Sunday, 29 November 2015

Scotland is no longer a nation for and says "Fareweel" to an old poet called Sandy Hutchison

Sandy, who the American poet August Kleinzhaler, has described in tribute as 'a brilliant poet with an incandescent word-hoard, fiercely, indelibly Scottish', has died at the age of seventy-two.

He published 'Let the rough and tumble begin. DEIL TAK THE HINMAIST' as one of six poems in 'Bones and Breath' in 2013, the year after he won first 'Saltire Poetry Prize.' He dedicated it to the late Scottish poet, journalist, essayist, Christopher Murray Grieve, known by his pen name, Hugh MacDiarmid and said This poem began its life in English as 'Unfinished Business'. A few years ago it decided it had another identity, pretty well transforming itself into (mostly North-east) Scots. The spelling usually is an aid to pronunciation. It should be read out loud, in the spirit of the old flytings: ritual insults freely exchanged. The chopped-out framework and various levels may appear Dantesque; but Dunbar and Rabelais are in the line-up too.’  It begins :

'I think ye ocht t' pit the pillywinkies on t' him..' 
The girt yett kickit in, an lo! – they liggit: scummers o pots an skelpers o cuddies; jaws that cleikit, rhymes that reikit; Kerr's Pink
tatties biled in their jaickets; deedle-dabblers in cytoplasm; virtual
realtors swickin an swyvin; daddy-lang-legs; dirlin Dodies;
hoodie-craws cracklin fae the tippy-taps o trees: 
                                                                   Deid-loss or Daidalos
                                                                   fit's it gaan tae be?
Pooshin pumpers, coonter-jumpers, cairpet fitters birslin wi a moo-fae
o tacks; tomcats; corncrakes; shilly-shally sharn shifters; couthy bicuspids;
aa the wee glisterin anes; aa them that wid grudge ye one jow o the bell.
The neist yett swung, syne mair wis kythit: tethered tups,
draigelt yowes; the slalom loons fae Dandruff Canyon; wheepers
o candy-floss; footerin futtrets; the hee-haw-hookum o hystet hizzies;
foosty fowk lik Finnan haddies; Buckie blaavers wi the full wecht o blaw....

It was in Buckie, a small fishing town on the Moray Firth coast of North-East Scotland, that 'Alexander' was born during the Second World War in 1943, the grandson of a grandfather on his mother's side, who like his father before him was a businessman 'who thrived in the days of the great herring fishery which went on all round the coast of Britain' and of a grandfather on his father's side who had been brought up in the hamlet of Tugnet and worked in the salmon fishery at the mouth of the River Spey before becoming a doctor. Sandy's father, who had been born in Spey Bay had followed in his father's footsteps and was a general practitioner while his mother worked as a school meal's supervisor.

Many years later Sandy gave voice to the 'The Herring Song' :

Vat'll I dew wi the herrins' heeds?
I'll mak 'em inte loaves of breed,
Herrins' heeds, loaves of breed,
And all sorts of things.

The herrin is the king of the sea,
The herrin is the fish for me,
Sing, fa la la la lie do
Fa la la la lie do
Fa la la la lie do lie day!

He remembered that as a boy he 'had howked and picked potatoes on a neighbouring farm during the school Tattie Holidays, and remember the tractor’s jolting approach and the forks of the digger curving through the dreels to churn out our work. We filled buckets, the buckets filled sacks or harn bags, and the harn bags filled the horse-drawn bogie.'

At the age of 6, sported a pair of boots and in 1950 he had 'delivered ‘Gunga Din' to the local church Sunday School Christmas party : "I felt I was being condescended to slightly by the elder or School supervisor as he led me forward, me probably in short trousers with straps as braces crossing at the front. "Oh, and he’s going to do a po-em." I recall looking up, holding his hand, as he (perfectly friendly) looked down. Then I set off at a trot a capella :

"You may talk o' gin and beer"
And on for fifty lines or so to :
Though I’ve belted you and flayed you,
By the livin’ Gawd that made you,
You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din! "
Thought that it was "Odd that I should relish that relic of Empire and choose to pipe it out on that occasion" and put it down to his Grandfather the GP, who had Kipling's 'Barrack Room Ballads' as one of his favourites and "though he died the sane year I was born, I obviously hadn't been slow to follow up his taste in verse. I did the same with his copy of FitzGerald's version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam- getting long slugs of it off by heart."

Described'Buckie, where I was born and grew up' as laying : 'long and narrow along the Moray Firth coast: the countryside at the broadest point of the town being only about a kilometre from the sea. Both the fishing and farming communities were generous to me in a number of ways, and their differing accents and idioms were readily assimilated during the process of growing up. Subsequently, sources as diverse as Dunbar and Henryson, Montgomerie, Urquhart, the varied deposits of folk tradition and balladry as well as nearer contemporaries, all contributed to thickening the broth. But the stock was basically Banffshire and Moray coast.'

Recalled that he was in his teens and attending the local 'Buckie High School' with its motto 'Remis Velisque' / 'By, or with, oars and sails', when his Latin teacher, Thomas Laing, 'first encouraged me to try versions of the classics in Scots. He taught me Cicero too, of course; though I didn't warm to that passionate discourse and complicated sensitivity till much later, when I read the letters and had a chance to see where he lived – and where he learned to speak the way he did.'

In the mid 1950s was struck by Stephen Spender's 1930's poem, 'The Express' and later thought that he "must have come across it in an anthology one of my sisters brought back from teacher training college – probably alongside ‘The Landscape Near an Aerodrome’" and thought that "it could have been the blatant introduction of the mechanical that caught my attention."

After the first powerful, plain manifesto
The black statement of pistons, without more fuss
But gliding like a queen, she leaves the station...

