Reviewing the state of American verse in 1994, the English poet Thom Gunn contended that despite the sometimes bewildering diversity of contemporary approaches to poetry in the United States, there was nonetheless a deeper underlying unity. Between movements as different and, some might say, irreconcilable as the neo-formalists and the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Gunn found a “spectrum as unbroken and continuous as the colors [sic] of a rainbow, for if each color is distinct, it is also a gradation from the colors on each side of it.”1 Parnassus, in Gunn’s refreshingly generous and open-minded account, is a mountain which can be climbed by more than one route.
The same year saw the launch of Object Permanence, a little magazine edited in Glasgow by Peter Manson and Robin Purves. Frustrated by the perceived conservatism of Scottish literary culture and the considerable difficulties they had encountered in trying to find out about new experimental work, Manson and Purves decided to create a forum for the kind of poetry they wanted. Their stated aim was “to try, on as regular a basis as possible, to publish the work of Scottish writers beside those experimental-and/or modern-ists (from Britain, the US or wherever) who seldom seem to reach print here.” As regards the need for a publication in Scotland “open”, as Manson and Purves put it, “to all those writers whose poetics don’t deny the existence of Modernism”, they note that
One or two of the more enlightened journals in Scotland have been known to slip the occasional reference to “Language Poetry” (sic) into their critical articles, but in the absence of any ready (cheap) source of these writers’ actual writing, such references tend merely to serve the editors’ (understandable) desire to seem unparochial: too often they’re followed by comments to the effect that Yes, great, but this is a bit elitist and self-indulgent and we’re Scottish really, be reassured. 2
True to the editors’ word, the first issue of Object Permanence carried contributions from Charles Bernstein, Tom Raworth and Ron Silliman (among other well-known figures from outwith Scotland). Closer to home, David Kinloch, Edwin Morgan and Richard Price contributed poems. Running for a further seven issues, the magazine published Scottish (or Scotland-based) poets such as Thomas A. Clark, Ian Hamilton Finlay, W.N. Herbert, Drew Milne, Gerry Loose and Gael Turnbull, alongside a distinguished roster of international writers. In this respect it can be compared to earlier magazines such as Finlay’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse and, to some extent, MacDiarmid’s Voice of Scotland, both of which had sought to internationalise Scottish poetry and bring it into contact with innovative literary movements from around the world. Trocchi’s Merlin is another interesting post-war point of comparison, though unlike P.O.T.H. and The Voice of Scotland it was not edited in Scotland. Nor, one might add, was it primarily intended – in clear contrast to these other magazines and, arguably, Object Permanence as well – to bring a specifically Scottish avant garde into contact with its international peers. As with these notable Scottish precursors, Object Permanence published a broad spectrum of material – ranging from the relatively conventional (at least as far as experimental poetry goes) to the startlingly unfamiliar.
In his recent study Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present, Ross Hair argues that Hamilton Finlay’s efforts to publish and promote international experimentalism are symptomatic of the “disaffection and frustrations” which he and his early collaborators experienced in relation to their own literary culture.3 Admittedly, the relationship between publishing and creative work is by no means straightforward – it would be overly simplistic to suggest that the impulse behind any poet-publisher’s writing is coterminous with that which motivates their editorial work on behalf of other writers. Nonetheless, as Hair explores in relation to Finlay’s editorial practice, there is often a deep underlying continuity between the formal, conceptual and theoretical concerns which animate creative writing and the kinds of work which poets who publish their contemporaries will seek to promote. For writers like Finlay in the nineteen fifties and sixties, or Manson and Purves in the nineties, who feel to some extent at odds with or against the grain of their immediate literary context, the production and circulation of magazines and other small publications can provide a vital lifeline for creative work – bringing such poet-editors into contact with like-minded individuals and new ideas, as well as actively contributing to the potential realignment of the local context against which these figures initially reacted.
It could be argued that Object Permanence was, like many of the most interesting Scottish cultural ventures – notably key little magazines like P.O.T.H., MacDiarmid’s various publications and, though the formal preoccupations in this case run precisely counter to Manson’s, Gerry Cambridge’s influential transatlantic journal The Dark Horse – at once thrawnly rooted in the local and intermittently exasperated by its apparent limitations. Since the magazine’s founding in 1994, Peter Manson has gone on to establish an international reputation as one of the UK’s leading innovative poets. Often described as a Scottish or Glasgow-based writer, his work has nonetheless primarily been understood and appreciated in terms of experimental writing in England and America. There are good reasons for this, not least the fact that Manson’s US readership may ultimately turn out to be much larger than his Scottish one. He has certainly attracted more attention in America than most of his Scottish contemporaries. For instance, in a lecture titled ‘Transatlantic Disconnections, or, The Poetry of the Hypotenuse’, given in March 2009 at the University of Glasgow and collected later that year in PN Review, the American critic Stephanie (writing as Stephen) Burt points out that “Peter Manson, and others: the senior figures in Britain’s ‘experimental tradition’, despite their difficulty publishing books in North America, have more transatlantic readers than all but a handful of other poets who live and work in the UK.”4 Students of modern Scottish poetry may recall MacDiarmid’s fondness for the Biblical adage about no prophet being honoured in his own country.
Though referring to Manson here as a British poet, Burt also considers the Scottish situation qua Scottish, acknowledging that much of the politico-cultural complexity of contemporary Britain is likely to be lost on American readers, “since Scotland and Wales and indeed the England north of the Watford gap, in the American popular imagination, are not distinguished clearly from the Home Counties, except when distant Celtic traditions come in.”5 Cognisant of these cultural complications, Burt goes on to argue that the “best overtly nationalist poetry in English from contemporary Scotland flaunts just the qualities – continuities with speech and with earlier poems, dependence on listeners, attention to syntax and so on” that readers might find in “such English poets as [Alison] Brackenbury and [David] Constantine: it is just that the continuities and the listeners invoked are marked as Scottish.”6 Referring specifically to Jen Hadfield and Robert Crawford, Burt suggests that these writers, who write with a determined sense of local identity, are more similar to their English peers (qua English) than nationalist criticism might like to accept. There is, of course, also the distant Celtic tradition – and its real-life counterpart, contemporary poetry in Gaelic (and, though it is not a Celtic language, Scots). Acknowledging the truth in Burt’s critique – Scottish poets, particularly the award-winning ones, do participate in and benefit from a pan-British literary culture – there is also poetry from Scotland which, while not overtly or even necessarily nationalistic, is nonetheless affected by and reflective of its place of composition to a degree which does, one might argue, separate it significantly from other Anglophone poetries. There are persuasive grounds for including Manson’s work in this category.
