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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

A Poetry of Devolution

Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

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  • 1 "Devolution will strengthen the Union – Brown". Electronic Telegraph 16 Apr. 1999.

Britain can become "the first successful multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multinational country in the world", Gordon Brown said last night.
Claiming that devolution would strengthen the Union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Chancellor said Labour was creating a "New Britain" based around shared values.
Andrew Sparrow1

  • 2 "Devolution or divorce is the choice, says Blair". Electronic Telegraph 6 Feb. 1999

The Prime Minister yesterday delivered his strongest warning yet that Scotland faces a choice between "devolution or divorce" in the Scottish Parliament elections on May 6.
Richard Savill2

  • 3 "Devolution 'increasing hatred of English'". Electronic Telegraph 6 Nov. 1998.

A Scottish police force voiced concern yesterday about a rise in the number of reported cases of anti-English racism following last year’s vote for devolution. Richard Savill3

I woke up one morning and discovered that half my poems were obsolete. This was unfortunate... as I was leaving that morning for Oxford, to give a reading. I consoled myself. If redundant they were historical documents, which could be read differently after the night’s events.

1This is how Kathleen Jamie begins her article "Dream State", published in Poetry Review (abbreviated below to PR), shortly after the Scottish devolution referendum turned up a "YES YES" vote. She goes on: "I left for Oxford. Had the vote gone the wrong way I couldn’t have. That bastion of English hegemony!" (PR) Jamie admits three things here. Firstly, that a number of her poems are in some way political; secondly, that anything but a "YES YES" vote would have been wrong ·, and lastly, that Oxford is seen as the dominant controlling centre of England and English poetry.

2However, though this may have been traditionally the case, since the beginning of the 1990s the British poetry world has been either undergoing an extension to include, or an explosion to create, other centres such as Newcastle, Liverpool, and, of course Edinburgh. This seems to have come to the fore with Oxford University Press axing its poetry list in November 1998, surely the final nail in the bastion’s coffin. Therefore, could we view devolution as a cultural model, as well as a political one, for the evolution or shift of power from the centre to the periphery, for the multiplication of centres? Are the "New Generation" of Scottish poets devolved poets, no longer having to be centred around Oxbridge since that power has been decentralised?

3To try and answer these questions it may be important to see if the notion of devolution itself has become available as a signifying code. Could it be that devolution has gained access to the cultural public spaces through political discourse, or that devolution has gained access to political discourse through cultural public spaces? It is true to some extent that the Celtic fringe nations of Scotland and Wales once viewed Ireland as a role model and thus Ireland ac ted as a sort of surrogate political culture for them. The representations of Ireland’s political struggles in Irish poetry (notably in the work of poets such as Heaney), provided a major medium for much of the politically conscious cultural argument found within the British Isles (Middleton, 1993). However, the likes of Heaney, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon, then became the norm, acceptable to the English public, published by mainstream publishers and almost given a canonical status. Peter Middleton goes as far as to say that "Heaney’s poetry exemplifies a familiar phenomenon: conservative poetics linked with a mildly radical content" (1993, 112). W. N. Herbert, a New Generation Scottish poet who writes much of his work in what he calls "Scots", seems to pick up on this shift in his poem "Mappamundi":

Eh’ve wurkt oot a poetic map o thi warld.

Vass tracts o land ur penntit reid tae shaw
Englan kens naethin aboot um. Ireland’s
bin shuftit tae London, whaur
oafficis ο thi Poetry sock occupeh fehv
squerr mile. Seamus Heaney occupehs three
ο thon. Th’anerly ithir bits in Britain
ur Oaxfourd an Hull. Thi Pool, Scoatlan,
an Bisley, Stroud, ur cut ti cuttilbanes in
America, which issa grecht big burdcage wi
a tartan rug owre ut, tae shaw
Roabirt Lowell. (1994, 1-12; 123)

4A new fervour was therefore needed from the New Generation of Scottish poets that would reflect Scotland’s struggle for cultural and political recognition, which would shift away from the surrogate that was Ireland and which seems, ultimately, to have become a poetry of devolution. Jamie has said:

Much recent poetry can be construed as political. It was a simple step, however, to become political during the Thatcher years when "Scotland" was synonymous with "resistance". All it took was the discovery that we could write out of ourselves, our families and communities, in the languages we heard pressed, as I think Heaney said, on the inner ear. In so doing we became Scottish, and "Scottish" was a political word. More so than "woman". (PR)

