Scotland on Sunday 19 April 2015
Skeletal Sermons in Stone from unlikely Makar of the metropolis
PERHAPS it’s the fault of some of the more romantic Romantics, but there’s a common misconception that pastoral poetry must always depict rural life in a hopelessly idealised way.
Even as early as 37 BC, though, pastoral poetry was telling it like it is – or, rather, was. In Virgil’s Eclogues we find poor old Meliboeus complaining that he has been turfed off his ancestral lands so they can be gifted to soldiers returning from a war. Now he’s wandering aimlessly with his flock, he says, on his way to the-gods-know-where. If things get really bad he might even end up living with the Brittani, “quite cut off from the whole world”.
Things are similarly grim for the shepherd at the centre of Killochries, a prose poem from Glasgow’s new poet laureate, Jim Carruth. His elderly mother is ill in bed (“She does not speak / presents only a vacant look”), and he has no sons or daughters to take over the running of the farm once he gets too old. Worse, his whole way of life seems to be disappearing, and the thought fills him with a deep, inexpressible grief. When he learns that a neighbouring farm has been bought for a country retreat, all he actually says is “Foriver lost / foriver lost” but “the tremor / in his voice / could be for / an ailing ewe / or a collie / kept at the vets / or grief at the death / of a close friend”.
The narrator of Killochries, a younger man and a poet, is a relative, sent from the city by his mother after suffering some kind of breakdown to live a simple, healthy country life in the hope that it will help to heal both body and mind. At first, the old shepherd treats this interloper with a mixture of gruff indifference and mild amusement, but as the seasons pass a bond develops between them. Their principal source of disagreement is religion – the shepherd is a believer, the poet is not – but their bad-tempered late night discussions finally lead them to a detente of sorts. It’s a testament to Carruth’s skills of characterisation that their relationship feels entirely three-dimensional, even though it is sketched with the utmost economy. Their parting, at the end of a full year together, is very much like the bittersweet moment when a child leaves home – not that either man would dare to admit any such bond.
Don Paterson once wrote that Scottish poets “excel at the anti-baroque: leaving words standing so sharp and stark and bold on the page that you can hear the wind whistle round them.” Carruth’s stanzas are so spare they feel almost skeletal at times, but the paring and whittling has been carefully, masterfully done. At one point, the narrator tries to explain the structure of a sonnet by reference to the building of a dry stone wall. The shepherd’s observation: “It’s the weygate spaces / that lat in the life” could well serve as a critique of Carruth’s style – he gives us the bare bones of a character, a scene or an idea, and leaves our imaginations to flesh out the rest.
Carruth grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Kilbarchan. That might make him seem an odd choice for Poet Laureate of a post-industrial city like Glasgow. But who better to puncture the myth of the pastoral idyll for unenlightened city dwellers than a man who so obviously understands both the hardships of the farming life, and its hard-won delights?
Scotland on Sunday 19th April 2015
event – Scotsman review March 2007
StAnza poetry reading –
Circumflex review March 2007
High Auchensale - Sphinx review August
“Keeping it Green” –
Holyrood Magazine December 2006
100 poets event –
Scotsman review March 2007
Mainly short, mainly sweet; easy on
emotions, easy on the beat...
DAVID ROBINSON & SUSAN MANSFIELD (Scotsman March
Hungover at dawn, the poet looks up
A Skein of geese heading south
Hundred voices one arrow
Next year, he says, it will
Happen like that
Here in St Andrews
A hundred poets, one room.
THAT'S (sort of) the story StAnza's artistic director,
Eleanor Livingston, told on Sunday about how the idea
of Scotland's largest poetry gathering came to Jim Carruth,
and of course it's suitably poetic, too.
An inspired idea, then, for the festival's
last day. But could it be an organised one? A hundred
poets, a hundred introductions, two minutes' reading
each. Add pauses for applause, add poets going walkabout,
and those no-shows snowed in snowed under. Add audience
listlessness, listening fatigue and weigh crowd-pleasers
and word-teasers against lost-love poets and poor readers.
The whole event was scheduled to take five and a half
hours; oddly, and thanks largely to Carruth as a particularly
brisk emcee, it did. Newsflash: poets turn out to be
punctual after all.
But what kind of poetry? Mainly short,
mainly sweet; easy on emotions, easy on the beat. From
Dublin poet Tony Curtis's opening poem, surely never
more apt, about a poetry Olympiad, to John Hegley's
audience-involving turn or Eddie Gibbons's The Shopping
News, that applied to a sizeable number of the 102 poets
As that's too many to mention in a short
review, I should only single out a few: Lorraine Mariner
for her deadpan poem about breaking up with an imaginary
boyfriend ("he knew what I was going to say/before
I said it"); WN Herbert's gloriously rhythmic Bad
Shaman Blues; and Andrew Greig's A Long Shot, which
may well be the finest golfing love poem in the language.