The international avant garde, primarily its British/English and American manifestations, is undoubtedly an important context for Manson’s writing – and one which does separate him quite strikingly from well-known Scottish contemporaries such as, for instance, Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson. However, as Alice Tarbuck points out in a 2017 review of Manson’s pamphlet Factitious Airs, he is also differentiated from many of his “Cambridge-school-esque experimental” peers by a number of qualities, among them “his attention to place, particularly to Scottish speech rhythms and cultural ideas.”7 The other qualities to which Tarbuck draws attention are Manson’s trust of the reader and the striking beauty which she finds in much of his work. These qualities could, perhaps, be linked to the poetry’s grounding in a particular place and speech community – and here one might refer to Burt’s assertion that much important recent UK poetry has been explicitly concerned with identifying and embodying cultural and linguistic continuities, presumably in the face of the disruptions and discontinuities of an increasingly globalised world. This would seem to question the specificity of an appeal to a specific culture, resisting the idea that there is anything particularly unique about Scottish poetry – valuable as the writing itself may be. There are, needless to say, complementary accounts which might be offered of the complex interrelationship between poetry, culture and place – and accounts of culture in Scotland, including poetry, which have sought to valorise the very discontinuities which have led some critics (notably T. S. Eliot) to question the existence of Scottish literature as such.
As Tarbuck suggests, there is a potentially productive tension between an account of Manson’s achievement which would focus on his formal and conceptual links with avant garde movements globally, and one which would dwell more attentively on this poet’s rootedness in Glasgow and Scotland. These accounts need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, trying to understand how Manson’s work bridges the gap between Scottish poetry and international experimentalism might well help point the way towards a better appreciation of both. As such, this essay will consider a number of points at which Manson can be seen as entering into creative or critical dialogue with what might hesitantly be referred to as the Scottish tradition. Situating Manson in his Scottish context might offer insights into what is so distinctive about this poet who has combined a radical openness to the new forms offered by the international avant garde with a hefted attentiveness to the particularities of his native place. Foregrounding the Scottish dimension of his work, such a reading might prompt a wider reassessment of Manson’s writing, emphasising the importance of the local in relation to the global. It might also point towards a reassessment of the Scottish poetic landscape more broadly, whereby the experimental and the innovative tendencies would be brought into somewhat sharper focus than has generally been the case.
To describe Manson as a Scottish poet is on one level merely to state the obvious. Here is a Glaswegian poet, a familiar face at poetry events in his native city and – as the recent conference on his work and the publication of this special issue highlight – increasingly a touchstone figure for younger writers and researchers with an interest in experimental culture in Scotland. Nevertheless, on another level to so describe this writer – much of whose practice might seem to be directly antipathetic towards reductive national signifiers – could be seen as risking an unhelpful essentialism, limiting rather than enhancing the meaningfulness of Manson’s work. To argue, as this essay does, that reading Manson not just in terms of innovative poetics internationally, but also in terms of the broadly understood inheritance of a specifically Scottish tradition is a potentially productive critical manoeuvre requires a certain amount of considered contextualisation. It is therefore important to clarify what aspects of the Scottish literary context and inheritance are of particular relevance to Manson. In this respect it may be useful to engage directly here with some of the key debates in modern Scottish literary historiography, which have been central in shaping the great variety of contemporary responses to the conundrum of what exactly constitutes Scottish poetry. What, precisely, is a Scottish poet and what, if any, is the significance of a national label to the work of such a writer?
In 1919, just under a century ago, T. S. Eliot posed the infamous question – was there a Scottish literature?8 His answer – that there was in the late medieval period something which might have merited this title, but that the Scottish tradition has since merged with the English to the extent that it currently comprises little more than a provincial adjunct to it – has, most critics would now agree, been refuted by subsequent literary history. This essay will return to adjuncts, provincial and otherwise, in due course. It is, moreover, beyond its scope to provide a comprehensive overview of Scottish poetry in the wake of Eliot’s essay. Suffice it to say that as well as asserting the non-existence of an independent Scottish literary tradition as such, in his 1919 essay Eliot proposed that to claim that a collection of texts amounts to a literature presupposes the presence of a single shared language – which across the United Kingdom as a whole is clearly English. As Scotland is unequally divided between Scots, English and Gaelic it is too linguistically fragmented to support a coherent literature. This idea was subsequently taken up and adapted by Edwin Muir in his critical work Scott and Scotland, which rejected the possibility of creating a modernist poetic in Scots and by so doing precipitated a permanent rift with MacDiarmid.9 It is, perhaps surprisingly, not generally noted by scholars of modern Scottish literature that in certain respects Eliot’s own poetic oeuvre would also tend to refute his line of reasoning in the 1919 essay – given that it includes several texts composed in French and, particularly in The Waste Land, numerous quotations from other languages. Counter-intuitive as the proposition might initially seem, both to Scottish literary scholars and students of experimental writing from around the English-speaking world, it is possible to read certain texts by Peter Manson in terms of the critical inheritance of these early twentieth-century attempts to define and demarcate the territory of Scottish literature. Moreover, Eliot and Muir’s prioritisation of cultural and linguistic continuity – and MacDiarmid’s insight that a modernist poetics of fragmentation and collage might make a virtue out of the historical discontinuities of Scottish language and culture – remain relevant to twenty-first-century Scottish writing. After all, in Burt’s 2009 intervention, one finds a well-known American poet critic coming to essentially the same conclusion as Eliot in 1919: that Scottish poetry is valuable but, unless one resorts to essentialism, often less distinctive than nationalism might like to admit. This is a persuasive argument – and a reminder that it is perhaps one of the key challenges for scholars of contemporary Scottish literature to find ways of engaging with their subject which respond to the national in a nuanced and non-essential manner.