5There was, and still is, however, a paradox to overcome: Scotland as a country is a political fiction, and this even after the recent opening of the new Scottish Parliament. This paradox is recognised by the "New Gen" Scots, and finds itself inscribed in the poetry in various ways. Jamie, when she writes about Scotland, writes clearly about its ambiguous status, the mixture of a strong, global cultural presence and an almost token-like political entity. She ends her poem "Mr and Mrs Scotland are Dead":

Do we take them? Before the bulldozer comes
to make more room, to shove aside
his shaving brush, her button tin.
Do we save this toolbox, these old-fashioned views
addressed, after all, to Mr and Mrs Scotland?
Should we reach and take them? And then?
Forget them, till that person enters
our silent house, begins to open
to the light our kitchen drawers,
and performs for us this perfunctory rite:
the sweeping up, the turning out. (1994, 26-36; 37)

6John Burnside plays with this notion of fiction to create fictional spaces which have blurred or wandering boundaries, as the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski would say, and within which he recreates his own Scotland by painting its landscapes, houses, people and atmosphere. "Hypothesis" begins:

Let this be home: the house we never had,
a box of lights, a jar of copper nails,
cats’ bones and feathers
an arm’s length into the chimney.

Deep in the garden
the edges wander and blur... (1995, 1-6; 15)

7Robert Crawford appears to be trying to create a truth or reality that would be the country of Scotland, by listing in an encyclopaedic fashion its deconstructed parts. In the poem entitled "Scotland" he writes:

To love you needs more details than the Book of Keils –
Your harbours, your photography, your democratic intellect
Still boundless, chip of a nation. (1993b, 14-16; 278)

8Crawford sees his work as "a poetry of home", rather than what may be viewed as regionalism. The difference is a recognition of and interaction with the Other, rather than the rejection of it, as the definition of regionalism might purport. Here, Crawford’s idea of "a poetry of home" seems synonymous with that of a poetry of devolution. Devolution is not regression, there can be no return to a former state of things that the idea of regionalism might suggest, especially as the idea of that former state is all too often built on and blinded by myth.

9Crawford appears to believe that we have to move away from viewing ideology, and in this case Scottish ideology, as being singular and pure, and shift towards the idea of it being an amalgam. Therefore, interaction with others, whether they exist inside or outside each culture, must be important in the writing of "a poetry of home". Crawford uses the ideas of Bakhtin on utterance to justify his point. For Bakhtin each cultural voice exists in dialogue with other voices and in Problems of Speech Genres he writes:

Any concrete utterance is a link in the chain of speech communication. The very boundaries of the utterance are determined by a change of speech subjects. Utterances are not indifferent to one another, and are not self-sufficient; they are aware of and mutually reflect one another. These mutual reflections determine their character. Each utterance is filled with echoes and reverberations of other utterances to which it is related by the communality of the sphere of speech communication. (1992, 91)

10Social plurality and the politics of diversity are therefore fundamental to every utterance that on a superficial level appears to reject the groups with which it is in relation. How is it possible to conceive that the communality of the sphere of communication is or can be homogenous let alone homocentric? Surely the boundaries that Bakhtin evokes are necessarily permeable and continually on the move. For him any act of verbal or cultural exchange leaves both interlocutors changed. Crawford’s poem "Scotland", opens with the words "Semiconductor country", and we must remember that a semiconductor only works because of its impurities. In the poem "Alba Einstein" (The Alba Centre is the semiconductor design campus based in Scotland, as well as "Alba" meaning "Scotland", and being the possible pronunciation of "Albert" with a Scottish accent), Crawford appears to criticise those defenders of "Scottishness" who appropriate a wild variety of things in an attempt at cultural protectionism. The poem is about the Scots discovering that Einstein was in fact bom in Glasgow and concludes:

He’d loved fiddlers’ rallies. His favourite sport was curling.
Thanks to this, Scottish business expanded
Endlessly. His head grew toby-jug-shaped,
Ideal for key rings. He’d always worn brogues.
Ate bannocks in exile. As a wee boy he’d read The Beano
His name brought new energy: our culture was solidly based
On pride in our hero, The Universal Scot. (1993b, 16-22; 279)

