- Selected Poetry, and: To Circumjack MacDiarmid: The Poetry and Prose of Hugh MacDiarmid, and: Hugh MacDiarmid: Man And Poet
Probably it is faintly absurd to review MacDiarmid in 1994 unless, like me, one has only recently engaged the work with any seriousness and feels rather as if while sailing along he had come across a titanic iceberg and was obliged to answer the questions of how it came to be and whether or not it would force the ship to change course. Like most American poetry critics, for me MacDiarmid has been for a long time a name rather than a presence, a famously [End Page 286] eccentric bundle of contradictions, hero of a Scottish modernism that seemed too marginal to bother much about. If one were tempted to venture past the one long poem that most readers likely will begin with, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), there are some two thousand pages of poetry, much of it hard to find in any final or, as they say, “authorized” edition. And that is just the beginning: tallying up the journalism, criticism, autobiographies, translations, and fiction is a formidable task, as the man wrote enough to sustain a small paper mill. In Scotland at least, the critical literature is also substantial, and I cannot pretend to know very much of it beyond the work of Kenneth Buthlay and Alan Bold; the late Harvey Oxenhorn, an American, wrote a valuable and slightly contentious book, Elemental Things, from a New Critical perspective.
Confronted by this gigantic body of work, the first question for me is not the one that quite understandably preoccupies the Scots poet and critic W. N. Herbert—that is, whether or not we can identify continuities in the massive output Christopher Murray Grieve published under the pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid—but rather what use at all MacDiarmid might be now to American scholars, critics, and writers. And having struggled with this work for awhile I think that his use might be both considerable and various. MacDiarmid had reason to think about questions of language and national identity, and scholars working in postcolonial literature and theory will ignore MacDiarmid at their peril. Perhaps MacDiarmid’s work raises questions less pressing than, say, the work of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, who in some ways is very much like him. Still, MacDiarmid was out in front of us in thinking about Anglocentrism, and there are lessons to be learned in figuring out how a poet capable of the most severe criticism of his Scottish contemporaries could ultimately emerge as a kind of national poet. It is as if Ezra Pound were to be pronounced our national poet for having spent a lifetime attacking our provincialism in the name of Europe and China and some ideal America. There is a complex relationship between nationalism and internationalism in MacDiarmid’s work, together with a range of reference and reading that makes the prose of many of our so-called multiculturalists seem insular by comparison. One must learn to stomach the nonsense that is part of MacDiarmid—claims about the origins of Scottish civilization being in Georgia (birthplace of Stalin), other promises about the Soviets representing a future synthesis of East and West.
Practicing poets as well as scholars of modernism and postmodernism might find in MacDiarmid’s long poems in English—if that is the word for their synthetic, resistant, and inoppugnable idiom laced with difficult and sometimes strangely musical scientisms—an alternative to the poetry of Pound and his disciples on the one hand and to Stein and hers on the other. MacDiarmid’s long poems in English, most of which seem to have been intended as sections of one long poem of some twenty thousand lines that was to have...