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.