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World Poetry Day: Dispatches from the Poetry Desk

  18 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

We are proud of the Polygon poetry catalogue, which runs the gamut from the collected works of Norman MacCaig and Hamish Henderson, to volumes by Makars Liz Lochhead (Scotland) Jim Carruth (Glasgow) and Ron Butlin (Edinburgh), recent collections by Michael Pedersen, Roseanne Watt and Jenni Fagan, to up-to-the-moment spoken-word poetry from Neu!Reekie! and Iona Lee. This year we have a centenary edition of selected poems by George Mackay Brown edited by Kathleen Jamie, a number of exciting signings to announce in the coming months, and much more.

Ahead of World Poetry Day 2021, Edward Crossan, Editor in general and Poetry Editor in particular, writes about the poetry that’s especially meaningful to him, and to the world at large, at this particular moment.

I always think of poetry as the blueprint for literature. Ideas and form explored, experimenting with language. But a poem is also a snapshot, a window on a particular moment in a life. It explores the magnitude of its beauty, whether it’s a note about the last of the plums being eaten (so sweet and so cold) or a book full of elegies to mourn the loss of a partner. People turn to poetry at times of celebration, love, loss, despair. Poems interrogate our existence, drill down to the core. We sometimes carry poems with us throughout our lives. 


In loss, Norman MacCaig tells us:

black words that make the sound

of soundlessness, that name the nowhere

she is continuously going into.


When my first son was born, Alastair Reid summed up his cacophonous beginnings perfectly:

I know them now. I catch

the pitch of their calls, their shrill

cacophonies, their chitterings, their coos.

They hover behind his eyes and come to rest

on a branch, on a book, grow still,

claws curled, wings furled.

from ‘Daedulus’ (available in A Gathering: A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems, edited by Alexander McCall Smith)

His is a bird world. And now with two boys, I don’t ‘call them down’, but give them grounding and try and teach them ‘gravity’.

You have to be proud to live in a country that gives a poem, by Jackie Kay, to every new born baby:

O ma darlin wee one

At last you are here in the wurld

And wi’ aa your wisdom

Your een bricht as the stars,

You’ve filled this hoose with licht,

Yer trusty wee haun, your globe o’ a heid, 

My cherished yin, my hert’s ain!

In lockdown, too, people have turned to poetry. This week I heard that an actor has been memorising The Four Quartets, a poem he has carried with him throughout his life.

Poetry has always been responsive to events, and it often responds quickly. This year we are publishing two anthologies for and about professions that have been foremost in public consciousness during the pandemic: one for nurses and midwives, To Mind Your Life; and one for teachers, To Learn the Future. Their purpose is simple, to allow people in these highly stressful careers, in times when ‘despair for the world grows’ the chance to breathe, to pause for a moment and reflect, to ‘rest in the grace of the world’. 

And, in our lives at the moment, that are simultaneously on pause but are moving like a commuter train, we too need to be reminded, as Alexander McCall Smith tells us in ‘Adelstrop Revisited’:

To look at the sky, to stop 

And walk slowly and breathe

The morning air . . .

From In a Time of Distance and Other Poems by Alexander McCall Smith

The complete catalogue of Polygon’s Poems of the Week is here.

A wider selection of staff poetry recommendations is here.

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