Aside from the general importance of these theoretical debates around language, modernity and identity for any critic trying to come to terms with the textual landscapes of recent Scottish literature, there are ways in which they are of quite specific relevance to Manson’s poetry, especially when seen in relation to its Scottish context. For instance, English in Mallarmé is, formally speaking, a work which sets out to explore the extent to which one language can be seen as being latent in another.10 Manson’s procedure here is to systematically work through Mallarmé’s poems, identifying the characters within the French text which, once the surrounding letters are rendered invisible, become legible as English words. For instance, the sestet of Salut:
Une ivresse belle m’engage Sans craindre même son tangage De porter debout ce salut
Solitude, récif, étoile À n’importe ce qui valut Le blanc souci de notre toile.
Elsewhere, Manson translates these lines as:
a lovely drunkenness enlists me, with no fear of pitch and toss to bear upright this benison
solitude, reef, star to whatever this is that was worth the white disquiet of our cloth.11
Finding fairly straightforward equivalences for what is going on in the French source text, in his Mallarmé translations Manson eschews regular rhyme and a fixed metrical scheme, achieving something like the ivresse belle of Salut – a rhythmic pitch and toss which nonetheless bears its Scottish-sounding benison of sense in a demonstrably upright fashion. Describing his practice as having been to produce “unashamedly semantic translations of a poet whose best writing seems designed to put a semantic translator to shame”, Manson also states in his afterword to The Poems in Verse that translating Mallarmé was for him a way “of slowing [my] reading down as far as I possibly could.”12 In this commitment to as close a semantic rendering of a source poem as possible, there is a significant connection to be made with Edwin Morgan’s own practice as perhaps the major Glaswegian translator of poetry.
Reflecting on his activities as a translator, Morgan wrote in 1976 that despite “the forceful exemplars of Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, and Christopher Logue, I have persistently refused myself their freedom of approach, and have tried to work within a sense of close and deep obligation to the other poet.”13 There are nonetheless, one might argue, potentially many ways of expressing a close and deep obligation to another poet – and many aspects of poems whose effect or function could be persuasively described as semantic. Given that translation is an inevitably hermeneutic, interpretative act, the ‘literal’ meaning of any text is apt to remain fluid, subjective and to some extent contextual. The “unashamedly semantic” approach which animates Manson’s deeply persuasive and impressive translations from Mallarmé’s Poems in Verse need not preclude other approaches and projects such as English in Mallarmé, activated by a more ludic sense of textual experimentation. In the latter instance, the same French sestet becomes
bell age an rain me on tang porter bout
Solitude toile import so not toil
The French text is still there in its entirety – the non-English sections are simply coloured white.14 In a Borgesian gesture, Manson has on one level simply reproduced the French poems with much of the text rendered invisible to the reader. One can in the online ubu editions pdf of English in Mallarmé actually select the invisible text, copy it into a word document and return each poem to its canonical state.
Much of English in Mallarmé is not geared towards easy interpretation – large sections are very difficult to read, however slowly one works through the text. In the last tercet quote above, however, one could if so minded focus on the solitude in which the poet toils to extract English from French, resulting in a text which can be imported into another format, then re-formatted in black, erasing the solitary toil which has gone into producing it. As well as translation, another important Morgan coordinate might be that poet’s emergent poems, where letters appear and ultimately coalesce into a legible line of text. There the key thing is the meaning which emerges from the base line, with the emergent text commenting on, critiquing or clarifying the source. For Manson the procedure itself seems to be the main thing, with the frequent illegibility or uninterpretable nature of the resulting text being, in fact, part of the excitement of this challenging way of working through another poet’s oeuvre. Here there may also be a connection to be made with Manson’s assertion in the afterword to The Poems in Verse that, for him, translating Mallarmé “held on to me through several years when not much else in the way of writing seemed possible”.15 Poetic translation – which can cover a multitude of different textual practices – is a way of writing, and this can be conceived positively as well as negatively. Certainly a great deal of exciting canonical and non-canonical Scottish poetry, from Gavin Douglas (whose Eneados, perhaps the foundational text for poetic translation in Scotland, contains thousands of lines with little or no analogue in the Latin original) through Edwin Morgan to Peter Manson, interacts and intersects with translation in ways which are often far from straightforward. Considering the Scottish resonances of English in Mallarmé, one might note that the rendering of Le Pitre châtié, for example, the French ma simple is reproduced as “ma simple” – a phrasing which is certainly not Standard English, but is readily accessible to those familiar with Glaswegian possessive pronouns.16
Excavating the Anglophone texts unwittingly composed by Mallarmé, Manson is certainly interacting with a ludic and international tradition of poetic experimentation, which need not be confined to any one location. However, whether or not this was part of the poet’s original intention, English in Mallarmé can also be read in terms of some of the foundational critical arguments for modern and modernist poetry in Scotland – and understood as an implicit rejection of Eliot’s idea that the basis for a coherent literary culture is desirably or even necessarily monolingual. Here the substantive point might be less that Manson has consciously set out to refute Eliot’s 1919 argument – a key bugbear for MacDiarmid and many other Scottish Renaissance poets, who have tended to respond with bold assertions to the contrary – but rather that his sense of poetry and poetics is intrinsically opposed to such attempts to, on the one hand, provincialise Scotland (or any centrally-defined periphery) and on the other to build walls between languages, as opposed to breaking them down. Scrambling the boundaries between English and French in English in Mallarmé, Manson manages to write a highly original text – reminiscent of Morgan’s emergent poems, perhaps, but much less targeted towards traditional forms of intelligibility. The salience of these poems for this essay is then that, whether knowingly on Manson’s part or not, they become fascinatingly legible in terms of a modern(-ist) Scottish tradition whereby the monolingual authority of Eliot’s claims for English is undermined by a polyglot attempt to collapse the hierarchical and even formal distinctions between different forms of language.
