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:

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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

Buddha, bird – an original poem

Buddha, bird – first penned 11/16/17, 1:45am
© C. L. Tangenberg

Buddha bird?
Is there one?
Is it Chinese?
Or Tibetan?
China says, Same question.
I have a question
for China.
Impertinent, no doubt,
but probative.

I wonder
if there are any
bamboo forests
left on mainland China,
where the panda
dies in slow
attrition, skirting
evolution. Natural
selection chose
extinction
for the Giant.

China’s cranes
fly more grace
than the crane-fly,
and who will die first
matters less than
to be blessed,
knowing a rise-over
in life, a lightness
of heart, a soaring soul.

Is the bird thus blest?
Transcendent?

A soul in shadow—
umbrage thrown by
tongues of raging fire
—alights in the
brightness cast
with the heat
on the wall that’s
crumbling to cinder,
and lets go.

Long live Buddha.
Long live bird.

And it led to https://www.lionsroar.com/buddhas-birds/ Buddha’s symbolic bird could be a swan, goose, rooster, peacock, Garuda, or crow.

The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 2

Last week, talented storyteller and fellow blogger H L Gibson asked me to offer some thoughts about poetry, along with an original poem. Here’s Part 2 of 2. ICYMI, see also Part 1.

hl gibson, author

Welcome back to The Artist’s Corner for the second portion of my interview with poet Carrie Tangenberg.  Today, we’ll continue with Carrie’s amazing insight into poetry as well as enjoy one of her original poems.

Why is poetry important?

A literary question for the ages. I can only look through my biased poet’s lens, but I think it’s valuable not just because academia tells us it is.

For me:  Poetry gave me a way to express myself early in life that did not demand absolute clarity or lots of text. I could write what I felt or wanted to feel. I could focus on rhythm and the sounds of words. It didn’t have to make sense to anyone but me, and even then, it took me a long time to be so kind to myself. I used to be quite experimental, moving from puns to invented words and concepts, creating…

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The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 1

This week, the gracious H L Gibson interviewed me for “The Artist’s Corner” of her blog, talking about poetry. Here’s Part 1 of 2.

hl gibson, author

I met Carrie Tangenberg several years ago in a writing group for poets and authors.  Right from the start I could tell she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman.  The best part was that Carrie never came across as haughty or unapproachable.  On the contrary, her elegance and calm reserve combined with her intellect positioned her to make the most constructive critiques.  I have also witnessed this in the classical literature book club to which we both belong.

When I realized I needed a poet for The Artist’s Corner, Carrie immediately sprang to mind.  I only wish you could hear her answers in her own sophisticated voice.  I know you’ll enjoy reading them as they are deeply informative, openly transparent, and incredibly encouraging for anyone who has ever had a passion for art.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Creative writing has been part of my life since…

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Flashback Friday: Original Poem for Fall

Forget it. Resistance is futile. Fall is coming. Embrace it. Here’s some help. A new version of a poem I wrote 20 years ago for my college verse writing class. Do you like it? Does it help? Let me know what you think.  Featured image by C. L. Tangenberg

The Blue Jay and the Squirrel Disagree

by C. L. Tangenberg

It was one autumn morning, they became
quite cross while scuffling for a twig that lay
between them, and the squirrel told the bird,
“My friend, no finer twig than this exists,
and I alone must have it for my nest.”

The blue jay heard but quick and feisty squeaks;
it was mere senseless babble to his brain.
Perplexed, indignant, the blue jay cried, “What fuss
you make when clearly this belongs to me.”
And yet, the blue jay was a thief himself.
The squirrel, hearing frantic, screeching screams,
thought the jay would burn his throat that way.

They clawed and pecked each other for the prize
and danced and fluttered ’round the tiny stick,
but soon they wearied of the argument,
and in a final fling to snatch the limb,
with claws and bristled tail, the squirrel shooed
the blue jay, as she crouched and grabbed the twig
in her paws and popped it in her mouth.

She furiously scampered up her tree;
the blue jay, frantic feathers flailing, charged
the squirrel, shrieking at her angrily,
“Stop now, you thief! Bring back my fallen branch,
or by the Sun, I’ll peck you till you die!”

The squirrel, laughing, scaled the wrinkled oak.
“Sweet acorns! What a maddened bird you are!
In such a state would you trespass my home?”
And sure enough the blue jay seemed possessed,
to chase the squirrel to her nest above.

The squirrel reached her home, released the twig
and turned around to face the flying fowl;
and daring failed the blue jay as he met
the squirrel’s den; instead he perched and cried,

“You pesky squirrel! You are the Greed and Shame
of these great Woods, and from this day henceforth,
I swear I’ll sing your shame to everyone!”
The blue jay flew away and found his nest,
his gorgeous feathers splayed against the sky.

“My! My!” the squirrel panted with relief,
and raising up the twig, she thought aloud,

“What nonsense from that old, blue feather-head!
Were I to know the words he seemed to squawk,
I might have gladly answered him again.
As to the coded tongue he speaks, I’m sure
I lack the smallest clue; and too, I doubt
that any of our other neighbors do.”

Backyard Brief: The Yellow Eye

Backyard Brief from shots taken March 14, 2017

As much as I pulled the trigger, this lone winter goldfinch graced only my closest third look with true color–which I then enhanced.

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
by Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - 
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified - 
And carried Me away - 

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods - 
And now We hunt the Doe - 
And every time I speak for Him 
The Mountains straight reply - 

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And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through -

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And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master's Head - 
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

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To foe of His - I'm deadly foe - 
None stir the second time - 
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye - 
Or an emphatic Thumb -

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Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I - 
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

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Original Poetry: Inspirator

As it gets colder in the northern hemisphere, though we are over the hump of winter solstice, I thought I’d share a little figurative fire to brighten your holiday. I first drafted this poem from field notes written as an exercise at the nature writers’ conference I attended at the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in October 2016. Here are some excerpts.

Happy New Year. And Happy 100th Birthday to the National Park Service.

Inspirator

by C. L. Tangenberg
Giddy beige feathers of tall, 
unnamed fronds perched at a tilt, 
sprout their crowns in fanned-out spikes,
forging two beings into one: fire 
and ashy aftermath.

Two heads' lengths above 
these frozen flames, 
the color starts.

Green, rounded leaves of 
chartreuse underbellies and grey-
green backs, or faces—I can't 
tell which—huddle in discarded 
half-arches, craft of the stone mason 
who made too many, just in case. 
A half-hearted bow only 
at their very tops, partly 
praising a fractional work. 

On ground farther back, 
a grander stage presents 
the proud, living burns of 
orange-tipped yellow dancers. 
Some like to sway more than others, 
some feel the fueling wind. 

A tree not yet bronzed 
stands apart, flushed with 
a green, pre-fire readiness, 
and here, at the edge of its 
leaf clusters, starts to catch.

Beside, with lifeless pallor, 
bored out, burnt out, by burning 
beetle fever, the fire of hunger—
too-soon wintered, emaciated, 
desolate—ash trees jealously 
watch their flaming neighbors.

And foraging over all heads,
some unseen spirit slurps up 
and bloats full with grey smoke
from all this combustion below, 
from above, with the yellow-
white smoke of sunlight. 

The wind roars like a terrible
conflagration, and the grey, 
not white, smoke is winning. 

Stone-piles at my feet see up 
to the short spray of grasses,
hints of feathers on higher fliers,
and my shadow. 

Blown quiet, I walk 
most unhurried, 
back, into no fire.

 

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Image by C. L. Tangenberg, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, autumn 2003