“There are many kinds of revelation. But the most powerful is the vision which transcends the mental boundary between life and non-life, and Scotland is a place where this sort of revelation often approaches. Staring into a Scottish landscape, I have often asked myself why – in spite of all appearances – bracken, rocks, man and sea are at some level one. Sometimes this secret seems about to open, like a light moving briefly behind a closed door. In writing about birds and stones whose `inward gates are open, MacDiarmid came as near as one can to finding the answer.”
This is Neal Ascherson writing in the first chapter of Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. I bought it when the first American edition was published in 2003, based on my enjoyment of Ascherson’s previous book, Black Sea (1995), a beautifully written meditation on barbarism and nation-building with stops along the way for Chekhov and Babel. The first chapter of Stone Voices carries an epigraph excerpted from Hugh MacDiarmid’s “On a Raised Beach,” about which I recently posted:
“The inward gates of a bird are always open.
It does not know how to shut them.
That is the secret of its song,
But whether any man’s are ajar is doubtful.
I look at these stones and know little about them,
But I know their gates are open too,
Always open, far longer open, than any bird’s can be…”
On and off for several weeks I’ve been reading MacDiarmid’s poems, puzzling through them, skipping over dull patches, savoring the heft and music of his words. That’s what keeps me coming back, when boredom or bafflement threaten my efforts to read him with a wide-open mind. Reading a new or difficult writer can be a work-in-progress. In his best poems, MacDiarmid is a lapidary – “one skilled in working with precious stones” – and this stones/words pairing runs through his poems and Ascherson’s book. The latter refers to “the dominance of geology over Scottish patterns of living.” In Annals of the Former World (1998), John McPhee, who describes geology as "a fountain of metaphor," writes:
"...the last Pleistocene ice sheet loaded two miles of ice onto Scotland, and that dunked Scotland in the mantle. After the ice melted, Scotland came up again, lifting its beaches high into the air."
A reader in England, Harry Gilonis, encourages me to persevere with “Raised Beach” and writes of an earlier version of the poem:
“…the old Norn words -- hraun Duss, rønis, queedaruns, kollyarun; They hvarf from me in all directions Over the hurdifell; klett, millya hellya, hellyina bretta, Hellyina wheeda, hellyina grø, bakka, ayre; And lay my world in kolgref.
“These words all come from a linguist's article on Shetland Norn that came into MacDiarmid's hands; they are specific terms for Shetland landscape features (`fell’ survives in Northern England placenames for `high moorland’). You don't really need to know too precisely what's what!”
But I like to, Harry. With a good or great poet, I develop a sense of trust. If he uses an unfamiliar word I want to know what it means, regardless of the language. MacDiarmid is a poet of the Scots, the Scots language and the Scottish nation, and my knowledge of all is feeble. I look up words and trace allusions. His closest poetic cognate in the United States is Whitman, and like him MacDiarmid is a windbag. Both poets benefit from judicious editing (as do Wordsworth and Tennyson, national poets in another sense). Ascherson, born in Edinburgh, suggests MacDiarmid’s specialness to some readers in Scotland:
“We drove on towards Galashiels, our last destination. It was a hot afternoon. Sleepily, I tried to remember all the rivers we had crossed on this journey: Forth and Tay, Don and Dee, Deveron and Spey, Ythan and Ugie, Eddleston Water and Gala Water and Tweed [even the names of rivers are beautiful in Scotland]. My head began to nod forward. I turned to counting the poets we had quoted along the way: Barbour and Dunbar, Alexander Montgomerie and W.B. Yeats, Hugh MacDiarmid, Shakespeare on occasion. Burns on many occasions, and King David, perhaps, if you attribute the Psalms, and of course `Anon.’”