THERE’S a fine poet named GF Dutton who’s not much heard of these days but whose poetry I’ve always valued ever since Andrew Greig, who was then writer-in-residence, invited him to read at Glasgow University somewhere in the early 1980s, when I was working towards my PhD.

As I recollect, Geoffrey – GF – was an austere, tall, clipped-voiced and severe looking man and the poems were austere, clipped and severe as well.

But what I saw and heard then has stayed with me – a compassion that only comes through understatement, a valuing that is only possible without exaggeration or flamboyance.

An antidote to Christmas’s faux vulgarities. (“Faux” because vulgarity at its best is rude and healthy. All the populism of Christmas is exclusively commercial exploitation, not at all vulgar – a sophisticated torrent of carefully organised money-making.)

I’ve just come upon a poem I remember Dutton reading on that occasion but in a Scots language version which, since it is a Christmas poem of a kind, seems apt to quote here.

It’s entitled “Murlins” (first published in the magazine Lallans, issue number 40):

At Donald Street

she’ll pull the broun poke oot, thraw breid

til the dous on the caussie-syde.

The burds hae impiddent een,

the sun it’s ae cauld goave

frae caulder lifts

for Donald Street, Gorebrig, Craigleith –

whatever Scotland’s doun aneith

this nitherin Yuletide –

Butt o Lewis, Barra Heid,

Barvas whaur hir brithers dee’d,

blek stane o Cowdenbeath,

fauch touers o East Kilbride.

It struck me then and strikes me now as a shock: “whatever” Scotland lies beneath the cold sun and colder skies of Yuletide, from the northernmost to the southernmost points of the Outer Hebrides, from the ancient settlement of Barvas, on the Isle of Lewis (which in 2011 had the highest population of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, and where archaeology tells us people have lived at least since the early Bronze Age) to the white towers of the new town of East Kilbride (whose earliest people were also there in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age but which was largely redesigned and designated Scotland’s first “New Town” in 1947).

And a solitary woman in “Donald Street” is feeding bread to birds who look at her with impudent eyes.

The festive season is also the time of death and bereavement, surplus for some, poverty and more or less starvation for others, all in a country so badly mismanaged that the riches in abundance are denied and kept away.

The provenance of cold prevails. But those towers that maintain the status quo are like the towers of Ilium, built to fall.

The forces of establishment may have strengthened themselves in recent years and be inflicting damage on a scale resistance rises to oppose – nurses, teachers, railwaymen and women – but those lords and ladies in luxury towers are under the eye of that cold sun as well. And the light it sheds is more than astronomical.

The poem I quoted is from a new anthology, Sangs That Sing Sae Sweit: 50 Years o Lallans Poesie, edited by Derrick McClure, Elaine Morton and William Hershaw, a companion volume to Wunds That Blaw Sae Roch: 50 Years o Lallans Prose, edited by the same team.

Both are handsomely and durably produced by Grace Note Publications.

They are the two books I’d most like to give as presents to friends who might have the patience and the application to get the best from them – not as Christmas but as New Year gifts.

They aren’t to be grabbed at and unwrapped. Savour them. They point to the future and they carry and remind us of the best of what endures.

In that poem, for example, it’s not the misery and tribulation but the sense of the needed compassion that remains. The pathos of the human effort.

As the American poet Edward Dorn puts it: “Either we define our allegiances to certain honorific aspects of human nature or we don’t. Most of us know all the time that politics in poetry really amounts to enunciation. Politics in politics amounts to subterfuge, obscurantism, and hiding all you can.”

In other words, poetry is clear “enunciation”. Even obscure and difficult poems “enunciate” the meaningful, even when the meanings are hard to get at and hard to comprehend, and harder still to act upon.

POLITICS, by contrast, works by concealment and lies. So what are the “honorific aspects of being human” we should give our allegiances to? Well, the poems throughout this anthology suggest a range of them.

Edwin Morgan translates the great Italian poet Eugenio Montale in “Wind in the Crescent” – a rebuke to the presumptuous pietists of the season:

A birkie that wis preachin on the Crescent

speirit at me: “D’ye ken whaur Gode is?” I kent

and telt him. He shook his heid. I saw nae mair

o him in the wud wind that skelpit hooses and fowk

and gart them flee abuin the taurry daurk.

AM Davidson presents the sneering, scornful folk decrying

the spiritual, the miraculous proposition of Joseph, Mary and Jesus as “The weemin snichtert” at “that styte aboot a speerit / tellin er she’d be a Mither / without a bloke – / fegs! That’s a joke!” and point fingers at “the mealy-moud, sly strumpit!”

But Mary sat quate

wi her bairn at the door

an niver hid lookit

sae bonnie afore.

TS Law considers the “mixter-maxterie” that is “Oor Ain Folk” and notes that “as the guid o the genes comes oot in Johnnie or Jean” while “yeukie richtousness micht bigg a steeple”:

But it’s ill tae thole the blooter gin we’re kicked,

for lang or the Jews o eild were the Chosen People,

the Caledonian folk were Pict!

William Montgomerie gives us the beautiful “Sang o the Midwinter Rose”:

White rose o the deid year

deid year deid year

white rose o the deid year

white owl at noon

deid as I sall sune be deid

sune be deid sune be deid

deid as I sall sune be deid

as the white mune

Beginning with Sorley MacLean’s line, “I do not see the sense of my toil putting thoughts in a dying tongue”, Joy Hendry applies the sentiment to Scots, and in doing so, enacts, as MacLean did, a revival, a regeneration, a renaissance:

I dinnae see the mense o ma trauchle,

ettlin tae pou up frae the dub o history

a leid that’s nocht but a shadda

o the speak it yince wis.

When naebody kens an naebody cares

if they’ve tined a puckle here, ithers there

o the words their mithers spak,

letting the shilpit, gleg-gabbit Suddron

smool quaiet-like intae the mither tongue…

And she pushes this grim thought all the way through to the final conclusion, which is where the darkest days begin to reform themselves, with “a fowk that isnae a fowk” speaking “a leid that isnae a leid” in “a nation / that isnae a nation at aa” and declares, “it’s time tae gie ower. Whit can ye dae / wi a thrang o fules cursed by a deein tongue?”

And yet the whole poem and all the poems in the anthology – and a million more as well – testify that the leid is far from deein, and the flourishing of poetry in Scots continues.

I mentioned a fortnight ago that the annual McCash Scots Poetry Competition, run jointly by myself from the University of Glasgow and Lesley Duncan, poetry editor of The National’s newspaper cousin The Herald, is now open for submissions. This year a first prize of £200 and three runner-up prizes of £100 are to be won.

Poets can submit three original, as yet unpublished entries, up to 30 lines long.

They should be typed or handwritten legibly on A4 paper with address and contact details on the back, and sent to McCash Scots Poetry Competition, c/o Lesley Duncan, The Herald, 125 Fullarton Drive, Glasgow East Investment Park, Glasgow G32 8FG, to arrive by Burns Night, January 25, 2023.

The judges are Lesley, myself and Len Pennie, poet and Herald columnist.

One of the poems towards the end of Sangs That Sing Sae Sweit is Len Pennie’s celebrated “A’m No Having Children” (published in Lallans 98):

A’m no “having children,” A’m gonnae hae weans,

and ye can ask what A cry them, no “what are their names?”

and they’ll be getting a piece, no a wee “packed lunch”,

and they’ll be haein a scran, no “having a munch”…

A’m no “having children”, A’m gonnae hae weans,

wi a prood ancient language crammed in their wee brains,

an whenever life tells them their “English is bad,”

A’ll tell them the hassles that their mammy had…

The energy, defiance, delight and determination are palpable and lovely, healthy, contagious, full of life-giving smeddum.

The anthology collects poems from a selection of 99 issues and 50 years of the magazine’s publication, names you’ll have heard of and some you’ll have not, from regions and territories of Scotland at all points of the compass.

There are many treasures.

EM Buchanan repudiates the “Christmas card, wi its gowd-limned edge / its sweetie pinks and its bonnie blues” and talks of “a dool winter” and “hard-nebbed faces” telling us, “Nae room here! Awa doon the road!”

It’s only fair to think of certain politicians and desperate migrants, hopeful for respite. Or similar politicians, and working people, hopeful for a living wage. Or similar politicians, and a nation’s people, wanting independence, to try to make a better country.

If I’m reading the Christmas story as a metaphor, I have good precedent.

As noted in his biography by Byron Rogers, in an interview given in his 87th year, the Welsh poet and clergyman RS Thomas was asked by a journalist from The Daily Telegraph what sort of God he believed in and replied: “He’s a poet who sang creation [and] He’s also an intellect with an ultra-mathematical mind, who formed the entire universe in it.”

FURTHER, in a TV film of 1972, Thomas said this: “The message of the New Testament is poetry. Christ was a poet, the resurrection is a metaphor; and I feel perfectly within my rights in approaching my whole vocation as a priest and preacher as one who is to present poetry.”

And he elaborated on this, saying that the disciples, 2000 years ago, “experienced something” and then had to “convey it by means of manuscripts, or whatever they used, in language. And we have to take their account in language, but there are aspects of language which are most successfully conveyed by metaphor, and the risen Christ, the resurrection, to me, as I said, is metaphor. It’s an attempt to convey an experience of a kind of new life, an eruption of the deity into ordinary life, a lifting up of ordinary life into a higher level ...”

And that’s also why the poems in Sangs That Sing Sae Sweet are worth going back to. JK Annand, the first editor of the magazine the poems come from, has this one, “Snaw Faw”:

Winter’s here owre early,

It’s snawin cats and dugs,

The road is smoorit fairly,

Hailstanes clour my lugs.

His house is old and beginning to fall apart, his room is cold and getting colder, and all he can do is ask his “lassie” to take pity on him and “Tak me til your bosie, / And fleg cauld winter hyne.”

The human holding, the personal embrace, the warmth of living contact, all the things almost all of our politicians and most of our mass media are set against and try to expunge, are enunciated with clear preference here.

In Jean Massie’s poem “Wrack an Waith”, the whaups (or peewits) have to dig deep with their long beaks to find the “saicret treasurs” and “tastie bitties”.

But sometimes, the loss is permanent and there is no return. John Manson’s translation of the Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira (1886-1968) touches on this:

Ma foundness

For deid burds;

For peedie speeders.

My foundness

For the wemen wha were aince

Sic bonnie lassies and grew up sour as whig;

For the wemen wha wir aince sae braw

And juist left aff.

For the wemen wha loed me

And I cudna loe.

Ma foundness

For aa the poems I niver feenished.

As well as these poems in Scots, I’ve recently been reading Greek tragedies again.

They’re especially uplifting as the new year approaches – how fear and hope should be understood together, as we come once more to the very edge of things.

If Len Pennie’s poem looks forward to a day when Scots is unembarrassed and flourishing and Joy Hendry’s reminds us of the opposition that is always out there, trying to kill life off, and John Manson’s version of Bandeira insists that some things do die, and when they die, in all our mortal understanding, it is forever, then the Greek tragedies keep us out of the doldrums of mere acceptance.

We who are surviving always have work to do. And that returns us to Ed Dorn’s judgement I started with. You remember it?

“Either we define our allegiances to certain honorific aspects of human nature or we don’t. Most of us know all the time that politics in poetry really amounts to enunciation. Politics in politics amounts to subterfuge, obscurantism, and hiding all you can.”

Poets will learn. Good ones always do. Politicians should do better.