MacDiarmid’s Sticks

C.H. Sisson

  • Whaur Extremes Meet: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid 1920-1934 by Catherine Kerrigan
    James Thin, 245 pp, £12.50, June 1983, ISBN 0 901824 69 0
  • Elemental Things: The Poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid by Harvey Oxenhorn
    Edinburgh, 215 pp, £15.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 85224 475 4
  • Aesthetics in Scotland by Hugh MacDiarmid and Alan Bold
    Mainstream, 100 pp, £6.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 906391 60 1
  • Annals of the Five Senses by Hugh MacDiarmid and Alan Bold
    Polygon, 161 pp, £6.50, July 1983, ISBN 0 904919 74 9
  • Hugh MacDiarmid: The Terrible Crystal by Alan Bold
    Routledge, 251 pp, £9.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9493 0
  • Hugh MacDiarmid (C.M. Grieve) by Kenneth Buthlay
    Scottish Academic Press, 143 pp, £3.25, September 1982, ISBN 0 7073 0307 9
  • The Thistle Rises: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose by Hugh MacDiarmid edited by Alan Bold
    Hamish Hamilton, 463 pp, £12.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 241 11171 4
  • A Scottish Poetry Book by Alan Bold, Bob Dewar, Iain McIntosh and Rodger McPhail
    Oxford, 128 pp, £4.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 19 916029 5
  • Edinburgh and the Borders in Verse by Allan Massie
    Secker, 97 pp, £5.95, August 1983, ISBN 0 436 27348 9

Was Hugh MacDiarmid a great poet? Was he, as John MacQueen asserts in his Foreword to Catherine Kerrigan’s study, one of ‘the three greatest poets to use English in the 20th century’, the other two being Yeats and Eliot? One can understand MacQueen putting the matter that way, but perhaps it is not the most helpful way when the reputations of Eliot and Yeats are shaking down, in the ordinary process of time, following their immense acclaim. Perhaps there is too much talk of ‘great’ poets altogether, so far as the 20th century is concerned. If there is a useful critical question to be answered about MacDiarmid at this stage, it is perhaps not so much how great he was but what sort of poet he was.

To this question the studies under review contribute in different manners and in different degrees. The outstanding one seems to me to be that of Catherine Kerrigan, who writes with a very great knowledge of the intellectual background of MacDiarmid’s work and so casts light on some dark places. Her study goes up only to 1934, but that means that it covers the whole of the formative period. It is to be hoped that she will one day complete her work with a further volume – a possibility, one gathers, once she is ready with ‘the detailed explanation of references’ without which ‘it is spurious to discuss a long poem like In Memoriam James Joyce’. This sort of background work ought to be done and she seems well-equipped to do it. Harvey Oxenhorn’s book is of a different character. It is a critical assessment of the kind which used to be done summarily in an essay but which modern academic practice has extended to book length.

Oxenhorn is a graduate of Stanford now teaching at Harvard and his book is intended primarily as an introduction from well off the Scottish stage to other possible readers similarly placed. It has the merit of having ‘sought by and large to separate the poetry from the tortuous polemics of Scottish nationalism’ which so often get in the way of lucid exposition in MacDiarmid’s own prose – as is illustrated indeed in the hitherto unpublished Aesthetics in Scotland and from the trammels of which the editor Alan Bold cannot cut himself entirely free. Oxenhorn recognises the national character of MacDiarmid’s poetry, but he is seeking to judge it in international terms. This involves a certain deflation of the undeniable element of bombast and overwriting in MacDiarmid. Oxenhorn reports that Valda Grieve told him that her husband ‘wrote an enormous amount of verse when they lived on Whalsay but little thereafter’ so that ‘much of the later work’ – this is Oxenhorn’s own comment – ‘was not written by an old man (such as the “later” Yeats), but some time before, by a poet in early middle age’. However the question of the ranking of MacDiarmid ends up – and it will end up, as with all other poets whatsoever, by having its ups and downs – one may certainly say now that his work has not been digested, by those who reckon they have a digestion for such things, in the way that that of Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Hardy has been, to say nothing of many a lesser figure. In what might be called the peripheral stakes Dylan Thomas and even David Jones have had more attention in some quarters – in the case of Dylan Thomas, with a wild publicity which has had little enough to do with his work. MacDiarmid, it is true, has had a share of irrelevant – and sometimes damaging – publicity, mainly political, but his work has been known only piecemeal. A series of heroic publishers in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London have printed odd volumes, most of them not easy to lay hands on, and it is impossible to speak too highly of the enterprise of Martin Brian and O’Keeffe in issuing in 1978 the first real Complete Poems, which superseded the earlier collected editions as well as the thirty or so constituent volumes from Annals of the Five Senses (1923, reprinted 1930) onwards. Of this first book, which is largely in prose but contains a number of poems, we now have a third edition which will enable new readers to see the point from which MacDiarmid, still using his own name of CM. Grieve, set out.

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