Margaret Tait is perhaps better known as a filmmaker than as a poet. She is not included, for example, in Modern Scottish Women Poets (Canongate, 2003). Tait was born in Kirkwall, Orkney in 1918. At the age of 8-years-old, she was sent to Edinburgh to be educated. She studied medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating in 1941. Her scientific background would later work its way into her poetry (‘The Unbreakable-Up’, ‘Carbon’). In 1943, Tait joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in India, Sri Lanka and Malaya.
On coming back to Britain in 1946, she returned to her civilian life as a physician. She came to view her work as a doctor not as an end in itself but as a way of financing her art. In 1950, she enrolled at the University for Foreigners at Perugia in order to learn Italian. She remained in Italy for the next two years, now studying filmmaking at the Centro Sperimentale di Photographia in Rome. The fashion was for Neorealism’s grittier aesthetic, which interested Tait but only so far as the movement’s use of authentic locations. She was interested in developing a stylised form of cinema, one akin to the vision of Jean Vigo rather than to the films of Vittorio de Sica or Roberto Rossellini. Tait’s determination to make her own sort of films in the face of the industry’s received wisdom is a recurring feature of her career. John Grierson, the Scottish documentarian, for example, offered Tait work on the understanding she follow his rules of filmmaking; she refused.
Returning to Britain in 1952, Tait began a peripatetic lifestyle, shuttling between locum positions around the UK as she accumulated funds to produce short films. Frequently, she slept in her car. It was a time of great creativity for Tait, and she wrote many poems in this period. Her influences then, and throughout her career, remained Lawrence, Lorca, Lowry, Rimbaud, Rilke, Pound, Emily Dickinson, and MacDiarmid, about who she made a short film in 1964.
The poems in her first collection origins and elements drew inspiration from Tait’s interest in matters scientific (‘Water’: ‘Water is an element in one sense but not in the other. / Chemically, it is a compound / H20 / Two atoms of hydrogen to one of oxygen. / Can you believe it?’) and from poetry and poets (‘Emily’: ‘Emily Dickinson shut herself in a room / And wrote about her pain. / She wrote too about joy’). origins and elements was published in 1959, the same year as C P Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture on ‘the Two Cultures’. Snow argued that cultural and economic progress in Britain was hindered by a growing distance between the humanities and sciences. Tait’s poetry inhabits that gap, finally seeing both disciplines as engaged in exploring possibly insoluble mysteries:
Facing wordless wordlessness
It’s as if Tait’s scientific background increased, rather than diminished, her doubts about material reality; her poetry is comfortable with the ultimately unknowable nature of reality, or existing in a state of what Keats called ‘negative capability’: ‘That is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Tait raises questions without feeling the anxiety or urgency of answering them:
I don’t know why is that acid turns blue litmus pink,
And don’t tell me you know
Because I’m sure you don’t
– ‘Because it’s acid.’ –
That’s no reason.
Acid is pink.
With other reagents the pink’s on the other side.
By 1954, Tait was living once more in Edinburgh, where she rented a studio on Rose Street. She grew friendly with the ‘Rose Street poets’ (particularly MacDiarmid, Norman MacCaig, Sydney Goodsir Smith, and Tom Scott), although she largely absented herself from the pub-orientated and largely masculine scene these poets thrived within. Tait, instead, organised her ‘Rose Street Film Festival’, which was held in her studio, where she showed her own work. Despite two retrospectives at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, in 1970 and 2004, Tait’s films have always been more appreciated abroad, where critics place her in the same tradition as experimentalists like Stan Brakhage and Maya Deren. As a filmmaker, Tait’s working methods were closer to that of a poet than of a commercial filmmaker, not least in the way she essentially worked alone behind the camera, developing her own set of aesthetics. The consequence of Tait’s independence was she didn’t make a full-length film, Blue Black Permanent, until 1992.
Tait died in 1999, in Kirkwall. She had returned to Orkney in the late 1960s and stayed there. In her lifetime she published only three collections, the second and third, Subjects and Sequences and The Hen and the Bees, both following in 1960, the year after origins and elements. Tait continued to write, essays and short stories as well as poetry, but her focus thereafter was on film. With the recent republication of her work, and her short films available via the internet, a new generation of fans are discovering her work. As one of them, Ali Smith, writes, Tait’s poetry is characterised by “empathy, an openness to the moment of being alive and to the life of things beyond and synchronic with the self, and an honesty at one level brusque and at another, near-brutal.”