Editing a poetry anthology is the literary equivalent to tip-toeing through a minefield, and never more so than when the anthology in question has a national focus. Are the poets included really the ones that best reflect the heart and soul of a nation? Does the number of poems included by each poet correspond to their perceived literary significance? Do the specific poems selected adequately reflect the output of the poets who wrote them? And of the various poets of note who inevitably failed to make the cut, which are the most hard done by?
Alexander McCall Smith does his best to sidestep these thorny issues and many more by billing his new selection of Scottish poems, A Gathering, as “a personal anthology.” In his introduction, he describes it very simply as “a personal collection of poems I find interesting and enjoyable.” It is not, he says, intended to be “a representative collection of what Scottish poets have written over the ages,” but reflects “no more than my own preferences.” He does, however, set himself a couple of ground rules: only poets who were a) born before the Second World War and b) are no longer with us were considered for inclusion. He expresses the hope that no contemporary poets will take offence at being excluded.
Having thus disentangled himself from the canon, however, and bought himself the freedom to wander as far off piste as he might wish, he sticks mostly to the usual suspects. Burns and Fergusson? Check. Scott and Stevenson? Check. Muir and MacDiarmid? Check. Morgan, MacCaig and MacLean? Check, check and check again. There are one or two poets here who might not crop up in many other anthologies of Scottish poetry: Kate YA Bone, for example, whose atmospheric “Some Ghosts Haunt Hooses” opens the collection; Ruthven Todd, in whose work McCall Smith finds “exceptional beauty and poignancy”; and Nan Shepherd, who has only recently reappeared on the nation’s literary radar after decades of obscurity. On the whole, though, the names are familiar.
None of which should come as much of a surprise, or be taken as a criticism: Scotland has produced some very great poets; naturally many of the better known ones will be included here. Where things get interesting, however, is in examining which of their poems McCall Smith has selected. After all, if this is a personal selection, then these choices can perhaps tell us something about the person doing the choosing.
The case of Hugh MacDiarmid is particularly intriguing. The father of the Scottish Renaissance is probably best-known for his sprawling metaphysical masterpiece, A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, his experiments in synthetic Scots, and his political (and often impenetrable) later work, yet McCall Smith ignores all this and focuses instead on his shorter, more lyrical poems: “Scotland Small,” his heartfelt hymn to the nation’s natural beauty, is perhaps the nearest thing MacDiarmid ever wrote to a crowd-pleaser, and “Island Funeral” and the pithy yet intensely personal “At My Father’s Grave” are similarly straightforward. In editorial terms, then, is this McCall Smith attempting – like a perceptive novelist – to peel away the layers of anger and artifice to show us the real Christopher Murray Grieve hiding beneath the pseudonym? It’s fun to speculate.
You can, of course, play this game with other poets here; McCall Smith has included short notes giving reasons for some of his selections but most are included without explanation. Alternatively, you could just sit back and enjoy the poems. There is certainly plenty here to enjoy. - Roger Cox
A Gathering - A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems, edited by Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, 238pp, £14.99