The very existence of the oeuvre of the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean (1911–1996) is in many respects another implicit rebuttal of Eliot’s argument as advanced in ‘Was There a Scottish Literature?’. While MacLean may not be the first twentieth-century Scottish poet most people would think of in relation to Manson’s writing, there are quite specific textual grounds for referring to him here – primarily the poem ‘after Sorley Maclean’ [sic], published in book form in 2006. Before moving on to a close reading of this poem by Manson, it may be helpful to provide some further context on MacLean and his writing – particularly as regards the broader debates around language and translation in modern Scottish poetry.
One leading MacLean scholar – poet, critic, editor and translator Christopher Whyte – has written extensively on the dilemmas, ethical and formal, which arise regarding the translation of modern Gaelic poetry. Introducing his authoritative 2011 edition of MacLean’s poems Caoir Gheal Leumraich/White Leaping Flame, produced in collaboration with Emma Dymock, Whyte writes that “The function of a translation is not to obliterate the original and substitute for it. Unfortunately, the relations of power and usage subsisting at present between English in Scotland and Scottish Gaelic make this not only possible but an ever-present danger.”17 The visibility of the poetry in English comes at the cost of the invisibility of the Gaelic. Reversing Lawrence Venuti’s classic formulation of the invisible translator, the self-translating Gaelic poet disappears, the presence of an original occluded by the more widely accessible English version.18 As a corrective to this process of substitution, symptomatic of wider processes of language loss and homogenisation, Whyte has argued that Gaelic poets should resist pressures to self-translate into English – encouraging appreciation of their work in the original as far as possible, and only consenting to the publication of translations if they are prepared by another writer, highlighting the fact that the version in the second language will never be able to replace the Gaelic poem.
Whyte’s polemical critique of the Anglophone reception of Gaelic poetry has broad implications, some of which could certainly be considered in light of Manson’s own extensive work as a translator, primarily from French. Even the non-Francophone reader will, reading Manson’s versions of Mallarmé’s Poems in Verse, which print the late nineteenth-century French alongside the early twenty first-century English, quickly realise that these translations have no desire to substitute for or deny the existence of their originals. Dispensing with almost all of the rhyme and resisting the smooth fluidity of regular metre, Manson’s jagged, dissonant responses to Mallarmé might well be described, in Venuti’s terms, as foreignising translations which seek to draw attention to their status as such. Indeed, foreignisation is one way to attempt to redress what Whyte would regard as the historical scandals of Gaelic-English translation – signposting to readers that the text they are experiencing is a secondary, mediated version of another poem.
Evidently, the respective situations prevailing in relation to the translation into English of Gaelic and French are very different. French is a global language spoken by millions, which has exerted a determining influence on literary responses to modernity. Gaelic is a minority language spoken by around sixty thousand people, though of central importance to Scotland’s literary story. Nevertheless, Manson’s extensive work with French sheds light on the much more selective account which can be given of his engagement with Gaelic. In both cases one finds him pushing the boundaries of what is considered to be translation, and by so doing producing texts which creatively explore linguistic and formal difference, while seeking to make a virtue of both. It might risk essentialism to claim that Manson’s work in and around translation is in some sense prototypically Scottish – though such claims for an essentially Scottish poetic cosmopolitanism have often been made on behalf of MacDiarmid and his associates, partly in anticipation of the rebuke that the nationalism which animates their writing is by definition chauvinistic or isolationist. However, it is certainly the case that one can make connections between Manson’s work in this area and that of figures like Morgan, also keen to build bridges between Glasgow and innovative writers in other languages – and working with a similar sense of translational obligation to these writers.
Manson, not a Gaelic speaker or reader, has made no direct translations from the language itself – never seeking to present MacLean to Anglophone readers in the way he has done with Mallarmé and other French poets. However, like many other English-language writers, he has drawn creatively upon English translations of Gaelic poetry, most significantly in the aforementioned prose poem ‘after Sorley Maclean’ [sic] from the 2006 collection, For the Good of Liars:
It is not true to say my prose will carry the news of your beauty into unknown futures. Your physical self will outlast both me and my work’s visibility. Those who come to you, fifty, sixty years hence, drawn first by your acts and detained by the pleasure of your company, will come with no questions about me. As you recount your stories of the life you have been as consistently present in as I have been absent from mine, you will fix me forever in the time of our acquaintance – not the time when I did my best work, but the time when my heart beat faster, imagining fifty years of our not being lovers, at the end of which stands a woman, old and sexed, and how glad I would be, though dead, to have you then.19
Here Manson is responding to what is probably MacLean’s most famous work, the sequence of love poems in Gaelic, the Dàin do Eimhir – widely credited with bringing Gaelic poetry into the era of modernism when it was first published in 1943. Rather than a purportedly straightforward translation, Manson offers a reversal of MacLean’s unrequited longing and refrain – inherited from Yeats and Shakespeare – that his poetry might preserve his love into unknown futures, even if by that point no one understands the language in which it is written. Gaelic becomes English (or rather, MacLean’s own English versions of his poems become English). Poetry becomes prose. Eternity becomes a brief moment of textual visibility before everything is lost in the faintly disappointing noise of time.
At once ironic and vulnerable, parodic and apparently sincere, ‘after Sorley MacLean’ is a notable text in which Manson enters into creative dialogue with one of twentieth-century Scotland’s canonical writers. It is therefore a useful point at which to begin a series of close readings of his poetry as seen from a Scottish perspective. Recalling the editorial glove thrown down by the first issue of Object Permanence in 1994 – the proposition that Scotland needed a magazine which would provide a context for a range of poetics which would not deny the existence of modernism – one might reflect that MacLean was, while deeply rooted in the Gaelic tradition, also a poet enabled by the innovations of Eliot and Pound, not to mention MacDiarmid’s attempts to foster forms of literary modernity which would remain cognisant of Scottish traditional culture. It is worth remembering that ever since the inception of literary modernism there have been Scottish writers who sought to learn from its example and acknowledge its existence in terms of their poetics. There is moreover – as the Anglo-American formalist Gunn argues in ‘The Postmodernism You Deserve’ – more than one way of not denying the importance of modernism and its various offshoots.
