The Great Slowing Down versus Poet MacDiarmid (2)

So, as I think I was saying, the GSD equals a reluctance to complete these many waiting posts which isn’t entirely motivated by kindness to the passing reader. It has the air of a necessary recalibration, but the effect of a withdrawal – the opposite to our subject following: ie Grieve becoming MacD. This Slotherie is over and above the usual underminings of the Imp of the Perverse (who may or may not be identified as Tutivillus, patron demon of scribes – see also Ratatoskr, below). It follows a slight unsettledness more about doing than attending events – always overcome simply by turning up, but which itself was preceded by the beginnings of a disinclination to send work out (who needs to read this stuff anyway? – Nobody!), which was in turn heralded by a marked dislike of ever entering competitions. 

– Of course I’ll still judge the latter if asked, as one of the civil if not civic responsibilities, like writing reference and sentences for blurbs (cf micro-reviews). And of course I’ll respond (often, alas, belatedly) to queries and commissions, try to finish reviews – and throw the remains of the self into any event I perform at with yearnings toward that transcendant conviction outlined by Mr Pop in his famous definition of punk (as preserved in the recorded output of Mogwai):

‘…that music is so powerful that it’s quite beyond my control and ah… when I’m in the grips of it I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally. Do you understand what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt like that? When you just couldn’t feel anything and you didn’t want to either. You know? Like that? Do you understand what I’m saying sir?’

But, and I hope I understand what I’m saying, sir, the project is now largely one of introjection: twocking a Time Machine in order to drag it into the Morlock tunnel and accidentally break it while trying to understand not it but time; then, after a breakfast of gelid Eloi, creating an iconostasis of anxiety on those old cave walls. 

I’m telling you this for two reasons, one of which is I’m wondering if you’re experiencing a version of this too? And the other is, getting back to recalibration, this sort of psychic retreat still has specific exterior goals, but in terms of working within a creative community rather than Poetry World (let’s not get started on the academic journal). Collaborative work, tasks aimed at understanding and sharing how creativity works – how it interacts with what we believe we can know, or understand about how we remember – literary activities that engage with the civic, the political and the spiritual – that’s where it’s at. And even that takes its own sweet very slow time, because you’re only hassling your own unconscious and not bargaining with that composite entity, the panel of gatekeepers to some place you didn’t even want to get.

Meanwhile, one hundred years ago in Montrose:

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


In Annals of the Five Senses, published in 1923, and composed mainly of prose from Grieve’s experiences of the First World War, many strategies from later books are already evident, including the use of dense clouds of quotation shading over into unacknowledged collage, the depiction of a recurrent male character as a synthesising intellect with a saviour complex, and poems which play with Nietszchean paradox and visionary symbolism. Like the later poetry, it is not in Scots, as this has not yet been positioned as a revolutionary Modernist discourse. Reading Grieve pre-MacDiarmid helps us to understand that we should think of “Hugh MacDiarmid”, the Scots-writin, Russian n Gaelic-translatin Nationalist-yet-Communist would-be totalitarian bard, as more than a pseudonym, perhaps as something like a heteronym in Pessoa’s sense, who says of his main invention, Alberto Caiero, ‘my master had appeared in me’. In a similar vein, ‘A Moment in Eternity’ introduces our first tree:

I was a multitude of leaves

Receiving and reflecting light,

A burning bush

Blazing for ever unconsumed,

Nay, ceaselessly,

Multiplying in leaves and light

And instantly

Burgeoning in buds of brightness…

While ‘A Moment’ contains just enough alliteration to remind you of ‘The Dream of the Rood’ in almost a good way, plus more than enough archaisms, thanks, we note that, not only is it conspicuous as the first poem in his Collected, it has definite visionary intent. Graves argued that the burning bush may have been the eastern European mistletoe, or Loranthus, which grows not only on oaks but also on tamarisks, identifying it by its ‘flame-coloured leaves’. He adds that it also grows on wild acacia, which, if burned and inhaled, is trance-inducing. Grieve’s oracular message here may be a key realisation from his most substantial prose unit, ’A Four Years’ Harvest’, this extract from which, having once set as IMJJ-style ‘chopped-up prose’ in the 90s, I am unable to conceive of in any other format:

There was so much to be read 

that there was hardly time to think. 

How could he digest the marvellous, 

the epoch-making truths 

which every day put before him! 

And the still more marvellous lies! 

The war-time lies, the press-bureau lies, the eye-witness lies, 

the lies of accusation and the lies of defence; 

thousands of liars, nations of liars, 

conscience-impelled liars, and liars for the love of art! 

