At the mercy of the elements, does Henry Dundas

aloof in St Andrew Square still ponder having been

the most powerful politician of his day? Stewart Conn

Politicians come and go. While that stone-hearted rogue Henry Dundas looks down on the Christmas crowds let’s start with a moment of poetic (and blissfully Brexit-free) mischief. Here’s the very much alive and kicking Darren McGarvey…

He is often asked, he says, why hasn’t the alt-right made more inroads in Scotland? To which he replies: 

‘We have a very active spoken word scene’.

He’s joking of course. Loki’s deftly delivered throw-away gag went down well with the streetwise audience at his Poverty Safari Live show in this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.  But maybe it’s not so daft. The thought bounced back a couple of months later when a bunch of poets assembled in the affluent centre of Edinburgh. 

No mics, no loud speakers, no wham-bam poetry slam.  You had to stop and listen carefully. But through the background noise of buses, trams and cars, the spoken word worked its gently subversive way into the ears and minds of those who stopped to listen.

And so, let’s pause a moment here, draw strength –
and reclaim what is ours.
Ron Butlin Reclaiming St Andrew Square
Edinburgh Makars mak poetic mischief by the Poetry Tree in Edinburgh's Poetry Garden
Stewart Conn, on the left, with fellow Makars Christine De Luca, Ron Butlin and Alan Spence around the Poetry Tree (with new plaque). 

A mob  of makars?

This was an event for International Poetry Day, marking the tenth anniversary of Edinburgh’s (maybe Scotland’s?) only poetry garden. And, more specifically, marking the site of the Poetry Tree planted seven years ago ‘to grow in friendship with the people of Japan’.   

It was a poetry stand-up with a difference.  Four of Edinburgh’s five Makars lined up to speak a selection of their works.  A Makar is Scots for ‘one who fashions, shapes, prepares’ and so it can mean a worker skilled with words.  

But what’s the collective?  ‘What do you call a bunch of Makars?’ asks Alan Spence, Edinburgh’s fifth poet laureate since the City of Edinburgh Council created the post in 2002.  ‘A mob?’ he wonders.

‘A scream!’ says Ron Butlin, Makar 3. 

A medley, a murmur, a muckle?

Whatever, here they were: Alan Spence, Christine De Luca, Stewart Conn and Ron Butlin, four eminent poets on a sunny autumn lunchtime  –  with enthusiastic support of Yoko Murata,  deputy Japanese Consul General and Essential Edinburgh – fulfilling the benignly disruptive purpose of poetry in the Poetry Garden: to stop you in your tracks. Just for a moment of reflection.

That was then. Two months after International Poetry Day, St Andrew Square is bustling with those Christmas crowds, the little Poetry Tree safely secured behind a white fence (the new plaque installed by Essential Edinburgh temporarily missing?)

It is the scene that Stewart Conn evokes in his Henry Dundas poem.

Because poetry is never just for one day.  And now, to stop you in your tracks again, here is a selection of the Makars’ medley, a souvenir of a memorable event which could be the first, we hope, of many such seasonal occasions (an anthology must surely follow?). 

Meet the Makars 

Stewart Conn, Edinburgh’s inaugural Makar 2002-2005, raised the profile of poetry in the city with competitions and projects including poems on buses. 

Henry Dundas
At the mercy of the elements, does Henry Dundas
aloof  in St Andrew Square still ponder having been
the most powerful politician of his day?  Either way,
unlikely he looks kindly on the skaters circling below,
the helter-skelter and festooned carousel;  far less,
as a break in the clouds reveals the view across theForth,
the American couple emerging from Harvey Nick’s
and her “honey, I didn’t realise France was so close”. 

Stewart Conn

ValerieGillies, Makar 2005-2008, was in Canada in October but her words were displayed on the coffee kiosk window when the Poetry Garden opened in 2008 

We wander through your windy mazes,
All our voices are flags on the high street.
From the sky’s edge to the grey firth
We are the city, you are within us.
Valerie Gillies

Ron Butlin,Makar 2008-2014, helped to launch the Poetry Garden in 2008 with Reclaiming St Andrew Square, celebrating a city of ‘prohibitions and possibilities’. He also provides this seasonal toast:

A Recipe for Whisky
Wring the Scottish rain clouds dry;
Take sleet, the driving snow, the hail;
Winter twilight; the summer’s sun slowed down
to pearl-sheen dusk on hillsides, city-roofs,
on lochs at midnight.
And, most of all, take the years that have already run
to dust, the dust we spill behind us…
Allthis, distill. And cask. And wait.
The senselessness of human things resolves
to who we are – our present fate.
Let’s taste, let’s savour and enjoy.
Let’s share once more.
Another glass for absent friends. Pour
until the bottle’s done.
Here’s life! Here’s courage to go on! Ron Butlin

Christine De Luca, Makar 2014-2017, cast her eye towards the nearby statue of James Clerk Maxwell in George Street, then forward in her native Shetlandic to spring:

Transport o Delicht
Crossin da Meadows, Edinburgh
A digger reesels by twa lovers wippit           rummages, bound             roond demsels while a workman, pink
i da dicht o cherry blossom, maks licht                               light wipe
o his varg; offers ta kerry me, twice his age,               heavy, dirty work, 
across da tarry gaet der reconstructin.                              path,  they’re
His confetti humour lifts me laek a sainin.             blessing
He micht a bön dat gondolier at waited                      might have been
for da bride furt bi da Maddelena chapel,                         outside           
a niff o lilies roond him i da ön o haet,                          smell,  sultry heat
or a roddy man wavin ta wis, peerie tings        road workman, us, little 
i wir simmertime, shockin i da stoor                               choking,  dust
o der lorry as hit dirled bi da New Rodd.           vibrated heavily, Road
Dey stöd, bare-airmed, wind i der hair,                       They stood, 
gravel-covered fae da quarry-höls,                             holes
der heroic chariot on da haemward rin.                      run
Christine De Luca

Alan Spence, Makar 2018-2021, holds the Order of the Rising Sun for promoting the sensibility and seasonality of Japanese culture – his skill with haikus enjoyed here in his readings by the Poetry Tree. 

wee haiku of a tree –
smallest in the garden
but holding its own
open the gate,
borrow the landscape –
it’s all yours
the sound of the wind
in the trees, the sound
        of the sea
broken again
whole again 
moon in the water
a zen circle –
the imprint left by
my coffee cup

Alan Spence
Henry Dundas looks down on the Christmas crowds occupying Edinburgh's Poetry Garden, aka St Andrew Square
Aloof above the crowd in Edinburgh’s Poetry Garden (aka St Andrew Square), Henry Dundas

For more see Turning Leaves of the Poetry Tree  

This piece is also published in the poetry section of Sceptical Scot