Selected Poetry: Hugh MacDiarmid

Scotland has a long and distinguished verse tradition somewhat enfeebled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by servile imitations of the great Robert Burns but revitalized by a man worthy of comparison with Burns and of inclusion in the ranks of his own great contemporaries such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Wallace Stevens, and T. S. Eliot. SELECTED POETRY should serve to acquaint a wider range of readers with a poet who will repay them handsomely for their attention.

Alan Riach and Michael Grieve, the latter the son of MacDiarmid (who was born Christopher Murray Grieve in 1892), have made a judicious selection of the poet’s work over a half-century span. MacDiarmid’s work is presented chronologically, most of the first half of the book consisting of Scots dialect poems. At first glance these may seem difficult, but having once caught on to the dialect (and the editors have furnished glosses of the more unusual words at the bottom of each page), the reader will have little trouble understanding MacDiarmid’s robust verse.

Especially outstanding is his long 1926 poem—actually a sequence of individual lyrics—A DRUNK MAN LOOKS AT THE THISTLE. Supposedly the reflections of a drunken Scottish peasant on his way home from the pub, the poem is wildly comical and yet a profound meditation on the human condition.

The later standard English poems which dominate the second half of the volume demonstrate another side of this versatile poet. Less humorous and lyrical, more reflective and intellectual, they show MacDiarmid bent on avoiding repetition and exploring new poetic possibilities. The best of them will endure, but the quintessence of MacDiarmid is to be found in his Scots poems of the 1920’s and early 1930’s.