ALAN Riach starts with Macbeth  at his most cornered, trapped, and yet momentarily reflective, piercingly poignant, with nowhere to go except into violence, but then introduces a couple of contemporary poets who offer more tender possibilities and prospects …

I heard recently of a poet who currently happens to be the Minister for Culture of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, whose national constitution was guided by its most eminent poet.

Recently, there has been the International Poetry Festival of Medellin, Colombia, the largest such festival in the world, with audiences in the thousands, and the Poetry Festival in Caracas. 

My friend Gerry Loose, whose anthology I was talking about some months ago, has been working with the World Poetry Movement (WPM) as national co-ordinator for Scotland, acting as a kind of ambassador for the poetries of Scotland. The WPM, he tells me, is an association of poets in all continents, encompassing academics as well as poets and poetry festival directors, publishers and so on. 

There are great intercontinental exchanges, online and in person. But how many people know about this? Despite Gerry’s best efforts – and those of many others – we live in isolations, mass media makes silos, a world of dislocated groups and individuals is exactly what’s desired by the establishment – and by that word I mean not only political parties but almost all media as well.

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Think of it like this – there is a stratum of activity, or rather, there are strata of activity, distinctive, which we might call “public discourse”. Let’s say it includes all newspapers, TV, radio, online media, social media, broadcasting of all kinds, including films, mainstream Hollywood, specialist or “art house films”, local, amateur, national, and international. 

All these things are forms of articulation and to them we can add all the arts in whatever forms, literary, musical, visual, so forth. All these things articulate human experience, feeling and thought, by prioritising certain attitudes towards that experience, working from assumptions that inform the choices made in these articulations.

These choices might be political, psychological, geographical, linguistic – they could come from self-conscious determination or unconscious bias. That’s all the strata operating at any time all around the world in one large bandwidth.

Underneath the strata are people. Insofar as the strata are the articulation of people, their activities and those of people overlap. And there’s also common speech, what people say to each other, what we prioritise in our conversations, what we choose to talk about and what we do not talk about. The talk of the steamie – or the watercooler.

One of the most telling aspects of the run-up to the 2014 referendum was how little Unionists wanted to talk about the central question at all. But within people, underneath media articulation, so to speak, there are feelings and thoughts that are never articulated until they are put into specific forms – words, visualisations, musical structures.

And at that depth, at that level of unarticulated sensibility, many very strong emotions are forming and engaging with each other. At that depth, I’m certain, there is a far greater sense of the value of Scottish independence and an urge towards its achievement than anything in the strata of public media is articulating.

As long ago as 1958, William Barrett, in a book called Irrational Man, put it like this: “The machinery of communication makes possible the almost instantaneous conveying of news from one point on the globe to another. People read three or four editions of a daily paper, hear the news on the radio, or see tomorrow morning’s news on their television screen at night.

“Journalism has become a great god of the period, and gods have a way of ruthlessly and demonically taking over their servitors. In thus becoming a state of mind …journalism enables people to deal with life more and more at second hand. Information usually consists 
of half-truths …”

The situation has escalated vastly since then. So where are whole truths to be found? A good friend wrote to me recently with this thought about the closing, cataclysmic act of one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies: “I think Macbeth’s speech on the death of his wife is one of the most poignant pieces of writing ever.

“How do you say so much in so few words, when all you let yourself in for has gone so totally and utterly wrong, when you have just lost the woman who charged you with life, and when all that is left is mortal combat? But he says it and he says it for us all.”
You remember the speech? Macbeth’s “attending officer” Seyton approaches (his name can be pronounced “Satan”):

Seyton: The Queen, my lord, is dead.
Macbeth: She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

My friend commented on this: “‘There had been time for such a word ...’ Many in the Middle East might well be uttering those words.” And many in Ukraine.

And many in other parts of the world where such understanding is cancelled out and obliterated by action as the last resort, action encouraged by the overriding priorities of the profiteers, the arms manufacturers, the oppressors, a political world and a media that rigorously excludes all other forms of expression.

If there is one definable virtue in poetry and the arts that counters the ultimate oversimplification of life that is killing, this is it.

READ MORE: Alan Riach: The quest for distance

With that in mind, let me note an event this coming Thursday at Waterstones bookshop in Ayr at 7pm – a poetry reading to counter the brutalities we see all around us, in however modest a degree.

The National:

Here’s Carolyn O’Hara’s poem, “By Chance”: a simple encounter, leading to an act of kindness, a moment of touching, a reflection on the value of being with other people, and helping as we sometimes can:

Up ahead
a figure rounds the corner,
an alien silhouette
encompassing wheels and angular legs.
Slowly the puzzle is resolved:
an elderly woman trailing trolley and bags,
clutches a small table,
its dark wooden limbs
making good its escape from
the carrier bag stretched pointlessly over its top.
Her each step is a feat.
Rain hat pulled low over silvery curls,
its ties dissect folds of neck;
a slash of red lips
below rheumy eyes
punctuate her parchment pallor.
“Can I give you a hand?”
Across her face splashes
a cocktail of emotions
settling into startled relief 
at my offer,
and so, with mutual baby steps, we journey slowly homeward,
her bound legs
sausage-like in shape and hue.
We begin to blether,
exchanging glances and snippets –
our shared neighbourhood;
the similarity of our names;
the duration of her life, alone;
the table –
newly purchased for a pittance,
just the thing, in time for tea.
With rasping breath
final stairs are mounted
and fumbled keys open wide the door to home
where the precious table is safely stowed.
Now, for me, the hardest part:
to leave amid a shower of thanks,
confirming isolation so intense
that such an act,
should “make” her lonely day.

