A Handsel: New & Collected Poems

Liz Lochhead

Polygon, £25

If you want to know what the Scottish literary scene was like for much of the second half of the last century, look no further than Alexander Moffat’s famous painting Poets’ Pub.

Featured in it are seven poets – Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan, Robert Garioch, Alan Bold and Hugh MacDiarmid, the undisputed leader of the pack.

Though completed in 1980, the painting evoked an era – the late 1950s and early 1960s – when women, not least women poets, were conspicuous by their absence.

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Change, however, was already in the ether. In 1972, a young woman from Motherwell called Liz Lochhead published her debut collection, Memo For Spring. Its opening poem was titled ‘Revelation’ and to readers used to the work of the aforementioned septuplet it was exactly that.

“I remember,” it opened, “once being shown the black bull/ when a child at the farm for eggs and milk./ They called him Bob – as though perhaps/ you could reduce a monster/ with the charm of a friendly name.”

Here at the outset was Lochhead’s now familiar voice; strong, confident, direct, plain-speaking, inviting. In the poems that followed we began to get a good sense of who the poet was and where she came from.

In such a male-dominated marketplace she spoke not only for women liberated by contraception but for a generation weaned on rock music and popular culture, especially the cinema.

Lochhead was an alumnus of Glasgow School of Art, which bred not only artists but writers and musicians and dramatists. Some of her early poems were dramatic monologues, demanding an audience as much as a readership.

Glasgow, moreover, was her beat, and Edinburgh a city as alien as Elsinore, as she underlined in ‘Poem On A Day Trip’: “It’s nice to go to Edinburgh./ Take the train in the opposite direction./ Passing through a hard land, a pitted/ and pockmarked, slag-scarred, scraped land.”

It is half a century since the publication of Memo For Spring and its inclusion in its entirety in A Handsel: New & Collected Poems is one of many causes for rejoicing.

Its author, now 75, is photographed on its cover, as glamorous as ever after all those years. Taking her cue from the Mersey Poets, Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten, she was early in her career often defined as a “performance” poet, which was not always a compliment.

What is indisputable, however, is that Lochhead introduced poetry to a new generation for whom until then reading poetry was no more appealing than a visit to the dentist.

She was particularly inspirational to women. Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie and Carol Ann Duffy have all acknowledged her role as a trailblazer. “Memo for Spring,” said Jamie, offered “a voice so fresh and relevant it broke new ground.”

Here were poems about a warrant sale, village eccentrics, beloved grandmothers and grandfathers, and of the contrast between her birthplace near Ravenscraig – “my hard-edged steel town” with its litter, stink and miserable weather – and Oxbridge, with its “backdrop of cricketers,/ punts on the river”.

The Herald: Liz Lochhead in 1995Liz Lochhead in 1995 (Image: free)

Over the years, as one slim collection followed another, Lochhead’s voice grew increasingly confident and distinctive. Her best poems have a gallus attitude, a bracing sense of place and an easy acquaintance with cultural history. She is drawn to fairytales, horror stories, bloody history and Greek myths, all of which she turns into her idiosyncratic idiom.

Humour is the opioid to which she is addicted and there are few poems in which it doesn’t figure. In ‘Rapunzstiltskin’, from The Grim Sisters (1981), she writes: “& just when our maiden had got/ good & used to her isolation,/ stopped daily expecting to be rescued,/ had come to almost love her tower,/ along comes This Prince/ with absolutely/ all the wrong answers.”

Given her educational background, it is not surprising that artists figure in many poems. “Which Great Scot,” she ponders in ‘A Wee Multitude of Questions for George Wylie’, “(pronouncedly Scottish) pronounces/Scul?ture/ most Scotchly with a question mark and a/ glottal stop?/ Who puts a question mark at the centre of everything?”

If public poems, such ‘Three Stanzas for Charles Rennie Mackintosh’, written on the centenary of the GSA, seem to me less successful, that is more to do with their origin in a commission.

The same might be said of a number of the poems written when Lochhead was Makar from 2011 to 2016. Like England’s poet laureateship, makardom is the cross poetic eminences feel the need to bear and it too often leads to work that is more serviceable than memorable or meaningful.

In ‘Open’, for example, written for the opening of the fourth session of the Scottish Parliament, she writes: “Integrity, Compassion, Justice, Wisdom?/ Wisdom, Integrity, Justice, Compassion?/ Open your hearts – and hope./ Open your minds to change.” It is far removed from Lochhead in her pomp and perhaps would have been better left out.

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Yet this is a rare squib in a collection that offers many joys. A Handsel is the kind of gift that keeps on giving and ought to be thrust into the expandable stockings of everyone who cares for poetry.

One of its dedicatees is her husband Tom. ‘Favourite Place’ from Fugitive Colours (2016) is one of the longest poems in the collection, and one of the best and most poignant, a remembrance of wonderful times past at the couple’s highland retreat. “But tonight you are three months dead,” it concludes, “and I must pull down the bed and lie in it alone./ Tomorrow, and every day in this place/ these words of Sorley MacLean’s will echo through me:/ The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it./ And this will not be a consolation/ but a further desolation.”

Poets, Lochhead reminds us here, have a duty not only to repair broken hearts and wounded souls but to tell it as they see it. What is the point of offering false cheer? But let’s not end on such a sombre note. Let’s turn instead to ‘From a Mouse’ in which the mouse replies to Burns: “I am a female mouse though, he didna gie a sausage/ For ma sparklin een!/ As for Mother Nature? Whether yez get the message/ Remains to be seen.”