Goodbye to a Scots Makar

I was very sad today to hear from Ian Rankin’s Twitter that the man who had been my favourite living Scots poet, Edwin Morgan, had passed away at the age of 90. He was writing to the end, a new collection published just this year to mark his 90th birthday, a bard who could shape verse in diverse ways and style, across many different subjects from everyday life to love to the creation of the universe, that important kiss, science fiction and of course his beloved Glasgow and Scotland. Poet Laureate of Glasgow then the first National Makar of Scotland, respected in dozens of countries and translated into many languages, one of the great figures of 20th century Scottish writing.

There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

Happy Burns Night

It’s January the 25th when Scots at home and the many-times that number of Scots and those of Scots blood abroad celebrate the life and art of our national bard, Robert Burns. Actually more than Scots – Burns is one of that handful of writers, like Austen, Borges and Cervantes, who cross the centuries, national boundaries and language to become a writer who belongs to the world. A Makar, as we would say, an old term which implies more than a writer, but a maker of words, ideas and worlds, one who translates notions, symbols, thoughts and feelings into that magical form we call words so others can share them.

There’s nane that’s blest of human kind,
But the cheerful and the gay, man,
Fal, la, la, &c.

Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?
Wha kens, before his life may end,
What his share may be o’ care, man?

Then catch the moments as they fly,
And use them as ye ought, man:
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not aye when sought, man.”

“A bottle and friend”, Robert Burns, 1787

This year the city of my birth, Glasgow, has taken this day to mark another great Scots poet as well, the bard I personally consider the greatest living Scots poet and my personal favourite, the quite wonderful Edwin Morgan. Sadly Eddie, now in his mid 80s and suffering from cancer, isn’t up to taking part but nonetheless some 15, 000 free copies of one of his collections of poetry is being given out over a 24 hour period in Glasgow with poets doing readings all over the city and ordinary folks in the street being encouraged to explore a part of their culture and heritage that many of them perhaps don’t think about too much.

Actually, even among many book folks I often hear the ignorant “I don’t like poetry” response from people all the time. That’s usually from people who never bother their arse to actually try reading some different types of poetry. Its like saying I don’t like jazz, I don’t like Indian food, I don’t like… Well, you get the idea – dismissing a whole and very diverse area without exploring it, or rubbishing it on perhaps one or two tiny looks. Its a sign of a closed mind and that’s a shame because poetry is one of the finest ways I know to open minds and expand not only the imagination but the senses and the ability to perceive more with them; good poetry reaches beyond what even the best prose can do (and some of the best prose feels poetic), it interacts with our intellect but also our spiritual side and connects us, ideas, dreams, the world and the other worlds behind the one we see with our ordinary eyes.

Still say you don’t like poetry? Think about it next time you are listening to some beautiful piece of music that moves you in a way you didn’t think anything could and then realise you’re listening to another form of poetry, told in notes and beats. Poetry is music, its words, its rhythm, its life.

But now, if you will excuse me, my personal Burns Supper awaits – something a little different this year, vegetarian haggis samosas in chili sauce! (if you are wondering how you get a veggie haggis, you take an ordinary wild haggis and feed it on tofu) Thus combining two great Scottish traditions, the haggis and Indian food, on one meal and of course a very fine single malt to toast the Bard. Slainte!

Happy Saint Andrew’s Day

Patron saint of Scotland, depiste never actually having been in Caledonia in his lifetime. Home-grown talent from these islands, such as Columba, must have thought they were a shoe-in for the top job but lost out to Andy – today politicians looking for easy popularity with the unthinking masses would no doubt make a song and dance about bloody immigrants taking our jobs…

Saint Andrew’s Day is now marked by the First Minister of the Scottish parliament who rides a giant haggis down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, throwing greasy Scotch pies and bottles of Irn Bru to the crowds. Tradition has it that if you are fortunate enough to catch some of this largesse you should take it home and, in the ancient Scottish manner, deep fry them and eat them. You should then experience a vision of Saint Coronary, another important Scots saint. The former head of the Scottish Conservatives was supposed to follow on another haggis, but he was forced to resign after attempting to claim travel by haggis as parliamentary expenses when using it for his own purposes (sorry, that won’t mean a thing to anyone who hasn’t been following Scottish politics).

And to mark Saint Andrew’s Day I visited the very nifty Poetry Archive and had a listen to my favourite living Scottish poet, the wonderful Edwin Morgan (the first National Makar – that’s Poet Laureate to non Scots). It’s a lovely site with a very good range of wordspinners on it. I like good poetry; I love prose but there are some ideas, feelings and events which poetry can suggest in a way prose cannot (although sometimes very moving prose becomes almost like poetry). Poetry is to literature as jazz is to music; it can be fast or slow, playful or mournful, reflective or full of light but always different. And the best way to hear it is from the lips of the bard – as you can do on the Poetry Archive.