Andrew Roberts, Professor of Modern Literature at the University of Dundee, introduces one of the finest contemporary Scottish poets and a major  and unique accomplishment – The Auchensale Trilogy by Jim Carruth.

THE Guardian newspaper once memorably described St Andrews as “a remote town nestling in the Scottish highlands”.

Leaving aside the hazy geography, this made me think about perspective – remote from where?

It was in St Andrews that I first encountered the poetry of Jim Carruth, the poet laureate of Glasgow and, one might say, of Scottish farming life.

The arresting and entertaining concrete (shaped) and “found” poems of Carruth’s collection Cowpit Yowe were exhibited on the walls of the (appropriately named) Byre Theatre in St Andrews as part of the 2009 annual StAnza Poetry Festival. Carruth has become a stalwart of the festival and for some reason is usually the first person I run into.

Rather like the swallow announcing spring, if I see Jim hurrying across South Street, it’s a sign that StAnza has started.

Perspective is crucial in William Wordsworth’s lyrical poem “The Solitary Reaper”. You could say it’s a poem about agricultural labour – the poet sees a young woman “single in the field” singing “a melancholy strain” as she “cuts and binds the grain”.

He puzzles over the meaning of her song – presumably it is in Gaelic – so it is also an attempt to guess what her perspective might be, what feelings are expressed in her song.

But in the end the poem is about the beauty of the song, and how it made the poet feel: “The music in my heart I bore / Long after it was heard no more”.

The price of grain, or how to maintain the edge of a scythe, don’t make an appearance. The “solitary Highland Lass” is made exotic by comparing her song to a nightingale in Arabia or a cuckoo in “the farthest Hebrides” (again, it depends where you are starting from).

Carruth, who was brought up on a dairy farm near Kilbarchan, and retains strong family ties to farming, has made the main subject of his poetry the farming life, its demands, pleasures and pains.

These themes run through his substantial body of work, from the early Bovine Pastoral and High Auchensale (named after the family’s farm), through the remarkably gripping condensed novel in verse Killochries up to the present.

His new volume of poetry, Far Field (2023), completes The Auchensale Trilogy, following on from Bale Fire (2019) and Black Cart (2017).

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In many ways Carruth’s poetry feels like an integrated whole. His focus on farming is humorously referenced in Black Cart when he quotes from the editor of a poetry journal, writing “don’t send me any more cow poems” – to which he responds “how can I possibly stop now?”

Carruth’s poem “Scythe” (from Far Field) isn’t about cows but it is about scything weeds to clear fields. Like Wordsworth’s poem, it registers the poet’s feelings but here it is the poet himself (or his persona) wielding the scythe, and the physicality of the work and the material qualities of the tool are crucial aspects of that feeling and its representation.

His anger (we don’t know the cause) subsides gradually as he becomes “at one with the task”.

Rural life and agricultural labour have been themes for poetry since ancient times and Carruth places himself in this tradition. Cowpit Yowe had an epigraph from the Greek poet Hesiod, whose epic Works and Days, written in the eighth century BC, is in part a treatise on agriculture.

The Roman poet Virgil (who provides epigraphs for the three sections of Carruth’s Black Cart), lists farm implements in his Georgics, but is also one of the sources for the pastoral tradition in poetry, which tends towards an idealisation of rural life, with portraits of shepherds and nymphs inhabiting a golden age of plenty and pleasure.

In the 20th century, the English poet Ted Hughes (who worked for a time on a West Country farm) went the other way, stressing the blood, guts and struggle of farming life in his sequence Moortown.

For the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, farming is mostly a matter of childhood memories and sense impressions.

Scotland’s national poet Burns could celebrate farm work in a poem like “The Ploughman’s Life” (“There’s nae life like the ploughman’s in the month o’ sweet May”) but could also criticise the failings of the pastoral genre in the wrong hands with characteristic sophistication in “Poem on Pastoral Poetry”: “Hail, Poesie! thou Nymph reserv’d! / In chase o’ thee, what crowds hae swerv’d / Frae common sense”.

Authenticity is the word which comes to mind with Carruth’s poems. It’s a tricky term of course, easily misused. Here it is a matter of imaginatively shaping lives, values and places on the basis of intimate, lived knowledge and experience.

But also of questioning what it means to put such things into published lines of poetry.

The opening poems of Far Field achieve such questioning by referencing visual art, in particular the work of the Glasgow Boys. “Landscape with Cattle” borrows its title from Joseph Crawhall’s painting (1883-85), in which the horizon out at sea, the edge of the land and the roofs of cottages are echoed by, but also contrasted with, two white cows in the foreground, with almost straight backs and curving flanks.

The painting evokes a scene and an atmosphere but also creates an intricate composition of colour and line. The land, as worked, felt, loved, perhaps sometimes hated and often struggled with by the farmer, is central to Carruth’s poetry.

When land becomes landscape in the vision of an artist, what is lost and gained?

