had/has to the barbarous government of the time that it was written (1817) is irrelevant?

The interpretation that I get from what you're saying is that if all poets are good for is writing poetry, then they're completely separated from the world they (and we) live in. If it's not the case that they're completely separate from the world we live in, then what is the dividing line between what's an acceptable influence to discuss and what isn't? Are we supposed to read Eliot's The Wasteland only as a beautiful stream-of-consciousness string of imagery, or are we allowed to discuss where some of that imagery came from? And if we are to be allowed the latter, why should such discussion be restricted to how it built upon other poems, and not on politics, history, or anything else?

Now, granted, The Wasteland is about the most reference-dense and abstruse poem I could pick, but to be honest this isn't just about poetry. It's about literature in general. Why is it okay to section poetry off and declare that its merits have nothing to do with the real/socio-political world? Is any discussion about the racial and sexual themes of Baldwin's Another Country basically pointless because it's a beautifully written piece of prose? Or does the fact that it's not poetry exempt it from your schema? I don't say this to start an argument; I'm just genuinely baffled as to why you think that poetry's merit only ever should be considered with absolutely no reference to the outside world whatsoever, which is what I think you think when you say "I can't tell you how much I hate it when people reduce [poetry] to "messages" and treat it as fodder for political analysis."

Forgive me if I've misread you, but it seems like that's what you're saying.
posted by Len at 4:11 PM on August 13, 2012


> the idea that the only thing that poets are good for is to write poetry seems like a remarkably reductive thing.

Well, sure it is. In writing blog comments, as opposed to entire books, it's almost impossible to avoid being reductive. What I was doing was basically pointing emphatically in one direction rather than another. "Do I go this way or that way to get to Truthville?" "Go that way, for the love of god! If you go this way, you'll never get there!" Now, you might point out that if my interlocutor takes my "that way" too literally and never deviates from that compass heading, they'll wind up stumbling into a ravine or something, but my response would be that I respected my interlocutor enough to take a certain amount of good sense for granted. Similarly, of course poets are good for all sorts of things, like all people (well, almost all people, he said with a sideways glance in Dick Cheney's direction), but what they're for in some sense that I hope isn't too enigmatic is writing poetry, just as a corkscrew is for opening bottles, even if you can use it to write in the dirt or poke somebody's eye out. If a poet writes great poetry, that poet is a great poet; if not, not. So far, I hope, so good.

Now, what about the content of the poetry? Ah, a vexed issue! Sure, when dealing with poets who wrote about politics, history, economics, and suchlike, you have to deal with those topics yourself. But there's a difference (all the difference in the world, in my view) between saying "Pound was coming from a fascist viewpoint when he wrote the line 'The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders'" and saying the line is a better or worse line because it comes out of a fascist viewpoint. What I am arguing against is not people who want to discuss, say, MacDiarmid's combination of communism and nationalism, which is an interesting topic, but people who want to praise or damn MacDiarmid because of his ideas about those things. The reason I went off on Scottie_Bob is that he seemed to me (and I admit I have a hair-trigger on this subject) to be using MacDiarmid's overweening ambition and the fact that various upholders of various strands of Scottish thinking had various things to say about him as a stick to beat him with as a poet. And that's when I get riled up. I'm good and sick of people saying "I won't read Pound because he was a fascist, I won't read Neruda because he was a commie, I won't read Hemingway because he was sexist," etc. etc. It's because of that vulgar misunderstanding of what art is that I get perhaps too extremist in the other direction.

Let's say (to use an example I'm fond of) it turned out that Homer (about whom we notoriously know nothing whatever) was a slaveowner, or a violent aristocrat who oppressed people, or a member of some other detestable group. Would that change how you feel about his poetry? Of course it would introduce complexity into one's feelings about him, but to my mind it shouldn't change one's view of his poetry in the slightest. The words are there on the page, a possession for ever, whatever we may think of their author.

Does this make any sense?
posted by languagehat at 5:48 PM on August 13, 2012


Why is it okay to section poetry off and declare that its merits have nothing to do with the real/socio-political world?

It is my theory this is exactly why Pound chopped the Wasteland down to size.
It is a good question, one I do not think we can fully answer.
posted by clavdivs at 7:03 AM on August 14, 2012


I think we have to be clear here and ask Len if he was hanging about the outside of the queens hall last week, because I went up to him and he completely dingied me.
posted by sgt.serenity at 1:52 PM on August 20, 2012


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