“I accept it on behalf of poetry itself, which is, and always has been, the core of our culture, and in grateful recognition of the truth that poetry, the reading of it, the writing of it, the saying of it out loud, the learning of it by heart, matters deeply to ordinary Scottish people everywhere.”
So said Liz Lochhead when she took the post of Scottish Makar in 2011. I doubt if I’d start a stairheid rammy if I said Liz has been everything Scotland could want from its Makar. First and foremost she’s been a formidable and enthusiastic champion of poetry. She’s been visible, accessible, productive, and, as anyone who has met her will testify, she communicates easily with people of all ages and all classes. It’s what could be called the common touch and no matter how well they practice their art not every poet has it.
Appropriately for a Glaswegian, Liz has spoken from the heart as Scottish poetry’s shop steward. Like Edwin Morgan afore her she’s been fearlessly outspoken when the times have required it – and from 2011-2016 they certainly have – which has meant being a bit of a trouble-maker on occasion. Column inches have been racked up in response, which is the way it should be. This is a restless, curmudgeonly nation, so, for any Makar worth the salt in their porridge, stirring it should be high up on the job specs.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with Liz on many occasions over the last few years and its always been a pleasure and a good laugh too. She’s game as anything. On one occasion last summer I feared we’d almost lost our Makar when I persuaded her to come for a bracing walk along the sea cliffs of Orkney and she went skiting backwards on the slippery red standstone, almost cracking her skull in the process. But fair play to her, she was back on her feet a couple of minutes later, troosers dripping wet, sore legs, and still made it up the steep path to the top of the sea stack at The Brough of Deerness.
To the question How do we replace Liz? my simple answer would be: we can’t. She’s still the best person for the job. But the official line is that we can and we will. A short list of 5 poets has been drawn up – their names haven’t been released – and this list will soon be put to a panel of First Ministers.
Now, I’ve seen photos of Nicola Sturgeon’s book shelves and it’s clear she’s what Bill Hicks would have called “a reader”. She’s au fait with Scottish literature and evidently takes great pleasure in it. Alex Salmond too is another bona fide fan of poetry and could probably out recite Robert Burns to me (and I ken more than my share of The Bard off by heart). Henry McLeish and Jack McConnell also strike me as guys who enjoy our rich vein of homegrown literary talent, which I’d guess isn’t the norm for most career politicians. But hey, this is Scotland, and poetry, as Liz pointed out, is important here. (Could anyone imagine Cameron, Blair and Major sitting down to discuss the next Poet Laureate? Pam Ayres anyone?) That said, asking a committee of First Ministers to select our national poet seems a bit weird to me. But there ye go.
The Big 5
If a short list of five was selected on the basis of being Scotland’s finest AND most influential poets then this would be my Top 5. Each has their pros and cons re: the Makar’s job – assuming they would actually want it – but all would deserve it on merit.
PROS: Internationally respected as one of Scotland greatest living poets. Has produced a body of work that spans the last six decades and can be an entertaining reader of his own work. Not afraid to produce work that questions what Scotland is, who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going. All things considered equal Douglas would be the natural choice as most senior (in age) of our Big Five.
CONS: His name isn’t so well known outside the world of poetry and academia. And at 73 he might no fancy the idea of leaving northeast Fife and traipsing round the country, what with all the shmoozing and the likes.
PROS: Jeez. How long have I got. With each new collection her poetry soars to dizzying new heights. She writes like an angel with the all-seeing eye of one of those beloved hawks of hers. Importantly, for the job, she is a quiet rebel by nature, unafraid to speak out on “issues of national importance” as they say, and her poetry connects with both the personal within and the social matrix without.
CONS: I’ll put a disclaimer here. Any time I’ve met Kathleen she’s been a delight to be around, bubbling over with ideas and enthusiasm, yet she strikes me as a very private person and may not want the hassle and public profile that goes with the job.
PROS: Jackie has built up a fine body of work and on occasion her poetry breaks out into the mainstream. This is a big plus for any would be Makar. An example would be her poem Dear Library. She’s a political animal too and unafraid of embracing big social issues, Makar-like, within her work. Everyone who meets Jackie LOVES her, her laughter is infectious, and she’s a great person to be around. She’d be a very popular choice.
CONS: She lives in England which is a big con if you want to be Scottish Makar. But I’m sure she could be persuaded to move back here. Going by her Twitter account she doesn’t seem to be too un-amenable to taking the job, if it was offered.
PROS: One of the brightest stars in the Scottish poetry filament. And deservedly so. Don has won almost as many medals for poetry as Messi has for football. Mention Scottish poetry outside Scotland and his name would probably be one of the first to come up. I’d imagine the bookies would have him installed as firm favourite.
CONS: He has already said he doesn’t want the job. But this could just be The Politician’s Tactful Gambit. He comes across in public as a bit dour and academic, which may not be the traits wanted for Makar, although friends of his say he’s got a great sense of humour, which you’d need. Not one to pontificate on the state of the nation.
PROS: I’ll put a disclaimer here: I want Tom to get the job. He’s been one of my favourite poets since nineteen oatcake. I don’t just mean favourite Scottish poet either, whatever that means. No poet has influenced my thinking about poetry more than Tom has. As for the role of necessary trouble-maker in chief? Ha! That particular mantle would fit lightly. Tom has written poems – such as the Six O’Clock news – that have done that rare thing and sunk into a consciousness beyond the world of poetry. Some (myself included) consider it as one of their favourite poems.
CONS: All the cons are plusses in my opinion and they can be found listed in his letter on the subject. It’d be worth offering Tom the job just to see his reaction.
There are so many other great Scottish poets who could stake a genuine claim for the Makar’s job – and who would be widely endorsed if they got the job – that there’s little point listing them all, if only to avoid the sins of listitis and omission. However, I’ll add just one more name who almost certainly won’t be on the short list:
PROS: His many collections of poetry span five decades and have done for Caithness what George Mackay Brown did for Orkney. George is one of the few poets who can claim to be an authentic Bard of his people. His verse moves effortlessly from the personal to the local to the historical and can embody the national and the international, within the personal, the local and the historical. Few poets can respond in verse so rapidly, and with such vitality and nuance, to “big events” the way George can. In this respect he is a genuine Makar, already proven in the role.
CONS: George could start a fight in an empty room.