There’s a world of kindness in that phrase “our shared neighbourhood” and the poem, in its modest, unassuming, unpretentious way, celebrates it, mightily. Carolyn, formerly an English teacher, is a social history researcher and author of the book Oculeus, exploring life in Ayrshire in the era of her great-grandfather, in 1898 

Another poem, simply entitled “Change”, gives us a seashore, a landscape of hills behind us, mist coming in, people, sharing the warmth of company and their own defence against the season’s cold, which comes in all the same, “stealing smiles” as the merriness of being among others “melts away”, while further off, “Windows close. / Jackets zip. / Movements freeze.”

Ian Robertson, formerly director of Scottish Opera and chairman of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow, has a poem entitled “The Partridges” which begins with similarly innocuous and unpretentious matter-of-factness: “We sat / Drinking coffee in the sun / Talking of beaches, and how to get there / Watching the partridges / Not wheeling in the sky / But nursing each other in a cage”. 
The cage pretends to be golden and sumptuous but it’s painted a crude yellow and is only one foot square, so the birds might try courageously “To be free, / To fly” but they’re stuck in the cage, their “red bald legs / Covered in flies.”

The observers of the scene go off to the beach and swim and return in the evening to sit in the shade and look at the cage again, wondering through the gathering gloom “What had happened there.”

It’s an oblique, unelaborated, observational poem where the tone carries more meaning than anything explicit. We remain at a distance, wondering, like the poet, just what it was we’ve witnessed.

In another poem, “The Tricycle”, Robertson describes an exchange of smiles between two friends and a hovering on the possibility of one of those smiles, passed from the younger towards the older person, being a “cruel smile / Of comprehension”. Again, it’s what’s unspoken, under the surface of what’s visible, that counts.

Simon Lamb, poet, performer, storyteller, writer-in-residence at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and author of A Passing On of Shells: 50 Fifty-Word Poems, described as “entertaining and profound” in the Sunday Times and “inspirational” in the Daily Mail, gives us a poem on the Poet’s Path in Alloway, which takes you from Burns’s Cottage to the museum, 
and then back again. Here it is, 

“On Poet’s Path”:

The morning thistle cracks the planet’s skin,
and Poet ploughs a furrow in the earth:
a flash of red emerges from within,
with words as witness to a vulpine birth.
This chieftain runs where other foxes ran,
through legacy begat at Poet’s house:
where else, but writ, could mouse become a man,
and, by extension, man become a mouse?
The path extends from den to death and on,
where, finding freedom, fox gives way to fox.
With liberty regained, the flash is gone,
and who shall be our poet now?
The clocks
are chiming. Here’s the passing of a pen.
The Earth spins on. The path begins, again.

There’s the everyday pleasure and delight in simply walking such a path, accurately, gently and quietly but brilliantly and pleasurably evoked. 

Simon’s “Sonnet: Brig o’ Doon” stays in the familiar territory of Alloway and the Burns country and evokes the arched bridge across which Tam o’ Shanter was carried by his brave and terrified horse Meg.

It sets itself in autumn, and at the scramble at a wedding at the Brigadoon House Hotel a young child “scoops a penny up / and holds it to the sun.” 

So far, so bright, but there’s more: “At night, they say, / you hear a ghostly hoof.”  There are “beaming teeth” (the gleeful child’s? the happy couple’s? the escaping horse’s? Tam’s?) but also, in the clear air of an unhaunted autumnal reality, looking over the bridge, “just beneath – yes, look! – / a fizzing plume of kingfisher! — See! — Gone.” And: 

The swallowed grins depart the bridge. The sun 
has swung itself beyond the day. The kid 
has not, is now a warlock with a stick, 
and held aloft he tries to bend the Doon. 
The river runs its course. A distant horse 
is heard. A stick is carried to the firth.

We are reminded once again that under the material realities are our imaginations. Underneath the strata of articulation, there are still unformed powers at work, taking shape, for better and for ill.

In a sense, this is a metaphor for the composition of poetry itself. My own poem, “Going Under the Bridge” starts with a prompt from the wonderful Peruvian poet César Vallejo but goes into a place that might be Ayrshire as much as Peru, or anywhere poetry takes place:

The words connect before they are real words
I gather what I think I need to guide them then and wait
I feel as though I’d want to write and want to write and wait
– You’re sitting on the port bow, waiting
returning towards the anchorage,
going under the bridge where the winds drop,
and it’s lie that, there, when you want to say so much,
when the sails are full of a guiding wind and suddenly
the wind drops
the bridge
is above you –
you cannot speak precisely of
co-ordinates that mean
the wind will drop exactly
there, no other place
or when. Nothing computes
as exactly
as that.
Cross-winds and currents, too
Impossible to guess –
You feel as though you’d want to write and want to write and wait
You feel as though there is so much you want to say and wait

The patient tenderness, the strength of application, the understanding of care and power that resides even within the most vulnerable things – perhaps especially within the most vulnerable things – is also there in Macbeth.

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It’s a play of cruelty and violence like few others but it’s also a play of birdsong and gentle nests, and a recognition of what people are capable of at their best, defending their own.

You remember when King Duncan and Banquo arrive at Macbeth’s Castle? Duncan says, “This castle has a pleasant seat; the air / Nimbly and sweetly lends itself / Unto our gentle senses.”

And Banquo replies:

“This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve
By his loved mansionry that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here. No jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendant cradle.
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed
The air is delicate.”

We know this is poignant and painful, if we know what will happen to Duncan and Banquo, but we also know there is a truth in it, and that truth comes again in Act IV, scene 2, when Lady Macduff reminds us that “the poor wren, / The most diminutive of birds, will fight, her young ones in her nest, against the owl.”

Thus are the battle lines drawn. Thus are depictions made of what it is we fight for.