Guest post by Michael Stachura
“Neither the Shetlands nor the Orkneys […] have yet had poets of any worth […].” So says Hugh MacDiarmid in The Islands of Scotland (1939). It’s an obviously provocative statement, but MacDiarmid used provocation in an attempt to rouse Scotland (and its Isles) out of what he saw as a parochial and underdeveloped cultural context. MacDiarmid is not talking here in general terms about poets who come from the Northern Isles, but about those poets not utilizing the Isles’ distinct cultural and linguistic heritage. As he goes on to say: “[Their] cultural traditions are negligible—and though their ancient Norn language […] is closely related to Faroese […] no tendency to revive that language or apply it to modern purposes has yet manifested itself in the Orkneys or Shetlands.” What MacDiarmid is calling for is a Northern Renaissance that’s linked to but also distinct from his own Renaissance project. It was also MacDiarmid’s belief that such activity in the Northern Isles could facilitate a greater sense of being part of a larger northern cultural and geographical perspective. As he says in the introductory chapter to his book: “The Muse with whom I am concerned in this book […] is not Deirdre, but […] Audh, the ‘deep-minded,’ wife and mother of chieftains, Gaelic and Scandinavian, who, at the end, left the Hebrides and voyaged, via the Faroes, where she landed to see some of her grandchildren, to Iceland, where she died and lies buried in one of its cold jokulls.”
Two contemporary poets that can be seen to have taken up MacDiarmid’s call are Robert Alan Jamieson and Christine De Luca—both of whom come from and write about the Shetlands. Jamieson and De Luca use Shetland’s distinct vernacular, Shetlandic, which is a mixture of Scandinavian-influenced Norn and Scots, to great effect in poems that range from personal memories and reflections to more abstract contemplations. For Jamieson, the decision to write in Shetlandic, as seen in his collection Nort Atlantik Drift (2007), is primarily an artistic one, “[…] taking Ezra Pound’s exhortation to ‘make it new’, or the Russian Formalists’ shout about the same time to ‘make it strange’, as [his] poet’s motto.” Jen Hadfield, who won the prestigious T.S. Eliot prize in 2008, also uses Shetlandic to great poetic effect in her poems about northern Canada and Shetland in Nigh-No-Place (2008).
But Jamieson and De Luca also use Shetlandic to establish what might be termed a transnational discursive and imaginative space in the North. While translation of the work of Scottish dialect writers into other languages has proved difficult, the Scandinavian dimension of Shetlandic has allowed Jamieson and De Luca to engage in translation workshops and projects with other poets from the Nordic countries as well as the Baltics. One such collaboration led to the publication of All Points North in 2006. One of its aims, as Jamieson states in its introduction, is to foster “[…] a deeper sense of connectivity between these northern places in the minds of participants and audience […].”
There has been a lot of political discussion in Scotland recently about learning from and building stronger links with the North. A shift of perspective northwards is also evident in contemporary Scottish literature. Kathleen Jamie and John Burnside, for example, have both been eager to engage with Scotland through a wider transnational northern ecological perspective. As Jamie states in Sightlines (2012), “[…] for thirty years I’ve been sitting on clifftops, looking at horizons. From Orkney, Shetland, St Kilda […]. Suddenly I wanted to change my map. Something had played itself out. Something was changing.” Jamieson’s and De Luca’s poetry about Shetland—it’s landscape, cartographic position and distinct linguistic context—and their work in translation projects is at the forefront of this changing perspective northwards. As De Luca states in her poem ‘Nae Easy Mizzer’ from North End of Eden (2010), “A polar projection changes foo we figure oot / wir world.”
Michael Stachura is a PhD candidate from Simon Fraser University, Canada, writing his dissertation on Scandinavia and the North in modern Scottish literature