A number of other texts in For the Good of Liars are of specific relevance to a Scotocentric reading of Manson’s poetry. Detailing his procedure in composing a number of “serial” poems in the early nineteen nineties, two of which ‘Campaign for Really Authentic Poetry’ and ‘Serial Drunken Boat Fragment (after Rimbaud)’ are collected in For the Good of Liars, Manson writes that “My accent of spoken English (I come from Glasgow) has twelve vowel and diphthong phonemes” akin to the twelve-tone chromatic scale used in serial music by composers such as Schoenberg. This formal correspondence between the way in which he speaks and the twelve-tone scale suggested a way of writing poetry wherein each phoneme would be used only once “in the main stressed syllable of a word in each group”, similar to rules governing the notes in serial musical composition.20 Here one might recall Tarbuck’s identification of the importance of Scottish speech rhythms to Manson’s poetry – with the following text, ‘Serial Drunken Boat Fragment (after Rimbaud)’ implicitly situated within a particular speech community, despite the incomprehension it would likely elicit from most of the other members of that community:
I sailed impassive streams; soon, unannoyed, Sensed the coward boatmen’d fucked off Landward: nailed by redskins to trees’ Bloodied boles. Flint poles shot out –
Weary of English cotton and Dutch Grain, my mourning’s rudimentary. Voided now Of boatmen, cargo, everything but me, Roiled fluid trails my ship down
–stream; clattering through foam noise mountains, Winter-locked, ultra-child’s-brain-deaf, I ran21
Having used his phonemes the requisite number of times, Manson stops writing, leaving the remaining quatrains of Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre untranslated. The poem provides an interesting practical demonstration of the way in which particular idiolects or forms of language – and indeed forms of writing – simultaneously enable and limit what it is possible to express. The serial poems are also indicative of a number of the key tendencies in and influences on Manson’s work – his Glaswegian background, training in English language as an undergraduate, attraction to French symbolist poetry as a translator and affinity with experimental music, as well as literature. Other texts in For the Good of Liars with clear Glaswegian overtones include ‘Glasgow Coma Score’22 (referencing the Glasgow Coma Scale, used to determine a patient’s neurological state) and, given Tom Leonard’s vital role in making the language of the city available to experimental poetics, the dedication to that poet of ‘A Funeral in Sense’.23
Moving forwards two years from For the Good of Liars to 2008 and Manson’s next collection, Between Cup and Lip, one finds several poems making comparably explicit reference to Scottish subject matter and language. The first, Et in Arcadia Ego, reads in its entirety:
I have been awake for three days In the National Library of Scotland.
The muscles in the back of my neck Complain, microsleep dilates: I am beginning to nod.
Miraculously I am nutted Awake by the bust of Sir Walter Scott.24
Referencing Poussin, this poem might be read as a pointed reminder that its author is, despite first impressions to the contrary, very much a part of the culture memorialised and curated, represented or even misrepresented within the National Library of Scotland, which on its website identifies itself as the pre-eminent repository for the nation’s “knowledge, history and culture.”25
A legal deposit library, the NLS possesses unrivalled collections of Scottish literature from the earliest times to the present day – from the sixteenth-century Bannatyne Manuscript (Advocates MS. 1. 1. 6.), in which a wealth of unique medieval and renaissance poems survive, to a rare complete run of Object Permanence and many other texts by Manson.26 For a Scottish writer to have their works deposited somewhere on the National Library’s many miles of shelving is to have them situated, however obliquely, in physical relation to virtually every other writer from Scotland and the collective memory of the culture as a whole. In Et in Arcadia Ego, Manson can therefore be seen as staking a claim – however ironically and self-reflexively – to a space of his own within the literary landscape of that culture. On the one hand the title could be understood as implying that his very presence within the Library foreshadows the strange death of Scottish literature as it has been understood by nationalist or formally conservative criticism. On the other, one might take the miraculous nutting by the bust of Scott as a sincere statement of the potential of the Arcadian groves of the mainstream Scottish canon to harbour and enable more subversive or innovative poetic tendencies.
As with MacLean, Scott is perhaps not the first writer many would think of in the context of Manson’s writing. However, just as reflection on the former’s presence in Manson’s poem ‘after Sorley Maclean’ can lead to broader insights into language questions, translation and experimental poetry in modern Scotland, so Scott – significantly invoked by Manson in Et in Arcadia Ego – provides a pretext for considering how Manson’s writing might fit into or resist traditional notions of the Scottish canon. The Wizard of the North, who seems to stand in Manson’s poem as an emblematic representative of the established tradition, was perhaps the key figure in the early nineteenth-century reshaping of Scottish history and cultural memory as regards an overarching sense of Britishness. Just as the Waverley novels rewrote events such as the forty five and the killing times of the seventeenth century into a broader, pan-Britannic narrative, so the collections of texts and historical curios which Scott assembled at Abbotsford, his stately home near Galashiels, brought together a diverse range of materials in order to express one view of what constituted Scotland and Scottishness. This gives rise to curatorial parataxes worthy of Adjunct: an Undigest, where sentences pile up on one another with little apparent logical or causal connection beyond their having been set down in that order by Manson in the course of the book’s composition.27 In Scott’s collection, an uneaten oatcake from the battle of Culloden takes its place beside Mary Queen of Scots’ crucifix – but very little connects these objects beyond their imputed connection to the national fable for which Abbotsford is a frame. As with Adjunct, the formal juxtaposition is to a great extent the point: out of discontinuity a kind of continuity emerges.
