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Scotland on Sunday 19 April 2015

Skeletal Sermons in Stone from unlikely Makar of the metropolis
PERHAPS it’s the fault of some of the more romantic Romantics, but there’s a common misconception that pastoral poetry must always depict rural life in a hopelessly idealised way.

Even as early as 37 BC, though, pastoral poetry was telling it like it is – or, rather, was. In Virgil’s Eclogues we find poor old Meliboeus complaining that he has been turfed off his ancestral lands so they can be gifted to soldiers returning from a war. Now he’s wandering aimlessly with his flock, he says, on his way to the-gods-know-where. If things get really bad he might even end up living with the Brittani, “quite cut off from the whole world”.

Things are similarly grim for the shepherd at the centre of Killochries, a prose poem from Glasgow’s new poet laureate, Jim Carruth. His elderly mother is ill in bed (“She does not speak / presents only a vacant look”), and he has no sons or daughters to take over the running of the farm once he gets too old. Worse, his whole way of life seems to be disappearing, and the thought fills him with a deep, inexpressible grief. When he learns that a neighbouring farm has been bought for a country retreat, all he actually says is “Foriver lost / foriver lost” but “the tremor / in his voice / could be for / an ailing ewe / or a collie / kept at the vets / or grief at the death / of a close friend”.

The narrator of Killochries, a younger man and a poet, is a relative, sent from the city by his mother after suffering some kind of breakdown to live a simple, healthy country life in the hope that it will help to heal both body and mind. At first, the old shepherd treats this interloper with a mixture of gruff indifference and mild amusement, but as the seasons pass a bond develops between them. Their principal source of disagreement is religion – the shepherd is a believer, the poet is not – but their bad-tempered late night discussions finally lead them to a detente of sorts. It’s a testament to Carruth’s skills of characterisation that their relationship feels entirely three-dimensional, even though it is sketched with the utmost economy. Their parting, at the end of a full year together, is very much like the bittersweet moment when a child leaves home – not that either man would dare to admit any such bond.

Don Paterson once wrote that Scottish poets “excel at the anti-baroque: leaving words standing so sharp and stark and bold on the page that you can hear the wind whistle round them.” Carruth’s stanzas are so spare they feel almost skeletal at times, but the paring and whittling has been carefully, masterfully done. At one point, the narrator tries to explain the structure of a sonnet by reference to the building of a dry stone wall. The shepherd’s observation: “It’s the weygate spaces / that lat in the life” could well serve as a critique of Carruth’s style – he gives us the bare bones of a character, a scene or an idea, and leaves our imaginations to flesh out the rest.

Carruth grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Kilbarchan. That might make him seem an odd choice for Poet Laureate of a post-industrial city like Glasgow. But who better to puncture the myth of the pastoral idyll for unenlightened city dwellers than a man who so obviously understands both the hardships of the farming life, and its hard-won delights?

Roger Cox
Scotland on Sunday 19th April 2015

100 poets event – Scotsman review March 2007
StAnza poetry reading – Circumflex review March 2007
High Auchensale - Sphinx review August 2007
“Keeping it Green” – Holyrood Magazine December 2006

100 poets event – Scotsman review March 2007

Mainly short, mainly sweet; easy on emotions, easy on the beat...
Hungover at dawn, the poet looks up
A Skein of geese heading south
Hundred voices one arrow
Next year, he says, it will
Happen like that
Here in St Andrews
A hundred poets, one room.
THAT'S (sort of) the story StAnza's artistic director, Eleanor Livingston, told on Sunday about how the idea of Scotland's largest poetry gathering came to Jim Carruth, and of course it's suitably poetic, too.

An inspired idea, then, for the festival's last day. But could it be an organised one? A hundred poets, a hundred introductions, two minutes' reading each. Add pauses for applause, add poets going walkabout, and those no-shows snowed in snowed under. Add audience listlessness, listening fatigue and weigh crowd-pleasers and word-teasers against lost-love poets and poor readers.
The whole event was scheduled to take five and a half hours; oddly, and thanks largely to Carruth as a particularly brisk emcee, it did. Newsflash: poets turn out to be punctual after all.

But what kind of poetry? Mainly short, mainly sweet; easy on emotions, easy on the beat. From Dublin poet Tony Curtis's opening poem, surely never more apt, about a poetry Olympiad, to John Hegley's audience-involving turn or Eddie Gibbons's The Shopping News, that applied to a sizeable number of the 102 poets involved.

As that's too many to mention in a short review, I should only single out a few: Lorraine Mariner for her deadpan poem about breaking up with an imaginary boyfriend ("he knew what I was going to say/before I said it"); WN Herbert's gloriously rhythmic Bad Shaman Blues; and Andrew Greig's A Long Shot, which may well be the finest golfing love poem in the language.

