The fog that is like but more rare
The wind that is like but not so sharp
The sand that is like but turns to mud
The hills that are like but more peopled
The flowers that are like but bloom earlier
The beach that is like but more crowded
The summers that are like but darken quickly
The air that is like but not so sweet
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2005. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2005 was Richard Price.
How do you make the two sides of an analogy match? This poem absorbs the intellectual question with seemingly effortless lyricism and that apt gap down the middle of the poem; beautiful.
‘Like’ is a poem about living in England and missing Scotland, about differences of landscape and weather.
The first three lines refer specifically to the part of northwest England where I live, where the beaches are mudflats and estuaries, and the climate is very different to that of the east coast of Scotland where I’ve spent most of my life. The rest of the poem is more general, and touches on differences that will probably be familiar to anyone who travels between Scotland and England.
Although it’s a poem about missing a landscape, and homesickness, I didn’t want it to be too laboured or heavy: it’s not about exile. Hopefully, the form of the poem adds something to this lightness of tone, with its brief phrases and the spaces between the words. I decided on spaces rather than commas because I feel they can give a sense of a longer pause, a bigger breath taken, and although I like what punctuation can do, I also like the uncluttered feel of a poem without any. And, although I wasn’t conscious of it when I wrote the poem, there’s perhaps an echo of the ‘space’ between the two countries in the physical shape of the poem.
The form is an unusual one for me, as I tend to write poems with long sentences and complex syntax, but here the simplicity of form seemed to work. It emerged from a slightly longer and more personal poem I’d been trying to write on the same theme − I like the way that a short poem can sometimes be distilled, as it were, from something longer and denser, still conveying the essence of the poem but in a less complicated way.
One of the ideas behind the poem came from some words by John Burnside, who also lived for many years in England: ‘…every landscape I have ever written about…has been, in part, and of necessity, a Scottish landscape, because that is the landscape I carry with me.’ I like the idea of ‘carrying’ the landscape inside you, and of its invisible, ghostly presence lying beside that of the actual place you’re in (and of course though both John Burnside and I are referring to Scotland, this will be a feeling familiar to anyone who finds themselves in a place that’s not really ‘home’). Although it isn’t stated overtly in the poem, hopefully a sense of this ‘shadow’ country, and its absence, comes across.
Another influence was Thomas A. Clark’s poem ‘The Homecoming’, which is simply a list of Scottish things (…’the lonely glen and the heather fire / the sphagnum moss and the golden lichen / the bladder wrack and the shell mound’… ) and yet which conveys so much.
A final resonance, though not a deliberate one, comes at the end of the poem in the word ‘sweet’, with its echo of MacDiarmid’s ‘the little white rose of Scotland / That smells sharp and sweet…’