Our first piece from 'the orraman' considers The Bard, Scottish writers and Scotland’s pyramid of sheep.
Was Burns himself not a ploughman poet? And shall we only listen to those in privilege or power? Is it a rule of life that the ‘orraman’ cannot know as much as an academic? Or is that part of the pyramid of lies under which we graze like so many sheep?
Today as a nation we revere Burns with a passion. Let me begin by saying I in no way dispute his credentials as poet. However, as Leatham points out in his ‘Robert Burns, Scotland’s Man:
‘It is not necessary to decry one of our national heroes in order to extol another. To distinguish and appraise is not to decry.’
I should make it clear that any criticism that follows is more about our society than our bard. My comments and observations need to be read without prejudice, which of course is the most difficult way to read; especially these days when writing is so often reduced to its lowest common denominator – the tweet or soundbite- and the thought of reading ‘joined up’ thinking which develops throughout several thousand words, is considered only suitable for the academic or the pedant. But some ideas cannot be reduced to 140 characters and I make no apology for writing at a length that allows for exploration, development and reflection on the part of the reader.
These days the writing of critical essays is generally seen as the province of academia, but the opportunities offered up by digital online publication (and blogging platforms) suggest there is no reason for this to be the case. Unless it is that we have forgotten, or unlearned, how to both write and read critically. As ‘orraman’ I will try my best. You will be the judge of how successful I am.
Burns’ night reflections.
As each January comes around, I feel increasing dis-ease. Burns suppers abound, and whenever I criticise the practice of observation, suggesting that it is at times trite, trivial and thoughtless; I am on the receiving end of those who cannot get past the fact that Burns the ‘icon’ is our own creation, and who cannot conscience the suggestion that turning our writers into iconic figures is not actually in and of itself, a good thing to do.
Burns is now popular, none more so. It was not always thus. In the 1890’s for example Leatham in ‘The Treatment of Robert Burns: what it was and what it ought to be’ explores how overlooked and undervalued Robert Burns has been. I share this opinion with Leatham, and in that spirit I would like you to step for a moment ‘Beyond Burns.’ My aim is to question our relationship with our dead (and oft-times living) writers.
Wake up and smell the coffee.
I repeat, lest it be necessary: ‘It is not necessary to decry one of our national heroes in order to extol another.’ We are lucky enough to have a plethora of writers (living and dead) from whom to choose and if we are sensible we choose according to our taste. Suggesting that writers are in a competitive environment, or that some are better than others, is to go down the path of impossible comparison, favoured only by those with something to gain from the promoting of their own choice. Favourite does not mean best. This is no more true if it is the favourite of the mainstream, or the privileged class. That is something we should remember. If I might refer back once more to the wisdom of Leatham:
‘The world is slow to learn – and in fact will probably never recognise in practice – that the truth resides in minorities; that on almost all new questions of great magnitude the majority are tolerably certain to be wrong.’
Put that in your pipe and smoke it with your coffee before we continue!
What is a ‘great’ Scots writer?
‘Best’ is a very contestable term. ‘Great’ lives in its shadow. But it does not have to. It is all a question of the definition of ‘great.’ Have you ever stopped to consider how definitions are arrived at? They are, like everything else, constructed by people.
It is my contention that ‘Great’ is a word which deserves to be lifted from the realms of best and favourite and given a standing where it is less about ‘quality’, as seen by those who determine what ‘quality’ is in any given time, and more to do with that which denotes something out of the ordinary, beyond fashion and commercial success, something if you will a bit more Platonic. Or perhaps the guid Scots word ‘unco’ is closer to what we want.
Certainly when employing a term like ‘great’ (or indeed unco) we need to consider who is doing the determining and for what purpose and advantage. Leatham was firm in his belief that Burns was our ‘greatest’ poet. He was keen to show the importance of Burns and Scott to our cultural history and I in no way disagree that they are fine examples of their kind. But in what way are they ‘great’?