None of this is to suggest that the five hours was devoted solely to easy entertainments. Penelope Shuttle read movingly about bereavement in The Repose of Baghdad, Andrew Jackson mixed The Song of Solomon and a report into the Abu Ghraib atrocities to devastating effect in Acts, and "Scottish Muslim Calvinist" Imtiaz Dharker reached similar depths with Honour Killing.

It was Alastair Reid, however, who provided a truly fiery finale. Back in 1971, he noted, he had lived in St Andrews, renting a cottage by the Old Course, across which he walked most mornings. On a sunny one, "the kind of spring day particular to that part of the planet", he met a woman from the fish shop.

Their conversation - in which, speaking about the good weather, she warns "We'll pay for it! We'll pay for it!" - turned into his poem Scotland with indecent ease. The poem has subsequently, he said, become fastened to him "like a ball and chain" and it was time to rid himself of it.

Taking from his pocket what he later insisted was the original of the poem, he then proceeded to burn it. A hundred poets cheered, and their gala reading - which ended, to everyone's surprise, absolutely on time, came to a dramatically successful conclusion.

• THE gathering of 100 poets to celebrate StAnza's tenth birthday recalled a much earlier gathering, the day in June 1965 when Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Trocchi and co took over the Albert Hall and filled it with languid chainsmoking children of the revolution.

Peter Whitehead's film of the event, Wholly Communion, shown as part of the StAnza 2007 programme, left us nostalgic for their idealism, though perhaps not all of their poetry. Nevertheless, the contribution made by poets to the world of film - celebrated in one of the main themes of this year's festival - tends to be of the highest quality. Writer Bernard MacLaverty has made a beautiful short film inspired by Seamus Heaney's poem Bye Child, while Mario Petrucci's compassionate poems about Chernobyl form the basis for David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky's tender, harrowing film, Half Life.

Poetry is a generous art form, feeding its inspiration willingly to artists in other fields. StAnza 2007 hosted the premiere of Drift o' Rain on Moorland Stane, a composition by visiting jazz professor Richard Ingham, inspired by the poetry of Marion Angus. It resisted setting the poems to music, preferring to use sound to create a landscape around them.

Singer-songwriter Michael Marra, on the other hand, was poetry in motion. His fine writing and offbeat imagination seemed completely at home in the context of StAnza, conjuring for us visions that crossed borders, artistically and geographically: Dr John in Blairgowrie; Bob Dylan in Edinburgh; Frida Kahlo in the Tay Bridge Bar, Dundee. Poetry can do that - cover long distances in a short time. In a few days in St Andrews, we went with Imtiaz Dharker to Bombay, with Jenny Daiches to Auschwitz, with Mark Strand on the New York subway, and with Ruth Padel to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. We also travelled in time, in the popular Dead Poet's sessions, to the worlds of Keats and Shelley, Manley Hopkins and Marvell.

And there were animals, too: cats from Alastair Reid, five dogs, two horses and a singing camel from Mark Strand, fire ants from Pascal Petit and a poem by Jane Yeh in the voice of the snowy owl in the Harry Potter films.

There were poems that made us smile and think, and poems that left us disturbed, puzzled or enlightened. And some poems so sad - such as Petrucci's monologue about a Chernobyl woman nursing her dying husband - that the audience was left holding its collective breath.

On Saturday night, courtesy of two of the country's finest performance poets, there was also laughter. Matt Harvey and John Hegley took us all the way from blancmange to bereavement.

As soon as Hegley stepped on stage at the Byre theatre, wielded his ukulele and said - in characteristic deadpan - "OK, St Andrews, let's rock," I knew that, while poetry is many things, the people at StAnza have not forgotten that one of them is fun.

Stanza poetry reading – Circumflex review March 2007

Spent last weekend, somewhat peripatetically, around the 10th St. Andrews Poetry festival – StAnZa – billed as Scotland’s poetry festival. Having managed to avoid St. Andrews for the first 49 years of my life I find myself visiting the town twice in a month [In the discourse no-one can hear you scream].
St. Andrew’s, particularly on the weekend, was awash with poets listening to one another poetising.

I understand Germaine Greer announced some time ago that poetry was dead as a literary form citing, as evidence, that more persons were registered as poets (for tax purposes) in the US than the print run of the biggest selling poetry books. The idea that the number of writers exceeds the number of readers is indicative of the death of a literary form (of expression) rather than it’s burgeoning health is puzzling. Though I’ve always been a great admirer of Gee-Gee, I do wonder whether she feels people aren’t taking enough time out to pay attention to her.

