The Great Slowing Down versus Poet MacDiarmid (1)

I find in recent years two phenomena have influenced my diminished ability to write reflectively on ‘what’s happening’ (ie to maintain this blog). One is distracting phrases form in my mind with big, mock-serious, near-Germanic capitals at their heads: the Continuity, the Ephemeral, the Secondary, the Provisional. Occasionally these form actual phrases: Dark Whimsy, Creative Procrastination or, my subject here, the Great Slowing Down. The other is I lapse into just counting things out, often into blocks of three or four (Venn diagrams or triquetra) or five or seven (the fingers of one hand or of one monster’s hand – or just the seven item To-Do list).

Obviously these represent attempts to keep hold of ideas that I barely understand, and to build from them into larger units I can just about work with. So with two recent pieces: e.g. the five points explored in this talk about MacDiarmid for StAnza (sea bellow), or the seven in that article about City Makars for the SPL. Equally obviously there is a ritualistic (hopefully mildly) obsessive element to the counting – at some point I took that old staple buy of the tourist in Greece, the komboloi, bought for my father ten or fifteen years ago, out of its drawer in my parents’ house, and put it to the same meditative use as everyone who has ever counted beads.

I started with my relatives’ names going back two generations, then I tried to remember the names of the Disciples. Then I tried to remember the names of the Indisciples. None of it helped with the Slowing Down (Greatly) – mair on which shortly.

In the meantime, houever, here is the opening section (ane o three) o my talk on Hugh MacDiarmid at this year’s StAnza festival, where I shared an event with a friend from my Colpitts Poetry days, Harriet Tarlo, who was talking about H.D.


The Fingers of MacDiarmid Contract in a Report to the Recording Angel


I must confess to a certain uneasiness revisiting Poet MacDiarmid as Russian tanks roll through Ukraine, reminding me not only of his decision to rejoin the Communist Party after the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, but his terrifying, Putin-like question from the ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’, written in response to the Great Purge: ‘Whit maitters’t wha we kill?’ This, it seems at first, is very much a voice from another time.

Moreover, it is so long now since I completed my doctoral study of MacDiarmid that I feel I am looking at him through the lens of a previous self, much of whose thinking also belongs to its historical moment: the post-Devolution defeat, pre-Scottish parliament interregnum of the Thatcherite 1980s.

It is, however, salutary to realise that, as MacDiarmid was fond of saying, watertight compartments are only of use to a sinking ship: understanding how our aesthetic and political histories are always intertwined and ongoing is a necessary element in coming to terms with history – we cannot set ourselves apart as judges without understanding that is exactly what such artists set out to do, and that any attempt to defy that insight will subject us to the similarly aghast scrutiny of the future.

While I was thinking myself back into what was once blithely termed ‘the age of MacDiarmid’, I dug out on YouTube a debate from 1977 about Devolution – also a fascinating glimpse into another era, dominated by Margo MacDonald and Teddy Taylor, not least because we live in a clearly alternative future to the one under furious discussion by the politicians, union reps, meenisters, and landowners involved, but because there in the front row of the audience, waiting quietly, sits C.M. Grieve, AKA “Hugh MacDiarmid”.

He’s as tiny and somehow as separate as the Queen, 85 years old, in a crumpled suit and dark glasses, red shirt and tie under a grey woollen v-neck; his breast pocket is crammed with stationery as though he were a star pupil, and there are a few crumpled sheets of paper in his elegant hands. He seems to be playing himself in the final scenes in a drama, where his inspiring speech changes everyone’s mind. When the chair addresses him as ‘Hugh’ he takes a few beats to begin MacDiarmidising…then declares his utter disagreement with everyone, and has to be stopped as he goes on to the dreaded ‘second page’, quoting Muir on – what else? – his own uniqueness.

There is a division of both audience and panel into those who refer to him, usually dismissively, as ‘MacDiarmid’, and those who address him, mostly respectfully, as ‘Chris’. One of the former, with reference to his self-declared ‘Englophobia’, interjects that someone to their left has just muttered ‘bloody English’. The camera reveals the heckle has come from MacDiarmid’s wife, the redoubtable Cornish separatist Valda, her hair vividly hennaed the same hue of red.

Between them, Chris/Hugh and Valda seem to speak from another era still, infants terribles of a time before referenda, trolls avant la internet, where you could say anything because no-one was listening. While the discussion returns to degrees of separatism, MacDiarmid’s own separateness seems of a different order – a matter of how the imagination relates to history through language.

