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Nationalism, Nasties and Numismatics

22/06/2007

I want to respond in more detail to a couple of the comments on my post about the first part of Yang-May Ooi‘s interview with Rob Mackenzie (the second part of which is now available). Ms Baroque (aka Katy EvansBush) commented:

“the idea of nationalist poetry sounds disturbingly stalinist these days.”

Three things bother me about that statement. The first is the slide from a national poetry to a nationalist poetry. The second is, in essence, what bothered me about the phrase “Scottish poetry” in the original interview, namely: what does it mean? The third is the equation of nationalism with extremism and repression.

Scotland is a nation, not just a region–just not a nation state. As such, it has a national poetry. Of course, it would be foolish to pretend that this poetry is entirely sepearate from British poetry and English (sic) literature as a whole, but there are distinctive characteristics to Scottish poetry, not only linguistically but thematically. Part of the latter is a concern about Scottish identity. I can’t think of an equivalent concern in English poetry*, though I could be wrong about that.

It seems to me that Yang-May was asking Rob about where he would place his work in relation to the notion of a national poetry, whether Scottish or British**. It leaves me asking why Ms Baroque felt the need to invoke nationalism and equate it with Stalinism (answers on an e-card, please, Ms B!).

Let’s interrogate possible meanings of the concept nationalist poetry. What could it be? The most obvious answer is a poetry that supports nationalism. But then we have to ask whether we’re talking political nationalism, cultural nationalism or both.

If we’re talking political nationalism, what hue? There are right and left-wing expressions of nationalism. Unfortunately, it seems the right-wing nationalism is often aggressive, voluble and therefore taken to be with the whole story. One thinks immediately of the BNP, the Balkans and various of the struggles in the Middle East. One might also think of an old-school Tory my-country-right-or-wrong, for-King-and-country jingoism.

But they’re not the whole story. Whether we’re talking political or cultural nationalism, or a nationalism of the left or the right, one of the crucial points is whether it’s a nationalism of grudge, hatred and exclusion or friendship, celebration and optimism. Many Scots are comfortable with being part of a mongrel nation, to use a phrase that William McIlvanney famously employed positively of Scotland in 1992.

This is not to deny the sectarianism rife in the central belt of Scotland, that there is racism in Scotland or that there are anti-English elements in the Scottish nationalist movement. It’s a sad fact of human nature that such prejudices exist in any population (and must be resisted) regardless of the presence or absence of a nationalist movement. For all they are problems in Scotland, we have not only some fine counter-examples but a counter-tradition.

This brings me back to poetry, thankfully! To me, the poem that best sums up why (Scottish) nationalism is not a great Stalinist evil is “The Coin” from Edwin Morgan’s sequence Sonnets from Scotland, written after the failed 1979 referendum. I couldn’t find a satisfactory link, so here it is:

We brushed the dirt off, held it to the light.
The obverse showed us Scotland, and the head
of a red deer; the antler-glint had fled
but the fine cut could still be felt. All right:
we turned it over, read easily One Pound,
but then the shock of Latin, like a gloss,
Respublica Scotorum, sent across
such ages as we guessed but never found
at the worn edge where once the date had been
and where as many fingers had gripped hard
as hopes their silent race had lost or gained.
The marshy scurf crept up to our machine,
sucked at our boots. Yet nothing seemed ill-starred.
And least of all the realm the coin contained.

Of course, I’ve already invoked Morgan as a good Scottish internationalist. It’s the all-embracing optimism of that closure (“nothing seemed ill-starred”) that strikes and excites me every time I read it. That’s the nation of “A Man’s A Man for A’ That“, Joseph Knight or the grassroots campaign to prevent Sakchai Makao’s deportation. That’s a nation that can be nationalist without being jingoistic and a nation that its inhabitants can take pride in without, I hope, becoming proud.

*Of course, that concern probably sometimes comes out in the kind of “matter of Scotland” poem that has clear relatives in English writing. However, although there’s overlap I don’t think a poem about Scottish/English idenity the same as a matter of Scotland/England poem .

**National is one of those odd words in the UK that doesn’t quite know what it refers to. In Scotland, it tends to refer to Scotland; in England, it usually tries to refer to the whole of the UK but often basically refers to England, as in the phrase “the national news” or “the national press”, the news values of which which are in reality quite Anglocentric, if not metrocentric.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ms Baroque permalink
    23/06/2007 08:19

    Andrew, where did I say that? What was the context? I expect I was just spouting – I had a few similar kinds of conversations recently, in all probability I applied the terms from one conversation to another one.

    As a qualifier, I’ll just say that in these cases it is so often the nationalists, co-opting their country’s literature, who are the problem – not the literature itself!

    Argh, politics. It makes me tired.

  2. Andrew Philip permalink
    23/06/2007 08:52

    You said it here. The context was my first “What is Scottish Poetry?” post.

    As for nationalists co-opting a country’s literature, there is a strong current of nationalism among Scottish writers, as the Edwin Morgan poem shows. But I was amused at the SNP MSPs’ choice of buttonhole for the first day of the Scottish Parliament’s new session. In a nod to MacDiarmid’s:

    The rose of all the world is not for me
    I want for my part
    Only the little white rose of Scotland
    That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.

    they wore whopping great muckle white roses, as this photo shows.

  3. Ms Baroque permalink
    23/06/2007 10:39

    Hmm, well maybe there were some even bigger ones available. You get anything, these days!

    Anyway, dont mind me. As you were.

  4. Andrew Philip permalink
    23/06/2007 11:28

    Ah, but minding is what makes it fun!

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