Carruth’s “Landscape with Cattle” speaks of perspective, literal and metaphorical, and of “the artist” (whether painter or poet) repeatedly amending his work, “struggling with the scale of the task in hand”.

“A Hind’s Daughter”, based on an 1883 painting by James Guthrie, gives voice to its mute subject, a young farm girl standing in a cabbage field in the Berwickshire village of Cockburnspath.

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Fed up with standing in the cold east wind for little reward, the girl, like the urban artist’s model in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Standing Female Nude”, feels misrepresented, in “this painting that does not show me true”.

Guthrie’s painting is not an idealised portrayal – but can it be true to the experience of the girl?

The historian of Scottish art Murdo Macdonald, in his book Scottish Art (2000), comments that the painting shows the transformation of French influence in the Scottish context of the Glasgow School of the 1880s and “develops a direct language of oil paint in which marks of brush and palette knife are evident”.

How do we connect such matters of influence and technique to the sense of perspective and emotional truth? What truth means in representing farming life is crucial to Carruth’s achievement and concerns.

Who is looking, and from what point of view, and how do they represent what they see and feel?

There is a lot of sadness in The Auchensale Trilogy, and a fair amount of humour. There is common human sadness at the loss of parents and grandparents, and then a sadness which is both more specific and wider, aroused by the fading of certain ways of life.

There is indignation at social and economic injustices behind such fading and a degree of impatience at the incomprehension of some outsiders towards the demands and values of farming.

The elements of harshness and physicality in farming life, its inevitable proximity to birth and death are present, along with the humour of character and eccentricity.

The harshness is not relished (as Hughes does at times) but nor is it glossed over. Both sadness and humour are articulated through the work of a farm.

In one of the poignant elegies for parents and grandparents in Black Cart, the poet’s cherishing of last days with his mother, catching memories before they are gone, is compared to “bringing in the bales before the rain”.

In the sequence “Every Man his Own Cattle Doctor”, from Far Field, the care and management of cattle is humorously compared to a range of human experiences, feelings and relationships.

Carruth has always been interested in experimenting with forms and techniques. The poems of Cowpit Yowe use an ingenious range of patterns and procedures – lines in a gentle wave suggesting the revolving seasons of the year, “Rumination” in a circle “to be sung as a round”, “Words of Wisdom” scattered in fragments across the page until they finally coalesce into a line about an “outbye herd”.

In a departure from the farming theme, Grace Notes 1959 is also strongly visual poetry, with colours, patterns and shapes rendering some of the effects of jazz structure and improvisation.

The three volumes of the new trilogy are mostly free verse in lines. But the interest in formal shaping is still present, particularly in the structuring of the books through sections, each with a title, an epigraph, and footers – the words or phrases placed alone at the foot of each poem.

The footers have specific themes, including the names of fields, of farming families, or types of grasses, agricultural diseases and the parts of a cow. This adds to the weaving together of the poems and of the three volumes, into a single work.

Naming is important to Carruth.

In a 2009 interview he said: “I’ve always been interested in litany as a way of recording names as though that’s a way of keeping them safe.” The recent trilogy, and even Carruth’s work as a whole, can be seen as a sustained process of naming, recording and preserving, as well as imagining and re-imagining, personal and collective experience and memory, and a whole way of life.

As this suggests, community is a significant theme. Carruth is aware of its constraints as well as its comforts, reflected in an epigraph in Bale Fire from the American poet Wendell Berry, who observes that “the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives”.

Carruth also draws on myth, basing the “Home” section of Bale Fire on Homeric stories, offering a different perspective on the lives he depicts.

Current attempts to respond to the climate crisis, as well as social and economic injustice, often involve the rediscovery of methods and ways of life which were found in living memory, notably in Scottish rural and small-town life – stronger communities, more local resources and activities, more repair and reuse, more local food supplies, and perhaps a stronger feel for the ecological systems we inhabit and depend on.

Some of Carruth’s treatment of the farmer’s intimacy with the land, the values and practices passed on or rediscovered from earlier generations, brought to mind the book English Pastoral by the Lakeland farmer James Rebanks.

The author tells how he rediscovered elements of his grandfather’s methods in response to the economic and ecological crises affecting modern farming.

We find in Carruth’s poetry a striking combination of the traditional, the innovative and the contemporary. Rural life is an ancient topic for poetry, but his treatment of it, the nature of his involvement with it, are highly distinctive.

And his concerns with the changes and challenges of farming, while they invoke the past, are highly topical, given the ways in which climate change is leading to challenges and debates on land use, food security and economic justice.

I can’t do justice here to the range and wealth of the poetry in these three volumes. But please read the poem “Far Field” (above), included in Black Cart but providing the title for the latest volume.

It’s a poignant sequence of five poems in which a farmer goes, alone, to a distant field for consolation, mourning and questioning, with a sense of marking and being marked by the land, by the creatures and people on the farm.

Like all the best poems, it powerfully conveys something hard to grasp and impossible to summarise. Moving, gripping and entertaining, the poems of The Auchensale Trilogy are also a source of new understanding of a crucial part of Scottish life.