From Renaissance to Referendum: Poetry, Culture and Politics

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Saltire Society


October 22nd



IHF‘From Renaissance to Referendum: Poetry, Culture and Politics’ is a series of six public seminars aiming to bring academics down from their ivory towers into a more accessible public space. It’s a collaborative venture between the University of Edinburgh, the Scottish Poetry Library, the Saltire Society, with support from the British Academy. According to series organiser Greg Thomas (University of Edinburgh) the seminars will ‘plot more generally how modern Scottish poetry engages with political and cultural issues.’

The second of the seminars – ‘The Languages of Scottish Poetry’ – took place in the intimate, and fitting, Saltire Society, in lieu of the Scottish Poetry Library’s reopening on the 29th of October, where future seminars will be held. It was very much in the style of a typical literary event, with two speakers, Greg Thomas and Emma Dymock, chaired by poet Lila Matsumoto. The focus for the evening was two radical political Scottish poets, Sorley Maclean and Ian Hamilton Finlay, both of whom fused tradition with innovation and, positioning themselves on the outside, politicised the landscape in different ways.

Greg Thomas began with an anecdote about an Ian Hamilton Finlay pastoral sculpture and the dispute behind it, as a way of introducing the ‘principle of conflict’ which is crucial to Finlay’s work and life. Thomas suggested that Finlay ‘put the poem into war with the world’ and went into entertaining detail about the various public battles the pugnacious poet waged with arts councils, authorities and institutions during his career. Finlay’s art ‘goads us into battle to respond’ he concluded.

Translator and critic Emma Dymock considered radical socialist politics in Gaelic poetry, especially the work of Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean, who, she informed us, took the gospel of socialism at the age of 12. Illuminated by excerpts from his writing, provided on handouts, Dymock showed how Maclean continued the bardic tradition of Gaelic poets being spokespersons for a community, whether imagined or not, during times of political and cultural struggle. In doing so, Maclean helped develop a rich vein of revolutionary thought in Gaelic poetry.

While it’s admirable to take the academy to the public, indeed, this is very much the drive of the academy for impact and knowledge exchange, I’m not convinced that this will ensure a different audience. Both talks, while enjoyable, engaging and reasonably accessible, pre-supposed at least a little knowledge of their subjects. This in itself is no big deal, most people with an interest in Scottish poetry would have taken something from it and learned something new, as I did, but it’s possibly a bit too niche to capture an audience of neophytes. Time will tell. However, I think it’s important to attempt to bring discussion and debate about new and current research streams on Scottish poetics into the public domain, and this is the unique selling point of the seminar series. The next event, ‘Contemporary Scottish Poetry and Ecology,’ with David Farrier and Samantha Walton, will take place in the newly renovated Scottish Poetry Library, which is reason enough to go along, in my book.

Reviewer : Nicky Melville


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