Micro-reviews (1): Haurd Roads an Cauld Hairst Winds

(Translations into Scots from Du Fu and Li Bai by Brian Holton, Taproot Press, 2021)

I’ve been meaning for a while to post a few of the micro-reviews I always end up writing whenever I’m asked for ‘a sentence or two’ about a book. (See The Great Slowing Down for a rueful attempt to assess such self-impeding processes). Perhaps other fowk can dash aff these things, but I’m generally so excited to have received the book that I immediately set it aside for ‘Special Reading’, then forget aa aboot it, get chased by the author/publisher (baith of whom I’ve primed to do so in case I set it aside as above), then devour the book in a oner, and have to write tons about it.

In previous times, I would then set it aside again for ‘Special Editing’, and the haill delaying thing would begin again. Nou I send the resulting micro-review and apologetically beg the recipient to cerve oot thir ain sentence.

The stimulus to post this sma appreciation of Brian Holton’s fine book was: I’m late again! – I said to Brian I’d post it in time for StAnza where he was in discussion about translation, but of course it wasn’t until I started posting my MacDiarmid talk that it dawned on me I hudnae. An extract is posted on the Taproot website, but this version kicks off an idea I followed up in that talk. First the version…

It is a singular stroke of imaginative genius to translate the poems of Du Fu and Li Bai into Scots, one which, perhaps, only Brian Holton is capable of. His longtime familiarity with and comprehensive knowledge of these ancient yet still-intimate texts, together with his deep knowledge of the border ballad tradition and its foundational role in Scottish literature, has created a curious and compelling hybrid realm, in which the reader’s imagination dwells as vividly as in a work of historical fiction, Ossianic forgery, or compelling fantasy. It is a realm which seems real to us because our desire for it to be so has been kindled so thoroughly in these translations almost without our knowing. 

Scots seems particularly suited to this endeavour not just because of its pioneering role in the genres of imaginative recovery or speculative fiction, or because of that compelling and cognate folk heritage. It is because its own continually-interrupted genealogy as a language and tradition knits with its proximity to a globally dominant language in such a way as to create the note of nearness-in-distance required here, a nexus of estranged lustiness, august longing, and heart-shattering lyric regret. This, recalling the lacrimae rerum of the Western Classical tradition in tones that echo Gavin Douglas’s Eneados, perfectly characterises these great poets.

Says Du Fu

A’m cairryin a dram, ma goun slaistert wi booze, 

A’m souchin a verse, lippenin on ma cruik ti gang. 

Daur A plead o the ill-will hie ingyne gets?

Ti tell the truth, roarin fou’s the same as stuipit. 

Replies Li Bai

…pleisure in this life 

is in ae gless o wine,

For whit guid is bein namely for a thousan year 

when a bodie’s deid an gane?


There is an idea raised here that, I think, has a further application when applied, not just to MacDiarmid, but to the impulse to write in any form of aggrandised Scots with the implication of ‘heich’-ness and artificiality – the dreaded charge of inauthenticity that hovers over all Scots that is not a working class utterance from within two miles of the accuser. It is that there is an inevitably fictive element to all written Scots because it has not historically been possible to write it in other than a creative context – often fictional, often limited to dialogue in that fiction – for at least a century.

It is the particular nature of Scots to be strongly associated with the spoken demotic, while continuing to have a high cultural written form that is received like something irrupting from dreams, and treated as though it must be a pretension, a bore, a con, or a lie. That the spoken and the written might need to be separated oot jist a bit is one response. That there are historical and political reasons for this cultural phenomenon is anither, but this does not mean we have to immediately get caught up in partisan debate. We can instead think a little about the role of the fictive in not just Scottish culture, but the larger spheres in which such issues play out.

Scottish-smoodged-with-Celtic identity as a fictive force has, obviously, been a global phenomenon since Scott and Stevenson, and its impact is seen equally in Borges and Outlander. The poetic equivalent to this is evidenced by that triangle of forces: Ossian – Burns – McGonagall, where languages and lies, literary status and folk identity, performative persona and poetic quality, are jumbled together into a category, ‘Scottish poetry’, with what also seems a universal reach, but a reach problematised by its perceived overlap between the imagination and the imaginary, ie it’s not just that Scottish poetry makes things up, it is that it is itself seen as, in itself and in its language, an invention.

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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