A guide to contemporary Scottish poetry

Burns Night offers a chance to reflect on and celebrate the verses of Scotland’s most famous poet. But amid the clamour to revere the nation’s favourite bard, it’s worth remembering that the contemporary landscape in Scottish poetry is worth toasting too. Here are a selection of nine, presented alongside a sample of their respective works, to delve into

John Burnside

Formerly a computer software engineer, John Burnside’s first published work emerged in 1988 with The Hoop, a collection of short poems. His work frequently explores ecological and spiritual themes. One of his most notable works, The Asylum Dance, won the Whitbread Poetry Award and was shortlisted for both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for best collection in 2000. He currently teaches at St Andrews University.

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Now, as the haar comes in,

I look for ghosts,

children with dip-nets, women with salt in their faces,

men going out before dawn in the coats that will drown them …

from ‘Haar’, Selected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006)

Key title: Black Cat Bone (Cape, 2011)

Douglas Dunn

Douglas Dunn is perhaps most famous for Elegies, a moving series of poems about his first wife’s death, written in 1985. Awarded an OBE in 2003, Dunn’s formidable body of work has been translated into several languages (including French, German, Spanish, Slovak, Italian, Armenian, Norwegian, and Japanese). He is also a noted critic, having written book reviews for, amongst others, the New Yorker and the Times Literary Supplement.

A sky that tastes of rain that’s still to fall

And then of rain that falls and tastes of sky ...

The colour of the country’s moist and subtle

In dusk’s expected rumour…

from ‘Tay Bridge’, New Selected Poems 1964-2000 (London: Faber and Faber, 2003)

Key title: New Selected Poems: 1964-1999

Don Paterson

Don Paterson’s extensive catalogue of writing - from radio and theatre drama to anthologies of other poets’ works, including Burns - has made the Dundee-born writer a prominent figure within Scottish poetry.Paterson is also an accomplished jazz guitarist (he has been a musician since his teens), and has collaborated with jazz-folk ensemble Lammas.

I love all films that start with rain:

rain, braiding a windowpane

or darkening a hung-out dress

or streaming down her upturned face…

from ‘Rain’, Rain (Faber, 2009)

Key title: Landing Light (Faber, 2004)

Liz Lochhead

Scots Makar - the National Poet for Scotland - since 2011, Liz Lochhead is a leading figure in Scottish literature. Her adaptions of Molière’s Tartuffe for the Lyceum (1986) and Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) are two of many notable successes. The Scotsman has previously said of Lochhead: “Her pulse [is] the racing, faltering pulse of a nation obsessed with identity and self-analysis. For 25 years, Lochhead has been the distinctive female voice of Scotland. Gallus, inquisitive, accusing and playful.”

All praise to poetry, the way it has

of attaching itself to a familiar phrase

in a new way, insisting it be heard and seen.

Poets need no laurels, surely?

from ‘Poets Need Not’, A Choosing (Polygon, 2011)

Key title: A Choosing

Kathleen Jamie

By the time of Kathleen Jamie’s first published work, Black Spiders, in 1982, she was already earning praise from figures such as Douglas Dunn. Her well-regarded travelogues (The Golden Peak and The Autonomous Region) have informed much of her writing since, some of which has won awards including the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award for Jizzen (1999) and Forward Prize for Poetry and Scottish Book of the Year Award Jamie for The Tree House (2004). Jamie is currently Professor of Creative Writing at University of Stirling.

Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises

to the Lord God of movement, to Absolute

non-friction, flight, and the scarey side:

death by avalanche, birth by failed contraception.

from ‘The Way We Live’, Mr. & Mrs. Scotland are Dead: Poems 1980-1994 (Bloodaxe Books)

Key title: The Tree House (Picador)

Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay has published poetry aimed at both adults and children. Her first book, The Adoption Papers (1991), won both the Saltire Society Award for best debut and a Scottish Arts Council Book award. Her work often explores the fluidity of identity, by turns evading and confronting categorisation. Kay was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2006. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle.

We who loved sincerely; we who loved sae fiercely.

The snow ne’er looked sae barrie,

Nor the winter trees sae pretty.

C’mon, c’mon my dearie – tak my hand, my fiere!

from ‘Fiere;, Fiere (Picador, 2011)

Key title: Darling: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe, 2007)

Robin Robertson

The author of several poetry collections, perhaps the most notable of which are his translations of Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer (A Deleted World, 2006), Robertson is also a successful publisher. Having grown up in the north east of Scotland, Robertson’s surroundings left a lasting impression on his work. His austere, uncompromising poetry has drawn widespread admiration.

Grief is the price

we pay for love,

and the death of love

the fee of all desire.

from ‘Lesson’, from The Wrecking Light (Picador, 2010)

Key title: The Wrecking Light

Robert Crawford

One of a clutch of poets, alongside Kathleen Jamie and others, tagged as the ‘new generation’ of poets in 1994, Robert Crawford was a student at Glasgow and Oxford universities. Crawford is as widely known for his literary criticism as he is for his poetry: Scotland’s Books (2007) won the Saltire Scottish Research Book of the Year Award. A biography of Robert Burns, published in 2009 (The Bard), won the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award.

Semiconductor country, land crammed with intimate expanses,

Your cities are superlattices, heterojunctive

Graphed from the air, your cropmarked farmlands

are epitaxies of tweed.

from ‘Scotland’, A Scottish Assembly (Chatto, 1990)

Key title: Full Volume (Cape, 2008)

Robert Alan Jamieson

A Shetlander by birth, raised on the crofting community of Sandness, Robert Alan Jamieson now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh, where he had studied as a mature student. Two novels and a collection of poems published in the 80s prefaced a post in Perth, taking up the William Soutar Fellowship in 1993 for three years. He also co-edited Edinburgh Review from 1993 until 1998, and was Creative Writing Fellow at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde from 1998 to 2001.

This the line my

heart defaults to you

along, links Scotland,

Norway north to

Ireland west, to

Sodoroy beyond…

from ‘Lios Mhor’, from Dream State, edited by Donny O’Rourke (Polygon, 2002)

Key title: Nort Atlantik Drift (Luath, 2007)

• For more information on Scottish poetry, past and present, visit the Scottish Poetry Library’s website at www.spl.org.uk