11New Generation Scottish poetry seems to have accepted the idea and necessity of cultural polyphony, and now revels in it; it has moved on from Hugh MacDiarmid’s nationalist passion, advocacy of Italian fascism and support of communism. Their poetry of devolution, is thus a poetry which places Scotland within Britain, understanding and affirming the value of the links that tie Scotland to the other nations that make up Britain, including England. It appears to have been necessary for Scottish poetry and Scotland as a whole, to reaffirm certain, let us say, geo-political boundaries through the notion of devolution, so that there could be full acceptance of the cultural permeability of those boundaries. In the introduction to the anthology Other British and Irish Poetry since 1970, Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain see this cultural complexity that maps the British Isles as reflecting a global questioning of what is identity:

[I] f an older experience of identity can no longer be affirmed, if an earlier distinctness of unified "culture" can no longer be asserted, then the artistic as well as linguistic, ethical and religious traditions can no longer serve as indices of national identity or authenticity. The twentieth century has forcefully and often brutally reminded itself that ethnic purity is no guarantee of "identity". (Jacket. Online. Internet.)

12Both Robert Crawford and Kathleen Jamie understand their own identity, and likewise the identity of fellow Scots, as being one of difference. Crawford sees difference as central to the idea of postmodernism:

Identity (and so difference) is one of the central modern obsessions. The self-image is as important in the boardroom as in the pub. In literature as in other areas of human activity, questions of the self and of identity have come to be more discussed and more problematic as the twentieth century developed... The "death of the author" and the "decentring of the subject" have made critics and writers more and more aware of the self as a synthetic construct... Post-modernity seems to offer us a shopping arcade of selves from which we may pick one or several, ready to wear, ready for modification, and frequently ready also for obsolescence in the face of next year’s fashions. (1993a, 2)

13Kathleen Jamie on a more personal level says:

"Difference" is what I have grown up with as a poet, and frankly, I like it. "British", but not English. Scottish in a British context. That sense of being a slight outsider is one I am now comfortable with and would be loathe to relinquish. I like juggling contexts, and watching things shift accordingly. (PR)

14She then develops her point by raising the notion of language and linguistic polyphony:

We’ve discovered in our poetry, how to use our everyday languages which are not standard English.... We have discovered and explored polyphony – the multifold voices and languages and attitudes which are "Scottish".... Recently the project of the whole UK, dammit, the whole ex-empire, has been toward diversity, pluralisms, citizenship – I like being one of the diverse, one of the plural, one of the citizens. (PR)

15For Robert Crawford each Scottish poet is confronted, not only with a cultural collision between the Self and the Other, but also a linguistic one. He believes that either the poet writes in Scots but finds himself having to engage in the "other" of English, or he writes in English but is obviously going to be aware of the presence of Scots. The very notion of Scots itself is plural. W. N. Herbert, who advocates a positive attitude to bilingualism and plurality (his confessed motto is: And not Or), distinguishes between what could be called English Scots, the representation of accent, and Scottish Scots. Scottish Scots is not, however, what the Scots talk in the streets but a very rare language which, Herbert freely admits, has been built up from reference books and dictionaries. This type of Scots could therefore be qualified as the would-be language of a fictional country, and his poem "Dingle Dell", opens with the lines "There is no passport to this country/it exists as a quality of the language" (Herbert, 1994, 1-2; 40).

16In the introduction to his collection Forked Tongue, Herbert writes:

When my grandmother makes a mistake she says "Eh tell a leh". Maybe it’s the Calvinist in her makes her confess to lying when she isn’t. But I feel the same way whenever I use conversational English picked up after fourteen years in Oxford. Or whenever I lapse into a full-throated Dundonian Scots at home and someone announces, "Ye’ve no lost yir accen". (1994, 10)

17The collection, as its title suggests, is half in English and half in Scots. For the poems in Scots, Herbert provides glossaries but this still leaves the reader a hard task in front of him. The same sort of task required to read MacDiarmid who used Lallans (or Lowland Scots – a term already used by Robert Burns to describe his own poetic language), composed of often obscure dialect words mostly found in Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language, to increase the modernist angles of his work. One needs only to look at the first few lines of Herbert’s "The Socialist Manifesto for East Balgillo":

I thi hovie an thi howd ο sleep,
whaur Dundee dovirs oan thi rink
ο ma frore-thocht Iyk a Michael-
angelo oan skates, inna sowff ο
faain, Eh gee back intae mains
oan mains ο gorse an Pict-banes
whaur thi doozie-land’s a roidit
rist. (1994, 1-8; 120)