It is perhaps a kind of greatness to stand the test of time, but there are all sorts of other reasons why things gain longevity – and many of them have more to do with commerce than creativity. It worries me that all too often ‘greatness’ comes down to the dark arts of fashion and commerce, as Banquo observes, asking the witches in MacBeth:
If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.
We might see the three hags in our story as fashion, commerce and class privilege. Whaur, indeed, is yer Wullie Shakespeare noo?
It’s fiction Jimmy but is it Literature?
I do not draw a distinction between the two. Perhaps you may find that irritating. And perhaps it is wrong of me. There is, after all, a difference between ‘serious’ theatre and Pantomime. But I am not for looking at the differences. I am for looking beneath that, and suggesting that contextually, drama is the more interesting thing to explore. It is the same with prose – there is ‘literature’ and there is ‘fiction’ – often with the word ‘popular’ added in a pejorative sense as if being popular is of necessity a sign that something is of lesser quality. But I think these distinctions simply muddy the contextual water. We should rather be looking at the power of words to move the spirit and enliven the soul.
This is a small part of a huge debate and I will resist digression. I will simply state my belief that the crux of the argument is not that popularity ‘has its place’, but that we need to wake up to the fact that popularity is to do with fashion and fashion is to do with marketing and privileging. And none of this has to do with ‘quality’ therefore to make a distinction between literature and fiction (popular or otherwise) on grounds of quality is a red herring. And I am for looking at silver herrings.
Follow the money?
Leatham states quite baldly that a man should not try to earn a living by poetry. ‘I do not believe that a poet should attempt to live by the making of verse;’
But this is not to denigrate the art, for he also states that ‘A true poet is one of the greatest gifts Nature can bestow upon a prosaic world’ and that ‘Poetry at its best is the highest wisdom in the best form of words.’
Today of course there are people who earn a living (directly and indirectly) through poetry. Not all of them poets. And certainly being a ‘great’ poet is no guarantee of success in commercial or critical terms. Leatham suggests that poetry is about more than making money – that the true poet will create no matter what the reward, or lack of it. And surely this holds true of all creative endeavour. Creativity and commerce are always going to be uneasy bed-fellows.
That said, the contention is that Burns was badly served because people did not buy his books. This is in no way a contradiction on Leatham’s part, more a statement of the way the world is.
‘The truth is, the public will entertain an author; will present him with the freedom of cities; will buzz around him to stare and criticise his looks, and dress, and speech; but the last think it will think of doing is to buy and read his writings, which is at once the greatest favour it can confer upon him and the greatest compliment it can pay him.’
Why is this? Because the author is generally speaking a commodified entity. Whether he (or she) is seen as great or popular depends on who stands at the top of the pyramid. Leatham cuts to the chase ‘the public paid Burns almost every species of homage except the practical homage of buying and reading his books.’
Today, I increasingly see that books have become the battleground of ‘the market’ and bestsellers are like a kind of futures trading. And where, we might ask, is the creativity in all of this? Where is the heart and soul when commerce is what counts?
It is to Scotland’s shame that she may praise her writers, such as Burns, Scott and many others, but many of those who praise have neither read, nor do they own, the works of the writers they purport to be ‘great.’ We too often take the easy route. We are like sheep, trusting the shepherd. The problem is, our shepherd is capitalism. And capitalism’s shape is pyramidical.
How much encouragement is the right amount?
Leatham argues that if we do not have a plethora of great poets it is because they are not encouraged. He has a point. However, in our own time, I am a firm believer that we do have a plethora of great Scottish writers (my field is prose not poetry but I believe the same applies in each place) and that lack of encouragement is but one part of the problem. Perhaps at times there is too much encouragement. But the encouragement is of the aspirational kind, capitalist encouragement which suggests that to be ‘great’ you have to be always following the money and that ‘success’ is accorded to those who achieve the greatest sums for the publishers, distributors and retailers.
The pyramid of aspirations.
