Non-Standard (2)

(This second part is drawn from the lectures I delivered at Newcastle on ‘Modern Scottish Poetry’, a course I taught until it became evident that Creative Writing was where all the effort needed to go, in terms of designing an MA, formalising our PhD, and, latterly, expanding undergraduate provision into a combined BA with Literature. The book on Scottish poetry was never finished, nor was the Bartlebyan question of where the limits of the writer’s role lie definitively answered. That is of course the task I’m readdressing myself to at the moment.)

When I arrived at Newcastle three years ago [written 2005], I decided to teach a course on modern Scottish poetry, partly as an incentive to begin a book of essays, partly because the city’s proximity to Scotland led me to suppose – irony alert – it might be a useful staging post in the gradual worldwide spread of Scottish literary studies. A small minority of Scottish students and a constituency of local undergraduates meant that the issues I’d be discussing weren’t entirely foreign. But the presence of large numbers of students from Southern England led me to look for models which could explain the complex issues of language, register and cultural reference found in Scots writers.

I was re-establishing contact with an old friend in Modern Languages at the time, Francis Jones, and it occurred to me that some basic ideas from translation theory might help explain what I saw as Scottish writers’ conflicting intentions, ranging from the relative accessibility of a writer like Kathleen Jamie to the deliberate arcaneness of Hugh MacDiarmid.

In particular I liked the idea that Scottish writers, constantly aware of the overweening canon of English poetry, might in a sense be translating themselves – or refusing to translate themselves – into types of poets that English canon-makers understood – or rejected. This related, if only in a metaphoric sense, to Venuti’s distinction between domestication and foreignisation.

To domesticate a text, of course, is to render its foreignness as familiarity, to find equivalents in the host language for its unique linguistic structure or field of reference. To foreignise is to proceed in the opposite direction, stretching the host language to accommodate those signs of distinctness. One reassures us the material fits within our social paradigms, and that language is transparent, a means to an end; the other forces us to rethink that paradigm, and emphasises the role of language in its construction.

If we apply these ideas to a poem by Kathleen Jamie, for instance, we immediately see both tactics at work. Here is the opening of ‘The Republic of Fife’:

Higher than the craw-stepped

gables of our institutes – chess-clubs,

fanciers, reels & Strathspeys –

the old kingdom of lum, with crowns agley.

This stanza presents us with a series of linguistically and culturally distinct referents, from Scottish country dancing’s ‘reels & Strathspeys’ and the common term ‘lum’ for chimney, to a combination of both in the term ‘craw-stepped/gables’, an architectural feature I found myself explaining to the poet Sharon Olds in St Andrews the other week. Yet these terms are presented as normal parts of an otherwise conventional English sentence. In that sense they are being domesticated.

If we contrast this with the practice of MacDiarmid in his early Scots poems, we find a different tactic. Here is the opening of ‘Crowdieknowe’:

Oh to be at Crowdieknowe

When the last trumpet blaws,

An’ see the deid come loupin’ owre

The auld grey wa’s.

This poem is about how a graveyard in MacDiarmid’s hometown of Langholm behaves at the Last Judgement – rather aggressively. Langholm is only a few miles across the border, but it occupies a distinct linguistic territory from Jamie’s poem. Here Scots is the norm in the way Standard English was in hers, and instead of a few, hopefully-decipherable terms, the difficult words in MacDiarmid’s poem are really difficult. In other words he is arguably foreignising his work.

And yet MacDiarmid, at the same time as putting this barrier up to the non-Scottish reader, also extends a would-be helpful hand: he includes a glossary that enables us to learn that ‘loupin’’ means ‘leaping’, and he indicates through apostrophe where Scots contracts an English word like ‘wall’ into ‘wa’’. Jamie, writing seventy years later, feels no need to extend a similar courtesy to the reader: the equally recondite term ‘agley’ (meaning ‘askew’) is given no gloss.

Clearly both writers are both foreignising and domesticating their texts at the same time, but to differing degrees. Equally clearly the applicability of a metaphoric interpretation of Venuti’s theory could only be tried on by a poet. The way the academy manifests itself in the poet, we might argue, may not always be on the academy’s terms.

MacDiarmid’s tactic at least appears to be conscious: by providing the gloss he is indicating Scots could be seen as a separate language. Jamie, in the new-found cultural confidence of the 90s, is less polemic, more ambiguous. Hers is a Scots English which doesn’t need to explain itself. And yet she also writes poems which are more fully in Scots, and when I talked with her recently for an Open University recording, she stated that she thought of Scots as a separate language, declaring with magnificent ambivalence, ‘Language is not voice – is it?’

