Addressing Dundee

(These first few catch-up blogs are relatively straightforward posts in that they’re already done. Here’s the first of three commissioned or otherwise occasional pieces written between June and November of last year: the verse I delivered at the dinner, and the short address I gave at the graduation ceremony at which I was awarded an honorary degree from Dundee University.

The large humblebrag quotient in that last clause is probably what has delayed me posting this by six months or so. Another factor is these are occasional pieces in several sense of that term. But the question of what the occasional might be, is, I suppose, why I want to post them now.

With the poem – delivered at a formal but relatively intimate dinner – a mostly comic tone was in keeping, and the totemic figure of McGonagall allowed me to posit that doggerel might have a peculiarly democratic role in Dundee. In the address, there was a more obviously ‘suitable’ part, exhortatory, aspirational, symbolised by the dolphins; and a slightly questionable element, flippant, even odd, represented by the cephalopods.

That off-the-cuff warm up line about the link between a squid in a library and a ‘wacky’ TV ad suggests a different kind of link between the role of poetry – or the poet – and appropriateness, which I think is more or less what I’m looking at in other, as yet incomplete posts. There is a sense on such occasions that verse (in the traditional prosodic understanding of the term) is formally suitable, but that its register – what contemporary writers say in such forms – might be more problematic, or at least a matter for debate.

A straightforward panegyric mode is obviously still accessible to us (Morgan’s lines on the opening of the Scottish Parliament come to mind), it’s more a question of why anyone other than the Poet Laureate or our own Scottish Makar should want to access it. And for me especially, as Dundee Makar, whether that is at all what I want to do with the role. To be honest, I like disturbances – I’m as interested in unsettlement as I am in settlement.

So, on the one hand I didn’t want to do anything less than honour an occasion I have an investment in as an academic as well as a participant, but on the other, I wanted my way of honouring it to be ‘open’ in several senses: to the random, the bizarre, and, on another level, to more difficult matters like commodification and, most importantly, bereavement.

Because in a way all that was a balancing act – a preamble to the mention of my father, and the dedication of the degree to him. The fact that English Literature students happened to be graduating alongside nurses made it possible to do something nearer to the bone, and so I wanted to try and enlarge the register somehow from congratulations, peroration and dedication. Both the trivial and the tragic have their place at our rites of transition.


As it happened, the extraordinary Leymah Gbowee was the other person receiving an honorary degree that morning, and her powerful, heartfelt account of death and oppression on the national stage of Liberia, and indeed the international stage on which her Nobel Laureate has helped her in the lonely task of speaking truth to entrenched male power, put all my concerns into perspective. Her address was disturbing and galvanising in equal measure about the terrifying vulnerability of women and children in war, and what can be done with courage and solidarity. Please look out her story.)

Dundee addresses

1. To the Guests

Now comes the time for giving thanks
When honoured guests – and even planks
Like me – express their gratitude
For hospitality. Hot food
And heady talk: from soup to nuts
We’ve had our fill, and now some klutz
Rears up to reel off cramboclink?
– McGonagall would turn to drink.
Who he? Dundee’s teetotal bard
Whose verses left the muses scarred.
Who me? Why I am Dundee’s Makar,
This celebrated city’s slacker,
Who writes on dolphins and on pies
And will for nothing tell you lies.

Who they? Far more distinguished guests
Whose stories verse must part-digest
For they belong now to Dundee
And doggerel’s democracy.

Here’s Danny Wallace, Dundee’s Dice Man:
To all that cometh, like an Iceman,
For one whole year he just said, ‘Yes’.
But this September? Do confess…

Chris van der Kuyl, that coolest man,
Has done what digitally he can
To lose us in procrastination
By bringing Minecraft to the nation.

We all want liberty and health
But both states are accrued to wealth:
Let those who heal or strive for peace
Be fitly honoured by degrees.

Leymah Gbowee spoke to power
Lowering guns at a crucial hour:
Liberia’s hero, challenging lies,
Won for all women a noble prize.

Chris Marshall signalled how the cell
Grows cancerous – perhaps the knell
To that disease Ron Laskey screens:
So we encroach on Death’s demesne.

Mei Lin Young asked: where is our ground
If not in knowledge? Where we found
A university we find,
Like her, an Eden for the mind.

Our lives are not as neat as nations:
Interdependent with Creation,
A virus is another violence
Sir David Baulcombe’s work has silenced.

While hydro is another power
That Scotland owns in muckle showers
And flocks of lochs and rivers’ force:
Let David Siggsworth guard that source.

Eight noble names plus mine makes nine –
The muses’ number, so, more wine:
Let independent thought inspire,
And toast our host, in grateful choir!

2. To the Graduates

My thanks to the Chancellor, Professor Finkelstein, and the University.

Congratulations, everybody, today is a good day: we graduated, we all made the grade.

Don’t worry, I may be the Makar, but I’m not going to read you a poem – last night I did just that, at the formal dinner, remarking the experience must be a bit like finding a squid in a library. I went home, and while checking the England score – didn’t they do well? [this would have been the England-Uruguay result – England lost 2-1] I saw an ad in which an octopus beat four Chinese players at ping pong… The world you’re graduating into is a wierd, wonderful, and often terrifying place.

This morning, while I ironed this very shirt, I was looking out of the window, watching for dolphins coming up the Tay – one of the joys of Dundee in the summer months. I’d like to tell you for the sake of neatness that I saw some: as in David Constantine’s poem, ‘Waiting for Dolphins’, we ‘all, unaccustomed, [want] epiphany…’, today especially, but I won’t lie. For once.

We learn from Latin that to graduate comes from gradus, a step. So to graduate also means you are taking a step out of the academy and into the world, adding one more degree to the sum of human ability. One degree may not seem much, but as we know from studying global warming, as the dolphins already know, even a single degree has the potential to change our world utterly. As they say in the ads, steps can go down as well as up, backwards as well as forward. You have the chance to step positively, the chance to change things as you have been changed by these years of study.

Ten years before most of you were taking your first serious exam, that one called being born, I was receiving my first degree. I was the first in my family to do so, so my family were there, as, mostly, yours are now, just checking that it was really happening. One of the joys you’re feeling now is joy in their joy, that empathy that defines family, that defines community, that I like to think defines Dundee. It is the same empathy you’ll need now to engage with others in your careers, your maturity. The world is wierd and getting weirder, but it is also wonderful, full of epiphanies, and, with your help, it could get fuller and fuller of wonder. Take plenty of immaturity with you, for the journey.

My father, who was there at my first and indeed my second graduations, is not here today. He died earlier this year, so I want to dedicate my degree to his memory. As the nurses here today know, part of your maturity will be joyous, part of it will be suffering. I still remember the nurse saying goodbye to my father just after he’d died: that is empathy.

But no more tears, my dears. I suggest you dedicate part of your degree to those who got you here today, who are still with you, or are with you in spirit. The rest of it is yours alone: use your learning, your empathy, to take you wherever you want to go; take us along with you in search of dolphins, in search of epiphany: take us somewhere wierd and wonderful!

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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