The Great Slowing Down versus Poet MacDiarmid (3)

The interiorising impulse is a normal part of most writers’ cycle of composition and publication, but it became stronger for me with my father’s death, after which I spent a couple of years darting off to any far-off place that invited me, blogging re the Dundee Makarship but not editing the posts into anything, and stringing tweets into absurd Informationist tales, which, probably sensibly, I’ve not really looked at since. Of course for a lot of this material the internet is a sufficient if rickety platform, and if stuff falls off into unvisited oblivion that’s fine too – I’ve been failing to finish novels in this manner for years, and they don’t even have to get that far.

My failure to keep posting even to this modest extent kicked in when my mother had a stroke a few years ago – I had the next item good to go, but then I wanted to say something about that long night when her life hung in the balance. Mebbe that would position it – or at least enable me to regroup? But Uni work kicked back in, a degree of caring joined the mix, and… Pause. 

Or rather a slowing down to the glacial pace fewer and fewer glaciers are in a position to maintain, the near-invisible rate at which plants grow, if not in a warm and hospitable climate. A lot of this is down to a failure of the work/life balance where the ‘work’ isn’t even the teaching/research part, it’s just the admin that goes into supporting the internal workings of the institution as business – the frenzied work-like facsimile of work – while the life bit therefore has to include the ‘Life Work’, just trying not to bother anyone, thank you very much. There’s no actual balancing going on here, just the occasional offer of a remote wellness seminar.

Despite which, a lot of stuff has been written, requested of others, shared, and published, if not quite promoted as I might have done previously. But it’s signal at least to me that this pause preceded the Pandemic. That first Lockdown was, in its terrifying way, a bittersweet, continually fraught opportunity to regroup not just as individuals but, where possible, in the family and social units that meant most to us. Our daughter came home at its outset and we lived together almost as we might have done in previous generations, without that centrifugal force flinging the young to far away universities and jobs and London.

But to the extent that Lockdown opened up a weird creative space amid the very slow playing universal panic, for me it opened up a space in which I thought about things which were already not happening.

Meanwhile, just the poetry of facts, MacD…

The Contracted Fingers of MacDiarmid Conclude Their Report to the Recording Angel

If the spells of forgotten Scots formed one powerful discourse, and we’ve already noted bardic learning shading into academic bibliography as a second, a third is modern media – in poems like ‘The Wreck of the Swan’ we find reportage in the form of doomed radio messages: ‘VALKYRIE calling all trawlers…Old Feathery’s got us at last…’, or, in ‘The World of Words’, advertising speak: ‘Easy – Quick – Sure – The exact word/You want – when you want it.’ 

But, while the late poetry is famously focussed on ‘the poetry of facts’, it’s important to distinguish that his actual focus is more on a versification of factoids. Our fourth tree is one such instance, and leaves Graves behind. Describing the transcendent consciousness that has been his focus since ‘A Moment in Eternity,’ MacDiarmid writes

Apart from a handful of scientists and poets

Hardly anyone is aware of it yet.

(A society of people without a voice for the consciousness

That is slowly growing within them)

Nevertheless everywhere among the great masses of mankind

With every hour it is growing and emerging.

Like a mango tree under a cloth,

Stirring the dull cloth,

Sending out tentacles…

That hopeful-sounding combination, ‘scientists and poets’, indicates the sort of grafting that is going on here. It is the same self-validating tone MacDiarmid strikes when, in ‘The Seamless Garment’, he offers to explain Leninism to a cousin working in a Langholm mill: ‘Look, Wullie, here is his secret noo/In a way I can share it wi’ you.’ That he promptly goes on to compare Lenin not just to weaving but to that famous Marxist Rilke suggests that he is trying to weave himself into a dominant narrative that might find poetry superfluous. So too here, where what sounds tonally like a newsreel mingles with that insulting image of his fellow humans as ‘dull cloth’, while the mango’s hidden movements recall the Drunk Man’s obeisance to ‘The Octopus Creation’:

I am the candelabra, and burn

My endless candles to an Unkent God.

I am the mind and meanin’ o’ the octopus

That thraws its empty airms through a’ th’Inane.

