Robin Fulton Macpherson: a note on the Scottish contribution

Robin Fulton Macpherson: a note on the Scottish contribution

D.M. Black

I would like to contribute something to this portfolio on Robin Fulton Macpherson (now an international figure, but whom I still think of as the Scottish poet who, under the name Robin Fulton, was an important contributor to the Scottish literary scene in the 1960s and 70s, before he moved to Norway). I shall speak of him briefly here as a Scottish poet and editor, and will leave it to others to write about his other major contributions to literature, above all in recent decades as a translator.

The novelist Muriel Spark once said that when she thought of Edinburgh she was always reminded of the word ‘nevertheless’. In somewhat similar fashion, I find that when I think of Macpherson’s poetry the word that persistently presses upon me is ‘although’. It’s as if whenever you start to say something about it, you are at once arrested by a quite contrary perception. For example, if you say that Macpherson’s original poetry is written in a quiet, careful voice, very accurate, never saying what he doesn’t mean, then that undoubtedly tells the truth, but it gives an entirely misleading impression. A typical poem by Macpherson conveys simple truths, undoubtedly, often with great beauty, but often too, and particularly in the earlier poems, a profound sense of dislocation hovers invisibly in the atmosphere. The world is the world as we know it (most often a ‘Northern’ world, Scottish or Scandinavian, and most often out in the country, among forests or mountains), but the sensibility is strangely unsettled within these beautiful settings. An early poem, ‘Coming Down into the First of Winter’, ends:

Tomorrow, I say, I’ll fly back to autumn,
berries still piled on leafless rowans.
Tomorrow, I say, as if I’d forgotten something.

Another poem, ‘Forecast for a Quiet Night’, begins:

A secret cone will drop in Rothiemurchus.
A quiet wind will stroke Loch Araichlin.

– perfectly factual statements in which the profound meaningfulness of nature, ordinarily obscured by our haste and preoccupation, makes itself felt – but at the same time a quality of eerie solitude is conveyed (and the poem turns out to be about an invalid, possibly someone dying). But Macpherson is also capable of less ambiguous, wonderfully beautiful natural description. I have carried in my memory for most of my adult life three lines from his early poem, ‘Essentials’:

When you see a stream you know it is a stream
not only by the moving muscle of water
but from the fineries of light it wears.

(Neither this poem nor ‘Coming Down into the First of Winter’ has made it into his recent ‘Collected Poems’, A Northern Habitat.) In another early poem, ‘In Memoriam Alberto Giacometti’, Macpherson started from a quoted remark, presumably by the sculptor himself: “The more you pare, the fatter it becomes”. When Macpherson came across this quotation, he clearly recognized a kindred spirit. He carried on, addressing Giacometti directly:

by which you meant, I suppose, that leanness
occupies its space exactly.

And at the end he spoke of Giacometti’s sculptures as ‘massive between slender definitions’.

Such phrases give a useful handle in thinking about Macpherson’s poetry. Like Giacometti’s sculptures, Macpherson’s poems are free in style but are clearly the product of extremely careful self-management. Sentences tend to be short and declarative. Verse-forms are rarely regular, in a traditional way, but many poems are slowed up by the unostentatious discipline of measured syllable count and lines grouped into fixed lengths of stanza. The descriptive language occupies its space exactly – the world seems too unsafe, perhaps, for complicated grammar or extravagant gestures, it must be gripped precisely, piece by piece – and one senses, especially in the earlier poems, the emotional quality of anxiety we have already noted: factual observation is combined with an insistent, often painful aloneness, but then wears unpredictable sudden ‘fineries’ of love and hopefulness – something of a paradox when I put it like that, but a paradox to which the key is the poet’s exact attentiveness to the changing facets of experience. There’s no programme and no orthodoxy that must be supported: he can let himself (and his reader) be surprised.