None of this is to suggest that the
five hours was devoted solely to easy entertainments.
Penelope Shuttle read movingly about bereavement in
The Repose of Baghdad, Andrew Jackson mixed The Song
of Solomon and a report into the Abu Ghraib atrocities
to devastating effect in Acts, and "Scottish Muslim
Calvinist" Imtiaz Dharker reached similar depths
with Honour Killing.
It was Alastair Reid, however, who provided
a truly fiery finale. Back in 1971, he noted, he had
lived in St Andrews, renting a cottage by the Old Course,
across which he walked most mornings. On a sunny one,
"the kind of spring day particular to that part
of the planet", he met a woman from the fish shop.
Their conversation - in which, speaking
about the good weather, she warns "We'll pay for
it! We'll pay for it!" - turned into his poem Scotland
with indecent ease. The poem has subsequently, he said,
become fastened to him "like a ball and chain"
and it was time to rid himself of it.
Taking from his pocket what he later
insisted was the original of the poem, he then proceeded
to burn it. A hundred poets cheered, and their gala
reading - which ended, to everyone's surprise, absolutely
on time, came to a dramatically successful conclusion.
• THE gathering of 100 poets to
celebrate StAnza's tenth birthday recalled a much earlier
gathering, the day in June 1965 when Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti,
Trocchi and co took over the Albert Hall and filled
it with languid chainsmoking children of the revolution.
Peter Whitehead's film of the event,
Wholly Communion, shown as part of the StAnza 2007 programme,
left us nostalgic for their idealism, though perhaps
not all of their poetry. Nevertheless, the contribution
made by poets to the world of film - celebrated in one
of the main themes of this year's festival - tends to
be of the highest quality. Writer Bernard MacLaverty
has made a beautiful short film inspired by Seamus Heaney's
poem Bye Child, while Mario Petrucci's compassionate
poems about Chernobyl form the basis for David Bickerstaff
and Phil Grabsky's tender, harrowing film, Half Life.
Poetry is a generous art form, feeding
its inspiration willingly to artists in other fields.
StAnza 2007 hosted the premiere of Drift o' Rain on
Moorland Stane, a composition by visiting jazz professor
Richard Ingham, inspired by the poetry of Marion Angus.
It resisted setting the poems to music, preferring to
use sound to create a landscape around them.
Singer-songwriter Michael Marra, on
the other hand, was poetry in motion. His fine writing
and offbeat imagination seemed completely at home in
the context of StAnza, conjuring for us visions that
crossed borders, artistically and geographically: Dr
John in Blairgowrie; Bob Dylan in Edinburgh; Frida Kahlo
in the Tay Bridge Bar, Dundee. Poetry can do that -
cover long distances in a short time. In a few days
in St Andrews, we went with Imtiaz Dharker to Bombay,
with Jenny Daiches to Auschwitz, with Mark Strand on
the New York subway, and with Ruth Padel to the Church
of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We also travelled in time,
in the popular Dead Poet's sessions, to the worlds of
Keats and Shelley, Manley Hopkins and Marvell.
And there were animals, too: cats from
Alastair Reid, five dogs, two horses and a singing camel
from Mark Strand, fire ants from Pascal Petit and a
poem by Jane Yeh in the voice of the snowy owl in the
Harry Potter films.
There were poems that made us smile
and think, and poems that left us disturbed, puzzled
or enlightened. And some poems so sad - such as Petrucci's
monologue about a Chernobyl woman nursing her dying
husband - that the audience was left holding its collective
On Saturday night, courtesy of two of
the country's finest performance poets, there was also
laughter. Matt Harvey and John Hegley took us all the
way from blancmange to bereavement.
As soon as Hegley stepped on stage at
the Byre theatre, wielded his ukulele and said - in
characteristic deadpan - "OK, St Andrews, let's
rock," I knew that, while poetry is many things,
the people at StAnza have not forgotten that one of
them is fun.
poetry reading – Circumflex review March 2007
Spent last weekend, somewhat peripatetically,
around the 10th St. Andrews Poetry festival –
StAnZa – billed as Scotland’s poetry festival.
Having managed to avoid St. Andrews for the first 49
years of my life I find myself visiting the town twice
in a month [In the discourse no-one can hear you scream].
St. Andrew’s, particularly on the weekend, was
awash with poets listening to one another poetising.
I understand Germaine Greer announced
some time ago that poetry was dead as a literary form
citing, as evidence, that more persons were registered
as poets (for tax purposes) in the US than the print
run of the biggest selling poetry books. The idea that
the number of writers exceeds the number of readers
is indicative of the death of a literary form (of expression)
rather than it’s burgeoning health is puzzling.