Poetry is obviously NOT a spectator sport – it is, it would seem, a game of turns. This aspect of the sub-culture was particularly evident at the excellent but strange 100 Poets Gathering on the Sunday, 100 poets, 3 minutes (ish) each – strutting – in some cases literally – their stuff. An wonderful taster session for the poetically ignorant – an opportunity to put faces to names and (given the poetic fish-tank that was St. Andrews for that weekend) names to faces.
StAnZa also seemed to be taking the opportunity to expose the benighted Scot’s to international influence – hence what seemed a puzzling shortage of Scots poets at the events. The big name Scots seemed absent – Burnside, Jamie, Leonard, Patterson, Robertson – Jackie Kay in conversation but shining most in short story and monologue.

There was a lot of monologue in evidence – protean voices – the spoken word as poem (i.e. tidied into verse) and therefore allowed to jerk through quaint demotic bergamasks in the genteel parlour. I am not convinced a dramatic monologue is a poem – even if it is constrained to rhyme or speak in 3-second bursts. I can never figure out if the performer is liberating the oppressed or taking the piss.
Compare and contrast, for example, Jenni Daiches, Daljit Nagra and Jim Carruth. Jenni Daiches poem cycle ‘Smoke’ is an excellent gentle meditation on the crimes of the 20th century, focussing on the German extermination camps of the 30s and 40s and the impact of that horror on surviving and succeeding generations. It is a beautiful dark work that left me with those wonderful splinters of imagery and sound that persist – ‘he cannot feel through fingers wrapped in rags’, a grandmother with a ‘head full of broken glass’. If I misquote from a week’s remove and one hearing, I am acknowledging the power and persistence of the words – and these are poems.

Narga’s work, in contrast, adopts a monologue form and exploits the freshness and fracture of English spoken (as though by) immigrant Punjabi’s – it celebrates the optimism and joy (jouissance perhaps) of striving, thriving Punjabi’s in a dialect of misunderstanding and slippery re-interpretation. It is a fresh, young and undaunted voice – and it fails to respect the struggle of its stolen masks – Daljit himself is not struggling with fragmented/ mescegnated language – Daljit is breaking language (breaking it anew) to offer us a vision of comic opera shop-keepers, honeymoon husbands, plump young wives…aw shucks! I can’t remember a single line. I remember caricatures.

Daiches would not, I think, claim to be speaking in protean voices – she is writing poetry. Narga claims an ancestral voice he has, in fact, slipped beyond – he mines his ‘heritage’ for amusements. And the theme of the unheard, marginal voice was carried over into the introduction of Jim Carruth’s work.
I did not know I knew of Jim Carruth. I had read one poem once – The man who hugged cows – and liked the poem and misplaced the poet.

Carruth writes real, deeply felt and understood poems from a point of view – a working rural point of view – not distinctively Scottish in economic or sub-cultural terms but Scottish in its landscape. Poems like Homecoming and Silence and Tapestry are beautiful, insightful and bitterly political poems celebrating and fiercely advocating a time, place and predicament. These people, marginal and central of the ‘life of the land’ as they are, are never not celebrated by the words. (My wife becomes a field is the most erotic poem I’ve read in a long while.) Having purchased (always a sign of something) 2 of Carruth’s published collections on the way out – Bovine Pastoral and High Auchensale – I thoroughly recommend the man’s voice – but it is not protean – it is authentic and it knows it is poetry

John Bolland Circumflex March 2007

High Auchensale - Sphinx review August 2007

Pastoral poetry often misses the point but in this handsomely produced chapbook Jim Carruth cuts straight to the true heart of life on the land.

In the opening poem, ‘Homecoming’, the poet drives towards the family farm after years abroad, realising that even for him the countryside has become something glimpsed from a motorway:

Strains of rye-grass are broad-brushed fields;
greens and yellows merged, at speed.
I want to learn again the art of careful detail.

And in the poems that follow, it’s Carruth’s eye for careful detail that brings High Auchensale to life.

The collection is divided into two parts. First is ‘The Well’, which holds memories of childhood on the farm. The idyllic picture of a country upbringing is here, certainly, but it’s balanced by the painfully compelling ‘Drowning Kittens’, and by ‘Tattie Howker’s Daughter:

I searched for words
to name you

and found them in
small hawk’s shadow

cob’s ragged mane
blaze of gorse

Life in a small community has its seamier side, and others name the girl “Filthy Midden Tink”.