That self-aggrandising yet insecure ambivalence toward his fellows, be they family or countrymen or an indistinguishable part of ‘the vast majority’, is perhaps the heaviest charge we can lay against MacDiarmid. His is a Scotland that isn’t enormously interested in the Scottish people, one that would rather contemplate the bog-myrtle, and number the streaks on the harebells. He is so eager to dispense with the bath water of the populist Kailyaird and the likes of DC Thomson’s People’s Friend, that he throws oot the bairnie of a genuinely radical nineteenth century working class poetry, based in the newspapers as set out in the studies of William Donaldson and, more recently, Kirstie Blair and Erin Farley. Ironically, he then establishes in the 1920s a newspaper, The Scots Nation, that he largely writes and quite possibly reads by himself.

Our final tree is the Kandym, or Calligonum Laucocladum, from the family Polygonaceae. It grows across Central Asia as far as Xinjiang in Western China, where another regime which MacDiarmid was keen to align himself with is currently repressing the Uyghurs to the point of genocide.

The tumbleweed-like properties of this tree’s seed appeal to him, and the symbolism of this survivor in the Taklamakan desert is not hard to seek:

…sometimes the sand waves are so big

They bury the kandym nevertheless.

Then a race begins – the dune grows and the plant grows.

The dune grows fast but the plant grows faster still

And by the time the sand dune has attained its final height

The plant is found to have outstripped it.

The poem ends ‘My songs are kandym in the Waste Land’ where the capitals emphasise the parallel and yet the contrast with Eliot: while The Waste Land depicts a shattered world of shored-up cultural fragments, the desert is kandym’s natural environment. Mid-century Scotland may well be too peaceful for him, but he has declared it a desert. His fragments, moreover, are drawn not exactly from high culture but newspapers, periodicals, secondary sources – all varieties of the ephemeral. Late “Hugh MacDiarmid” is a one man Google, searching before computers for something he can only define as ‘almost everything he has found so far’. 

We don’t (yet) know where he got hold of this fact about the resonantly-named kandym, but we can see that, in absorbing it into his poetry, he is struggling against the loss of everything we read and then let go of: other people’s facts and phrases are being heaped up against oblivion.

Late poems like this reveal that, from the outset, MacDiarmid’s work exists in a quantum state of allusiveness, a condition of uncertainty where we are perpetually having to decide whether it is or is not written by him and considering what we might think about where it ‘really’ comes from.

The final twist to MacDiarmid’s solipsism is not only that all these texts end up sounding like – and appearing to be about – him, but that his metaphors end up not only being metaphors for poetry but, specifically, for his poetry. It’s not for nothing that another long late poem is called The Kind of Poetry I Want, and yet there is still a shock in realising that a text which frames itself as being ‘about’ the thing is actually the thing itself: this is exactly the kind of poetry he wants.

The five fingers of Baal do not quite contract into the Communist salute, but they reveal something of MacDiarmid’s capacity for dexterity to the point of prestidigitation – as long as we take him with a cromag’s-fu of salt. In ‘The Glass of Pure Water’, MacDiarmid describes an angel reporting on a hundred years of history, but not verbally. Instead he enjoins us to

Look at the ridge of skin between your thumb and forefinger.

Look at the delicate lines on it and how they change

– How many different things they can express –

As you move out or close in your forefinger and thumb.

…the angel’s report on human life 

Was the subtlest movement – just like that – and no more…

This image, with its recollection of Keats’s late fragment ‘This Living Hand’, circumjacks or corresponds to what his work is attempting to do at every point, which is – whether through light-fingered collage or dictionary-dredging, epater-ing the nearest bourgeois or dodgy fact-finding – to find the perfect summative and ultimately lyrical gesture.

I started with a still from a film so I’ll finish with another. In Margaret Tait’s 1964 portrait of MacDiarmid, there is a short sequence of him capering through the streets of Edinburgh. He is tightrope-walking along the kerb or louping up onto low walls wi a droll fag in his mooth, a funambulist without a tightrope or at least not one anyone else can see, a septuagenarian schoolboy, pairt-Chaplin, pairt-Chic Murray, hauf-Hugh, hauf-Chris – all Makar.

About W N 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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