Ten Poems from Scotland, Selected by Don Paterson

Ten Poems from Scotland, Selected and Introduced by Don Paterson, (Candlestick Press, 2014), 19pp., £4.99, ISBN 978 1 907598 25 8        

Reviewed by Paul McMenemy [Originally published in LP2, September 2014]

I must admit, I find this something of a perplexing artefact. Not the contents, which we will come to shortly, but the thing itself. Lucy Page, in her review of two of Candlestick Press’s children’s pamphlets in last month’s issue, noted that they were beautifully presented; the same is true of this little pamphlet, covered in shades of thistle and clover, with a pretty central woodcut by Iain McIntosh. It is more the intent of the thing. It comes packaged with an envelope, a bookmark, and a sticker reading “Instead of a card”. As Page noted, this is a fantastic idea for children’s poetry; for a pamphlet aimed at adults – and especially one not linked to any particular occasion – I find it a little more confusing. When would one send it? St Andrew’s Day? Burns’ Night? As a “Congratulations on your political independence/ continued membership of the Union” card?

This is not to denigrate the value of the enterprise: Don Paterson has picked ten very good poems, and even when choosing poems by well-known writers has managed to avoid the usual anthology-fodder. Paterson admits it is a “capricious” selection – any choice limited to ten poems cannot help but be so. This is fair enough, but Paterson then says that he wants the collection to be “a representative spoonful” of Scottish poetry. Considering that the only pre-twentieth century poet included is Burns, I am not sure that this statement stands up. Perhaps ditching Burns (although the poem of his here – ‘Address to the Unco Guid, or the Rigidly Righteous’ – is one of his best, and less reproduced than many) and producing a ‘Ten Modern Poems from Scotland’ might have been better, from a formal point of view. But this brings us back to the question of who this is for.

Paterson says that Jenny Swann, editor at Candlestick Press, noted that many of his selections covered the theme of exile in some way or another. Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Originally’ discusses the question “Where are you from?”, narrating the poet’s move to England as a small child, and implying that it’s a question few of us can answer with certainty these days; Douglas Dunn’s ‘Re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss and Other Stories’, originally from Elegies, the collection in which he narrates the slow death of his wife, discusses a subtler exile, picking up a book he first read the summer he met her, twenty years earlier; W.S. Graham’s ‘Loch Thom’ describes exile from childhood; Kathleen Jamie’s ‘The Graduates’, exile from class – and so on.

And this perhaps gives a clue to a potential audience: ex-pats, or a certain kind of tourist. And of course losing Burns or adding ‘Modern’ are neither of them smart moves in this context. Yet this isn’t an unchallenging collection, any more than it’s a greatest hits. Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s ’Phrase-Book’ is inventive and brutal; W.S. Graham’s nostalgia has nothing of the White Heather Club about it – it is harrowing, quietly. Jason Watts’s ‘Mouse skeleton’ might distantly echo ‘To a Mouse’, but has none of the cosiness (perceived more than real) of that poem. The only poem in this collection which is particularly well-known, and which I might expect to find in a Scottish anthology, is Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘Empty Vessel’, which ends it. It often turns up in anthologies because it is a short, relatively straightforward (disregarding the dialect, which, as Paterson says is “the least interesting thing about it”) lyric, and absolves anthologisers of the responsibility of dealing with the ideological and linguistic stramash of MacDiarmid’s poetry. But it is not as simple as all that, and it brings this thoughtful collection to an appropriate close.

So, I still don’t know who you should buy this for, but you should probably buy it for someone.

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