Left school at the age of 17 and in 1963 started life as an English Lit. undergrad at Aberdeen University, where in "my first couple of years I was caught up in a mish-mash of bookies and the pub and javelin and fencing and this and that. Pals from Shetland and the Hebrides. When I did spend time in the library it was mainly to leaf through books in the fine art section, though Aberdeen didn’t offer a degree in that. I rediscovered the Flemish primitive painters, confirming an early attraction, and the early 20th century Russian women - Goncharova, Popova and Rozanova."

Didn't consider himself to be "a sophisticated reader of poetry at all as an undergraduate – and certainly not in the first two years. Patricia Thomson was my tutor in Advanced Special English, and I wince to remember at an early tutorial wading in with both feet to rubbish Dunbar’s 'Done is a battle on the dragon blak', before she put me to rights."

Done is a battle on the dragon black,
Our champion Christ confoundit has his force;
The yetis of hell are broken with a crack,
The sign triumphal raisit is of the cross,
The devillis trymmillis with hiddous voce,
The saulis are borrowit and to the bliss can go,
Christ with his bloud our ransonis dois indoce:
Surrexit Dominus de sepulchre.

Supposed that he had "improved" and in his final year "wrote essays on Marlowe and Johnson (with Voltaire) and gave Dunbar his due as well. The year before I had been fired up by Blake: 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell' was the first piece I consciously took as a model."

Rintrah roars, and shakes his fires in the burden’d air;
Hungry clouds swag on the deep.

Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow.
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees......

  At the age of 23 left Scotland for close to 18 years: teaching at the University of Victoria and elsewhere in Canada, "taking a doctorate on Roethke at Northwestern University while living in Chicago" and where, as he later reflected, that it was only when he "started teaching undergraduates myself that I came at all to grips with contemporary verse and fiction."

 At the age of 30 in 1973 he "encountered Spender in person – round about the time of the Watergate trials in America. I was finishing up graduate work, and he was a writer-in residence at Northwestern. By chance I glanced in one morning to the huge TV viewing room at one of the student residences and saw Spender’s snowy head of hair and his lanky frame right in the middle of rows of empty seats – he was the only one there – watching the live telecast of Nixon’s downfall. I passed on some poems for his opinion, includingLyke-wake’ :

'As an old man lags on the hillside, wagging
his stick where the sun burns over Caithness,
seeing the whole coast to Lossiemouth and beyond
the light on the rocks beyond the harbour mouth
the boats setting out for a night's fishing -
Lilt, Bezaleel, Glad Harvest - their nets drawn dry
from lofts and roadside fence, spread again  to the sea....'

'and when after a decent interval I went along to his office to seek him out, he said (fishing around for the right loose leaf pages), "You’re so-and-so, aren’t you? I liked these very much." I said, "No. I’m Hutchison." Then he, with decided adjustment, plummy voice going, if anything, plummier: "Oh. Well in that case I liked them very much indeed.

August Kleinzhaler, one of his students at Victoria who became a friend recalled : 'Even while still in Canada Sandy's Scottish-ness remained undiluted. He put me on to haggis, kippers, halibut cheeks and fish roe as much as Henryson, Montgomerie and MacCaig' and 'He dragged me to more than one Buns supper.'

 These were the years in which he kept a " hard-bound, varying-sized notebook as record and aide memoir; dressed it up with drawings and photos, copied out texts and models by hand, pasted things in, snatches, sketches, apothegms, quotes and snippets of overheard conversation, bits and pieces, just like a bower bird. Occasionally I put in journal entries – especially if travelling – dreams too from time to time."

Adopted Canadian citizenship and enjoyed his most productive period when he "lived up near Oyster River, and Black Creek and Miracle Beach on Vancouver Island" where 'Deep-Tap Tree' in which he drew on Celtic and Norse antecedents indicated by the two serpents, one large, one small, entwined on the cover and once commissioned by a Viking, an admiral for one of the Emperors of Byzantium and "In terms of language, the cryptic, reductive, ironical character of the saga-speech and related dialects was around very early I suppose – a typical winter’s evening exchange of pleasantries in my home-town of Buckie, with the boys taikin up or doon the brae, could easily go: "Fit like, man?" – pronounced min. And the response: "Aye, it’s a caal hoor o a nicht". So laconicism was a native element of style."

Returned to Scotland at the age of 41 in 1984, where he aimed to spend two years, then return to Canada, but in fact spent the last 31 years of his life, living for seven in Edinburgh and the rest in Glasgow and recorded in 2004 : "Still here: just the way things worked out. Like it, and love the people I'm with."

On his return admitted that he had written poems in the 'Buchan dialect' and the idiolect with which he'd grown up all through his own poetic practice and translated a handful of Catullus’s carmina, followed by versions of four sonnets by Ronsard, as indeed, some years before, he had translated two poems of Ernesto Cardenal into Scots and when he met him briefly while visiting Nicaragua at one point "he asked his assistant, Luz, about this business of translating into Scots. 'Is it like English? Is it as good?' I tapped his wrist gently and, when he turned his face to me, said smilingly: 'Better. Better!' He grinned, and we shook hands."

Once said with perfect modesty : 'Poetry has been a main element in my life for as long as I can remember, and though I can't say I write a lot, and there have been big gaps in composition and publication, I have always been on the look out for possibilities anywhere and in anything: reading, listening, noting, mixing a variety of things up on a wide-ranging basis, all with a kind of focussed intent. I think I can say honestly I've never pushed it – in the sense of straining or getting anxious – but I have stuck at it, and in the process have discovered enjoyment – and even, as part of the pleasure, improvement.'


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