Ron Butlin is a poet, novelist, short-story writer, librettist, playwright, and journalist, and one of the most versatile and accomplished Scottish writers of his generation. He was awarded a Scottish Arts Council Book Award for his first collection of stories, The Tilting Room: stories (1983), and for Ragtime in Unfamiliar Bars (1985), his fifth collection of poetry. His work has been translated into more than ten languages, and his fiction in translation has won prestigious international prizes. His poetry collections include Without A Backward Glance: new and selected poems (2005).
He has been Writer in Residence in a variety of institutions: the University of Edinburgh (1982 and 1985); Midlothian Council (1989-90); Craigmillar Literacy Trust (1997-1978); Scottish/Canadian Exchange Writing Fellow at the University of New Brunswick (1984-5); Writing Fellow at Stirling University (1993); and Novelist in Residence at the University of St Andrews (1998-9). He was appointed as the third Edinburgh Makar (poet laureate) by Edinburgh City Council in 2008. In 2009, he was made the first Honorary Writing Fellow, along with Ian Rankin, at the University of Edinburgh. He became a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund in 2010. The decision by Edinburgh City Council in 2011 to extend his appointment as the third Edinburgh Makar by a further three years symbolises the fact that poetry has remained for him the highest arch in his remarkable creative span. He has been described by Douglas Dunn as ‘the most accomplished Scottish poet of his generation’.
Butlin’s life has been as variegated as his literary output. He was born in Edinburgh in 1949 and brought up in Hightae, near Dumfries. He left for London as a teenager and drifted there and abroad, variously employed as a valet-footman, a barnacle scraper on Thames barges, computer operator and city messenger, and song lyricist with an obscure pop-group, before returning to Edinburgh and what he describes as ‘a life of intense unemployment’, when he began to write poetry in earnest, sustained by work as a male model at Edinburgh College of Art. He studied Philosophy as a mature student at the University of Edinburgh.
Along with his contemporaries Andrew Greig, Brian McCabe, and Liz Lochhead, Butlin formed a loose collective known as ‘The Lost Poets’, whose readings during the 1970s sowed the seeds of Scotland’s now buoyant live literature and literature festivals scene. The group was indebted to the mentorship and influence of the great twentieth-century Scottish literary figures Sorley MacLean, Norman MacCaig, and Edwin Morgan; in turn, Butlin’s work has had a profound impact on the generation of hugely successful writers who followed him, in particular Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner. Indeed Butlin’s qualities and profile as a writer – and especially as a poet – have been unjustly overshadowed by the conspicuous popular success of his protegées.
Butlin’s early pamphlet collections – The Wonnerfu World o John Milton (1974) and Stretto (1976) – were dominated by a vigorous and lyrical use of poetic Scots, reminiscent of the early lyrics of Hugh MacDiarmid, but informed too by a much stronger comic irreverence: Butlin’s version of Milton’s Satan has him as ‘a groover! Hoover-sexed/he picks up every bit o fluff!’ This subversive, often surreal wit is a constant in Butlin’s work (see ‘Great Moments in Scotland’s History: Number 7’, ‘Advertisment for a Scottish Servant’). Creatures Tamed by Cruelty (1979) also contained poems in Scots, but thereafter, Butlin’s preferred idiom became English.
Ragtime in Unfamiliar Bars (1985) marks the arrival of Butlin’s poetic maturity. His is an apparently simple and straightforward lyrical and romantic voice and sensibility, preoccupied with the dichotomies between desire and loss, imagination and memory, and how landscape and identity permeate each other; the often conversational accessibility of Butlin’s style can disguise a remarkably assured and sophisticated balance between emotional expression and formal control of rhythm and form. The collection’s second poem, ‘Descriptions of the Falling Snow’, is characteristic of his mastery of the often startling line and stanza break, and the killing closure:
The qualities of light through falling snow;
The patterns made by frost; the fields below
My house – I scanned and stressed a thousand words
Describing everything I saw. The birds
In flight across the imaginary skies
Sang what I set down – my lies
were coming true. And yet, I cannot live
uncorrupted by the narrative
Much of Butlin’s poetry reflects in a self-aware fashion on the act of writing itself, repeatedly through the metaphor of other forms of art – as in ‘Restoration of a Painted City’ and ‘Embroidery’ – but particularly music and musical composition, a constant, if not obsessive, preoccupation, best-expressed in the title-poem of Ragtime and its prolonged meditation on the art of keyboard- playing.
Butlin’s predominant thematic concern, however, is with the paradoxically creative and destructive forces of human love, both familial and erotic: ‘Because we die each moment let us love the more,/ and let love’s metaphor be resurrection’ (‘Elegy’). The concept of death-in-love is beautifully enacted in one of his later and best poems, ‘Ryecroft’, which closes Histories of Desire (1995): a sequence which movingly counterpoints the terminal illness of his mother with his restoration, with his wife, of a dilapidated cottage near his place of upbringing.
In his later career, too – perhaps influenced by his role as Edinburgh Makar – Butlin’s poetry displays a painful sensitivity to social injustice, characterised by compassion for, and anger at, the everyday suffering he witnesses in his native city (‘The Story of Our Street, ‘From What I Saw Today’). He is one of the finest poetic chroniclers of urban homelessness writing today. Not until the closing lines of ‘Edinburgh: A Place of My Own’ – in which he attempts to inhabit the perspective and depredations of a beggar outside the opulent Caledonian Hotel –
is the devastatingly mordant irony of the title unleashed:
If a sheet had been used to cover my face –
If the post-code for where I’d been begging
Were tagged to my foot –
The post-code would stand for my name
When, at last, I’d be given a place of my own.
2020 saw the reunion of The Lost Poets with the publication of Horns & Wings & Stabiliser Things, published by Polygon.
This appreciation of his poetry was written by Gavin Wallace in 2012 and updated by David Wylie, 2020. For a full list of Ron Butlin’s publications in all genres, see his website.