When you turn to the poetry it is immediately evident that this relationship is far shiftier than we might suppose – here are the opening lines of In Memoriam James Joyce:

I remember how you laughed like Hell

When I read you from Pope’s ‘Politics of the Aryan Road’:

‘English is destined to become the Universal Language! [sic]

Although he appears to be addressing Joyce here, he never met him, so this is probably Valda too, meaning that the poem is actually likely to be the ‘Cornish Heroic Song for Valda Trevelyn’ and, anyway, if it’s so funny, why has he chosen to write his epic in English? Might it be because no-one read the several epics he wrote in Scots?

When, several hundred lines later, MacDiarmid asks, with regard to ‘the Eddic “Converse of Thor and the All-Wise Dwarf”’ ‘You remember it?’ the poet Peter McCarey replies frankly, ‘Well actually no I don’t, the author knows I don’t, and knows that I’m sure that he doesn’t either.’

It is on this textually and tonally uncertain ground, in fact in the immediately succeeding lines, that MacDiarmid writes the renowned passage:

Let the only consistency

In the course of my poetry

Be like that of the hawthorn tree

Which in early Spring breaks

Fresh emerald, then by nature’s law

Darkens and deepens and

Tints of purple-maroon, rose-madder and straw.

And when the leaves have passed

Or only in a few tatters remain

The tree to the winter condemned

Stands forth at last

Not bare and drab and pitiful,

But a candelabrum of oxidised silver gemmed

By innumerable points of ruby…

That so it may be

With my poems too at last glance

Is my only desire.

Here he builds the haws, the birches, ‘the sauch, the osier, and the crack-willow’ – an entire Caledonian Forest of tree symbolism – up into a rare passage of sustained lyrical excellence.

I say ‘writes’ and ‘builds’, but I mean something more like ‘steals’ or ‘collages’, for he is here asserting a whole that transcends all of its sometimes very dodgy parts. And this manipulation of the reader through the reorganisation of language was MacDiarmid’s technique right from when he was plain CMG.

Perhaps the simplest way to explore this is through one of Chris Grieve’s creaky old cranky ideas that nonetheless still seems to be resonant, the Celtic crescent. That the minority cultures of these islands could form an alliance against the dominance of a type of Englishness associated with the major public schools sounds a little familiar. Something like that, after all, has been discussed over two of the crises of our time, Brexit and Covid. Except of course, like a latter-day McGonagall, he puts it in the form of the prosodically execrable ‘The Fingers of Baal Contract in the Communist Salute’, of which Tom Nairn remarked:

‘The “fingers” were the Celtic nations. Cornwall was naturally represented by Valda, alongside Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Scotland…the resultant clenched fist was mainly for waving under England’s nose. But it was also meant to please Joseph Stalin…Indeed the longest poem in the world was intended to prove not simply that the Celts were natural communists, but that they had all originally come from Georgia.’

(Which was invaded by Putin in 2008, evidently under a similar misconception.)

In the same year as ‘Poems of the East-West Synthesis’, 1946, another book appeared which explored theories about the origins and poetical heritage of the Celts and also focussed on trees and hands. That would be Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, on page 195 of which there is a hand with the letters of an Irish tree alphabet arranged across its fingertips and joints.

This made me wonder if a grafting of Gravesian thought onto the fingertips of the hopefully obliging Baal might be of any use? In short, I propose to categorise here MacDiarmid’s thinking upon the fingers of one hand through the exploration of five emblematic trees from his work.

The five trees are: the burning bush alluded to in the first poem in his Collected Poems, ‘A Moment in Eternity’; the sauch or willow, mentioned above but also featuring in the 1926 collection, Penny Wheep; the ash or World Tree ‘Ygdrasil’ which appears in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle; the mango tree – not a native species – which pops up in ‘Plaited Like the Generations of Men’; and, finally, from a 1970 volume, but composed much earlier, the resonantly-titled ‘My Songs Are Kandym in the Waste Land’.

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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2 Responses to The Great Slowing Down versus Poet MacDiarmid (1)

  1. Pingback: Micro-reviews (1): Haurd Roads an Cauld Hairst Winds | gairnet provides: press of blll

  2. Murray Edmond says:

    I heard MacDiarmid read in London, I think it was 1976 (it could, I confess, have been 1975, such is the mind’s slight sleight), when he he looked very like in the photo. I think it was in a lecture theatre in the U of London. My childhood from 6 to 18 years was spent living in a MacDiarmid Rd in Hamilton, NZ. The very short street had been named after the MacDiarmids who lived next door and from whom Dad had bought the land where we had our house. How the MacDiarmid land had been acquired in the great 19C colonial land heist I would now like to inquire. Mr MacDiarmid was a charming old man, once a lawyer, and Beryl, his 2nd wife, was, as we say, a hoot!

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