Contemporary Scottish Poetry

By Matt McGuire; Colin Nicholson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Poetics of Devolution

Alan Riach

The occasions of poetry – the momentary intuition that raises you in the hours before dawn, the commission to contribute to a public event, the compulsion to gather your forces in the context of a cultural argument about language and political authority – are inevitably numerous. In the period from 1994 (which saw the publication of the first edition of Dream State: The New Scottish Poets) and 2008 (the year of Edwin Morgan's 88th birthday), they are both liberated into a greater diversity than earlier eras and at the same time endangered by the ethos of distraction that seems characteristic of the early twenty-first century.

A few dates might help contextualise the contemporary scene historically. In 1979 a referendum in Scotland delivered a majority in favour of devolution but the vote was disqualified by Westminster; soon after, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government was voted into power on the tide of a British election. This double negation of a national declaration certainly helped energise writers, intellectuals, artists and critics through the 1980s and 1990s in producing work which took as its emphatic gravitational centre the various locations and identities that comprise the nation of Scotland.

Cultural history and literary criticism by such as Roderick Watson, Cairns Craig, Marshall Walker, Douglas Gifford, Dorothy McMillan and new writing by Alasdair Gray (1934–), Edwin Morgan (1920–), Liz Lochhead (1947–) and many others reconfigured and reasserted the dynamics of Scotland's cultural character.1 In 1997, another referendum delivered an increased majority in favour of devolved political authority and tax-raising powers. In 1999 the resumed Scottish Parliament was established and for the occasion, two contemporary writers delivered complementary poems celebrating and commenting on the potential the event represented.2 Iain Crichton Smith (1928–98), alluding to the closing comment made upon the ending of the previous Scottish Parliament in 1707, ‘There's an end of an auld sang!’ wrote ‘The Beginning of a New Song’: ‘Let our three-voiced country / Sing in a new world …’ Hoping that the new Scotland might be ‘true to itself and to its origins’, this secular prayer ended:

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