How can we best characterise this fraught self-contradictory territory? Is Christopher Whyte right to suggest in his recent book Modern Scottish Poetry that:

…the critical tradition associated with Scottish Literature has surely reached a point in its evolution where the ‘question about Scottishness’, and the associated search for a national tradition can be set aside, not least because the answers these have come up with are riddled with ambiguity.

Note he is also prepared to comment, ‘One could argue that the nationalistic critic and the practitioner of literary theory are natural enemies’. Perhaps Whyte would argue his study achieves a perspective similar to that propounded by Foucault in his definition of genealogy. But to the practitioner of verse watching from the margins, it might seem that one less current theory is being swept away in favour of another, more current one. If we look again at what Foucault says, its relevance to the ambiguous, discontinuous non-tradition of the Scots seems clear enough:

Genealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people. On the contrary, to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in their proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations – or conversely the complete reversals – the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us…

It has certainly been my professional experience that some weird version of that tradition continues to exist for most Scots poets, and Foucault’s depiction would seem to apply particularly to a small culture constantly at risk of being caught up in the political ambitions, military actions, and imperialist ideology of a larger nation. It’s for this reason I’d characterise Scottish poetry as a kind of by-culture, something not entirely produced, as it were, under its own steam, but constantly struggling with the notion of whether it can or can’t be identified as a distinct entity.

To be constantly in the shadow would seem to inspire two main courses of action: to become one with those who cast the shadow, to domesticate; or to foreignise, to get out of the shadow altogether, and attempt to be seen in your own light. In this arena the choice of language appears to have become polarised: according to many Scottish poets, to be understood by the English you must, apparently, write in an English; to preserve or develop Scottish culture you must, it seems, write in Scots. How this worn-out thesis and antithesis have developed into an unlikely contemporary synthesis is, unfortunately, beyond the scope of this talk.

As the course developed it became clear that an unusual paradox was emerging. As I had anticipated, writers like Muir, Dunn, and Paterson proved popular, because their writings positioned them in relation to an English tradition students were familiar with – Eliot, Harrison, Muldoon. But this tended to be the choice of the lazier student. The poets people wrote best about were figures like Liz Lochhead or Tom Leonard, where a combination of difficult language and an explicitly anti-academic posture would seem to create something of a hurdle.

Leonard is, let me remind you, the author of the brilliant sequence ‘Unrelated Incidents’, the third of which begins as follows:

this is thi

six a clock

news thi

man said n

the reason

a talk wia

BBC accent

iz coz yi

widny wahnt

mi ti talk

aboot thi

trooth wia

voice lik

wanna yoo


In Leonard’s introduction to Radical Renfrew, an anthology of nineteenth century poetry which focusses on working class literature (often in Scots, often by women), he places great emphasis on the role of education in forming and maintaining a linguistically ‘proper’ canon:

To understand Literature is to understand a code, and the teacher is the person trained to possess the code that Literature is in. This has to be accepted unconditionally, as it is the sole basis of the teacher’s power to grade pupils’ responses. A piece of writing that does not acknowledge the code that the teacher has been trained to possess, cannot be accepted as Literature: for such writing deprives the teacher of the only basis of his power of assessment.

But if we examine this thesis in relation to the contrary elements of foreignisation and domestication I have been putting forward, then a difficulty emerges. Certainly the writers who understand the ‘code’ – like Douglas Dunn, say – get studied. But because the more resistant writers like MacDiarmid or Leonard himself, can be argued to have established alternative codes – MacDiarmid’s glossaries, Leonard’s use of phonetic spellings – they would appear to require a further act of explication for non-Scottish audiences. In my experience, this further explication, a type of cultural translation, lends itself to precisely the academic system Leonard is criticising.

Arguably, then, Leonard has not yet negotiated his own assimilability into academic discourse. Yet he is already being discussed on several courses, including mine. And Leonard’s theoretical and polemical writing, however much it stems from his creative practice, has arguably in recent years overtaken that practice. Equally, despite those few courses, the academy has, arguably, not yet caught up with the contemporary. The role of the poet in the academy at such points would appear to be eminently practical. Instead of seeking an overview Leonard’s work has not yet reached, he or she turns the student’s attention back to the poetry, to those points which do and do not conform to the theorising of the later writer.

In general, then, the writer can be said to be performing an important service of observing the manifestation of the genealogies, a role with its roots in the type of close reading which is a familiar part of the practice of teaching Creative Writing. This therefore marks a point of intersection between the role of literary critic and writing tutor. The question remains, however, where does the writer go from here into the realms of theory, canon formation, pedagogy, and course design, and at what point does he or she remark with Bartleby, ‘I would prefer not to’?


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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