I only managed to write about 17 influences last week, when the target was 25, so I thought I’d return and fill out the list. Plus it’s going to be busier than the usual busy in the next week. So here goes:
A left-wing family. Any political influences in my poems come from my family background. They were (almost) all left-wing, some very active, others less so. I joined the Labour Party in 1966, and remained a member until March 2003 (during StAnza as it happens, and Elaine Feinstein tried to dissuade me from resigning), when Iraq was illegally invaded by a government which had lost the right to my loyalty. My own previous political involvement took the form of serving for some years on constituency committees, where I had the pleasure of meeting and becoming a friend of the late Robin Cook. By a strange quirk of fate, it was at a poetry reading in Glasgow that I heard of his death. I was sitting at a table with a group of politicians and poets, and it was Tommy Sheridan who broke the news to me.
Kathleen Jamie. I had always liked her work – and still do – but it was a more practical event that led to her influencing me. I was on an Arvon course where she was one of the tutors, and she handed out an exercise based on old postcards. I began writing a poem in English, but it wasn’t working for me. Then I seemed to hear my grandmother’s Aberdeenshire accent, and I wrote my first ever poem in Scots. It was as if I’d been given the key to a dictionary I hadn’t known belonged to me. The finished poem was published in Lallans, and, oddly enough, every other Scots poem I’ve written has also been published.
Sally Evans. Sally and I have been friends for many years, and she and Ian King run Diehard Publishers in Callander, publishers of Poetry Scotland and of my first three full collections. She’s a fine poet and a supportive and discreet friend to many, but it’s her influence as an editor that I want to write about. She has a great talent, not just for copy-editing poems (although she has that too), but for putting collections together – selecting and sequencing poems. It’s an art. Then there’s the importance of good book design – making each poem sit well on the page. In all of these areas and more I’ve learned a great deal from Sally.
The Open University. The OU started in 1971, and I was one of its first students and first graduates. It helped me to change career and move into scientific librarianship. That in itself was a massive influence, but more than that was its influence on my personality. It gave me confidence, stamina (including the ability to manage on 4 hours sleep a night while I was studying) self-discipline and self-motivation. I formed the view that everything was possible if I chose to apply myself, and that’s still my underlying philosophy: Say yes first, and then just do it.
Denise Levertov. Daughter of a Welsh mother and a Russian father, Denise lived mostly in America. It’s honestly difficult to put into words how she’s influenced me; maybe it’s the musicality of her lines, her precision (which I also find in Ruth Padel). It’s when I read her work aloud that I feel most in tune with her. Try Scenes From the Life of the Peppertrees.
Charles Olson. His essay on ‘projective verse’ made a huge impression on me, but it was the ‘Maximus’ poems that influenced me more. Maybe it was through reading Olson that I came to prefer the Black Mountain ‘school’ to other American literary movements. Here’s what he wrote in a letter to Elaine Feinstein in 1959: “The basic idea anyway for me is that one, that form is never more than an extension of content…” I can’t dispute that. Those who can rattle off a quick but meaningless sestina or villanelle just as an exercise in form shouldn’t call it poetry – it’s linguistic Meccano.
Geoffrey Chaucer. Sometimes when I read Chaucer in groups I’ll invent a pronunciation that makes sense to me, based on the origin of the words. ‘Engender’d’ becomes the French ‘engendred’ because that’s where the word came from. For me it increases the musicality of his lines. I like The Parlement of Fowles as much as the Canterbury Tales, but it’s in a lesser known Chaucer poem – The Legend of Good Women – that I came across his explanation for the derivation of the word ‘daisy’ that has stuck with me ever since. I’ll modernise some of the spelling for the sake of clarity:
But for to look upon the daisy,
That well by reason men it call may
The ‘dayesie’, or else the ‘eye of day,’
The empress and flower of flowers all.
The Scottish ballad poets. There’s something about ballad meter, alternating tetrameter and hexameter, that makes for easy reading and remembering. It feels like a natural form (as does the sonnet), and it fairly moves a narrative along with a good wind behind it. The content is often simply written, raw yet and evocative. Who could not be moved by the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, with its chilling ending? Look out The Dowie Houms o Yarrow, The Twa Corbies, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and others.
I haven’t mentioned Shakespeare, but he’s surely a universal influence, isn’t he? Why else is he given to every castaway on Desert Island Discs?