poetry course Lumb Bank

A couple of weeks ago I did an Arvon course at Lumb Bank, which I found a very challenging, but ultimately extremely rewarding experience. It was very odd to be in a house with so many other people – even Nunraw, which isn’t silent or peaceful any more didn’t make the same sort of social demands. It was also odd to be with so many people taking poetry so very seriously. You’d think the Callander poetry Festival would be the same, but it isn’t – there’s a relaxed, festive atmosphere, something to do with so many of us being friends, or with the atmosphere Sally and Ian King create, which was quite different from Lumb Bank.

I don’t mean that it was competitive or pompous or elitist – on the contrary. Most of those who had been to Arvon weeks before remarked on how well we were getting on, and how nice everyone was. But it was very serious, and this was both strange and liberating compared with more mainstream environments where poetry is at best peripheral, if not downright irrelevant.

Being in what felt like a very foreign country, poetically speaking, did bring out major differences between the English and the Scottish poetry scene. English poetry seems more high-brow – downright academic, in fact, at its worst, dreary, cold, contrived and cerebral. At its best it’s powerful, elegant and exquisite. It’s a sort of climax culture.From here it looks as if there’s a consensus about what they like and want from poetry, and they have evolved a system to make it more and more like that.

Scotland, on the other hand feels like second growth scrub. Lots of weeds, lots of vigour, much more diverse and sustainable, original, slightly renegade, very much more experimental. We have much more language to play with, more different kinds of publishers and readers, much more confidence – but we could do with a bit more intellectual rigour. We have stopped looking to England for approval quite so much, and the independent voice is coming through, but our poetry needs the sort of development that traditional music has had – an awareness of the enormous potential within the form, a respect for craftsmanship and technique, and a refusal to settle for less than the best.

7 Comments

  • That’s an interesting comparison between English and Scottish contemporary poetry. I think there is diversity in English poetry, though this may not always be what’s actively encouraged by the main powers it is there.

    I teach Arvon courses and I know what you mean about the intensity of the social aspect. Lumb Bank is lovely in the summer.

  • You are quite right, Pascal – the best of the best always transcend generalisations, and I’ve had the equivalent comment from the Scottish side, too, on Facebook. I think it’s a question of dynamic; the English scene stresses originality, but they all have to be original in the same way, and while the finish is excellent, the heart and senses appear to be getting edited out. Only poetry usually manages to deal with that problem sooner or later.

  • Mairi says:

    I’ve been reading Don Paterson lately. The Scots have plenty of homegrown examples to base the kind of development you’re looking for on. Both traditional and contemporary. And you’re right about the language. All of English and Scots on top of it. It does seem an unfair advantage.

  • About the England/Scotland divide. I live in Dumfries and Galloway so I read as often in Cumbria as in D&G – that experience makes me wonder if it’s a south of England thing to be more cerebral, or perhaps a city thing (including Glasgow and Ednburgh and St Andrews) – I find many Cumbrian poets original and passionate; perhaps it’s engaging with the landscape and a growing sense of ecological concerns that empowers their work – less likely to be directly experienced in the city ?

  • Rachel Fox says:

    “…they all have to be original in the same way”… you made me laugh there! When I first started following poetry world in any sense (other than just as a random reader) that did very much seem to be the case (and I was in England at the time…I’m not now). I sometimes still feel it – for example when someone wins a prize and all the words used are ‘original’ and ‘groundbreaking’ and I read the poem and think ‘breaking that ground…again?’ But they mean well.
    x

  • Jasmine says:

    Thank you for your description of a poetry course. I’ve considered taking one. I’m English, but the Scots refer to me as a Scot with my brains kicked out 🙂 The legay of Newcastle!

    I know what you mean about high brow vs poetry from the heart. Sometimes I write poetry. It often feels clumsy. In fact I feel I have only written one good poem, but that was criticized where others of lesser quality were embraced…

    Its difficult to know.

  • Thank you for the comments everyone!

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