I am concerned about what I call the pyramid of aspirations. Our modern world encourages everyone at a low level, be that in spheres of creativity, education or commerce. It claims to encourage people towards ‘greatness’. It dictates that people must strive towards the top of the pyramid. I call this the great aspirational fallacy. The truth is anyone cannot be President. And certainly everyone cannot be. You cannot have a top-heavy pyramid. The bald fact is that under a pyramid structure, only a few can be ‘great.’ Of those who buy into the aspirational way of living, many will spend (I contend waste) their whole lives striving to achieve the impossible. They will live and die feeling disappointment and guilt that they have not ‘succeeded.’ This presents many problems for societies, and certainly for individuals. The central problem of course is the pyramid itself.
Tell me again, what is greatness?
Greatness, in my opinion, is not discovered in relation to fashion or commercial success. It is related rather to truth and honesty in the pursuit and the creation of creativity. And for me, creativity is an act of communication. It is not a competitive environment, it is part of the individual’s make up. ‘Greatness’ defined as iconisation is part of the pyramid model, which I claim is both dangerous and unnecessary.
How then, you might ask, are we to measure or discover greatness? Not by asking those who set the rules to suit themselves. Rather, I suggest we will find it by learning all we can about the process and the nature of that which we seek to call ‘great’ and then by being able to recognise it in our relationship with the work. The writer in terms of person (and certainly the writer as icon) is, for the most part irrelevant. To write a great novel, or song, or poem or piece of music one does not have to be a great, a good, or even a ‘nice’ person.
This may seem a strange irony. Yet a truth is that we know very little about the reality of other people, especially of dead writers. The best point of access is through their work, but in reading we are just one part of a relationship – we have to be able to receive and understand what they are saying in order to make the most of such a relationship. We need to have some degree of empathy, but this is primarily with the writing not the writer. You do not have to be a great or a good or a nice person to appreciate Burns. But I suggest you do need to read his work, and you need to try and make personal sense of it. Otherwise you are not a reader, you are a sheep. When you do so, you will find it is, or isn’t to your taste. Do we need to go beyond that into the realms of ‘greatness’ and iconisation? Is the most appropriate personal response to creativity whether you like it or not? Looking over your shoulder to see if you have made the right call smacks of constructionism rather than honesty. On one level personal taste is all that matters. The problem comes when people require others to ‘buy in’ to the power of their personal taste.
Raise a glass
If I might draw an analogy. How do you know when a crop is good? Especially if you are not a farmer. Suppose we have a field of barley. And we want a drink of whisky. There is a process to be undertaken from field to glass. For the most part we leave others to make the choices, from farmer to bottler to retailer. Only a few of us learn about growing crops, learn how to select the grain that suits their purpose and then converts it into the drink that their palette appreciates. But oh the joy of following the whole cycle. And this is equally possible with words. I am not talking about the rude mechanics of learning an alphabet, or even just the rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation and spelling. These are just so many tools. To appreciate the ‘greatness’ of what you read you need to walk the fields, learn the skills, the joys and the struggles of creativity. You need to make free choices about what you like and understand your personal preferences. Only then are you capable of experiencing ‘greatness.’ And only then do you see that personal taste plays a huge part in the process. Part of the problem of the system under which we live is that the personal taste of those in power is accepted by most of us as being something beyond personal taste. We follow the authority of money, power or celebrity rather than episteme.
So while we gather round our haggises and Immortal Memories, and while we praise Burns (and ourselves?) by reading his work, might I suggest that we also go Beyond Burns and look further into the many Scottish fields in which our creative crop is grown. Not every crop will suit every palate. As reader and even as critic, it is our job not to iconise but to honestly engage. That way we will each find our ‘greatness’. There are many kinds of ‘great’ after all. I challenge you to free yourself to find the meaning of the word and to redefine it personally. After all, as the Bard did say: ‘a man’s a man for a’ that.’ Which I take to be a comment on the folly of pursuing ‘greatness.’ Feel free to disagree.
By the Orraman - January 2016.
To find past articles please use monthly archives.