Given the relative neglect of Manson’s poetry and poetics by critics seeking to engage with contemporary Scottish writing, it is perhaps salutary to consider that Scott – who can be seen as a synecdoche for the canon as a whole in Et in Arcadia Ego – is himself now increasingly regarded as a rather neglected figure: a household name, the echoes of whose life and work remain ubiquitous in Scottish culture, but whose writings themselves are largely ignored by most contemporary readers. The meaning of the classical trope behind Et in Arcadia Ego is that, here too, death and oblivion are realities. Ann Rigney, in her 2012 study The Afterlives of Walter Scott, refers to the character of Old Mortality, in the novel of the same name, travelling around the country re-inscribing the eroded monuments to the Covenanters who fought and died for their extreme religious beliefs in the seventeenth century. She writes of this figure that “erosion and illegibility also affect literary works and not just moss-covered gravestones. So can they too be re-inscribed? And what is at stake in making them legible again?”28 As Rigney shows, Scott has in the course of the twentieth and early twenty first centuries become increasingly illegible to a great many – perhaps even the majority – of readers. The decline of his once immense readership is, she argues, not merely indicative of changing tastes, but also of a broader shift in the way people conceptualise their collective identity – with works of literature like the Waverley novels no longer providing a focal point around which a whole society and its sense of common values might be seen to cohere.29
The oeuvre of a poet like Manson, whose works run (indeed, embrace) the risk of illegibility and incomprehension, presents a very different, more contemporary model of what writing can be than Scott, the now neglected early nineteenth-century master – though both writers can, as Et in Arcadia shows, exist in overlapping literary contexts. Rigney’s question – what precisely is at stake when modern-day readers attempt to re-inscribe a work like Old Mortality in terms of contemporary critical discourses? – is also of relevance to a critique of Manson’s work which seeks to inscribe or re-inscribe it within broader debates around poetry and identity in Scotland. Many readers of mainstream Scottish (or more generally Anglophone) poetry would probably admit to finding much of Manson’s writing no less incomprehensible and illegible than the moss-covered gravestones of Scott’s novel, or what is perhaps their key modern poetic coordinate point, MacDiarmid’s ‘Eemis Stane’. However, unlike the memorials to the Covenanters, the challenges which Manson presents to the reader are not the result of a long-term process of erosion and erasure, but part of a deliberately chosen strategy of formal experimentation and radical poetic thought. Inscribing Manson in the canon of modern Scottish poetry – where, this essay is arguing, he deserves to be appreciated as the important writer he is – one runs the risk of making him overly legible, or legible in an overly-simplified, nationally-overdetermined fashion. Of course, as Rigney suggests, the same would be true of contemporary and historical re-readings of Scott – and indeed of the violent, religiously authoritarian Covenanting history memorialised and re-inscribed by Old Mortality.
Another text from Between Cup and Lip scrambles Keats’ sonnet, ‘If by dull rhymes our English must be chained’, reimagining the Romantic poet’s opening line to read: “Because through bright discontinuities your Scots must not be released”.30 Transfiguring Keats, Manson’s unrhymed fourteen-line poem proceeds dialectically, by a process of opposition. Dull rhymes are answered by bright discontinuities, our English by your Scots (though the poem makes no actual use of Lallans per se). Here the English poem’s rhetorically resigned subjunctive becomes – or is perhaps unmasked as – an imperative injunction to use conventional poetics and the standard language. Though most accounts of Manson’s poetry as political literature would probably focus on the way his writing materially interferes with the rhetorical means by which people are persuaded and ultimately influenced through language, this poem serves as a reminder that there is also a side of his writing which is not uninvolved in debates around place, identity and indeed the UK constitution as it impacts Scotland (though this last is less obviously a feature of his work than it is for most prominent Scottish poets of his generation).
Described by Robert Potts in The Guardian as “certainly the most entertaining collection” of 2004,31 Adjunct: an Undigest offers ample scope for reflection on Manson’s position and self-orientation in relation to modern Scottish poetry (and culture as a whole). Described by the author as, among other things, “linguistic autobiography”, “source-book of the contemporary avant-garde”, “extended fart joke” and “book of the dead”, Adjunct is also, one might argue, an extended argument about and with the world of Scottish poetry in the mid- to late-nineteen nineties. It is above all a book which prioritises the place and indeed the time of its own composition – explicitly given as Glasgow between May 1993 and May 2000; a seven-year season in hell, or a warped parallel of the seven years which Thomas the Rhymer spends in the other world in the traditional Scots ballad.
Among the sentences and fragments of text undigested in Adjunct, a sizeable number of Scottish literary figures make appearances. For instance, on the second page, sandwiched, inter alia, between a note of when the sixth issue of Object Permanence was collected and the death of Miroslav Holub, one finds the sentence: “Try not to look like Tom McGrath.”32 On the next page Manson announces himself (or someone else) to be the “bad boy of Scottish serial poetry.”33 Shortly afterwards the reader is informed that the Scots language poet “J.K. Annand is dead.” Annand is the first dead Scottish poet in the book, but by no means the last. On the same page Hugh MacDiarmid makes his first appearance, after Robin Purves mishears Uma Thurmann’s name. 34 MacDiarmid is referred to – and lampooned – at frequent intervals throughout the book, with notable instances including a “Cartoon of Paul Celan with Hugh MacDiarmid’s right eye”, as well as the line “We took refuge in the glass outhouse built especially for Hugh MacDiarmid to write in.”35 And again: “Fractal ambiguous groin with inverted vignette head of Hugh MacDiarmid.”36 Elsewhere one reads of a manatee called Hugh and meets with the statement “Used to like radiolarian more than foraminifera when I was a kid.” This seems to be a fairly direct – and potentially critical – reference to MacDiarmid’s poem ‘On the Ocean Floor’, perhaps the best-known modern Scottish poem about protozoa, in which the poet remarks with typical self-assurance that as he feels his own genius waxing stronger, he is more and more aware of “the lightless depths” below – “as one who hears their tiny shells incessantly raining|On the ocean floor as the foraminifera die.”37
References to Philip Hobsbaum comprise a comparable leitmotif throughout Adjunct, starting on page eight when an “Expansive gesture with both hands catches Philip Hobsbaum on the lower arm.”38 Later on one learns that “Happiness is Philip Hobsbaum.”39 Manson also informs the reader of a dream in which he is “hitchhiking on a motorway bridge with Philip Hobsbaum. The bridge contracts to a foot-wide span, the bit I am on has the name MANSON on it.”40 Given Hobsbaum’s role as a canon-maker and literary gatekeeper in London, Belfast and Glasgow, it is tempting to interpret this dream as referring, somewhat obliquely, to Manson’s feelings vis-à-vis his own reputation and canonicity. The re-imagination towards the end of Adjunct of Donny O’Rourke’s well-known 1994 anthology Dream State: the New Scottish Poets as Fugue State perhaps signals Manson’s view of the more conventional, nationally-centred narratives of Scottish poetry during the period in which Adjunct was being written.