18Even if the glossary provides definitions for hovie, howd, dovir, sowff, mains, doozie, roidit and rist, it does not immediately elucidate the semantics of the poem. Herbert echoes the use of this language in the English poem "Other Tongues", which concludes:

I said I will learn rhetoric from
this stone, and took it home.
I have another tongue in my head
the like of which it’s never heard. (1994, 29-32; 39)

19There are several questions the use of Scottish Scots raises. How far does its use in Herbert’s poetry refuse access to those readers who are not in direct relation to the language? Is it used simply to produce an effect, the trick of a rhetorician? If this is the case then surely the effect is one of partial exclusion. Herbert’s glossaries are there to enable us to place one foot in the door, but their incompleteness slams the door back in our faces. "And not Or", may be his motto, but at times this comes across as being tenuous. Sean O’Brien suggests that "[i] f the case for a national literature needs to be made beyond as well as inside the nation – as presumably it does – then the literature needs to travel" (1998, 262). If the national literature does not travel then it is regional and not devolved, and the Scottish Scots poems of Herbert travel with some difficulty.

20Herbert’s use of Scottish Scots, however, is quite rare amongst the other New Gen Scots. In the work of Kathleen Jamie, the use of Scots expressions only appears as indication of accent. Indeed, it has to be noted that both Jamie and Carol Ann Duffy write mainly in English, and this undoubtedly reflects a certain need they have to project themselves as women writers as well as being Scottish, as having a female identity in what they see as a male-dominated, working-class, Scottish literary nation. This does not mean that the dilemma of language or accent is totally evacuated but the angle of approach is definitely different. For Duffy, that angle is one of almost Larkinesque nostalgia as in the poem "The Way My Mother Speaks" where she writes "I am homesick, free, in love/with the way my mother speaks" (1994, 22-23; 88), or as the poem "Foreign" testifies:

There are some dismal dwellings on the east side
and one of them is yours. On the landing, you hear
your foreign accent echo down the stairs. You think
in a language of your own and talk in theirs.

Then you are writing home. (1994, 2-6; 54)

21Duffy, in "Like Earning a Living", is also clever enough to play with English accent and idiomatic expression; both English English and Scots English are now foreign to her, as well as being her own:

the long afternoon empties of air, meaning, energy, point. Kin-L. There just aren’t the words for it.

Darren. Paul. Kelly. Marie. What’s it like? Mike?

Like earning a living.
Earning a living like. (1994, 16-20; 104)

22The use of Scots, as a language or the mark of an accent, thus entails problems of class distinction which in turn entail problems of gender identity. Both the language, and therefore the "reality" of Scotland today are seen as being inevitably linked to the male working-class population. The question that this then raises is one of authenticity. Do the "New Gen" male poets use the language to sound authentic or to give themselves an extra media appeal to the popular masses. Today, being a Scottish poet is trendy, writing in Scots, however, is sexy.

23It could be argued that the poetry of Don Paterson has subordinated polyphony to an ethos less dedicated to pluralism than to individual renown. In his first collection, Nil Nil, the poems centre themselves around pub life, and talk about playing pool, drinking Guinness, knowing how to drink like a man, leaking cocks... Robert Potts writing in the TLS about Paterson’s second collection, God’s Gift to Women, says that it "is a collection of elegantly written and often amusing pieces, but the arching themes – and the arching denial of any theme – seem grafted on" (TLS, 21). Surely it is not good enough to be Scottish and write "amusing pieces", one needs also to apply oneself to write good poetry. Potts’ article is an interesting one, especially when compared to Robert Crawford’s review of the same collection which appeared in the London Review of Books. Potts writes on a poem entitled "Postmodem" that it is:

the tale of a pornographic movie in which the image of its masturbating owner is superimposed on videotaped videotape. "Dye no’ get it? Will Eh hae tae explain it tae ye?" No, no... this volume wastes itself in play and disguise. (TLS, 21)

24Crawford on the same poem says:

As in the Scots poem "Postmodernism" and elsewhere, voyeurism is to the fore; as in almost all the poems, the language moves in an effortless way that conceals much art. Paterson’s feel for vocabulary and rhyme is splendid. (LRB, 21)

25Crawford ostentatiously qualifies the poem "Postmodem" as a Scots poem, and this is notably lacking throughout Potts’ article. However, though Potts does not overtly talk of Paterson’s Scottishness, he does quote the poem showing Paterson’s evident use of, if not Scots, then Scottish accent. The two critics appear to be judging according to two different value schemes. Crawford, a fellow "New Gen" Scot, seems to concentrate on the theme of Scottishness itself, centring the poetry geographically, whereas Potts appears to be judging the poetry for its intrinsic quality.

