This post has been edited following abusive and damaging comments made by a reader. The author considered removing this post but was dissuaded by other writers and ONE Magazine editor Martin Belk, who collectively support his right to speak freely and without fear of intimidation.
These days, the talk from academic critics is of there being “no young poets from Scotland”, and that – even where younger artists are writing- these writers are not taking risks. In other words, the youngsters are no good but even where they’re good, they’re dull.
Let’s knock this nonsense on the head before it becomes myth like too many academic assertions before it. There are talented young poets in Scotland, and these poets are taking risks at any level you care to mention. True to the great Scottish tradition, though, they have had to go to England to get their books published. In the case of the writers I’m going to consider, that publication has happened thanks to the estimable Salt publications, based in Cambridge – and long may it flourish.
Andrew Philip’s “The Ambulance Box”, and Rob A. Mackenzie’s “The Opposite of Cabbage” are first collections from two new writers on their way to establishing themselves as the most significant voices of the new Scottish poetry, and thank God. It’s high time something came along to replace the overtly political, working-class-till-I-die-but-whoops-I’m-a-professor tones of the generation above them, and Philip and Mackenzie are the men to do it.
Without conflating the distinct voices of these two poets, there are similarities of theme and approach here that signify the arrival of a fresh look at Scotland and Scottishness. First of all, there’s the mature approach to a wide range of international influences, perhaps best seen in Mackenzie’s “While The Moonies Are Taking Over Uruguay”, and Philip’s “Berlin/Berlin/Berlin”. If Mackenzie’s poem successfully blends cultism, cookery and modern Italy into a humorous tale of food preparation (what was that about not taking risks?) then Philip’s “Berlin/Berlin/Berlin” is no less remarkable for its combination of German, Scots and English into a redaction of a mad night’s partying in middle Europe.
Mackenzie and Philip introduce welcome notes of subtlety and oblique humour to the debate about what Scotland looks like, and how it feels to be Scottish. So Philip’s poem, “The Meisure o a Nation” combines historical references and images of modern Scotland to deliver “Oor Wullie times Trainspotting times The Drunk Man times Taggart” – which is as good a summary of Scotland as you’ll get in a hundred harangues from other, more established poets. Meanwhile, Rob Mackenzie’s witty thirteen-line sonnet “Scottish Sonnet Ending in American” drops the bomb on any attempt to homogenize modern Scotland -“half-muppet, half-Calvinist…one foot short of a rhythmic swing.”
That both writers manage to combine this subtlety and international outlook with emotional depth and resonance is merely an added pleasure for the reader. The elegiac tone of some of Philip’s poems – his book is dedicated to his son Aidan, who died shortly after birth-is balanced by a consciousness of the power of hope and love to mitigate loss: we must, as he tells us, “celebrate life-sprained and splinted/broken bandaged set to heal” (“The Ambulance Box”). For Rob Mackenzie, there is humour to moderate the absurdity of modern marketing and advertising techniques, such as a company that attempts to copyright the word, “the” (“Patenting The”); or the pure anarchy of an overactive imagination on the number ten bus: “With a day pass from the low-risk ward/Brian attempts to annex Buckingham Palace, and dictate/Legislation on body shape conformity.” (“Everyone Will Go Crazy”)
If you want writing that tells you about modern Scotland, rather than the time a boy wis spat oot ae Ravenscraig by thi Tory cuts, or whatever (for the millionth time) then catch these two young writers of talent and daring while you can. Never mind trashing the tartan shortbread tin: Philip and Mackenzie’s books show that Scotland can also have the strength to leave the tales of steelworks, deprivation and the working man’s struggle behind to become modern, positive and international in its outlook. Time for a fresh anthology of poetry from the new Scotland, perhaps?