The sound and the fury

Andrew Marr is haunted by a near-invisible Scottish poet and nationalist

Whatever happened to Hugh MacDiarmid? In the 1970s the irascible prophet of Scottish Leninism was a huge cultural influence. Today, despite the appearance, volume by volume, of his collected works, he seems to have vanished. I was recently reviewing an anthology of poetry about the events of the past 100 years, Penguin's Scanning the Century. Of the better-known poets included, no one I can think of was more tilted towards public events than MacDiarmid, whose concerns included British imperialism, war, the Spanish revolution, Marxism, science, Scottish nationalism, relativity theory, modernism and sex. Yet there wasn't a single MacDiarmid poem present, as against, for instance, eight by Louis MacNeice, whom he despised, and two from Edwin Muir.

This omission was not limited to one editor's idiosyncrasy. Nowadays, MacDiarmid is little quoted anywhere. As one of the driving forces behind Scottish nationalism, you might have expected him to be mentioned during the election campaign for the Scottish Parliament. I haven't monitored everything, but from what I have been able to read, nary a cheep. He's become Who MacDiarmid?

Perhaps the reasons for his abyssal fall in popularity are obvious enough. He was difficult, in every sense - an argument-picker and chest-stabber all his life. He was on the losing side in most battles. His support for Stalin, even during the Hungarian uprising, is hard to stomach. His anti-English ranting, understandable in a different world where the British empire was powerful, seems small-minded. And his linguistic campaign has been lost. As English becomes a global language, and smaller languages are exterminated by the growing world culture, his attempt to forge a useable, complex written Scots, looted from archaic dictionaries, appears quixotic at best.

Finally and most damningly, there are plenty who say his poetry just wasn't much good. There were, they say, those early Scots lyrics, admired by anybody with half an ear, and the polemic masterpiece of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. But after that, merely obscurity, scissored prose laid out like poetry, occasional plagiarism and breathless, relentless, self-publicising assertion. It is claimed that after he fell from the top of a London bus (in Highgate, late at night, probably pissed) and landed on his head, his ability to write rhythmically left him. Too neat a story that, I think, to believe. But parts of the case against MacDiarmid have to be accepted. His wearisome assertions of communistic intent, his sometimes turgid prose, his weakness for ranting - well, there's no escaping from any of that.

And yet, to me, he is one of the great figures of our century, a poet I return to year after year. He haunts me. Any worthwhile Scottish future will be partly marked by his explosive work. As Norman MacCaig famously put it: "He aims at a bird, and brings a landscape down. He dynamites a building, and when the dust has settled, what structures shine in the sun!"

I first came across MacDiarmid as a schoolboy at Loretto, Musselburgh, browsing in the library, attracted by the fat, clean-looking white and purple jacket of an early Collected Poems. I was in adolescent reaction against T S Eliot. The Scottish writer's clean, angry little squibs and his intriguing longer late poems seemed a glorious alternative to the prissiness and snobberies of Eliot.

He became a minor obsession, as I began accumulating everything I could lay my hands on - magazines such as Akros with MacDiarmid material, the various selected and then collected poems, his semi-autobiography, Lucky Poet, the mini-collections such as A Clyack-Sheaf, handy for jacket pockets, MacDiarmid tapes, MacDiarmid posters. An early drinker, I hung round pubs I knew he'd used, though by then, a couple of years before he died, he was hardly around Edinburgh much. Strange behaviour, perhaps, but no odder than the collections of Grateful Dead or Led Zeppelin memorabilia others were accumulating at the time. He stayed with me afterwards, a kind of private possession. And as for T S Eliot, I still feel slightly sick when I pick up the Anglican nanny goat, even today.

So what is the appeal? Everyone is right about the early lyrics in Scots, tiny, gleaming, jewel-like explosions of verbal magic that will be adored as long as anyone reads poetry. And A Drunk Man is an intricately plotted satirical epic from the nation that brought you the wilder, more bitter poetry of Burns. To those in the credit pile I would add some, not all, of the furious political writing. His 1930s collection Second Hymn to Lenin includes the gloriously egocentric anti-war poem "At the Cenotaph", which finishes with MacDiarmid declaring: "Keep going to your wars, you fools, as of yore; /I'm the civilisation you're fighting for." Or the attack on a princess patting a little legless boy in hospital which concludes: "But would the sound of your sticks on the floor/Thundered in her skull for evermore!" Lucky for all concerned, perhaps, that he never lived to see Diana at work.

MacDiarmid's lyric gift stayed with him for much longer than is generally realised. It bursts out, like little green leaves, in the middle of his huge, indigestible late epic In Memoriam James Joyce. His wildest experiments in language - his most extreme pillaging of scientific and other dictionaries - produced a kind of mouth-music that forces you to try it, and grin. Here is the opening of "On a Raised Beach": "All is lithogenesis - or lochia,/Carpolite fruit of the forbidden tree,/Stones blacker than any in the Caaba,/ Cream-coloured caen-stone, chatoyant pieces,/Celadon and corbeau, bistre and beige,/Glaucous, hoar, enfouldered, cythaform,/ Making mere faculae of the sun and moon,/I study you glout and gloss." A blind alley, perhaps, but brighter than most main streets that poetry has found in this century, I think.

The big intellectual poems, such as the three "Direadh" poems of the 1940s, have dull passages but are also open, with space for the reader to think and argue, as few modern poems are. To me, they are the nearest anyone has come to being Europe's William Carlos Williams. I could go on, but won't; there is so much treasure here you would have to be a veritable Larkin in misanthropy to ignore it.

There is, finally, the question of whether any nation should clasp to its bosom someone so relentlessly experimental, irascible and wrong-headed - an admirer of tyrants like Stalin and Mao. My answer is that the follies and errors don't destroy the humane and brilliant questioning, or the quasi-religious sense of wonder in his great poetry; and that we have to escape from the notion of poetry as something sealed, timeless and pure. MacDiarmid is about thinking and rethinking and stirring it up. As he once put it: "My function in Scotland . . . has been that of the catfish that vitalises the other torpid denizens of the aquarium."

There are many other great Scottish writers of the past century, from Robin Jenkins to Kenneth White, Lewis Grassic Gibbon to Alasdair Gray. But MacDiarmid is the only utterly irreplaceable player, the one whose furious gaze I'd like to see glaring down on tomorrow's legislators. When this new parliament starts work, it will go through many torpid, sub-aqueous afternoons, when the soft rain falls against its walls and the nation's energy level is in single figures. Then, by God, the catfish will be wanted.

Andrew Marr is a former editor of the "Independent"

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special