Best Scottish Poems 2015
This is the twelfth 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 2015.
We began by publishing this annual selection on St Andrew's Day, to wave a poetry flag for Scotland, but moved publication to spring 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 the range and achievement of our poets, their languages, forms, concerns.
It is in no sense a competition but a personal choice. This year’s editor, Ken MacLeod, is himself a poet, and brought out a volume of his own work in 2015, together with poems by his good friend and fellow science-fiction writer, Iain Banks. We regret that his work was not eligible for consideration, but Ken unselfishly settled for ‘head down immersion’ with ‘its own satisfactions’. He had a test for the poems he chose: ‘every word a tap of the hammer that splits the rock and brings a new thing into the light’. Read on, and see whether the poems pass the test! The preceding years’ selections are still available on this site.
We hope that you enjoy this varied selection, along with the poets' own comments and the editor’s, and that it will encourage you to browse further on the Scottish Poetry Library website, as well as borrow and buy from the Library.
When I was asked to edit Best Scottish Poems 2015, I felt honoured but quite inadequate to the task. It took me a few hours to come round. Walking home on a fine summer evening, I recalled what the psychologist Abraham Maslow said about the growth choice and the fear choice, and decided to stretch my capacity. I'm glad I did.
What have I found, in what Robyn called 'the immersive experience' of reading all these poems? Most obviously, that there's no shortage of poetry in and from Scotland. The Scottish Poetry Library's trolley fills up fast. By the year's end it was difficult to shift it without books or pamphlets sliding off. And then there are the oft-restocked shelves and the marvellous archives of poetry magazines from Scotland, and the ever-thickening folder of photocopies of poems published outwith Scotland. There's a lot to choose from, and it's hard to choose. Poems that might have struck a different eye and ear as obvious choices for the twenty best might outnumber those that I've – with much swithering – picked. But for every such annual selection, the same might be said, and often has.
The big picture?
Universal themes – God or Nature, sex, birth, love, death, and the earth they spring from – come up again and again. News and comment on official and social media might give the impression that politics is now Scotland's national preoccupation. The nation's unacknowledged legislators demur: as of 2015, whatever position they took on the 2014 independence referendum (usually Yes) has been expressed in (usually vehement) occasional verse rather than across the body of their work. Global issues, on the other hand, are much more salient and integral. So too is nature, often seen through a scientific lens. As was the case, of course, in the work of the great nationalist makars, MacDiarmid and Morgan, science-struck internationalists both.
If politics are strikingly absent, religion is surprisingly present: a minority voice, but even to those who (like myself) take the godless standpoint, a strong one, and moving. In Scottish poetry Christianity is still spirituality's first language, with Buddhism a distant but distinct second. I was unable to detect any Muslim voices at all; this may change, and should.
Most Scottish poetry is in English, but with several dialects of Scots in ready reach. Shetlandic, in particular, impressed me with its vigour, its scope, and its variety. Gaelic poetry, too, is striking in its confidence and outward look. The collection Struileag: Shore to Shore (edited by Kevin MacNeil) brings together poems and reflections from across the Gaelic diaspora. They manifest the independence of outlook enforced by defeat and dispersal which make any uncomplicated relationship to the nation (whichever side of the Atlantic it may be) impossible. A good position for a poet, if not for a people – and perhaps a glimmer of a future culture. The past glories of Gaelic are brought to a modern audience with Alan Riach's widely praised new translation of 'The Birlinn of Clanranald', reminding us, if we need the reminder, how wide was the Gaelic horizon once.
It has been a year of strong collections, from some of which I've selected here; and even more of which I've regretfully and hesitantly passed over. I must mention here two in particular which, because of their novel-like structure and effect, proved difficult to excerpt from: Jim Carruth's Killochries and In Casting Off by J. O. Morgan. And a third, Coogit Bairns, a posthumous assembly of Sandie Craigie's fierce, forensic rage and dark, knowing laughter.
Long poems are make hard online reading, and some I've had to omit for this reason with regret, but not without notice: Ryan Van Winkle's 'Untitled'; Andrew Greig's 'Ingrid, Anthea, Late Kandinsky'; Christopher Whyte's Gaelic poem rendered into Scots as 'At a Grave That Isna There'; Janet Paisley's 'Water'/'Watter'; Sheenagh Pugh's 'When beth they, before us weren?'; and Deborah Moffat's 'At Meroe' are among them.
What I was looking for were poems that say something likely to remain true, and say it in a way not said before, and say it right: every word a tap of the hammer that splits the rock and brings a new thing into the light. This is true of many of this year's poems that aren't here, and I hope it's true of all that are.
Warm thanks to everyone at the Scottish Poetry Library, and in particular to Robyn Marsack for asking me and for her wise advice; and to Julie Johnstone and Mary Wight for searching out and sifting through the books, pamphlets and photocopies, and bringing them to the trolley.
Ken MacLeod is a novelist and poet, best-known as a writer of ‘hard’ science-fiction. Since 1995 he has published a number of books exploring the ironies, pleasures and possible pitfalls of our relationship with technology, including Intrusion (2012) and Descent (2014). He won the European Science Fiction Society’s ‘Best Author’ award in 2000. Poems (2015) is a joint collection with his friend and fellow sci-fi novelist Iain Banks.
Last Summer I was Following the River as a way of being and being out with the camera. This led me into Autumn with an explosion of dew drops, golden colour and the clittery crick of leaves falling.
Falling, down into the river each leaf itself, was so distinct, in colour and shape and in its collective, shifting configuration with others. There and gone they passed me by sailing, gliding, twirling, sink-ing, dying : LEAVES passing. I made a book.
The river so dark and the sun raked shafts particularly brilliant, the leaves held this brilliance. I sought the shafts and followed the river upstream scrambling over rocks to find this thunderous deep pool in turbulent replenishment with all manner of leaves reigning down. Alight It was a veritable Alchemic stirring: a Caldron of Gold.
Helen Douglas, BA, PhD