Best Scottish Poems 2009

Iris by Claudine Quinn


This is the sixth issue of Best Scottish Poems, an online selection of twenty of the best poems by Scottish authors to appear in books, pamphlets and literary magazines during 2008-2009.

We have been publishing this selection on St Andrew's Day, to wave a poetry flag for Scotland, but have moved the date to March to allow editors to consider a whole calendar year. Bookshops and libraries – with honourable exceptions – often provide a very narrow range of poetry, and Scottish poetry in particular.

Best Scottish Poems offers readers in Scotland and abroad a way of sampling poets' range and achievement, their languages, forms, concerns. It is in no sense a competition but a personal choice, and this year's editor, Andrew Greig, gallantly took on extra reading to catch us up with eighteen months of publishing. He follows Hamish Whyte, Richard Price, Janice Galloway, Alan Spence, Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor in selecting the poems that most appealed to him – the previous selections are still available on this site.

We hope that you enjoy this varied selection, along with the poets' own comments and the editors', and that it will encourage you to browse further on the Scottish Poetry Library web site, as well as borrow and buy from the Library.

Robyn Marsack

Editor's Introduction

I do not really offer these as the 'best' Scottish poems of this period – it's not a tournament. Over a number of weeks what PG Wodehouse delightfully called 'a scuttleful of modern poetry' arrived on the trolley at the Scottish Poetry Library – collections, anthologies, periodicals – and in selecting twenty poems I went for what personally most appealed at that time. In six months I could well pick a different twenty, though I suspect most would be by the same writers.

So this selection is inevitably a reflection of my taste, interests and mood. A good number are by our best known writers – over the course of this reading, I have rediscovered they are best known for a reason. Others are relatively or completely new to me, and I'm grateful to the poets and the Poetry Library for that enlargement. There is always a danger of one's taste narrowing and hardening over time, so it's great to browse more widely and be delighted with something new, or be reminded of a writer one hasn't read for years.

A number of writers and poems here aim towards the Rilkean. I mean, concerns we could call spiritual or metaphysical. Kathleen Jamie once remarked that the word 'mystical' abuses reality, so say the concerns of herself, John Glenday, John Burnside and to a degree Don Paterson, are something to do with Presence. That which is here, glimpsed, lost, glimpsed again. This Scottish Zen pursuit goes right back to Neil Gunn and Nan Shepherd. These poems earn their passage not through philosophy but through keen, patient particularity of attention.

Compared to other Scottish cities, Aberdeen tends to be under-addressed in our poetry. That may be in part due to the understated, canny nature of the place. Yet what city more completely contains a particular manifestation of our culture? The recent anthology Silver, edited by Alan Spence, poetry from or concerning the city, was an eye-opener. I took three poets from that anthology – Alastair Mackie, Roderick Watson and Iain Crichton Smith, that delightful, much-missed man.

The SPL is not forbiddingly august and silent, but still my chuckles, snorts, giggles and outright laughter at reading Alan MacGillivray may have raised an eyebrow. In Richard Price I encountered a jittery, dizzy, off-hand sleight and swerve of tone that is at once funny-peculiar and funny-amusing. These are not 'comic poems', but deeply entertaining, witty, sardonic, and a pleasure to read.

What else is going on here? A certain number of poems contain homage to the honoured dead – to W.S. Graham, Burns – whose presence is still with us (Diana Hendry and Carol Ann Duffy), or living poets like Michael Longley (Kathleen Jamie). I liked too the poems addressing, using and acknowledging the range of languages on offer in our big, small country. The interplay, the dialogue between Gaelic and English in 'Two Sides of the Pass' (Maoilios Caimbeul and Mark O. Goodwin), where poems written in one language also appear in the other, and sometimes elements of one embedded in the other, was a bold, fascinating and often successful experiment. (My Gaelic is largely limited to malt whiskies and place and mountain names, and yet I am increasingly haunted by its presence.) I would urge the reader to go with the Doric of Alastair Mackie, the more casual demotic of Alan MacGillivray – once sounded, meaning is usually clear, and the sound is intrinsic to the poem.

An absence of outraged political poems? Yes. There weren't many and none that worked as poetry as opposed to preaching-to-the-converted tub-thumping. More intriguingly perhaps, unlike say twenty years ago, very little addressed the state or nature or future of the nation. The devolved parliament has undoubtedly taken some of the pressure off, and we seem to be in a wait-and-see state. I suspect after the next General Election this may change and we could be in for interesting times.

A recurrent focus on the natural world focus is evident in some of these poems– a small town country boy myself, I rather welcome it. It's not nostalgia, more I think a concurrence of environmental and ecological interests very much of our time, uniting ecological, political, personal and spiritual concerns. Thus Valerie Gillies, Jane McKie and, to a degree, Claire Askew and Lorn MacIntyre. We could do with someone other than the wonderful Edwin Morgan to document and affirm modern city life.

A Tom Pow poem offers a rare and unforced glimpse of married love (and its concomitant mortality). From Tom Leonard's unignorable outside the narrative I have selected an atypical but wholly successful 'domestic' poem. Alexander Hutchison, whom I first knew of as vaguely corralled in with the Beat poets, remains unclassifiable, unpredictable, unexpected, as all real poetry is – qualities at their most lustrous in 'Rain' by Don Paterson.

Enjoy. I did.

Andrew Greig

Cover Artist

Iris, by Claudine Quinn

Iris by Claudine Quinn

"'Iris' reconstructs a memory of a journey steadily marked and metered. Of fragile, delicate bundles stapled into immortality on the odd lamp-post, commemorating the no-longer thriving, fresh or vital."

Claudine Quinn, born in Dublin, is an Edinburgh-based artist whose practice incorporates drawing, photography and video. Having worked for a number of years in gallery and museum education, she has experienced an artistic rebirth, and is currently pursuing a BA (Hons) in Photography with Edinburgh College of Art.

Recent exhibitions include participation in the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival at the Joinery Gallery, Dublin and video selection for the Caught Short Film Festival, Filmhouse, Edinburgh.

Title: Iris
Date: 2009
Image Size: 50.5 cm x 24 cm
Type: Archival Giclée Print, edition of 8

To contact the artist, email