In a 2014 interview about her role as the UK’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy touched on the delicate balancing act that any officially-sanctioned poet must perfect: how to write poems to order while remaining true to your muse. “I wanted to continue to write as I always had,” she said, “and I have tried very hard not to write a poem I previously wouldn’t have written... For me, it was about finding the moment when my interests and my voice ran parallel to something that could be seen as public.”
This week Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Poet Laureate or Makar (and also Duffy’s former long-term partner) released Bantam, her first poetry collection since she took over the role from Liz Lochhead last March. Some of the commissions she has taken on in that time must have seemed fraught with potential pitfalls, but thankfully – whether consciously or otherwise – she seems to have followed Duffy’s advice about finding a way of fulfilling the responsibilities of the public poet while still writing from the heart.
Perhaps the best example of this is “Welcome Wee One,” a poem written for the First Minister’s Baby Box pilot which, in the wrong hands, could easily have descended into sub-Hallmark schmaltz. Clearly this wasn’t an occasion to try anything too experimental – nobody wants to find TS Eliot’s heap of broken images in amongst their state-supplied babygros – but neither was it a time for empty platitudes. In the end, Kay wrote a poem so deeply heartfelt that there’s no other way to read it than with a great big smile on your face: “Yer trusty wee haun, your globe o’ a heid, / My cherished yin, my heart’s ain!” On the one hand there’s a real sense that Kay is talking about her own children here, not just because of the repeated line “O ma darlin wee one” but because the next two poems in the collection deal very specifically with her own experiences of childbirth, yet on the other hand the sentiments expressed are appropriately universal. That said, when the poem was released it was criticised by Pandas Foundation, a postnatal depression charity, because the last line – “I never kent luve like this” – could, according to a spokeswoman, “put extra pressure on those parents that don’t share the same thoughts and emotions.” Perhaps the public poet can never expect to please all of the people, all of the time, no matter how careful he or she might set out to be.
Of all the specially commissioned poems in this collection (and the list of commissions fills more than a page at the back of the book) the one that really deserves to echo down the ages is “Threshold,” written for the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 2016. A mighty hymn to inclusivity, it begins with a reminder to returning parliamentarians that their job is to represent all of Scotland – the “Inner and Outer Hebrides, the glens and the Bens” as well as “The Dear Green Place and Maw Broon’s Dundee” – and it ends with a wonderful multi-lingual invitation to “come join our brilliant gathering.” (If, like me,
you can’t read half of the scripts in which this final section is written, let alone half the languages, there’s a video of Kay reading the poem on YouTube.)
“Threshold” may be the obvious centrepiece of this collection, but the emotional core of the book is made up of the poems concerning Kay’s family that appeared in her 2016 pamphlet The Empathetic Store. In poems like “Diamond Colonsay” and “The Ardtornish Quartet” we are transported to vividly remembered snatches of childhood holidays on the west coast, replete with cattle grids, standing stones and tins of Ambrosia creamed rice. These poems have no grand political points to make – they mostly feel like Kay trying, as we all do, to fix specific memories before they fade from view. As such, they are perhaps the most powerful personal-universal reference points in a triumphant personal-universal collection.
*Bantam, by Jackie Kay, Picador, 70pp, £9.99