Born in Dundee in 1961, W.N. Herbert was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford. His doctorate on the work of Hugh MacDiarmid was published as To Circumjack MacDiarmid (1992). He returned to Scotland from Oxford in 1993, taking writer-in-residence posts in Dumfries and Galloway, and then in Moray, before becoming Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham Universities (1994–96). Herbert was one of twenty poets featured in the Poetry Society’s ‘New Generation Poets’ promotion in 1994. He held residencies with Cumbria Arts in Education and the Wordsworth Trust (at Dove Cottage in Grasmere), and lectured in the Department of Creative Writing at Lancaster University from 1996 to 2002. He is currently Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University.
Herbert’s collections include The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick (Arc, 1994), and five books published by Bloodaxe: Forked Tongue (1994), Cabaret McGonagall (1996), The Laurelude (1998), The Big Bumper Book of Troy (2002) and Bad Shaman Blues (2006). Cabaret McGonagall was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection), the McVitie’s Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year, and received a Scottish Arts Council Book Award, as did Forked Tongue and The Laurelude.
In 1983, he launched the poetry magazine The Gairfish; from 1990 to 1995 it became Gairfish, edited by Herbert and Richard Price, whose themed issues included ‘Duende: A Dundee Anthology’ (1991), ‘The MacAvantgarde’ (1992), and ‘Calemadonnas: Women and Scotland’ (1994). The anthology Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, which Herbert co-edited with Matthew Hollis, was published in 2000. He edited and contributed to A Balkan Exchange: eight poets from Bulgaria and Britain (2007) and with Martin Orwin co-translated the poems of Somali poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’ (2008).
Described as “a prolific and fluent poet” (Lilias Fraser) and “a brilliant and notorious maverick” (Paterson & Simic), Herbert writes poetry often fuelled by the unlikeliest of juxtapositions. His twin pole-stars are Hugh MacDiarmid and William Topaz McGonagall, the intellectual and the clown, both with an unwavering belief in their own genius in the face of public ridicule, and both committed to challenging the Scotland of their time. Herbert (like his mentor and fellow MacDiarmid scholar Duncan Glen) has spent most of his writing life south of the border, settling in Newcastle-upon-Tyne which, located at one end of Hadrian’s Wall, the old border separating the ‘civilised’ and the ‘barbarian’, seems an apt place of residence for such a poet of contraries.
Herbert’s earliest work, the poem-sequence ‘Dundee Doldrums’, is written in a dense Scots drawn from his own childhood speech and often obscure terms from the dictionary. Drafted in Dundee in summer 1982, after Herbert’s graduation from Oxford, it was published the following year in the last issue of Duncan Glen’s Akros magazine, which championed both Scots-language and experimental poetry (though the two rarely coincided); later, expanded and revised, it was published in book form by Glen. Herbert saw himself as a provocateur of Scots, drawing on but unbound by tradition: ‘I search dictionaries for gorgeous defunct fragments; I make things up.’ He repeatedly highlights the problematic nature of the ‘authentic’: ‘Mariposa Pibroch’ (from ‘The Cortina Sonata’) has the poet listening to a piper in London playing ‘airs // that are built into childhood / but aren’t genuine… / only the hearing is authentic’. Present, hybrid experience is valued more highly than a constructed ‘pure’ image of the past.
Besides, Herbert’s interests ranged far beyond Scotland: the title ‘Dundee Doldrums’ was derived from Ginsberg’s ‘Denver Doldrums’, while the poems themselves were heavily influenced by Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. ‘Ode to the Dictionary’ (from Forked Tongue), Herbert’s praise-poem to the Scots language ‘as sair-fu an lithe in the mou / as a hazelnut / or juicy as a plundirt pear’, turns out to be a translation of Neruda.
Four ‘Dundee Doldrums’ found their way into Forked Tongue (1994) as part of ‘The Landfish’, a Scots section of the book, set after the English of ‘The Cortina Sonata’. Scots / English is not an either / or situation for Herbert: ‘My motto is: And not Or.’ Scots, to Herbert as to MacDiarmid, is part of a broader language spectrum available to the poet, encompassing archaic and contemporary types of speech and writing. ‘I’m a polystylist, obsessed by how different modes of writing interact – not just Scots or English, but also formal or free verse, poetry on the page or in performance, long poems, forty-line lyrics. Everything’s a dialect’ (Dream State).
In the 1990s Herbert was linked with the ‘Informationists’, a group of Scottish poets including Richard Price, Alan Riach and Peter McCarey, many of whom lived furth of Scotland, and who consciously responded to the new virtual age and its information overload. While Price crafted delicate miniatures from data-fragments, Herbert relished and pointed up, in open-ended list poems, the sheer quantity of available material: ‘The Informationist’s Love Song’ features ‘the countless quivers of a cloud of Cupids… total saturation… “Europe’s largest fresh water river system”’. In a universe awash with stuff, Herbert enjoys the way things rub up against each other unexpectedly. ‘Dog Conversion Chart’ cheerfully runs off a list of loose equivalents: ‘A poodle equals an empty bottle of vodka. // A corgi equals a Hillman Imp. // A cigarette equals a dog’s anus.’
Much of the humour and energy of his work comes from deliberate juxtapositions of elements from’ high’ and ‘low’, classical and contemporary culture, as in these poem titles: ‘The Entry of Don Quixote into Newcastle upon Tyne’, ‘Minnie the Sphinx’, ‘The Fall of the Hoose of Broon’ (all from The Big Bumper Book of Troy, that title itself another illustration of the point).
While these titles suggest the hugely varied subject matter of Herbert’s poetry, his juxtapository method, with its in-built tone of irony, indeed parody, can come to feel repetitive. Christopher Whyte points to this danger in a different context; referring to poems about Russia and Spain in The Big Bumper Book of Troy he writes that ‘Herbert gets invited to these places because he produces poetry. The upshot of the invitation is more poetry. The whole process has an inevitability that can appear machine-like.’ Whyte continues: ‘is the day-to-day life of a poet, with all its accidents and banalities, the most appropriate subject matter for his poetry? The overall effect is a pervasive and effortless egotism, the sleight of hand so imperceptible one risks losing sight of the oddity of such an approach.’
Perhaps surprisingly, given that accusation of egotism, some of Herbert’s strongest poems are his most personal, where he loosens the shackles of irony, and works with a degree of emotional, intellectual and formal restraint. These poems move beyond the state of ‘information’ where everything is equivalent to everything else; certain things have more meaning than others, in particular the parent-child relationship. ‘Corbandie’, about a child as yet unborn, uses Scots to delicate effect, while ‘Kimmerin’ celebratates her birth by the simple evocation of a hare. ‘Becoming Joseph’ is a longer sprawl of a list-poem, raised by a consistently interesting idea, that all fathers are in the position of Christ’s father, who ‘[carries] the beloved supplanter on his baffled back’, experiencing an undeniable yet also distant connection with the other in the form of the child. What starts out as a rummage through memory, neither more nor less interesting than many of Herbert’s poems, becomes something darker and stranger, the mask it puts on making the speaker more rather than less vulnerable.
Herbert was appointed Dundee’s first Makar in 2013. In 2014 he was awarded a Cholmondeley Prize for his poetry, and an honorary doctorate from Dundee University, and in 2015 a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature.