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Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

Festival Poetry: Heaney, Miller and O'Hagan

Nature writing, it is fair to say, is having something of a moment. Karl Miller’s latest collection of essays, Tretower to Clyro, is a survey of writing about the countryside by authors recent and past. One couldn’t help but notice that many of the essayists cited were also poets, and Scottish poets at that, with Kathleen Jamie, described as ‘one of our finest’. Andrew Greig was also mentioned for his book At The Loch at Green Corrie, a non-fiction account of Greig’s trip to the Highlands to fulfil a request made by Norman MacCaig in the last weeks of his life. This was as good a cue as any for Miller to remember MacCaig, described as ‘a friend of foxes, an enemy of wars’, and who had his own complicated relationship with the town (Edinburgh, his home, chiefly) and the countryside (for him, Assynt and Suilven, his ‘magic mountain’).

He did not come alone. He was joined on stage by the very capable chair, Andrew O’Hagan, who did not exaggerate when he described Miller as ‘the most important editor in English letters after the Second World War’. O’Hagan introduced the third guest, ‘a promising young poet called Seamus O’Heaney’. O’Heaney, of course, has in his poetry explored the countryside of his youth extensively. In one spine-tingling moment, he read from memory ‘Digging’, the poem that kicked off his incredible career, one of a clutch of poems he sent to Miller when he was an unknown and Miller was editor of The New Statesman.

Heaney recalled with fondness the modern Scottish poets who meant a lot to him, including MacCaig, Mackay Brown, Muir, and MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid once said to him ‘You write short poems’, which wasn’t a commendation. Heaney spoke of always seeing in his mind’s eye MacDiarmid smoking a pipe and only ever saying ‘Aye’ or ‘Och’. Heaney commented, ‘“Och” is a whole philosophy of life in one syllable.’ In sum, it was a deliriously pleasurable hour.