This is the last blog in the series, and I thought it would be appropriate to end with rain – which won’t be as dismal as it may sound! Scotland, especially the west coast where I live (in Glasgow), is a rain-swept country. There are lots of expressive Scots words attached to weather: ‘haar’ for the mist off the sea; ‘dreich’ for dismal days (Liz Lochhead uses that word in her poem in this blog series); ‘smirr’ for a fine rain; ‘droukit’ when you’re drenched…
The late and much-missed Alastair Reid, who used to write for the New Yorker and was a brilliant translator of Borges and Neruda, wrote a poem called ‘Scotland’ (https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/scotland-1) in which beautiful weather prompts a Calvinist response: […] ‘What a day it is!’
cried I, like a sunstruck madman.
And what did she have to say for it?
Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'
Some thirty years or so after Reid published that poem, Don Paterson published his sixth collection, Rain (London: Faber & Faber, 2009). Paterson, twice winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize and Queen’s Gold medallist for Poetry, is the most prominent of the poets of his gifted generation. He teaches creative writing at the University of St Andrews, is the poetry editor for Picador, and a musician. He has a Calvinist streak himself, and writes poems that are ‘Dynamic, interrogative and unsettling; crafted yet open-ended; fiercely smart, savage and stirring’ as the Guardian reviewer remarked on the publication of Paterson’s Selected Poems (2012 – there is an earlier Selected available from Graywolf, garlanded with praise from Zadie Smith and Charles Simic). In the title poem, ‘Rain’, Paterson begins: ‘I love all films that start with rain’, and no matter how ‘bad or overlong / such a film can do no wrong’:
I think to when we opened cold
on a starlit gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign…
Despite the weather, he’s not in Scotland here – but he is in a city, and we haven’t seen much of city life in this series. Paterson has an early poem that’s distinctly urban, about sunshine and also about a father-son relationship: the title, ‘Heliographer’, wrong-foots the reader, who expects a very different poem to follow. The double-take is a frequent reader reaction to Paterson’s poems, so is the pleasure that comes from his energy of rhythm and intellect.
I thought we were sitting in the sky.
My father decoded the world beneath:
our tenement, the rival football grounds,
the long bridges slung out across the river.
Then I gave myself a fright
with the lemonade bottle. […]
from Nil Nil (London: Faber & Faber, 1993)
Paterson has also made versions of poems by Machado (The Eyes) and Rilke (Orpheus); in an interview with Attila Dosa he disagreed with Reid’s view of translating poetry – while admiring his work – and took issue, too, with Edwin Morgan’s view that everything is translatable, while admitting affectionately that ‘Eddie is your perfect translator’.
I’m going to end with a poem by Edwin Morgan (1920-2010), Scotland’s first poet laureate, who has been such an influence on Scottish poetry in the late twentieth century and beyond: a generous encourager of younger poets, a brilliant translator from several languages, and an endlessly inventive poet whose motto was ‘change rules’. His rain poem is much loved by Scottish readers and I hope you’ll enjoy it.
There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air
in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you
let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills
let the storm wash the plates
from Edwin Morgan, New Selected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2000)
Find out more about Alastair Reid (and how he burnt ‘Scotland’) here:https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/alastair-reid
and hear him read
Find out more about Don Paterson https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/don-paterson
and for the interview:http://www.donpaterson.com/files/Interview%20with%20Atilla%20Dosa.pdf
To hear him read his work:
Find out more about Edwin Morgan here:
and hear him read his poems