ON Wednesday at 6.30pm at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh, the “Folk-Song Flyting” between Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid will be presented by Corey Gibson and Alan Riach, chaired by Sandy Moffat. But what is a “Flyting”? And why bother with it today? Alan Riach explains.

Flyting is usually a dialogue between poets, either in verse or prose, where one hurls invective and abuse at the other in an entertaining manner and his or her opponent then responds appropriately. William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy in the late

15th century give an early example, and another is that of Alexander Montgomerie and Patrick Hume of Polwarth, from the late 16th century. This is how it begins:

Vyld venymous vipper, wanthreivinest of thingis,

Half ane elph, half ane aip, of nature denyit,

Thow flyttis and thow freittis, thou fartis and thow flingis;

Bot this bargane, unbeist, deir sall thou buy it.

Or in my own English imitation:

Vile venomous viper, most stunted of things,

Half goblin, half monkey, unnatural beast,

You leap, showing off, blasting farts, throwing flings;

But this deal, you monster, you’ll pay for at least!

In her edition of Montgomerie’s poems, Helena Shire gives selections from his account of Polwarth’s christening party, a Breughel-like phantasmagoria, ribald, Saturnalian, teetering on the edge of terror. Shire supplies a note after the third stanza: “Stanzas 4-7, a catalogue of diseases, are omitted” before resuming with stanza 8.

There are two kinds of flyting, one is playful, in which both practitioners know they are engaged in a competition of extremes. Linguistic energy, verbal precision, flamboyant rhetoric and wit are only some of the weapons put to use. In company, at parties, Norman MacCaig and Hugh MacDiarmid would sometimes launch into a flyting, starting with an occasional remark about a topic on which a response was sparked, escalating into a dazzling verbal display that might leave those present gasping.

A visiting poet once witnessed such an encounter and afterwards remarked that he thought they were about to come to blows, physical violence. MacCaig told me he replied: “No, not at all. He’s my best friend. We were just having some fun.”

The second type of flyting, though, is when it happens in deadly earnest. Tobias Smollett’s attack on Admiral Knowles landed him in prison. An equally enraged and indignant work is MacDiarmid’s book-length poem The Battle Continues (1957), written in response to Roy Campbell’s poem in praise of Franco and the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, Flowering Rifle (1939). MacDiarmid opposes Campbell by praising the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca and all he stood for. He addresses Lorca:

You will be remembered when your foes are forgotten.

On the one side the People; on the other

The vain titles and vicious wealth

Of a worthless few. Chartres versus Versailles!

MacDiarmid describes Campbell’s “typical reader”: “A stout man, walking with a waddle” who, with his “fat finger / Ticks off the feet in Campbell’s lines / ‘Left, right! Left, right!’” Then he turns on Campbell himself: “So you went for a soldier, did you, / Campbell? – a soldier in Spain? / The hero of a penny novelette / With the brain of a boy scout!”

Do certain politicians come to mind?

Politics is normally the provenance of slippery, sneaky, snaky evaders of direct questions, of organised and impenetrable self-congratulators or the unapproachably smug and affluent. Radical thinking makes a different politics, informed by irreverence, imagination, honesty and respect for what matters. It gets us to the fundamental things.

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This is what close reading helps us to do. Or close listening. And that’s what the Folk-Song Flyting between Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid was all about.

The National: Hamish HendersonHamish Henderson

In 1964, MacDiarmid engaged with Henderson in the letters pages of The Scotsman, back in the day when it was capable of publishing things of such quality! This was a public argument of extreme verbal flair and uninhibited opposition, clashing on the matter of the value of “folk song” as opposed to “high art” and classical music.

On March 7, MacDiarmid wrote: “The demand everywhere today is for higher intellectual levels. Why should we be concerned then with songs which reflect the educational limitations, the narrow lives, the poor literary abilities, of a peasantry we have happily outgrown?”

Henderson’s response was vigorous: “Mr MacDiarmid displays not the smallest comprehension of the difference between traditional song-poetry in the folk idiom and the lucubrations of minor or minimal scribblers who in every age are the dim also-rans of ‘art poetry’.”

And MacDiarmid replied: “At the present stage in human history, there are far more important things to do than bawl out folk songs …”

Henderson insisted on the value of “the continuing vitality” of the folk tradition, and that: “To oppose creative art to folk ‘interpretation’ is a false dichotomy.” This led them into an explosive exploration of polarities, with “working-class” and “bourgeois” representatives.

The National: Hugh MacDiarmidHugh MacDiarmid

In a world so controlled by authorities who sought to foster divisiveness, who knew the benefits of fragmentation, MacDiarmid and Henderson set out to explore the extremes, and see just how far the arguments could go. It might be said they were playing with fire – but oh, what brightness and sparks they could conjure!

