An Ode on the Changes to be Reckoned with in the New Scotland
(for Stewart Conn at 70)
A pint with a whisky was called a ‘nip & chaser’,
As if nips could be chaste by the time they got inside.
My mind paints a huddle of sleeves on a puddled counter,
Drams like pert wee wifies standing beside.
Looking back through the fug & reek & pints of laughter,
I can just about make out the poets, ranked in their pride,
Rumbling and preening like spurred cocks cooped together.
For those were the last of the Grieved years, so to speak,
When makers made verses, & lassies queued to be made.
One evening the sainted MacDiarmid pecked my check.
I covered the sanctified spot with a band-aid
And swore I wouldn’t wash it for a week.
Halcyon days! Gone with the wit, I’m afraid.
Caledonia’s frivolous Muse is past her peak.
The poets she favoured are dead, or else can’t drink.
And look how the pesticide Virtue’s scoured the land!
Ye cannae smoke. Ye cannae flirt. Ye cannae blink
Without some officious official cawing ‘banned!’
Scotland’s white rose is plastic, bubble-gum pink.
A sober man kicks at the thistle pricking his hand.
What would MacCaig, what would Garioch think?
Well, what they never did know can’t hurt them now.
It’s time the girls had a go at the golden lyre.
They won’t, ‘when the pain and anguish wring the brow’,
Be ministering angels, and they’ll never again inspire
Immortal song. But drink up, gentlemen, anyhow!
The old arrow’s dipped in a fresh new brew of desire,
And love is a scratch even Virtue will have to allow.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2008. 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 editors in 2008 were Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor.
Poets – especially poets based in Scotland – seem reluctant to comment on the present constitutional arrangements. Not so Anne Stevenson who, though neither born nor based north of the border, is obviously au fait with events in a part of the world in which she once lived. Her ode wittily and mischievously ponders what the denizens of the Poet’s Pub would make of things. “Caledonia’s frivolous Muse is past her peak,” she boldly states. Discuss!
As indicated, the poem was written for Stewart Conn’s 70th birthday party in included in the anthology, There’s a Poem to be Made, edited by Christine de Luca, published by Shore Poets, Edinburgh, in 2006. I went to Stewart’s party, enjoyed it, and read the poem. During the 1970’s I met Norman MacCaig and often joined the poets of Edinburgh and Glasgow for bibulous evenings in city bars. My poem to Stewart Conn recalls them “rumbling and preening” over pints in Milne’s Bar: Norman MacCaig, Chris Grieve (MacDiarmid) and Robert Garioch. In Glasgow my friends and contemporaries were Philip Hobsbaum, Tom Leonard, Angus MacNeacail, Jim Kelman and Liz Lochhead. I hope Stewart Conn remembers those lost “literary” days with as much amusement as I do. I consider my Scottish days to be among the most fruitful, both for poetry and for friendships, of my younger life.