Friday, 19 December 2014

discovering Iain Crichton Smith

I think I don't like poetry. In fact I'm pretty sure. What I like is a brick of a book with well rounded characters, who can take me on a journey with them. I find that for me poetry can be navel gazing, twee nonsense, so caught up in its clever cleverness that it drives me to distraction.

But then again, I like lots of songs for their lyrics, and sometimes, just sometimes, I come across some poetry which just blows me away.

I came across Iain Crichton Smith recently at my writing group. I live in Scotland, and the other members of the group were all saying that Smith is so much covered in Scottish English (and Gaelic) classes that people don't tend to notice the beauty of his poetry.

I didn't go to school in Scotland. The poets I studied at school were people like Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Shelley. I don't recall ever coming across anything like this. That said, I'm not sure that as a teenager I would have noticed it. Perhaps you have to have some inkling of the subject matter to get it. Perhaps. 

We have homework set about two poems, and I have to leave the group early to pick my daughter up from nursery, so I hadn't managed to get the two poems. The next time I went I asked someone with an overflowing folder if he had a copy I could photograph. He had a spare copy and gave it to me instead. Which was great, because I've been writing all over it. Well, over this one anyway. There is another one. That one annoys me.

Anyway, I took the spare copy, and while we were on a break, I took the chance to read through it. I couldn't just read it though, there is so much beauty in this poem, and so much texture to the words that it cries out to be spoken. So I spoke it. And I cried.

I adore this poem, and I feel cheated that I didn't know about Iain Crichton Smith before. Here is the poem, first... then there will be some information about Mr Crichton Smith.


Without my knowing it you are at the bottom of my mind
like a visitor to the bottom of the sea
with his helmet and his two large eyes
and I do not rightly know your appearance or your manner
after five years of showers*
of time pouring between me and you: 
nameless mountains of water pouring
between me hauling you on board
and your appearance and your manner in my weak hands.
You went astray
among the mysterious plants of the sea-bed
in the green half-light without love, 
and you will never rise to the surfacethough my hands are hauling ceaselesslyand I do not know your way at all,you in the half-light of your sleephaunting the bed of the sea without ceasing
and I hauling and hauling on the surface.
                                                                                 Iain Crichton Smith

Iain Crichton Smith was a Scottish 'man of letters' - he wrote fiction as well as poems, and wrote beautifully in both English and Gaelic. He was born in 1928 in Glasgow, but moved to the Isle of Lewis as an infant, with his mother and brothers, after his father died. His mother brought them up on a widow's pension, and with strict Presbyterian beliefs. Iain did well at school, and as an adult became a teacher. He continued living with his mother until her death in 1969. He married in 1977, and also retired from teaching. He was a prolific writer, recognised with an OBE and three honorary doctorates. Gaelic was his first language, and when writing in Gaelic he used the Gaelic name Iain Mac a'Ghobhainn.

As I said, he writes beautifully in Gaelic as well. Here's 'the Bottom of my Mind' in Gaelic. I'm afraid I've only found the first verse, and that here:

“Gun fhios dhomh tha thu air m’aigeann m’inntinnMar fhear-tadhail grunnd na maraLe chlogaid ‘s a dhà shùil mhòir‘s chan aithne dhomh ceart t’fhiamh na do dhòighAn dèidh coig bliadhna shiantanTime dòrtadh eadar mise ‘s tu.”
There is a marvellous review of a new collection of Iain Crichton Smith's poems in the Guardian, here. And you can also find out more from the Scottish Poetry Library, and the BBC