Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 6: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots

Perhaps it is only when we are released from the stranglehold of the deep freeze that we can once again celebrate cold, snowy art. Today between Hogmanay (New Year’s) and Burns Night (Jan. 25), I bring you a Scottish, though autumnal, chill–the blizzard, the wind, the land, and their combined efforts to confound. Still, may your eyes and heart be open wide to the imagery, the sounds, and the impact that only poetry can deliver.

Recently, I rediscovered the work of a famous poet I was vaguely familiar with: Hugh MacDiarmid, celebrated Scottish poet of the 20th century (1892-1978). Again, I became so fascinated with the Scots language he used to effect his art that I started trying to translate the Scots of one of his poems into standard English. A bit more challenging than “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, the poem is also more somber and contemplative. A novice in translation for personal interest alone, I am unsure of how well it came out and some of it I couldn’t parse, but I thought the poem interesting enough to share with you.

The poem’s title “The Eemis Stane” translates roughly as “The Unsteady Stone.” If you’ve been following my series on nature poetry, you may have realized by now that sometimes there is a fine line between nature poetry and poetry that uses nature imagery but operates through a different primary theme or mode. Although MacDiarmid’s poem also uses nature imagery, as with many poems, its true subject is more abstract and societal. I believe, though, that all nature poetry need not just celebrate nature; it can also lament it. In that sense, “The Eemis Stane” could legitimately bear the tag “nature poetry.” It would simply need other tags as well.

Following is a bit about Hugh MacDiarmid with a link to more information about the poet, and then the poem in full with my translation and analysis.

According to the Poetry Foundation,

“C. M. Grieve, best known under his pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, is credited with effecting a Scottish literary revolution which restored an indigenous Scots literature and has been acknowledged as the greatest poet that his country has produced since Robert Burns.”

“The Eemis Stane” by Hugh MacDiarmid

I’ the how-dumb-deid o’ the cauld hairst nicht
The warl’ like an eemis stane
Wags i’ the lift;
An’ my eerie memories fa’
Like a yowdendrift.

Like a yowdendrift so’s I couldna read
The words cut oot i’ the stane
Had the fug o’ fame
An’ history’s hazelraw

No’ yirdit thaim.

Translation and Analysis

I attempted my translation from Scots into standard English with the assistance of The Online Scots Dictionary and other sources. Brackets and parentheses indicate points of possible alternate meanings.

At the darkest point of the cold harvest night
The world like an unsteady stone
waggles in the sky;
And my eerie memories fall
Like a snow driven by the wind [or a blizzard].

Like a blizzard so that I couldn’t [(even) have] read
The words cut out in the stone
Had the smoky atmosphere [or moss] of foam [or fame]
and history’s lichen

not buried them.

Message of the poem

More about perhaps the nature of history and understanding than about nature itself, here is my interpretation: Truth in cultural identity and any peace of mind about one’s place in the world or cosmos are obscured both by personal perspective and the half-truths of history. In other words, not even personal memory and thought can rescue truth and justice from history’s muddled layers. Alternatively, though less likely, it could mean that only history’s obfuscation of events allows the observant man to see things clearly, as if transgression alone, however unintended, is what urges one’s keen attention to matters. Compounded by this confusion, or perhaps contributing to it, is the timing of the attempt: the darkest point of the night, a metaphor for the hardest moment in life, when you are shaken to your core and too discombobulated to make sense of it.

Means of the message

We can trust the reputable MacDiarmid to use the Scots language precisely, but ambiguity is the primary theme echoed by method across the poem. With compound images and multiple word meanings (fog/smoke/moss, fame/foam), unclear things masked in layers (darkness, fog, eerie memories, blizzard, lichen), and unexpected shifts in visual perspective (in total darkness, harvest night’s earth wobbling in the sky as seen from what vantage point?), the reader feels the speaker’s disorientation.

One example of a mysterious reference, the idea of the “words” cut out in the stone literally suggests either gravestone, monument, or ancient language, but figuratively calls to mind efforts to make one’s mark, the tantalizing nature of age-old mysteries, or a foundation marred or eroded by words and time. Then, stanza 2’s double negative (“couldna” plus “No’”) raises further questions of interpretation.

The speaker’s reaction to the confusion is a lament, with the consistent choice of words that collectively mourn: “how-dumb-deid” (darkest point), “cold,” “nicht” (night), “eemis” (unsteady, unstable, untethered, precarious, tenuous, unreliable), “wags” (wobbles, shakes, waggles, jars, dislocates, disorients), “eerie,” “fa'” (fall), “couldna” (could not), “cut oot” (cut out), “fug” (smoke, haze, fog, moss), and, most obviously, “yirdit” (buried). These account for our mood of sadness, solemnity, and empathetic bereavement.

Unlike the poem’s subject, with the help of such words, its overall impression proves firm, immutable by poem’s end. Although “The Eemis Stane” might be interpreted simply as an intimate human struggle, MacDiarmid, like many great poets, stretches his words beyond the individual into a more universal context. We can see this happening foremost in the introduction of the word “history.” Employing a distinct lexical heritage, the poem is likely best understood as a metaphorical portrait of a people and culture’s displaced memory and shaken identity, and the far too common resulting experience of loss, confusion, and emptiness.


