Our Lizzie: Reprints and Revivals

March 4, 2010

In honour of World Book Day we thought we’d reprint and revive our Lizzie’s Reprints and Revivals piece, first published in our Poetry Reader, issue 3.

‘Bold, unpatronising choices’ and a rival to Burns? Lizzie MacGregor, the Scottish Poetry Library’s Assistant Librarian and Scottish poetry specialist, picks the poetry she’d love to see reprinted.

Is there any book more important in the role of poetry in your life than the anthology you use in school? The one that gives you your first taste of the poems that make you catch your breath, the one that you read when you don’t have to…

In 1970 Oliver & Boyd published a gem called The Ring of Words: an anthology of Scottish poetry (edited by Alan MacGillivray and James Rankin).  In the words of a fellow librarian, whose school book this was, it is a collection full of bold, unpatronising choices. Indeed it is; ‘The Blythsome Bridal’ and ‘Saunders MacSiccar’ rattle along beside a handful of fairly difficult poems by Edwin Muir and some unexpected choices from other twentieth-century greats. There are not-so-well-knowns, like a startling poem in Scots by James Bridie, and some totally un-dumbed-down Dunbar and Drummond of Hawthornden. There may well have been a little more editorial freedom when it was published than would now be the case, judging by the fairly riotous gaggle of women in the eponymous section, and the distinctly non-politically correct tale about the First Hielandman.

Scotland has been well-served by general anthologies in the past few years, and The Smoky Smirr o Rain (Itchy Coo, 2003) in particular was directed to readers beginning to explore Scots poetry, but we would be the richer of a repeat performance of The Ring of Words. Although it is almost 40 years old, the selection is fresh; though some of the poems require thoughtful reading, why presume today’s young people would not be interested? Work in Scots is plentiful, but it does omit Gaelic poetry, a serious lack which could perhaps be addressed in a new edition.  And since it was illustrated by the type of black and white line drawings that those of us of a certain age will forever associate with school texts, it might be better to let the poems speak for themselves. As they most certainly do.

A new selection from the work of one of the most frequently-requested Scottish poets would also be very welcome – not Burns – W.D. Cocker. Though best known for his much-recited humorous pieces and pictures of Scottish farm life, he handles descriptions of the enduring human condition with a deft touch, and his tales remain just this side of the couthy. One can’t say Cocker is due for a revival, since he has never gone away, but it would be good to get his poetry back into the bookshops and onto public library shelves, and to give his other work an airing – the retellings of stories from Scottish history, and,  not least, his First World War poetry.

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