Though I’ve always been a great admirer of Gee-Gee,
I do wonder whether she feels people aren’t taking
enough time out to pay attention to her.
Poetry is obviously NOT a spectator
sport – it is, it would seem, a game of turns.
This aspect of the sub-culture was particularly evident
at the excellent but strange 100 Poets Gathering on
the Sunday, 100 poets, 3 minutes (ish) each –
strutting – in some cases literally – their
stuff. An wonderful taster session for the poetically
ignorant – an opportunity to put faces to names
and (given the poetic fish-tank that was St. Andrews
for that weekend) names to faces.
StAnZa also seemed to be taking the opportunity to expose
the benighted Scot’s to international influence
– hence what seemed a puzzling shortage of Scots
poets at the events. The big name Scots seemed absent
– Burnside, Jamie, Leonard, Patterson, Robertson
– Jackie Kay in conversation but shining most
in short story and monologue.
There was a lot of monologue in evidence
– protean voices – the spoken word as poem
(i.e. tidied into verse) and therefore allowed to jerk
through quaint demotic bergamasks in the genteel parlour.
I am not convinced a dramatic monologue is a poem –
even if it is constrained to rhyme or speak in 3-second
bursts. I can never figure out if the performer is liberating
the oppressed or taking the piss.
Compare and contrast, for example, Jenni Daiches, Daljit
Nagra and Jim Carruth. Jenni Daiches poem cycle ‘Smoke’
is an excellent gentle meditation on the crimes of the
20th century, focussing on the German extermination
camps of the 30s and 40s and the impact of that horror
on surviving and succeeding generations. It is a beautiful
dark work that left me with those wonderful splinters
of imagery and sound that persist – ‘he
cannot feel through fingers wrapped in rags’,
a grandmother with a ‘head full of broken glass’.
If I misquote from a week’s remove and one hearing,
I am acknowledging the power and persistence of the
words – and these are poems.
Narga’s work, in contrast, adopts
a monologue form and exploits the freshness and fracture
of English spoken (as though by) immigrant Punjabi’s
– it celebrates the optimism and joy (jouissance
perhaps) of striving, thriving Punjabi’s in a
dialect of misunderstanding and slippery re-interpretation.
It is a fresh, young and undaunted voice – and
it fails to respect the struggle of its stolen masks
– Daljit himself is not struggling with fragmented/
mescegnated language – Daljit is breaking language
(breaking it anew) to offer us a vision of comic opera
shop-keepers, honeymoon husbands, plump young wives…aw
shucks! I can’t remember a single line. I remember
Daiches would not, I think, claim to
be speaking in protean voices – she is writing
poetry. Narga claims an ancestral voice he has, in fact,
slipped beyond – he mines his ‘heritage’
for amusements. And the theme of the unheard, marginal
voice was carried over into the introduction of Jim
I did not know I knew of Jim Carruth. I had read one
poem once – The man who hugged cows – and
liked the poem and misplaced the poet.
Carruth writes real, deeply felt and
understood poems from a point of view – a working
rural point of view – not distinctively Scottish
in economic or sub-cultural terms but Scottish in its
landscape. Poems like Homecoming and Silence and Tapestry
are beautiful, insightful and bitterly political poems
celebrating and fiercely advocating a time, place and
predicament. These people, marginal and central of the
‘life of the land’ as they are, are never
not celebrated by the words. (My wife becomes a field
is the most erotic poem I’ve read in a long while.)
Having purchased (always a sign of something) 2 of Carruth’s
published collections on the way out – Bovine
Pastoral and High Auchensale – I thoroughly recommend
the man’s voice – but it is not protean
– it is authentic and it knows it is poetry
Bolland Circumflex March 2007
Auchensale - Sphinx review August 2007
poetry often misses the point but in this handsomely
produced chapbook Jim Carruth cuts straight to the true
heart of life on the land.
In the opening poem, ‘Homecoming’, the poet
drives towards the family farm after years abroad, realising
that even for him the countryside has become something
glimpsed from a motorway:
Strains of rye-grass are broad-brushed fields;
greens and yellows merged, at speed.
I want to learn again the art of careful detail.
And in the poems that follow, it’s Carruth’s
eye for careful detail that brings High Auchensale to
The collection is divided into two parts. First is ‘The
Well’, which holds memories of childhood on the
farm. The idyllic picture of a country upbringing is
here, certainly, but it’s balanced by the painfully
compelling ‘Drowning Kittens’, and by ‘Tattie
I searched for words
to name you
and found them in
small hawk’s shadow
cob’s ragged mane
blaze of gorse
Life in a small community has its seamier side, and
others name the girl “Filthy Midden Tink”.
The second section, ‘Whin Fields’, is set
in the post-return present. Farmers who seemed immutable
landmarks are old and frail; a new housing estate advances
towards the farm at night; a terrified heifer is released
onto the motorway. But barn owls still swoop silently
over the fields, a stranded ewe is rescued to bear the
new year’s lambs, and father and son reunite to
bring in the cows:
Two voices in the failing light
calling out together.
