The title of our new volume of selected poems by Orcadian writer George Mackay Brown, Carve the Runes, comes from the words inscribed on his island gravestone: ‘Carve the runes, then be content with silence’. A fine description of a writer’s work. As poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie recounts in her introduction to the selection, Brown gave a short poetic manifesto in an essay written for the St Magnus Festival in 1990. Four powers, he said, condition our human lives, whether we like it or not: Time, Fate, Chance and Mortality. Poetry is a way of coming to terms with these –
This is the use of poetry: to enable us to come to terms with those powers that cannot be denied, that surround us wherever we turn. We can actually hold a dialogue with them, through the medium of poetry…it may be in the end that we shall find the courage to turn and face themGeorge Mackay Brown
The same quiet commitment and determination is evident in his poem ‘The Poet’ which, in its three stanzas, embodies the private and public work of the poet, who is both bard and thinker. It’s an appropriate poem to consider with the 2021 St Magnus Festival in prospect. It runs from June 18-23.
The Poet Therefore he no more troubled the pool of silence. But put on mask and cloak, Strung a guitar And moved among the folk. Dancing they cried, ‘Ah, how our sober islands Are gay again, since this blind lyrical tramp Invaded the Fair!’ Under the last dead lamp When all the dancers and masks had gone inside His cold stare Returned to its true task, interrogation of silence. George Mackay Brown