21 January 2011

La Corbie, the Scottish Makar...

I've come to the conclusion that my poetry education in secondary school was hopelessly, even absurdly, old fashioned. Hardly touching the modern masters of  form and verse and sentiment, there was nary a Scottish iambic foot to be seen in our jotters and text, save for the odd scrap of MacCaig and the occasional, seasonal resort to a bit of Burns. Our staples were bundles of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. As a result, I find myself singularly ill-equipped to respond in a reflective way to the news that Liz Lochhead is to replace Edwin Morgan as the Scots national "Makar".

By contrast, I'm much more familiar with her playwriting. While exceedingly keen on Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987), recently reinvigorated and re-staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, I'm more ambivalent about Lochhead's whole canon and trademark burlesque Scottifications of the work of Molière. However, it seems appropriate to honour the moment of her appointment with a piece of her writing. Over at Scots Whay Hae, Alistair Braidwood has written a piece including two of his favourite Lochhead poems "Sorting through" and "Opening with the closing". He writes:

"There may be other poets who you prefer. I tend to read Don Patterson more than I do Liz Lochhead these days, but this appointment is not about who is someone's favourite, it's about who is best placed to represent Scotland in poetry and, through that poetry, to promote Scotland to others and to itself. It is this that makes Liz the perfect choice. I raise a glass to her and hope you'll do the same."

For my own part, I wanted to quote more extensively from La Corbie's wonderfully lively prologue from Mary Queen of Scots, but my copy seems to have gone a-wandering and because it is a (relatively) recent work, it isn't available in full online. At any rate, here's the opening cark-caw of Lochhead's inspired, ragbag half-crow narrator...

La Corbie:

Country: Scotland. Whit like is it?
It’s a peatbog, it’s a daurk forest.
It’s a cauldron o’ lye, a saltpan or a coal mine.
If you’re gey lucky it’s a bricht bere meadow or a park o’ kye.
Or mibbe... it’s a field o’ stanes.
It’s a tenement or a merchant’s ha’.
It’s a hure hoose or a humble cot. Princes Street or Paddy’s Merkit.
It’s a fistfu’ o’ fish or a pickle o’ oatmeal.
It’s a queen’s banquet o’ roast meats and junketts.
It depends. It depends ... Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is.
Here ’smines.
National flower: the thistle.
National pastime: nostalgia.
National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow.
National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi!
How me? Eh? Eh? Eh? Voice like a choked laugh.
Ragbag o’a burd in ma black duds, a’ angles and elbows and broken oxter feathers, black beady een in ma executioner’s hood.
No braw, but Ah think Ah ha’e a sort of black glamour.

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