Another dream in Adjunct concerns the imagined death of Norman MacCaig. Later on in the book, his actual death is recorded, as is “A bust of Norman MacCaig carved from Tipp-Ex.” Other notable dead Scottish writers in the book include Alan Bold, Jessie Kesson, George Mackay Brown, Naomi Mitchison and Sorley MacLean. Among the (then) living, Tom Leonard, Edwin Morgan, Richard Price and Gael Turnbull make frequent appearances. Aonghas MacNeacail – arguably the major living Gaelic poet after Sorley MacLean’s death in 1996 – appears in the statement “Only occurrence of the word ‘ACNE’ on my hard disk is in the name Aonghas Macneacail. [sic]” Unearthing the word ‘acne’ in MacNeacail’s surname, Manson anticipates his practice in English in Mallarmé. Finding acne in Gaelic – where other poets might find an exemplary melancholia of marginality and cultural decline – he signals his divergence from much modern Scottish poetry. Most Scottish writers who have responded to Gaelic in English (the Tipp-Ex carved Norman MacCaig for example) have done so in terms of a poetics which alternately seeks to mourn the decline of Highland culture and celebrate its distinctiveness. Using his computer’s search function to take the digital Tipp-Ex to MacNeacail’s surname – whose spelling signals resistance to the contemporary dominance of English – Manson is content to leave his views on the language and its historical situation unstated. Instead he announces the facial blemish hidden all along, in English, within ‘MacNeacail’ – a humorous gesture which is indicative of deeper tendencies in Manson’s poetry, not least his willingness to explore and even valorise aspects of the bodily and linguistic corpus which other poets, preferring to focus on more established forms of beauty, might be content to overlook.
With Adjunct, as elsewhere, one does have to be wary of taking Manson at his word. As with MacDiarmid’s long synthetic English poems, this book-length work is a collage assembled from various different textual sources. The work is at least partly humorous in its intention and no single statement can be taken as an unambiguous clarification of the poet’s position. However, in light of the extensive references touched upon here, it does seem reasonable to conclude that in Adjunct, one finds Manson orienting his own practice not just in relation to, for instance, the Cambridge school and L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, but also in terms of the inheritance and contemporary scene of Scottish poetry. While his response to the latter is often implicitly critical or satirical, there are also signs – particularly in the references to more experimental Glasgow writers such as Richard Price, Morgan and Leonard – of more positive engagement and identification.
Indeed, Manson has repeatedly emphasised how important the example of Leonard in particular has been to him – as an experimental poet whose practice is firmly rooted in Glasgow and its language. Reviewing Leonard’s access to the silence for Poetry Review in 2004, Manson observed that in his view
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of Intimate Voices: no book of poetry in the past fifty years has done more to articulate the experience of working, thinking and simply being in the languages of working-class Scotland […] Leonard’s early poems, mostly in Glasgow speech, speak so precisely and with such a fierce, analytical wit that they transcend their status as poems and become part of the shared apparatus we use to think with. I don’t know any other contemporary poetry of which that is so true.41
And in an interview with Tim Allen, published in 2006, Manson reflects on how important Leonard was for him as a young poet in Glasgow in the early nineteen nineties, often frustrated by the apparent limitations of the Scottish literary scene:
Very early on, I went to visit Tom Leonard, who was the writer in residence at Glasgow University, and Tom really got what I was trying to do (got the humour of it too, which people often miss!) and was able to point me at a lot of writers and artists who became important to me later.42
One of Manson’s key touchstones, Leonard is a major poet from Scotland who always remained highly critical of cultural and political nationalism, as expressed in the work of MacDiarmid and his Scottish Renaissance associates. Focussing on the language of place and class, rather than nation, his work offers Manson (and many other readers) an exemplary alternative to often relatively conservative Renaissance narratives of cultural renewal. Beyond the political and cultural implications of Leonard’s writings since the late nineteen sixties, he is also a poet whose support for radical formal experimentation has been consistently unswerving.
Morgan, too, might seem to offer an alternative to MacDiarmid – the former being a Glaswegian poet who translated and experimented with restless energy throughout his long career. In the 2006 interview with Tim Allen, Manson recalls reading a review by Morgan of (another key Scottish precursor) Veronica Forrest-Thomson’s Collected Poems “and spending ages trying to track down every name he mentioned.”43 Working with a more defined sense of the Scottish tradition than Leonard, Morgan always maintained that the long view was compatible with absolute modernity. On the 8th of April 1996 he wrote to Manson, submitting a version of Saint Columba’s Altus Prosator to Object Permanence, writing that though his translation of the earliest Scottish poem might seem like a strange choice for an experimental publication, the work could, he feels, “be described as an experimental poem.” Arguing that Columba’s Latin work should “stand like a dragon at the beginning of our anthologies”44 Morgan is boldly asserting several things – that Scottish poetry, contra Eliot, is irreducibly multilingual; that it has an ancient tradition; and, crucially, that it has always been experimental. Here one might look back to Thom Gunn’s assertion, referred to at the start of this paper – that on Parnassus there is room for more than one poetic and that there are points in the poetic spectrum where the innovative and the traditional shade into one another. A reading of modern poetry from Scotland which sought to foreground work like Manson’s – not typically foregrounded by mainstream nationalist criticism – might offer interesting possibilities for prioritising aspects of place and language which a focus on the national in literature has the potential to obscure or devalue. It might also provide an opportunity to develop a more positive alternative to the sometimes antagonistic binary between ‘experimental’ and ‘mainstream’ poetics, in Scotland as elsewhere. Moving away from similarly antagonistic attempts – such as MacDiarmid’s – to aggressively define Scottish poetry in terms of its difference in relation to English poetry, Manson’s writing provides critics with an opportunity to, on the one hand, identify underlying continuities between different poetic styles and movements, and on the other to dwell attentively on the pleasurable discontinuities and exciting dissociations which arise when reading this poet’s work.
