A Turbulent Makar

(This piece on Edwin Morgan’s Scottish Laureateship was written in November 2005 for a small magazine the name and a copy of which continues to evade me.)

The idea of a poet laureate carries with it some interesting preconceptions. Although it began with Ben Jonson getting a royal backhander, in its official form it was a symbolic result of the Restoration, part of the Court’s way of reaffirming its own authority by harping back to the classical era, equating Charles II with Augustus, and Dryden with Virgil (whom he naturally translated).

Today it has become instead a symbol of atomisation, of the fissiparousness of the modern state: the present Poet Laureate affiliates himself as much with the unions as with the Union, firing off anti-war squibs while micro-laureateships are assigned to cities and community groups. Now this proliferation has crossed the border, and a nascent state-within-a-state has decided it too needs affirming in proper poetese. Hence the appointment of the distinguished Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan as Laureate for Scotland. Or rather Makar, as though the name is a little too, well, English, and requires translation.

Typically, Morgan has disputed both the name and the role. Despite being confined to a nursing home in a terminal battle with cancer, his first gesture was to express gentle disapproval of the title – ‘makar’ or ‘maker’ is a late medieval Scots term for ‘poet’, an indigenous translation from the Greek (the root verb ‘poieein’ means ‘to make’). Morgan prefers to be associated with post-Independence Scotland, rather than its pre-Reformation incarnation, and drove the point home by writing a trenchant call for a Scottish republic:

…what’s to come, not what has been

Drives us charged and tingling-new

To score our story on the blue.

Which should come as no surprise to the man who appointed him, Scotland’s First Minister, Jack McConnell, but raises a question as to what the function of a laureate is. Clearly the term has some elasticity – a US Laureate serves for a year, and creates their own definition of the job: Billy Collins, for instance, chose to attack Bush’s warmongering while defending his policies on literacy. The UK’s Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, isn’t a poet, but Dahl’s representative on Earth of the zeitgeist-busting genre of children’s fiction. So what exactly is a laureate for?

We must distinguish between the policy of the appointer, and that of the appointee – McConnell resembles Charles II (if in no other way!) in marking the re-creation of his office with the creation of a cultural equivalent. A certain debasement of the term already creeps in at this point: ‘laureate’ means crowned with laurels, and Dryden and his successors were, figuratively, kings of poets. A mere First Minister can only confirm a pre-eminence: Morgan was already ‘first’ in terms of status and age within Scotland. So that intimate relationship between laureate and monarch, so painstakingly (and sometimes awkwardly) negotiated in the works of Andrew Motion, cannot exist. There will be no odes to the First Minister’s offspring.

When Morgan asserts that ‘we poets are free spirits and we distrust the establishment,’ we have to question the reasoning behind the role. McConnell presumably knew he was appointing a kind of official gadfly, and that the cultural policy of the Scottish Executive would give him plenty ammunition. The financial crisis Scottish Opera has been placed in could only give rise to poems comparing the Culture Minister, Frank McAveety, with T.S.Eliot’s ‘Napoleon of crime’: McAvity the Mystery Cat. We must accept that some types of culture are cheaper than others, and that if McConnell can take the flak from a national opera company and its supporters, he’s hardly going to be troubled by a ‘turbulent’ makar.

But this points to another aspect of the modern laureateship: like the Children’s Laureateship, it is arguably there to promote a genre. In the eyes of the media at least, poetry lags behind more congenial art-forms like film, the novel and theatre. A laureateship functions as a kind of rallying point, and the Scottish appointment could operate in this way.

Although Scottish poetry is currently experiencing a renaissance comparable only to the achievements of Burns, Fergusson, Scott and Hogg, it isn’t as recognised nationally or internationally as Scottish fiction, painting or composition. Partly this is due to an old Scottish policy of ‘divide and be conquered’ – those poets staying in Scotland rarely achieved the profile of those who moved south, while the exiles weren’t always acknowledged there as primarily Scottish figures. Think of Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Muir, or Norman MacCaig and Douglas Dunn, or even Liz Lochhead and Carol Ann Duffy. As Roddy Lumsden wrote about hitting the high road south:

…I’d heard what Doctor Johnson said, When a man is tired

of London, he is tired of life, but I’d been tired of life

for fourteen years…

If you don’t have the cultural infrastructure to support poetry – the ‘significant’ presses, the decent review space, the dedicated awards – some talent will always filter towards The Place That Does. Of course the Scottish Arts Council made giant leaps forward with their flexible residencies for writers, which allow prolonged interaction with the community, and the Creative Scotland awards. (Is there anyone who owns a biro who hasn’t received one?) Of course the emergence of schools of creative writing in the main universities will have an increasing impact, just as the educational policies of the seventies helped the development of a gifted generation spanning from Lumsden back to Robert Crawford.

But the question remains: is the appointment of a Scottish Makar a catalyst that will result in Scottish poetry and Scottish cultural issues being part of informed debate within Britain as a whole – or indeed within Scotland as a hole? I fear not.

We Scots have committed an old familiar crime: peering over the next boy’s elbow and copying what’s written there, right or wrong. We’re going through the Motions. The real impact of the English laureateship has been behind the scenes: Andrew Motion’s work promoting writing in education deserves our praise when his front page verses sometimes do not. The fact that the English press have put him there says more about their eagerness to ridicule those forms which do not immediately render up simple meanings (those forms which do not resemble journalism, basically). Motion must frequently feel that he functions as a scapegoat for English poetry, and the sense of inadequacy it inspires in the culturally insecure, rather than as its laureate. This is not a model Scotland ought to follow.

Which is not to say I disagree with Morgan’s appointment. Edwin Morgan is one of those poets whose reputation slow-burned because he chose to survey the universe from his home city of Glasgow. So I think the Makarship (if that’s the right word) has a valid role in honouring one of our greatest poets. His OBE was eventual acknowledgement from the British establishment that here was a significant writer, and in this sense it is important that Scotland has a means of giving equivalent acknowledgement.

But that’s a one off – Morgan is the last of a generation which included Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig and W.S. Graham. Any one of those would have made a worthy Makar if the only consideration is to be overdue acknowledgement. Scotland’s poets, however, no longer require pats on the back. They hold posts in publishing houses and universities, they write for major newspapers and learned journals, they perform their work across Britain and indeed across Europe. All they actually require is an increased audience (though they can never rival their novelistic brethren) and an equivalent enthusiasm within that audience to that shown by the fans of Scottish Opera. The moon on a stick, in other words.

The gateway to that increased audience, to that deepened enthusiasm, remains the media and the book trade. A poet inspires hundreds by his or her readings, while a newspaper, a radio programme, reaches hundreds of thousands (let’s not dream of TV). But the media prefers to push only what already sells and push away that which is perceived to threaten its own sales. A volume of poetry moves a reader deeply through years of re-reading, but the bookshop sends it back to the publisher after an increasingly short time, while shovelling out the latest demographically-designed creative caramels. Faced with this, the appointment of laureates suffers from the sin of tokenism.

Just like the media’s incessant ‘Best of…’s – filtering artists through guesswork sieves into digestible tens or twenties – a laureateship effectively stands in for its constituency, rather than standing up for it. There are plenty of poets in Scotland – the place is hoatching with makarettes and makaronis. Many of them are rubbish, some are fantastic. But the way to distinguish between them is to read them and decide for yourself. Poetry is one of the last free territories in a world consumed by consumerism. By all means read Edwin Morgan as he effortlessly evades that process, but don’t be dictated to by a politician into confusing a bureaucratic purview with creative freedom. Morgan is the Makar of the Scottish Imagination, not the Scottish Executive.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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