The word orthodoxy is not irrelevant, however. Macpherson’s sensitivity to mood, to haunting uncertainties, and to the way such moods change under the influence of almost invisible impacts from the external world, gives a quality to these poems that can seem ‘religious’. Macpherson’s background is in fact religious – his father was a Church of Scotland minister – and although he himself is no longer a practicing Christian, he has no hostility to religion and sometimes uses religious imagery. Ego in Macpherson’s poems is repeatedly put in its place by the larger world, although (to use that word again!) we are not likely to forget that this ‘larger world’ is itself the interpreted world of a very distinctive human individual. For example, in one poem, ‘Entering a Forest’, he writes:

…The forest slowed me down. I heard
two last
chords holding a silence between them
in which
two notes then opened like a seedling’s
A fugue that will outlive me began.

(‘Entering a Forest’)

The poet is allowing his thoughts to be overtaken by the larger life of the forest around him. It’s as if the forest represents a larger, more slow-moving consciousness (that of nature, perhaps, or that of the planet), which the poet gradually becomes able to inhabit, or to be inhabited by, in a quiet version of something that might in other hands become a mystical or Buddhist experience.

In ‘Entering a Forest’, the moment of change is described, but the poet remains, so to speak, on ego’s side of the encounter: we are told about the forest but we don’t feel its power directly. Less common but often very beautiful are the moments when the opposite occurs, when the carefulness is unexpectedly disrupted, and a unique music suddenly carries the sentence in a movement that is outside the poet’s conscious control. ‘Remembering an Island’ begins:

what shall I say of you, your peat-bogs,
your lochs, your moors and berries?” Strange words
to remember on a Stockholm street-crossing – it’s like
a dream where you find a door in a solid wall.

‘Remembering an Island’

It is indeed: as if the familiar self has unexpectedly been sidelined by something else, and a sudden door has opened to memory, love, nostalgia – emotions that may be painful, and even disturbing, but that affirm a depth of humanity and continuity over against the ever-changing trivia of the present.

It would be a mistake to think that this concern with loss is primarily to do with Macpherson’s decision, made in the mid-1970s, to leave Scotland for Norway; it was there much earlier, and Macpherson seems to have always suffered from a sense of displacement, even when still living in Scotland. ‘”Native land” is something I keep leaving’, he wrote (‘August Evening on Deck’). An early poem is entitled ‘What to Do with the Word “Home”?’ and even the title of his Collected Poems, A Northern Habitat seems to play with this persistent question: was it a home, exactly? Well, it was certainly a habitat.

The pressures of memory, and the question of what happens if one opens that door or keeps it closed, are pervasive in Macpherson’s poetry. Born in Scotland in 1937 on the western island of Arran, moving to Sutherland at the age of 9, later to Edinburgh and then from his mid-30s living in Stavanger in Norway – but forever haunted by memories of Arran and the Scottish Highlands – the underlying themes of home, the nature of home, and the loss of home are crucial drivers of his work. The dynamic modern world of cities, traffic, celebrity, personal ambition is not so much repugnant to his temperament as simply irrelevant. In this he resembles one aspect of an older Scottish poet, Norman MacCaig, who also loved the Highlands, though MacCaig’s edge of mockery and polemic is absent from Macpherson. But those who loved the Scottish Highlands in the 1950s and 60s were in love with a world still traumatised by the 19th century Clearances and the forced emigration of the Gaelic-speaking population, a loss that was still tangible; it created an atmosphere altogether different from that of the urban worlds of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and also from the rural world of the ‘braid Scots’-speaking Lowlands and Borders. So the pervasive tonality of loss and displacement in Macpherson’s poetry, whatever its personal roots, also had a wider application.

