The Sound and the Fury

By Marr, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), May 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Sound and the Fury


Marr, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


Andrew Marr is haunted by a near-invisible Scottish poet and nationalist

Whatever happened to Hugh MacDiarmid? In the 1970s the irascible prophet of Scottish Leninism was a huge cultural influence. Today, despite the appearance, volume by volume, of his collected works, he seems to have vanished. I was recently reviewing an anthology of poetry about the events of the past 100 years, Penguin's Scanning the Century. Of the better-known poets included, no one I can think of was more tilted towards public events than MacDiarmid, whose concerns included British imperialism, war, the Spanish revolution, Marxism, science, Scottish nationalism, relativity theory, modernism and sex. Yet there wasn't a single MacDiarmid poem present, as against, for instance, eight by Louis MacNeice, whom he despised, and two from Edwin Muir.

This omission was not limited to one editor's idiosyncrasy. Nowadays, MacDiarmid is little quoted anywhere. As one of the driving forces behind Scottish nationalism, you might have expected him to be mentioned during the election campaign for the Scottish Parliament. I haven't monitored everything, but from what I have been able to read, nary a cheep. He's become Who MacDiarmid?

Perhaps the reasons for his abyssal fall in popularity are obvious enough. He was difficult, in every sense - an argument-picker and chest-stabber all his life. He was on the losing side in most battles. His support for Stalin, even during the Hungarian uprising, is hard to stomach. His anti-English ranting, understandable in a different world where the British empire was powerful, seems small-minded. And his linguistic campaign has been lost. As English becomes a global language, and smaller languages are exterminated by the growing world culture, his attempt to forge a useable, complex written Scots, looted from archaic dictionaries, appears quixotic at best.

Finally and most damningly, there are plenty who say his poetry just wasn't much good. There were, they say, those early Scots lyrics, admired by anybody with half an ear, and the polemic masterpiece of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. But after that, merely obscurity, scissored prose laid out like poetry, occasional plagiarism and breathless, relentless, self-publicising assertion. It is claimed that after he fell from the top of a London bus (in Highgate, late at night, probably pissed) and landed on his head, his ability to write rhythmically left him. Too neat a story that, I think, to believe. But parts of the case against MacDiarmid have to be accepted. His wearisome assertions of communistic intent, his sometimes turgid prose, his weakness for ranting - well, there's no escaping from any of that.

And yet, to me, he is one of the great figures of our century, a poet I return to year after year. He haunts me. Any worthwhile Scottish future will be partly marked by his explosive work. As Norman MacCaig famously put it: "He aims at a bird, and brings a landscape down. He dynamites a building, and when the dust has settled, what structures shine in the sun!"

I first came across MacDiarmid as a schoolboy at Loretto, Musselburgh, browsing in the library, attracted by the fat, clean-looking white and purple jacket of an early Collected Poems. I was in adolescent reaction against T S Eliot. The Scottish writer's clean, angry little squibs and his intriguing longer late poems seemed a glorious alternative to the prissiness and snobberies of Eliot.

He became a minor obsession, as I began accumulating everything I could lay my hands on - magazines such as Akros with MacDiarmid material, the various selected and then collected poems, his semi-autobiography, Lucky Poet, the mini-collections such as A Clyack-Sheaf handy for jacket pockets, MacDiarmid tapes, MacDiarmid posters. …

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