Carruth’s unerring choice of imagery
and his ability to tap the poignancy that underlies
the everyday without resorting to sentimentality result
here in a collection that’s sharp and tight, but
at the same time beautiful and evocative. I will return
to High Auchensale again and again.
Sarah Willans - Sphinx
it Green” – Holyrood Magazine December 2006
Tuesday December 5th 2006
is the title of one of the poems in Jim Carruth’s
new collection “High Auchensale” which was
published by Ludovic Press last week. The poem relates
his family’s half hearted quest, over a meal celebrating
his farming father’s birthday, to work out what
that figure announced “ in the middle of a conversation
/.../ above the candles / and plastic tractor on his
cake..” actually signifies. Total days it rained
last year suggests one person. Number of cows left in
the district suggests another. Acres or tonnage, cattle
prices, milk yield, is the narrators’s guess.
But no. As Carruth puts it at the end; “He doesn’t
even answer / retires to a soft chair / sipping slow
on a small whisky / while grandchildren play at his
feet / asks me if I give up, and / after a while I do.
/ He smiles and whispers / Seasons in my life.
Elegiac wit, sharp observation and a
wistful sense of regret are all elements that occur
again and again in Jim Carruth’s work. His inaugural
volume, “Bovine Pastoral , was published two years
ago and it marked the emergence of a mature and highly
distinctive poet who - as I wrote at the time - seems
to me to have more affinity with modern Irish writers
than with many modern Scottish ones, perhaps because
of the centrality of rural and particularly agricultural
life to his work. In fact it would be necessary to go
back to Hogg to find a Scottish writer that was quite
as steeped in the reality of working the land and quite
as devoted to reflecting that occupation in such an
accurate, but inspired, way.
For any writer a second book is always
a challenge particularly if the first has been as well
received as Bovine Pastoral achieving as it did the
rare distinction of being noticed appreciatively not
just in the national press, but also by Carruth’s
creative peers. But “High Auchensale” fully
lives up to expectations for it is intelligent and moving
though it is also at times very sad. Without a doubt
it confirms the fact that Jim Carruth is now one of
the most effective and affecting Scottish poetic voices.
Most people in present day Scotland
have only a tangential connection to the countryside
and to those who work in it. Although we have a first
minister who comes from rural farming stock (and who
is a cousin of Jim Carruth’s) most of our national
polity and national life is focussed on the urban and
semi-urban sprawl that dominates the centre of our country
and spreads down the west coast and up the east. The
majority now live out of sight of farming and without
much knowledge of farmers and their concerns. Axiomatically,
therefore, Carruth brings something new, or only faintly
remembered, to the cultural table.
his talent is not just for observation and description.
He mines, sometimes painfully and sometimes amusingly
though always magically, the emotions of his circumstances
and draws out of them lessons for us all. So he is not
just a highly effective proponent of, and campaigner
for, the agricultural sector and the history and traditions
of farmers and farming. He is also ,and perhaps primarily,
a channel by which we can feel and understand such things
despite the fact that we have not experienced them ourselves.
By so doing we then learn to appreciate them and are
pricked by their loss.
poem in “High Auchensale” (which is divided
into two - the first part features childhood reflections
whilst the second deals with more recent issues) has
the name of a field on the farm attached to it. This
faint echo of the reality of the place, suggesting at
times what each part was far and what happened in them
( there is a Bullspark, a Midden, a Hilltop and a Cartshed)
acts as a highly effective counterpoint to both the
words and the ideas that Carruth has crafted. Consequently
there are times when - for example in the poem “Cowpit
Yowe" - this sense of rooting in an actual landscape
becomes so intense that one can almost touch and feel
“in a marshy hollow / ..Hogmanay’s / diminishing
light. “ and the sheep that has got stuck there
whose “legs thin as kindling / signal a struggle
/ that slows in the sleet.“
Jim Carruth no longer lives on the farm,
though he still helps his relatives out from time to
time, and it is this message - the message that the
vast majority of us are now exiles from our roots in
the land and landscape - which comes across most powerfully
of all. But Carruth gives it to us with hope. He always
feels the electric thrill of reconnecting to the heritage
that runs in his blood and he reassures us that if we
do so (directly or through him) then we too can revitalise
ourselves and our knowledge of what it is to be a living
creature sharing this small part of the planet with
other living creatures and doing so in a caring and
(a contemporary word, but a relevant one ) sustainable
way. For Jim Carruth’s way of seeing is authentically
green - green without posturing or posing; green because
we have a duty as stewards of what lies around us to
care for it and pass it on. Green because the real conservationists
are the people who get muck on their hands when working