PERHAPS it’s the fault of some of the more romantic Romantics, but there’s a common misconception that pastoral poetry must always depict rural life in a hopelessly idealised way.
Even as early as 37 BC, though, pastoral poetry was telling it like it is – or, rather, was. In Virgil’s Eclogues we find poor old Meliboeus complaining that he has been turfed off his ancestral lands so they can be gifted to soldiers returning from a war. Now he’s wandering aimlessly with his flock, he says, on his way to the-gods-know-where. If things get really bad he might even end up living with the Brittani, “quite cut off from the whole world”.
Things are similarly grim for the shepherd at the centre of Killochries, a prose poem from Glasgow’s new poet laureate, Jim Carruth. His elderly mother is ill in bed (“She does not speak / presents only a vacant look”), and he has no sons or daughters to take over the running of the farm once he gets too old. Worse, his whole way of life seems to be disappearing, and the thought fills him with a deep, inexpressible grief. When he learns that a neighbouring farm has been bought for a country retreat, all he actually says is “Foriver lost / foriver lost” but “the tremor / in his voice / could be for / an ailing ewe / or a collie / kept at the vets / or grief at the death / of a close friend”.
The narrator of Killochries, a younger man and a poet, is a relative, sent from the city by his mother after suffering some kind of breakdown to live a simple, healthy country life in the hope that it will help to heal both body and mind. At first, the old shepherd treats this interloper with a mixture of gruff indifference and mild amusement, but as the seasons pass a bond develops between them. Their principal source of disagreement is religion – the shepherd is a believer, the poet is not – but their bad-tempered late night discussions finally lead them to a detente of sorts. It’s a testament to Carruth’s skills of characterisation that their relationship feels entirely three-dimensional, even though it is sketched with the utmost economy. Their parting, at the end of a full year together, is very much like the bittersweet moment when a child leaves home – not that either man would dare to admit any such bond.
Don Paterson once wrote that Scottish poets “excel at the anti-baroque: leaving words standing so sharp and stark and bold on the page that you can hear the wind whistle round them.” That’s certainly true of Killochries. Carruth’s stanzas are so spare they feel almost skeletal at times, but the paring and whittling has been carefully, masterfully done. At one point, the narrator tries to explain the structure of a sonnet by reference to the building of a dry stone wall. The shepherd’s observation: “It’s the weygate spaces / that lat in the life” could well serve as a critique of Carruth’s style – he gives us the bare bones of a character, a scene or an idea, and leaves our imaginations to flesh out the rest.
Carruth grew up on his family’s dairy farm near Kilbarchan, and much of his work draws on his rural background. Previous collections include Bovine Pastoral (2004) and Working The Hill (2011) although this is his first “formal” collection. That might make him seem like an odd choice for Poet Laureate of a post-industrial city like Glasgow, but he has played a leading role in developing its poetry scene in recent years, hosting the St Mungo’s Mirrorball poetry nights since 2005 and also setting up the Clydebuilt Poetry scheme, in which promising poets are paired up with experienced mentors. And who better to puncture the myth of the pastoral idyll for unenlightened city dwellers than a man who so obviously understands both the hardships of the farming life and its hard-won delights?
Jim Carruth is appearing at the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, today as part of Aye Write!