Read more Hugh MacDiarmid, aloud for the music or for the challenge of deciphering, but always for the artfulness of poetry:

For more from my collection of famous nature poetry, see:

square-rock-lichen-Nether-Largie-stone_DSCN3484_eds-2017-12-20

Lichen grows on a rock at the base of a Nether Largie standing stone in Kilmartin Glen, at the heart of Argyll & Bute on Scotland’s west coast. Image © 2016 C. L. Tangenberg

#InternationalGuideDogDay: A Reblog

Happy International Guide Dog Day.

Image by C. L. Tangenberg – Our first family pet Elyse, an American Brittany (spaniel). Although not a certified guide dog, she taught us a lot and guided our hearts.

On the Blink

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

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Outlander, 2015 San Diego Comic-Con: Binge On

After beginning my online search for news about the Starz Outlander panel held today at San Diego Comic-Con 2015 (not having had the pleasure of attending in person), I rediscovered Outlander Online.

It is the first one I came across of high quality for lots of up-to-date photos, exclusive or newly released season 1 photos, links to video and radio interviews, and a massive, comprehensive archive of Outlander-related press from throughout season 1. Their tag line is apt: “Your #1 source for all things Outlander.”

Whether you’re just getting started or looking for further indulgence during Droughtlander and season 2’s shooting, Outlander Online is definitely a good place among many to visit.

Another site I find myself returning to often is Outlander TV News.


Other Outlander posts on this blog include the following (the first two are closely related):

A Celebration of Irish Women Poets on Bloomsday 2015

My favorite poems in this grouping from June 15 are Elaine Feeney‘s “Bog Fairies,” Shirley McClure‘s “Mastectomy,” Jessica Traynor‘s “Pearls at Blackfriars,” and Breda Wall Ryan‘s “Becoming the Ancestor at Downpatrick Head,” in that order. Thanks go to Christine-Elizabeth Murray at Poethead for featuring them, along with poems by Rita Ann Higgins and Celeste Augé.

Poethead

PEARLS AT BLACKFRIARS
 
For his Winter’s Tale,
Master Shakespeare calls
for a covered stage
with the scent of candle-grease
and orange-peel heavy on the air.
 
There must be torches
to give movement to shadows
and life to the statue;
and for Hermione’s face –
tincture of pearl, crushed.
 
With this bowl of dust
we’ll lacquer her age,
encase her in memory
so only a movement of the mind
might release her,
 
might absolve
her husband’s transgression,
as the jealous moon
flings her light
against Blackfriars slates.
 
Pearls At Blackfriars is © Jessica Traynor
Jessica TraynorJessica Traynor is from Dublin. Her first collection, Liffey Swim, was published by Dedalus Press in 2014. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Ireland Review, The Raving Beauties Anthology (Bloodaxe), Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History, If Ever You Go (2014 Dublin One City One Book), The Irish Times…

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Literary April: National Poetry Month and Camp NaNoWriMo

There are at least two literary programs in April that I recommend exploring.

I. One is National Poetry Month. The last link and an excerpt from the Academy of American Poets website explain the origins and purpose, and how you can participate:

“Inaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996, National Poetry Month, held every April, is the largest literary celebration in the world with schools, publishers, libraries, booksellers, and poets celebrating poetry’s vital place in our culture.

Join the celebration by requesting a free poster and displaying it proudly. Encourage young people to participate in our Dear Poet project or Poem in Your Pocket Day. Follow poetry events taking place nationwide at @POETSorg, and tweet about your own using #npm15.”

NationalPoetryMonthBannerAAP2015There are lots of ways to celebrate and participate, but here are a few among Poets.org‘s special pages for the month:

“30 Ways to Celebrate National Poetry Month” which includes

Note that this is an unofficial promotion involving no transaction or official partnership/sponsorship with Poets.org.

Other sources give you their take on the celebration. Here’s an off-the-cuff collection of education sites for teachers and students. Note that inclusion does not necessarily constitute endorsement; this is strictly FYI to raise awareness and spread information:

Check your local library or university for other upcoming National Poetry Month events such as readings and contests.

I will be popping in and out here at Philosofishal with poetry-related notes and possibly some poems throughout the month.


II. The other literary event in April I’m highlighting is Camp NaNoWriMo, a slightly more casual National Novel Writing Month that happens in April and July. Follow them on Twitter @NaNoWriMo for kick-off and wrap-up messages, participant discussions, pep talks, updates, and more. Look for the Camp NaNoWriMo logo and learn more at their About page.

Camp-Nanowrimo-No-Sign-300px-RGB2_400x400Note that this is an unofficial promotion involving no transaction or official partnership/sponsorship with Camp NaNoWriMo.

I have signed up and will be participating by writing memoir as I spend time with extended family over the Easter holiday.

So get out there and be literary in April and beyond! Enjoy.