James Naughtie’s picks include bashed pillows, sharp stars and sexy spacemen. What are your favourites?
In a week that feels ripe for celebrating the reach of poetry – and just in time for Burns Night – the Scottish Poetry Library has asked James Naughtie to choose his “best of the best” Scottish poems of the past 15 years.
Moving from, as Naughtie puts it, “Edwin Morgan in his last years talking about love” to “Kathleen Jamie catching a sense of national belonging in a few short lines”, it is a soul-quenching selection. There is humour and beauty in Claire Askew’s I Am the Moon, and You Are the Man on Me: “Tonight, I am white and full. / My surface is all curves / and craters,” she opens, later writing, deliciously: “Your compass does not work here, / but you are sexy / in your spaceman suit.” Liz Lochhead’s In the Mid-Midwinter, written after John Donne’s A Nocturnal on St Lucy’s Day, feels ever so apt for these bleak days of January: “There’s nothing very much to speak of anything to speak of / in the sky except a gey dreich greyness / rain-laden over Glasgow,” she writes. But “the light comes back / the light always comes back.” Lochhead’s description of the winter moon, “fat in the frosty sky among the sharpest stars”, is irresistible.
According to Colin Waters from the Scottish Poetry Library, which has published all the poems on its site, the poems are “part of the long and colourful history of Scottish poetry that Burns embodied through his life and work”. But the collection also shows how poetry has moved on.
“Someone asked me last week whether Burns wasn’t a little ‘problematic’,” Waters says, “particularly his attitude to women and sex. We’re not blind to that, and with the collection including strong contributions by, among others, Liz Lochhead, JL Williams, Katie Ailes and Jen Hadfield, we can see that contemporary Scottish poetry is at least trying to expand the voices it showcases.”
As Naughtie puts it: “We’re stepping into rich pasture here.” But the broadcaster was only considering the last 15 years of Scottish poetry. As it is indeed Burns Night, let’s see what else we might include if we were allowed to consider the full wealth of Scotland’s rich poetic heritage, whether the poetry of Burns himself – Tam o’ Shanter was voted the nation’s favourite in 2012 – or the glory of Violet Jacob’s The Wild Geese, or my own personal favourite Morgan poem, Strawberries. I’ve no agenda other than reading wonderful poetry from the land of “westlin’ winds and fernie braes, / Northern lights and siller tides,”, as Kathleen Jamie writes in Here Lies Our Land, and I hope you’ll join me