What Place for Poetry in Politics? (+ ‘In Memory Of Doctor Angus Calder’ a new poem by George Gunn)

Angus Calder arrested at Faslane, 2003
Photo: (c) Kevin Williamson

This Saturday afternoon, as part of The Festival of Politics,  Aonghas MacNeicail, Janet Paisley and regular Bella columnist George Gunn – three highly regarded writers, poets, playwrights and broadcasters – discuss political poetry and its relevance today. Does poetry have a place in contemporary political dialogue? Political song has moved nations and political poems can carry a message worldwide. But does it matter and to what effect? The session will be chaired by Jean Urquhart MSP. This fascinating event takes place in Committee Room 3 of the Scottish parliament, 3.30-4.30pm.  Its FREE!


by George Gunn

I remember when we climbed Ben Gulabin

to put a great soul to rest

& unfurled a banner there

to mark our chief & praise our best

& most loved co-joiner

Gramsci’s face high up in Glenshee

an eagle flew from a craig then

to set Hamish Henderson free


at this moment all I see was known to you

your taste was simple

you loved everything

in Orkney the wind is gentle

a grey Summers day is pulling

itself from island to island

turning the hoddan colour of its pulse to blue

you remember this so I can understand


when the simple war of catastrophe ended

you looked at what was left of the world

of who could not stop & who could not kill

four black Shetland ponies unbridled & wild

gallop across a green hill

you never claimed a great peace had been born

or that freedom had been truly defended

you wrote the truth & bore the scorn


the skull hollow buildings along Europe’s coast

stare out in disbelief & wonder

& the sea-traffic of memory

is both aid-relief & plunder

& of itself what else can it be

now that memory approaches & fades

gaining in intensity what it has lost

in the private grief of public cheering crowds


it fades but still stubbornly remains

in the pages of the notebooks that you kept

when you believed in something

a thing so beautiful that it wept

to find itself fading

the Churchill barriers guard nothing anymore

the block-ships rust stains

the seal claimed Scapa shore


a flock of white birds like the souls of the dead

fly over the stone memory of the lives lost

for those who grab & those who release

the useless victory which is the cost

of this present age which knows no peace

only the power of money & its corruption

there was nothing false in anything you said

you were the true hearts welcoming son


you saw all this in the brown smoggy mess

of the autumnal nineteen fifties

when tired men turned to the light

to fashion the future out of memories

but memories are far too slight

& about them the future will not care

my love she moves through Deerness

seven red stirks follow her


“What’s water but the generated soul”

suggested Yeats to his young republic

likewise we move from fear to the oil field

to reassure where the British state sews panic

so will Scotland force or England yield

who is it that eats Time’s cherries by Waulmkmill Bay

to watch our culture climb into a hole

to neither champion freedom or sing of liberty


at Hakon’s round kirk in Orphir

where bulk tankers sit & humans sleep

they will burn the flame of the sagas out

with no examination very long or deep

integrity is a cartoon & art in a pout

the silicon delirium of the age

emptied of fire & topped up with torpor

the blood of nothing on the page


no use to you Doctor Angus Calder

your delirium at least was sincere

a skein of geese flying into the Sun

how ever did our country get to here

where the robbing banksters need no gun

to fleece the people out of their estate

where is the social retribution dear professor

where is the love to heal the hate


who will read the rhythm of the world in the waves

or taste it & hammer it out so Scotland is free

of history & compromises & bribes

this Northern sea will place our poetry

in the ashen mouths of the coming tribes

we will watch it wither salt-dry & die

all the dead poets rise up from their graves

& the sea will hear their cry


I remember when we went to Sanday

an island full of light

the June chorus of the birds

put all our anxieties to flight

Angus it was a chorus of words

that no ignorance can stop or start

all that you knew & felt & loved was in that day

for you carried Scotland in your heart


Doctor Angus Calder away!

I call you away


(c) GEORGE GUNN 2012

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  1. I would say this, but poetry has a place in everything, and politics is nae differ. It serves to distill, to encapsulate, and to transcend everyday boundaries between the public and the personal. It doesn’t replace or offer an alternative to serious political commentary, but is a powerful complement to it. “Rule Britannia” for example didn’t create the British Empire, but the crowds belting it out in the Royal Albert Hall every year at that “concert” (not to mention those in certain football stadia) evidence its power. Some beautiful pictures in George’s poem here will stay with me, and if they don’t I’ll come back to them. Thanks very much.

  2. bellacaledonia says:

    Saturday promises to be an interesting debate given the way poets have helped shaped Scotland, Scottish politics and Scottish identity over last few centuries. It could be argued that Robert Burns and Hugh MacDiarmid did more than any two individuals to defend, reinvigorate or even forge a unique cultural identity. Language is always the foundation of any culture. Poets in Scotland have always been way ahead of the political curve. The political elites play catchup. But who are the young Scottish poets of today with the flame of radicalism burning bright in both bellies and verse? I know a few but feel free to point us in their direction.


  3. Juteman says:

    Street poetry is alive and well in Dundee.
    Check out Gary Robertson. 😉

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    Brilliant! Ate them aw.

  5. It’s all good, good, good, and what a great image of Calder, grinning between the cops.
    Here’s one I did a while ago after doing a few ‘Creative Writing’ sessions with a group in Airdrie called Men With Pens –

    Would memory be lost, nae history kent?
    Wur lifes a huff an’ puff ay effort spent?
    Nae trace remainin for the bairns tae scan
    When comes their time tae take or be a man?
    Aye, mibbe, but for men wi’ pens.

    The landed, tyrants, monied,
    Aye hoarded monks and scribes,
    Cried them shamen, blessed magic-makers
    When they were just some men wi’ pens.
    But whit a power in thae words for sure,
    Tae bind a man tae wife, or work, for life.
    Tae make him laugh, or dream anither’s view,
    Tae conjure hell or heaven at a stroke.
    Such power had thae men wi’ pens.

    Noo, yon secret sacred art has spread aw ower,
    An thae wee squiggles maun gie up their power
    Tae uncles, papas, sons an brithers,
    Grannies, sisters, aunties, aw the ithers.
    Aye. Noo we’re aw the men wi’ pens.
    An whit a power we hae noo,
    Tae tell wur tales of dreams fulfilled and dashed,
    An love,
    Ay strangeness, friendship, aw the things we see,
    The folk we were, the folk we tried tae be.

    Mere memories aye melt, like mist,
    Breathe in, breathe out,
    Forever lost and gone.
    But thae wee squiggles outlast us,
    On paper, or on stone, so –
    Bide lang.
    Bide lang, wur scratches oan the walls ay Time,
    These marks we make,
    Us men wi’ pens.

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