the GEORGE MACKAY BROWN website
The Collected Poems of GMB
|Review from the
Callander Poetry Weekend
Sally Evans [editor Poetry Scotland]
reproduced from the Poetry Scotland website by kind permission
The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown,
edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray, John Murray 2005, 547pp, £35.
We were so lucky to persuade Sue Tordoff to come and talk about George
Mackay Brown. She really knew her stuff, and introduced the writer with such
incisiveness, and so gracefully, that learning more about him was a delight.
Sue told me she thought the only book of George's poetry* in print is the new
Collected Poems (there are novels published by Birlinn).
Undaunted I wrote to
review copy of this beautiful book. It took pride of place at the Exhibition,
along with the
which Colin plans to review on this site. [www.poetryscotland.co.uk]
What becomes accepted as important poetry tends to shake down as time goes
on, and this book will place GMB in his central position in 20th century
poetry, despite his peripheral location (it is only peripheral to us).
Maclean and also MacDiarmid came from the edges of
his roots. This fine book contains poetry far more sustained and substantial
than you might have guessed existed from his separately published, oracular
poems, primitive in subject, often terrifying, always with strong integrity
and a surprising lack of self-interest.
Besides the other 20th century Scottish poets I have mentioned, he bears
comparison to Iain Crichton Smith, for they both have a gentle yet primitive
approach to the dark and light of the natural world, in which human
relationships are placed in the context of the animals and trees, or rocks,
or seas, that surround them. This outlook is a particularly
Socttish/northern/Orcadian gift to the literary world. Iain Crichton Smith
wrote some major novels on these themes, whereas with GMB the themes are
infused throughout the poetry.
The first poems in this book date from 1954, when GMB rushes in at length
with The Storm, in itself a paean to Orcadian life. Loaves and Fishes (59)
and The Year of the Whale (65) are followed by New and Selected (71), by
which point the absolute stature of the writing has become inescapable.
Then come sequences King of Kings, Runes from a Holy Island, Three songs for
a Play, and The Wedding Guest - including poems in poetic prose, not a lame
paragraph or two but whole chapters. Fishermen with Ploughs (71) follows -
this is phenomenal output.
Is religion (the Christian mythology) relevant to crofters? This is a key
question for this part of the work. Again remarkable is the Return of the
Women: sections spoken by or for Jane, Natasha, Bianca, Sophie, Trudi - even
the names are wonderful and in this poetic prose he out-Joyces Joyce and
out-Woolfs Virginia Woolf. All this work has been a well kept secret, but
now the secret is out.
As GMB became better known in later books, the poems they include are a
little better known, by which time he is thunderingly powerful. But there is
not just the power in one poem or book - there is the way the whole has
built up, with an imagination as boundless as the ocean - that impresses us
as we read on and on through this work.
On the question of form and content, GMB’s messages are so important that
they impose a variety of amazing forms, from the poetic prose mentioned to
ballad style, lyric, declamatory and dramatic poetry. Vocabulary is hefty
Life, a cartload of days is from the penultimate poem , An Old Woman in
Winter - a seemingly simple title likely to be picked for school or anthology -
unlike the work preceding it, Four Kinds of Poet, in paragraphs
that analyse, oddly, the urge to write.
The very last item is typically dramatic yet transformational and lyrical,
headed Fourteen Druim chinoiseries:
'Druim House is in Nairn. Pluscarden Abbey is in
three witches near Forres.' Don't forget!
Without a copy of this book on your shelves, you are not a fully equipped
Scottish poet. Buy it. Pester Blackwells, or dial up Amazon, or send to the
publishers. Spend your entire month's book budget on it. You're supposed to
* there is at least one other ~
Orkney; Pictures and Poems
reader embarks on a voyage – which is how Mackay Brown himself saw his
work – through the elemental world of his cliff-girt, craggy isle.
volume is a testament to the inspiration of a distinctive poet who lived
on the margins yet saw into the centre.
George Mackay Brown
has added uniquely and steadfastly to the riches of poetry in English:
his sense of the world and his way with words are powerfully at one with
If it’s good enough
for Seamus Heaney, it’s good enough for you.