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more scots, less porn

By Stephen Burt

We knew that the continuing malaise among independent bookstores (despite success stories in North Carolina, in Minnesota, and elsewhere) has long spelled trouble for literary fiction, which relies on in-store events, loyal customers, and local buzz to move the books that never become bestsellers. Now comes word via an expert in the field that the decline of the independent bookstore evens spells trouble for well-written porn.
Fiction of all kinds– even the kinds you might think have a built-in, durable market– is on its way, I suspect, to the status that American poetry already occupies: you can devote your life and your spare time to it, you can find steady work and even a rewarding career track by doing something connected to it, but almost nobody will make a living through being paid, directly, to write books of it. Some consequences– and some news from Scotland (the kind that stays news) below.


That development won’t kill the short story– it might be good for the short story, as people who would have been full-time novelists take other jobs and therefore turn to short forms. It will mean that fiction writers need, and deserve, the kinds of support that we already think of poets and poetry as requiring.
In America those kinds of support for poetry come principally, in financial if not in social and emotional terms, largely from the academy. In other, smaller countries it’s more important that artists get such support from state arts organizations, such as the Scottish Arts Council and the Scottish Poetry Library, thanks to whose very portable sheaf of Scottish poems my week has grown brighter.
As this site’s own news filter revealed yesterday, the Library of Congress has recently realized that Scottish writers are not English writers. The most obvious examples for that difference belong to the past; you may hear them each Hogmanay. But Scottish poetry retains its identity, and its separable virtues, to this day: sometimes it draws on Scotland’s big-city identities, sometimes on the cold islands north of them, and sometimes on Scotland’s three (some linguists might say two-and-a-half) languages, standard English (however pronounced), Scottish Gaelic (sometimes called Gallic), and Scots. I knew about Scotland’s most famous twentieth-century poets, and its most influential at present– Hugh MacDiarmid, for example, and the poet-critic Robert Crawford. But I was happy to discover these much lesser-known poets and poems:
1. George Campbell Hay apparently wrote in Scottish Gaelic for much of his lengthy career, but this book instead has an excerpt from a long poem called “Seeker, Reaper,” a set of energetic, very recitable nouns and noun-phrases for what must be a big ship, of the kind built in Glasgow– a major industry there– for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries:
She’s a glint, she’s a glimmer, she’s a glimpse, she’s a fleeter,
she’s an overhauler, leave-astern, a hale-fleet-beater;
she’s a kyle-coulter, knot-reeler, thrang-speed-spinner,
her mood is moulded on her and the mind that made her’s in her.
She’s a wake-plough, foam-plough, spray-hammer, roarer,
she’s a wind-anvil, crest-batterer, deep-trough-soarer,
she’s a dance-step-turner, she’s a broad-wake-scorer,
she’s a sound-threider, bight stringer, her hert runs oot afore her.
Try reciting that before the gale!
2. 95% of the work I see in translation from Celtic languages simply doesn’t work in English, because the translator hasn’t crafted a poem in English to match. One big exception is this Irish book. A smaller exception is “beul beag” (“little mouth”), by the Scottish Gaelic poet Aonghas Macneacail (who, if he Anglicized his name, would simply be Angus McNichol). It’s a short-lined, slow-moving poem to a baby, perhaps his daughter or son, and it ends, in his own translation into English:
little mouth,
you’re not the first
to say i am
little mouth,
purse of noises
still as a rose,
now harbour of sleep
little mouth,
when you return from
the dumb glen
tell those
who haven’t heard
your new language
that you don’t like pain
3. I haven’t always liked the work of the up-and-coming Scottish (English-language) poet Richard Price– sometimes it’s glib, and sometimes it’s snarky– but I always want to see what he does: sometimes it’s elegant, and in at least one poem, it’s as tender, as musically deft, and as fit for a mixed audience of nine-year-olds and sophisticated adults as anything by that underrated master of children’s poetry Christina Rossetti. I end with Price’s poem– you might want to know first, if you don’t already know, that “garage” is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, that “lorries” in Britain are trucks in America, and that a “lay-by” is, according to the OED, “an area adjoining a road where vehicles may park without interfering with the traffic.” Here’s the poem:
The world is busy, Katie, and tonight
the planes are playing, fine, alright, but soon
the folk behind those blinks will nap, sleep tight
as you will too, beneath a nitelite moon.
The world is busy, Katie, but it’s late–
the trains are packing up, the drunks are calm.
The fast, the slow, has gone. It’s only freight
that storms the garage lane. It means no harm.
The world is busy, Katie, but it’s dark–
the lorries nod, they snort, the spoil their chrome.
They hate to be alone. They look to park
just off the road. For them, a lay-by’s home.
The world is busy, Katie, like I said,
but you’re the world– and tired. It’s time for bed.

Comments (8)

  • On January 18, 2008 at 11:49 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Check out this poetry collection: Strip by Angela Readman (Salt Publishing)
    or for fiction:
    Dirty Money by Ayn Imperato (Manic D Press)

  • On January 18, 2008 at 1:46 pm Don Share wrote:

    Kathleen Jamie!!

  • On January 18, 2008 at 3:06 pm Anonymous wrote:

    Yes, of course Kathleen Jamie. One of my students just wrote a long paper on her. She’s in the anthology too. I’ll check out Readman, though it looks like I can obtain her first book more easily than I can that one– thanks, Aaron, for the rec!

  • On January 19, 2008 at 1:53 pm jmcc wrote:

    Very nice post- great poems and nice suggestions. After reading up on the cool store in NC, I’m curious about which of the cool independents in MN you were referencing (the link doesn’t seem to work for me).
    Thanks!

  • On January 19, 2008 at 2:08 pm Steve wrote:

    I meant Micawber’s bookstore in the St Anthony Park neighborhood of Minneapolis (east of the river and near the St Paul city line): try this link to Micawbers and let me know if it works (warning: sometimes the comments feature erases links, even though the links stay put in the original posts).

  • On January 20, 2008 at 10:36 am jmcc wrote:

    Cool, I hadn’t come across that one yet. I enjoy magers & quinn and the Book Arts Center whenever I make it down to the cities. I’ll have to add that one to my pilgrimages. Minnesota is rather supportive of its local booksellers (I’m proud to work at one in Duluth – Northern Lights), so it’s encouraging to see the success of others in different states as it signals sustainability rather than making us look like a last stand.

  • On January 21, 2008 at 12:17 am Vivek Narayanan wrote:

    As long as we are making these lists, one could not, on any account, leave out Edwin Morgan, please– surely the most influential (and best) living poet. And of course, W.N. Herbert.

  • On March 11, 2008 at 1:00 pm Snarky wrote:

    Thanks for the enthusiasm, and the measure. I wonder if folk are meant to reproduce a *whole poem without permission (and include a typo)? – but if anyone would like to check out more of the poetry it’s in Lucky Day published by Carcanet, available through most stores and online booksellers. More info about my poetry’s is at http://www.hydrohotel.net. All the best – Snarky (OK, Richard Price)


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, January 18th, 2008 by Stephen Burt.