Sparks come from friction. We forget this at our peril in a world given over to the politicos’ smooth facile platitudes and media’s meaningless mini-statements.

Contradiction gives purchase. In fact, 11 years before this flyting, MacDiarmid had firmly endorsed the virtues of the folk tradition in an essay entitled “To Hell with Culture” (1953): “I have known Edinburgh intimately for nearly half-a-century, and I could count the cultured Edinburgh citizens I have met in it on fewer than the fingers of one hand. Most of them are dead now.”

Nevertheless, he goes on: “I did meet certain really cultured people at the Festival time last year – at a concert that wasn’t on the official Festival programme. It was a ceilidh at which the programme was sustained by Gaelic and Lallans folk singers.

“There was a young boy from Turriff who sang like a lintie songs that had been orally transmitted for generations in his family. There was an old farm-wife of more than 70. There was a tramp singer who had been travelling the roads of Scotland all his days.”

He concludes: “It was one of the finest concerts I ever attended. The Scotsman and all the other papers didn’t print a word about it. These Scottish folk singers were real artists. Every one of them was culturally worth all the famous artistes, conductors, actors and actresses of the official festival 1000 times over.

“These folk singers will never be decorated or named to an academy. When their voices fail they will probably starve to death. But whenever you hear one of them singing you have there before you the aesthetic impulse of all times (genuine even if often on a merely elementary level) – and another exemplification of the way in which in Scotland we have bartered our birthright for a mess of commercialised cosmopolitan pottage.”

This polemic comes from a depth of experience of poverty, and of taking the social risk of integrity standing against an ethos of utter venality. It comes from a profound understanding of cultural value, internationally and historically. That, too, is MacDiarmid’s example. His contradictions are most frequently not an act of irresponsibility but rather an expression of his energy. And in this, Henderson understood and matched him brilliantly.

Plurality is the answer, within an independent Scotland, where the values of diversity, difference, opposition and affirmation cannot be dissolved.

The flyting shows us how the arguments have to be occupied, exercised and gone through before the recognition of the way so many different perspectives can inform each other gainfully. Thus Janácek, Bartók, FG Scott and Erik Chisholm might all come into a new configuration with traditional music and song.

Just as that tradition, so often composed and performed by women, forms the strengths and heart in Scott’s highly intellectualised solo piano pieces Intuitions, as well as in his settings of MacDiarmid, Burns, William Dunbar and other poets. This is the true meaning of “popular” – not commercially exploitative but “di essenza popolare” – essentially, of the people.

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When we open the maps to find the destination of a different Scotland, more democratic and less institutionally dominated, we know that even if the maps are wrong today, at least they show that the land is there. Whatever actually happens, or can be made to happen, change begins in the way you think about what might happen. That, also, is what literature helps us to do.

In his excellent book, The Voice of the People: Hamish Henderson and Scottish Cultural Politics (Edinburgh University Press, 2015), Corey Gibson writes of the complex friendship and contested territories between Henderson and MacDiarmid: “MacDiarmid encouraged Henderson to explore the precarious conceptual terrain between the political and philosophical reaches of poetry, and the actuality of the lives of the people.”

It’s this terrain Henderson’s writing occupies, and this is why it’s a lasting challenge to those who would wish more exclusively, one the one hand, for the aesthetic authority of literary accomplishment, or, on the other, for the vernacular currency of orality, the “carrying stream”.

At the heart of this question is the work of Antonio Gramsci, his writings on “popular culture” in which, as noted, “popular” means “of the people” rather than “generally consumed by customers” or “commercially successful”. The distinction is crucial. As Norman Douglas once said, anything which “fosters mental laziness” can “hardly fail to be popular and what is so popular as to bring in any amount of money can hardly fail to have all the advertisement of a good press”.

In all art, whether in the “folk tradition” or not, a degree of comfort and re-assurance can work with intellectual challenge and an invigorating use of the senses people share, but exploitation is the nemesis of the arts and our society.

Our politicians and mass media are so far distant from the lucid, passionate, articulate delights of the polemics of flyting that this RSA event should come as a refreshing example of what’s possible, beyond predictable expectation and crass convention. But come along and see for yourself.

Royal Scottish Academy (South Door Entrance), The Mound, Edinburgh, Hawthornden Lecture Theatre (£10, students £6). Doors open 6.30pm. Tickets available at www.royalscottishacademy.org/events/16-poets-on-the-attack-a-dramatic-re-enactment-of-hugh-macdiarmid-and-hamish