Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Best British long poem of the Twentieth Century - A drunk man looks at the thistle by Hugh MacDiarmid

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I have just discovered that the greatest British long poem of the Twentieth Century (in my opinion!) - that is A drunk man looks at the thistle (published 1926) - has been put onto YouTube, being read by its author, Hugh MacDairmid.

[See above or : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt2gOOtrYRc ]

Up to twenty years ago I had read pretty much everything published by and about Hugh MacDiarmid - which was the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978).

On reflection he was a terrible man who liked and wanted terrible things, on the whole; but his early poems written in his own version of a Scots dialect are simply sublime, and for a few brief years he was certainly inspired.

Sublime IF you can get to grips with the difficult dialect and arcane vocabulary. This, very few people have ever done, and fewer as the years go by; so I almost never recommend reading him to other people.

But here is one of my favourite passages from A Drunk Man:

O wha's the bride that cairries the bunch
O' thistles blinterin' white?
Her cuckold bridegroom little dreids
What he sall ken this nicht.
For closer than gudeman can come
And closer to'r than hersel',
Wha didna need her maidenheid
Has wrocht his purpose fell.
O wha's been here afore me, lass,
And hoo did he get in?
—A man that deed or' was I born
This evil thing has din.
And left, as it were on a corpse,
Your maidenheid to me?
—Nae lass, gudeman, sin' Time began
'S hed ony mair to g'e.
But I can gi'e ye kindness, lad,
And a pair o' willin' hands,
And you sall ha'e my breists like stars,
My limbs like willow wands.
And on my lips ye'll heed nae mair,
And in my hair forget,
The seed o' a' the men that in
My virgin womb ha'e met. 
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At the time he wrote The Drunk Man, MacDiarmid was 'making' these poems from already existing poems and translations, and his explorations in Jameson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language.

His own English Language (i.e. non-Scottish) poetry written up to that point had been hopeless (although his prose was distinctive in a strangely '1890s' sort of way) - and his later attempts were also mostly poor - clunky, contrived, utterly devoid of lyricism.

But for a few years in the 1920s he seems to have been a channel for an unique and amazingly sure-footed type of poetic spirit which worked for expression in Scots dialect - I really don't think he knew what he was doing, nor was he in control of it.

After the peak of A Drunk Man, he quarried out a few more pieces from the residue of this spirit - notably the implausibly wonderful and assured 'Harry Semen' (I would have thought it beyond-possible to write a beautiful and uplifting poem with that theme - look it up) - while his other writings and speeches and public persona was ranting and raving and boasting with an embarrassingly-wilful, incoherent, sophomoric petulance about anything which entered his head - but mostly totalitarian utopian communist nationalist politics.

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When all has been said, to produce such a quantity of lyric poetry of the highest class is so rare and valuable that I am prepared to filter the gems from the dross: Or, as MacDiarmid truly said about himself in a lucid moment:

"My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit's egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame, but a lot of rubbish."

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