As time has gone on, what was earlier concealed in moods of strangeness and estrangement has become more apparent as a conscious conflict between the beauty that so often appears in Macpherson’s writing and the suspicion that beauty can mislead one from the solitude and anxiety that may, after all, be the final reality of
life. But then he knows too that that grim and responsible ‘suspicion’, familiar though it is to anyone with a Calvinist background, may also not be truth-telling. In a later poem, ‘Windows’, he quotes something he had written earlier:

“Windows – without them
the rain’s eloquence
would be wasted on deaf walls” –

and seems to fear that such writing is in danger of being excessively opulent. Opinions will differ, but I find it lovely, and remarkable, and like all beautiful poetry it makes a claim of its own to meaningfulness, beyond its semantic meaning. So too does his quoting it: Macpherson may question it, but he doesn’t want to lose it. Now, however, revisiting it, he sets it beside his dead father’s fury, rapping at the window. Perhaps, we realise, those walls had to learn to be deaf. Perhaps it has been dangerous to have windows. The imagery shifts and adapts as we receive new information.

All his poems, but particularly the later ones I think, require to be considered from several angles in this way. They are no longer so preoccupied with nature, but attempt to put into words nuances of feeling that are on the edge of vanishing, or on the edge of indescribability. The descriptions of nature continue to be as good as in the early work, but now the painful edge of anxiety is less evident. A description of the sea, for instance, when he writes:

…Towards dawn
a hatchwork of inch-long strokes,
horizon to horizon, drawn by one
immeasurable silent breath.

‘Travelling, to an Old Place’

– indulges the sheer pleasure of beautiful, precise natural description before moving on into what one might call inner nature, the subtler gradations of feeling.

In addition to his original poetry, Macpherson also made a very major contribution to Scottish literature by his work as an editor, both of the quarterly journal Lines Review, which he edited for ten years from 1967 to 1976, along with its accompanying book series, Lines Review Editions, and also of no fewer than three volumes to do with the older Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch. Soon after Garioch’s death in 1981, Macpherson (then still using the name Robin Fulton) edited The Complete Poetical Works of Robert Garioch (1983) published by M. Macdonald and still the best edition of Garioch’s work. In 1986 he produced A Garioch Miscellany, a valuable assortment of reminiscences, letters, book-reviews and editorial opinions that, in the absence of a full biography, remains the best publicly-available source of personal information we have about Garioch. Finally, in 2004, Macpherson edited Garioch’s Collected Poems in an edition published by Birlinn; this, alas, is marred by misprints and, though more accessible, is not entirely trustworthy. (Macpherson tells me, and I believe him, that he is not responsible for these misprints, which are particularly unfortunate as the Birlinn edition is otherwise a handsome volume.)

It is worth drawing attention to the huge amount of work that all this editing of Garioch represented. Garioch was perhaps the most talented of the remarkable post-MacDiarmid generation of Scottish poets (sometimes called the Scottish Renaissance). Most, like the ones I have already mentioned, wrote in English, but because Garioch wrote in ‘braid Scots’ (the language of Burns, a version of ‘English’ not to be confused with Gaelic) his work has been little recognized outside of Scotland itself. He wrote in traditional forms, and much of his best work is translation from classical Greek or Latin; superficially, therefore, his work is quite unlike Macpherson’s. More deeply, however, both men believed passionately in the importance of poetry, and Garioch, a man of great charm and kindness, and very generous to younger writers, was a friend and undoubtedly an inspiration to the young Macpherson. Interestingly, it was in the years following World War II, when Garioch lived in ‘exile’ in London, that he did many of his finest translations, and similarly it was when Macpherson went into ‘exile’ in Norway that he too turned to translation and became, as is well-known, a principal conduit by which the work of major Scandinavian poets including Harry Martinson, Tomas Tranströmer, Kjell Espmark and Olav Hauge have reached the English-speaking world.

These Scandinavian poets are all in their different ways very considerable figures, and translators are often undervalued in relation to the impressive writers they translate. But I hope this brief note will help to keep Robin Fulton Macpherson’s work of translation in balance with his important and often beautiful original work and, more generally, his major contribution to Scottish literature.

D. M. Black

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