This is the ninth 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 2012.
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, and this year’s editors, the novelists Louise Welsh and Zoë Strachan, checked and balanced each other’s predilections. Their introduction demonstrates how widely they read, and how intensely. 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 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, Director
Some pleasures sit on your shoulder like a guilty memory, a sense of dread. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, was to read every Scottish poem published in 2012 and to choose twenty of the best. It would be a pleasure, we said. A wonderful, overwhelming pleasure.
It is no bad thing to be buried under a weight of poetry, as long as there’s a friendly hand to pull you free of the slew of slim volumes. At first the poems arrived by post, in envelopes and boxes packed with collections and pamphlets. As the bibliography compiled by the Scottish Poetry Library grew, we realised that we would have to travel to the poems. We took the train to Edinburgh, and cosied up in the Library. Swapping books between us, we delved between hand-stitched bindings as well as the familiar jackets of the larger publishers. There were some gorgeously produced volumes last year, and we delighted in the photographs, vellum sheets and drawings. But the words were what mattered, and eventually we moved upstairs to tackle anthologies and journals. It was heartening – and daunting – to see just how many poems are published by Scottish poets.
Editing as a couple has its own snares and pleasures. We didn’t always agree – in fact our tastes can be quite different – but it was useful to have constant access to a fresh pair of eyes (and ears). Yes, we found personal favourites and kept them by our sides, ready to argue their case. Very rarely, more rarely than either of us expected, one woman’s lyric was the other’s doggerel. Luckily we had the luxury of reading a wealth of exciting and accomplished poetry, and in the end, each one of our choices was the result of consensus rather than compromise.
When we embarked on our year of reading poetry, we hoped we would find diversity: a range of voices, themes, languages, and forms. We harboured ambitions that these twenty best poems would offer a snapshot not only of contemporary Scottish poetry, but of the concerns, people, politics and landscapes of the country. Despite reading a dizzying range of poets, there were voices that were largely missing. The ethnic diversity of the central belt is not reflected in 2012’s stock of published poetry. Are there stacks of manuscripts that would put Emily Dickinson’s hidden hoard to shame, secreted in the tenements and houses of Scottish Asian and African and Eastern European writers? Are they screwing up the courage to approach journals and magazines? Is Scottish poetry perceived as belonging to a different preserve?
Class and sexuality can be tricky to discern, but the gender balance of Scottish poets is healthy; certainly compared to those esteemed bards portrayed in Alexander Moffat’s 1980 portrait of The Poet’s Pub. From our own – highly anecdotal – evidence it would seem that more men publish collections and more women publish pamphlets. In 2012 at least, it seems that male poets were more popular with established publishers.
Some topics that cram the airwaves, internet and newspapers, notably Scottish independence, were also largely absent. This worried us less. Poets must write about what they wish. Poetry comes from the heart, as well as the head.
We read poems in Gaelic (with the aid of translation), Doric, Shetlandic, Scots, Glaswegian and more. We read poetry until we were forced to swap our contact lenses for spectacles. It seems surprising, in retrospect, that we did not become jaded. Poetry energises the reader as much as it demands, and we were repeatedly stopped in our tracks by poems that made us see the world differently.
Ultimately that was what we were looking for: poems that we loved.
We found them. Dozens of them. The main difficulty we faced in our later visits to the Scottish Poetry Library was how to narrow down our selection. Some of the collections we read could have filled our list of twenty poems single-handed. If we’d seen nothing other than Kathleen Jamie’s The Overhaul, Aonghas MacNeacail’s Laughing at the Clock, and Pippa Little’s Overwintering, we would have been pleased with the strength of our choices.
Reading through journals such as Magma, The Dark Horse, Poetry Review, PN Review, Poetry London, Northwords Now and many, many more was like the best kind of treasure hunt. We sifted through the contents pages and biographies for hints of Scottishness, tracing the page references until we hit upon gems such as those from John Burnside, Vicki Feaver and Robin Robertson. Magazines and journals were where we discovered new voices too, such as William Bonar and Lorna Callery, lesser known for now, but with something to say and the skill and language to express it.
A single poem in a journal is easy to excerpt. At times we were concerned about dismembering books that were as well-constructed and balanced as classic albums. Collections such as Kenneth Stevens’s A Song Among the Stones, Roddy Lumsden’s The Bells of Hope, and Richard Price’s Small World have a cumulative narrative and emotional effect that is only glimpsed when we read a single poem in isolation. Poems in a collection talk to each other, chattering away even when the covers of the book are closed. Sometimes the atmosphere shifts and builds as you read on. The poet can act as Time Lord, transporting us across years and miles or even into outer space. She may introduce fresh narrators and forms. Images leap from one poem to another, somersaulting in the air between them and landing in different positions. We hope that some of these poems will take you by the hand and pull you towards their friends and neighbours, draw you into their own small world.
The question we kept on asking ourselves was, ‘Will I read this again, and again?’ There were poems we carried around with us for weeks, and then turned loose for others to discover. These twenty poems, and the collections they come from, have come to live with us in our house. They’ve become part of our reading lives. In ‘My Father’s Funeral’ John Burnside writes of swinging open ‘a hinge in the mind’. Each one of these poems did something specific and unique that swung open a hinge in our minds. We hope they’ll do the same for you. Enjoy them!
Zoë Strachan & Louise Welsh
Seaweed by Lucy Burnett
‘Seaweed is taken from a series where I use a process of super-imposition to create layered collages. This specific image is a collage of three different photographs: Cockenzie power station taken from Portobello, seaweed on Yellowcraigs beach, and some graffiti along the cycle path from Murrayfield to Granton in Edinburgh. My photographic practice explores similar techniques to the write-through processes I use in my poetry. I layer landscapes with macro photographs as a form of participative journey through the Earth’s textures and patterns: providing a perspective of our re-/deconstruction of our entangled world through the earth’s fabrics. Frequently my images combine supposedly ‘natural’ images with urban or industrial scenes as a means of complicating our objectification or idealisation of either.’
Lucy Burnett was born in Dumfries and currently lives and works in Glasgow where she teaches Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde. Her first poetry collection, Leaf Graffiti, was published by Carcanet Press in 2013. Lucy specialises in images designed to interact with the written word, whether through designing book covers such as this, or combining the visual image with poetry and prose in her own creative practice.
Read the poems
Visiting Winter: a Johannesburg Quintet
by William Bonar
by Eunice Buchanan
At My Father’s Funeral
by John Burnside
Pigeon with Warburtons
by Lorna Callery
by Christine De Luca
by Vicki Feaver
by Kathleen Jamie
Wit is it
by William Letford
This Was the Year
by Pippa Little
by Liz Lochhead
by Roddy Lumsden
by Richie McCaffery
chan eil mi nad aghaidh
by Aonghas MacNeacail
by Jacob Polley
by Richard Price
by Sheenagh Pugh
by Maggie Rabatski
Dionysus and the Maiden
by Robin Robertson
by Chrys Salt
‘tell us a story, they said’
by Kenneth Steven