26Crawford’s problem here may be one of "voice". The term "Scots" not only signifies a language or the mark of an accent, but necessarily has locationary implications, both geographical and conceptual. The term "Scots", therefore, helps identify what the poetic voice is and where it is coming from. Crawford’s own voice is one of explicit cultural references that operate within the grid of his plural nationality; Carol Ann Duffy’s tends to be created by the dramatic monologues of a lost Scotswoman as in the poem "In Your Mind":

Then suddenly you are lost but not lost, dawdling
on the blue bridge, watching six swans vanish
under your feet. The certainty of place turns on the lights
all over town, turns up the scent on the air. For a moment
you are there, in the other country, knowing its name.
And then a desk. A newspaper. A window. English rain. (1994, 19-24; 90)

27The work of the Scottish poets of the New Generation includes an attempt at giving a politically fictional country full identity, either by cultural interaction—rather than the cultural protectionism of regionalism – or by the use of a separate language, or both. Scottish poetry has had to rethink itself as being necessarily plural, and re-centre itself as being "Scottish in a British context". In a nation proud of its cultural and especially literary inheritance, this poetry must have certainly played a part, small as it may have been, in the push towards Scottish devolution – not independence, but the awareness of a cultural and political identity within a wider frame.

28The title of Paterson’s first collection Nil Nil, may say it all. How can there possibly be and why should there be a winner in such a pluralistic society as Britain? However, this may still be something quite difficult to reckon with as Carol Ann Duffy testifies in "Originally":

I remember my tongue
shedding its skin like a snake, my voice
in the classroom sounding just like the rest. Do I only think
I lost a river, culture, speech, sense of first space
and the right place? Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate. (1994, 19-24; 65-66)


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail, 1994. "The Problem of Speech Genres." In Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press. 60-102.

Bumside, John, 1995. Swimming in the Flood. London: Jonathan Cape.

Caddel, Richard and Peter Quartermain, eds., July 1998. "Other British and Irish Poetry since 1970." Jacket. Ed. J. Tranter. No 4: 28 pp. Online Internet.

Crawford, Robert, 1993a. Identifying Poets. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

—, 1993b. The New Poetry. Ed. Michael Hulse, David Kennedy and David Morely. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.

—, 21 Aug. 1997. "Deep Down in the Trash." London Review of Books 21.

Duffy, Carol Ann, 1994. Selected Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Herbert, W. N., 1994. Forked Tongue. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.

Jamie, Kathleen, 1994. The Queen of Sheba. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.

—, "Dream State." In Poetry Review: An echo to the sense. Ed. P. Forbes 87 4 (1997-98). Online. Internet.

Middleton, Peter, 1993. "Who am I to speak? The politics of subjectivity in recent British poetry." In New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible. Eds. R. Hampson and P. Barry. Manchester: Manchester UP. 107-133.

O’Brien, Sean, 1998. The Deregulated Muse. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe.

Paterson, Don, 1993. Nil Nil. London: Faber.

—, 1997. God’s Gift to Women. London: Faber.

Potts, Robert, 12 Sept. 1997. "Reflected Glare." Times Literary Supplement 21.

Savill, Richard, 6 Nov. 1998. "Devolution 'increasing hatred of English'". Electronic Telegraph. 2pp. Online. Internet.

—, 6 Feb. 1999. "Devolution or divorce is the choice, says Blair." Electronic Telegraph. 2pp. Online. Internet.

Sparrow, Andrew, 16 Apr. 1999. "Devolution will strengthen the Union-Brown." Electronic Telegraph. 3pp. Online. Internet.


1 "Devolution will strengthen the Union – Brown". Electronic Telegraph 16 Apr. 1999.

2 "Devolution or divorce is the choice, says Blair". Electronic Telegraph 6 Feb. 1999

3 "Devolution 'increasing hatred of English'". Electronic Telegraph 6 Nov. 1998.


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