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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Ali Smith on Margaret Tait: 'argumentative, spontaneous-seeming and energetic'

Margaret Tait © Alex Pirie

Margaret Tait is one of the most bafflingly overlooked of Scotland’s versatile twentieth-century artists. At last, the truly neglected aspects of her work are now addressed by Poems, Stories, and Writings, a new collection of her writing over the decades.

The poems are a revelation in so many ways, of her voice, her eye, her playful idiosyncrasy, her craft, her timing. They reveal her sources: the Bible, myth, medieval ballad, folk form and popular song, united with a modern legacy of breath-rhythm, directness of voice and openness of form characteristic of writers as vibrant and shape-shifting as Whitman, Hopkins, Lorca and Ginsberg, as argumentative, spontaneous-seeming and energetic as D.H. Lawrence (whose empathy, for instance, she emulates and simultaneously, very enjoyably, takes to task).

They reveal her as a foreteller of Scottish writers who came decades after her. A Buddhist combination of the meditative with the momentary and an understanding of the layering of time foretell the thoughtful joy in Alan Spence’s work. The sense of discursive movement in the poems which makes them dialogues in themselves, their understanding of the vast planet and of the detail of the tiny ceremonies of nature, their playful acuity with local idiom is shared with the late, great Edwin Morgan. The unadorned and thoughtful address, at once disciplined and layered in its distillation, and unfussy and attentive in register, pre-dates something shared, recognisable, even familial, in the voices, found and forged years afterwards, of crucial figures of the late twentieth-century Scottish poetic landscape like Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay.

Informed by a profound, commonsensical proto-feminism; wry to the point of hilarity; mischievous and anarchic; often recalcitrant as if in constant dialogue with herself about the ever-more openness which ought to characterise her own response, Tait the writer is a force of shrewd joy in riposte, a force of energy in inquiry. She knows the power of the North; she knows the powers of her Scotland for good and for ill. Her work, so consciously and kickingly anti-Presbyterian, keen to un-repress and un-fix, so concerned, at the same time, with the relationship between truth and sight, makes for a fluidity between nature, reality and art, a world delivered alive, as it is and as it can be imagined, re-seen and re-evaluated with freshness.

‘In poetry, something else happens… Presence, let’s say, soul or spirit, an empathy with whatever it is that’s dwelt upon, feeling for it, to the point of identification,’ Tait said. It’s good at last to have this book dedicated to her writing: this wise reminder, the open invitation to be present, to concentrate, to connect, to let what’s there enter as it is, full of its own possibility and ours, at the eye.

Ali Smith

A longer version of Ali Smith's foreword can be found in Poems, Stories, and Writings by Margaret Tait (edited by Sarah Neely, Fyfield Books, £12.95).