It seems appropriate to conclude by referring to Manson’s own introduction to a reading of ‘The Baffle Stage’ in Cincinnati from 2012, in which the poet discusses the way in which his work has been informed MacDiarmid’s Scots work in quatrains and William Dunbar’s fifteenth-century ‘Lament for the Makars’, as well as Mallarmé.45 The following year, introducing his reading of the same text at an event with Robert Crawford at the 2013 Sheffield Poetry Festival, Manson referenced the same two poets: “Rhymed quatrains in iambic pentameter always make me think of William Dunbar and Hugh MacDiarmid, both of whom contribute to the mix of ‘The Baffle Stage’ – it’s a very oblique way of saying hello to some poetry from my own country, but I couldn’t do it any other way.”46 Given the ubiquity of rhymed iambic quatrains in virtually every strand of Anglophone poetry since the early modern period – and indeed the fact that Dunbar and MacDiarmid, outwith A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, which is primarily written in quatrains, are probably best known for their work in other forms – this apparently casual statement seems significant. It suggests the importance to Manson of these poets in Scots, as well as a concomitant lack of similar self-identification with (which is not the same thing as a lack of affection for) the many English poets who have drawn upon this dominant metrical and rhyming form in their writing. Crucially, here Manson acknowledges his own continuity with a Scottish tradition in poetry going back to the fifteenth century and beyond, while also recognising that he can best register this connection obliquely. This essay has set out to show that there are many places in Manson’s oeuvre where he can be seen to do so, and that paying attention to these instances can be of real value in terms of the reader’s appreciation of the forces which animate this poet’s work, integral as it is to an understanding of the various factors at play in contemporary Scottish innovative writing, as well as experimental literature internationally.
- Thom Gunn, ‘The Postmodernism You Deserve’, Threepenny Review No. 57 (Spring, 1994), 6–8 (p. 8). [^]
- Peter Manson and Robin Purves, ‘Mandatorial’, Object Permanence Issue 1 (January 1994), 2 (p. 2). [^]
- Ross Hair, Avant-Folk: Small Press Poetry Networks from 1950 to the Present (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), p. 70. [^]
- Stephanie (writing as Stephen) Burt, ‘Transatlantic Disconnections, or, The Poetry of the Hypotenuse’, PN Review 190 (Nov–Dec 2009), 20–29 (p. 28). [^]
- ‘Transatlantic Disconnections’, p. 21. [^]
- ‘Transatlantic Disconnections’, p. 24. [^]
- Alice Tarbuck, ‘Factitious Airs by Peter Manson’, Sabotage Reviews, 6 March 2016 <http://sabotagereviews.com/2017/03/06/factitious-airs-by-peter-manson/> [accessed 09/10/2017]. [^]
- T. S. Eliot, ‘Was There a Scottish Literature?’, The Athenaeum, (1 Aug 1919), 680–1. Reprinted in Margery Palmer McCulloch, Modernism and Nationalism: Literature and Society in Scotland 1918–1939, Source Documents for the Scottish Renaissance (Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 2004), pp. 7–10. [^]
- Edwin Muir, Scott and Scotland: The Predicament of the Scottish Writer (London: Routledge, 1936). [^]
- Peter Manson, English in Mallarmé (London: Blart Books, 2014); see also English in Mallarmé (ubu editions, 2006): http://ubu.com/ubu/unpub/Unpub_010_Manson_Mallarme.pdf [accessed 12/12/2018]. [^]
- Stéphane Mallarmé, The Poems in Verse, trans. and notes by Peter Manson (Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Press, 2012), p. 9. [^]
- The Poems in Verse, p. 280. [^]
- Edwin Morgan, Collected Translations (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996), p. 185. [^]
- English in Mallarmé, p. 1. [^]
- The Poems in Verse, p. 280. [^]
- English in Mallarmé, p. 7. [^]
- Christopher Whyte, ‘The Poetry of Sorley MacLean: Reinvention and Reparation’, in Sorley MacLean, Caoir Gheal Leumraich/White Leaping Flame: Collected Poems, ed. by Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock (Edinburgh: Polygon, 2011), pp. xxiii–xxxiii (p. xxix). [^]
- See: Lawrence Venuti, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation (London: Routledge, 1995) and The Scandals of Translation (London: Routledge, 1998). [^]
- Peter Manson, For the Good of Liars (London: barque press, 2006), p. 28. [^]
- For the Good of Liars, p. 41. [^]
- For the Good of Liars, p. 43. [^]
- For the Good of Liars, p. 66. [^]
- For the Good of Liars, p. 61. [^]
- Peter Manson, Between Cup and Lip (Oxford: Miami University Press, 2008), p. 9. [^]
- https://www.nls.uk/about-us [accessed 24/04/2018]. [^]
- http://main-cat.nls.uk/vwebv/holdingsInfo?bibId=3341459 [accessed 24/04/2018]. [^]
- Peter Manson, Adjunct: an Undigest (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Review, 2004). [^]
- Ann Rigney, The Afterlives of Walter Scott: Memory on the Move (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 221. [^]
- The Afterlives of Walter Scott, p. 227. [^]
- Between Cup and Lip, p. 17. [^]
- Robert Potts, ‘Sulks, mosaics and misprints’, The Guardian, 17 December 2005, <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/dec/17/bestbooksoftheyear.bestbooks> [accessed 18/10/2017]. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 2. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 3. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 6. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 12. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 68. [^]
- Hugh MacDiarmid, Selected Poems, ed. by Alan Riach and Michael Grieve (New York: New Directions, 1993), pp. 164–165. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 8. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 11. [^]
- Adjunct, p. 20. [^]
- Peter Manson, ‘A Glasgow “this”, Poetry Review, Vol. 94 No 4 (Winter 2004/5), 70–72. [^]
- Tim Allen, ‘Peter Manson interviewed by Tim Allen: Hold That Golem’, in Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan, Don’t Start Me Talking: Interviews with Contemporary Poets (Cambridge: Salt, 2006), pp. 276–286 (p. 277). [^]
- Don’t Start Me Talking, p. 277. [^]
- Edwin Morgan, The Midnight Letterbox: Selected Correspondence, ed. by James McGonigal and John Coyle (Manchester: Carcanet, 2015), p. 417. [^]
- https://vimeo.com/54911385 [accessed 03/05/2018]. [^]
- https://sheffieldpoetryfestival.wordpress.com/blog/peter-manson-the-baffle-stage/ [accessed 03/05/2018]. [^]
The author has no competing interests to declare.