The truth as an abstraction had disappeared. 

They might in the dim future again approximate it. 

They would never reach it.

In an era of fake truth and dezinformatsiya, we are about as dim and approximate a future as he could have anticipated.

‘The Sauchs in the Reuch Heuch Hauch’ is the third poem in Sangschaw (1925) Grieve’s first book as “MacDiarmid”. Like its celebrated predecessors, ‘The Bonnie Broukit Bairn’ and ‘The Watergaw’, it is the result of an experiment with the dictionary, in the sense that words and phrases are drawn from Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary and other volumes. Here, the first line with its undertones of an Expressionist Scottish sensibility, comes from George Watson’s Roxburghshire Word-Book: ‘There’s teuch sauchs growin’ i’ the Reuch Heuch Hauch./Like the sauls o’ the damned are they…’

This, our second tree, is the sauch or saille, or willow, which Graves identifies as sacred to the Moon-Goddess and to witches everywhere, pointing out that willow was woven into sieves for winnowing corn: ‘it was in winnowing sieves of this sort, ‘riddles’, that the North Berwick witches confessed to King James I that they went to sea…’ They went to sea in a sieve, indeed.

The fact that this poem arises from a Borders tongue-twister which, like a spell, the poem repeats three times, reveals something of the irrationality behind MacDiarmid’s appropriation of dictionary terms. As he says in ‘Music – Braid Scots Suggestions’: ‘…the meanings of words are of far less consequence than their sounds…their total effects, physical and intellectual, are of infinitely greater importance than their purpose as media of rational expression…’ Most importantly, his entire enterprise is explicitly dependent on an arcane or repressed language being redeployed, remember his remark: ‘the value of the Doric lies in the extent to which it contains lapsed or unrealised qualities which correspond to the “unconscious”’. It is not that everybody knows this stuff, it is precisely that they no longer do, but that MacDiarmid appears to.

If we think of “Hugh MacDiarmid” as a synthetic bard along Ossianic lines, speaking incantations which transcend the exhausted truths and lies of modernity, we glimpse the element of fictiveness in his methodology. In fact, we could assert that Grieve is a novelist in terms Scott might recognise: creating a historical fiction containing this character who understands a lapsed consciousness, just without the framework of setting or plot. Perhaps he thought Scotland was sufficiently imaginary as it was.

It is for this reason that writers who adopted his vocabulary sit so firmly in his shadow – ‘clanjamfrey’, ‘eemis’, ‘how-dumb-deid’, ‘watergaw’: this isn’t a living language, it’s an idioglossia, like the science fiction vocabulary which drew him in the 1960s toward translating Harry Martinson’s verse novel Aniara – ‘Goldonda’, ‘Mima’, ‘Yurg’. To use MacDiarmid’s Scots is to fall under his solipsistic spell; it is always to allude, and only to him.

One refrain which punctuates the central sections of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle like rallying cries to both author and reader (depending on who’s flagging the most) is ‘Yank Oot Your Orra Boughs’. It indicates our third tree, ‘Ygdrasil’, the World-tree or ash, currently ominously subject to die-back. This is referred to at the symbolic centre of his ‘gallimaufry’ in an address to the thistle, redefining the paradigmatic alienated contemporary ‘man’ as a drunken Scot in terms that hark back to the Norse myths:

Thou are the facts in ilka airt

That breenge into infinity,

Criss-crossed wi’ coontless ither facts

Nae man can follow, and o’ which

He is himsel’ a helpless pairt

Held in their tangle as he were

A stick-nest in Ygdrasil!

For Graves the link between the ash and Norse myth plays out in terms of the creation of letters: ‘in Odin’s own runic alphabet all the letters are formed from ash-twigs’. The idea that the stick-nest might be a kind of kenning for writing is suggestive, as is the possibility that this is a squirrel’s nest – specifically that of Ratatoskr, who, much like a poet, conveys information/gossip between the tree-top eagle and the root-gnawing serpent. If so, this is echoed in In Memoriam, where in praise of Charles Doughty (praise ‘borrowed’ from a book by Anne Treneer), MacDiarmid compliments his passion ‘for naming particular things/And particular parts of things,’ and gives the instance that ‘squirrel’s drey is better than squirrel’s nest’. 

Is it? Or, like all those other weird words, does it just sound like it ought to be better? MacDiarmid’s acquisitiveness in relation to other people’s language is, at root, a search for authoritative discourse.

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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