The second section, ‘Whin Fields’, is set in the post-return present. Farmers who seemed immutable landmarks are old and frail; a new housing estate advances towards the farm at night; a terrified heifer is released onto the motorway. But barn owls still swoop silently over the fields, a stranded ewe is rescued to bear the new year’s lambs, and father and son reunite to bring in the cows:

Two voices in the failing light
calling out together.


Carruth’s unerring choice of imagery and his ability to tap the poignancy that underlies the everyday without resorting to sentimentality result here in a collection that’s sharp and tight, but at the same time beautiful and evocative. I will return to High Auchensale again and again.

Sarah Willans - Sphinx

“Keeping it Green” – Holyrood Magazine December 2006

Tuesday December 5th 2006

264 is the title of one of the poems in Jim Carruth’s new collection “High Auchensale” which was published by Ludovic Press last week. The poem relates his family’s half hearted quest, over a meal celebrating his farming father’s birthday, to work out what that figure announced “ in the middle of a conversation /.../ above the candles / and plastic tractor on his cake..” actually signifies. Total days it rained last year suggests one person. Number of cows left in the district suggests another. Acres or tonnage, cattle prices, milk yield, is the narrators’s guess. But no. As Carruth puts it at the end; “He doesn’t even answer / retires to a soft chair / sipping slow on a small whisky / while grandchildren play at his feet / asks me if I give up, and / after a while I do. / He smiles and whispers / Seasons in my life.

Elegiac wit, sharp observation and a wistful sense of regret are all elements that occur again and again in Jim Carruth’s work. His inaugural volume, “Bovine Pastoral , was published two years ago and it marked the emergence of a mature and highly distinctive poet who - as I wrote at the time - seems to me to have more affinity with modern Irish writers than with many modern Scottish ones, perhaps because of the centrality of rural and particularly agricultural life to his work. In fact it would be necessary to go back to Hogg to find a Scottish writer that was quite as steeped in the reality of working the land and quite as devoted to reflecting that occupation in such an accurate, but inspired, way.

For any writer a second book is always a challenge particularly if the first has been as well received as Bovine Pastoral achieving as it did the rare distinction of being noticed appreciatively not just in the national press, but also by Carruth’s creative peers. But “High Auchensale” fully lives up to expectations for it is intelligent and moving though it is also at times very sad. Without a doubt it confirms the fact that Jim Carruth is now one of the most effective and affecting Scottish poetic voices.

Most people in present day Scotland have only a tangential connection to the countryside and to those who work in it. Although we have a first minister who comes from rural farming stock (and who is a cousin of Jim Carruth’s) most of our national polity and national life is focussed on the urban and semi-urban sprawl that dominates the centre of our country and spreads down the west coast and up the east. The majority now live out of sight of farming and without much knowledge of farmers and their concerns. Axiomatically, therefore, Carruth brings something new, or only faintly remembered, to the cultural table.

But his talent is not just for observation and description. He mines, sometimes painfully and sometimes amusingly though always magically, the emotions of his circumstances and draws out of them lessons for us all. So he is not just a highly effective proponent of, and campaigner for, the agricultural sector and the history and traditions of farmers and farming. He is also ,and perhaps primarily, a channel by which we can feel and understand such things despite the fact that we have not experienced them ourselves. By so doing we then learn to appreciate them and are pricked by their loss.

Each poem in “High Auchensale” (which is divided into two - the first part features childhood reflections whilst the second deals with more recent issues) has the name of a field on the farm attached to it. This faint echo of the reality of the place, suggesting at times what each part was far and what happened in them ( there is a Bullspark, a Midden, a Hilltop and a Cartshed) acts as a highly effective counterpoint to both the words and the ideas that Carruth has crafted. Consequently there are times when - for example in the poem “Cowpit Yowe" - this sense of rooting in an actual landscape becomes so intense that one can almost touch and feel “in a marshy hollow / ..Hogmanay’s / diminishing light. “ and the sheep that has got stuck there whose “legs thin as kindling / signal a struggle / that slows in the sleet.“

Jim Carruth no longer lives on the farm, though he still helps his relatives out from time to time, and it is this message - the message that the vast majority of us are now exiles from our roots in the land and landscape - which comes across most powerfully of all. But Carruth gives it to us with hope. He always feels the electric thrill of reconnecting to the heritage that runs in his blood and he reassures us that if we do so (directly or through him) then we too can revitalise ourselves and our knowledge of what it is to be a living creature sharing this small part of the planet with other living creatures and doing so in a caring and (a contemporary word, but a relevant one ) sustainable way. For Jim Carruth’s way of seeing is authentically green - green without posturing or posing; green because we have a duty as stewards of what lies around us to care for it and pass it on. Green because the real conservationists are the people who get muck on their hands when working the land.

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