In Covid's hard times, we need the solace of poetry whether it's by Stormzy, Jackie Kay or the life-affirming Magi Gibson – Susan Dalgety

I have yet to meet poet Magi Gibson. I caught a glimpse of her in Edinburgh earlier this year, speaking at the Mound about the rights of women.

Scottish makar Jackie Kay has written a new epic poem called Fare Well, which will be read by David Tennant, Siobhan Redmond and Lorne MacFadyen and broadcast over three days, starting on December 29, as part of this year's Hogmanay celebrations. (Picture: PA)

Introvert that I am, I slunk off before the socially distanced mingling began.

Later a good friend, whose judgement I trust, messaged to say, “You would like Magi. She’s one of the good ones.”

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How right he was. Having spent the last few days in the company of her poems, I know I will like her when we finally meet. I will laugh with her, setting the world to rights over a glass or two of gin.

I will reveal my fears to her, the demons that make me, at times, so anxious I can barely speak. And I will tell her of my ambitions to write better and travel more, now more desperate because of our lost year.

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Dads in dungarees

How do I know? Because she knows me already, as I discovered with a start earlier this week when I read My Father’s Dungarees, her first poem written in 1985. It is about love and bullying, shame and pride, and spookily mirrored my experiences as a child.

The music of Stormzy can be as essential to our survival as basic things like shelter, says Susan Dalgety (Picture: Ian West/PA)

“Eleven years old my small world lost its roof

When I was told the truth of who I was,

Where I should remain.

Don’t let her play with us, a classmate said.

Her father comes home filthy.”

Magi’s father wore dungarees and a beret, a souvenir from his war service, and as the local chimney sweep, was sometimes covered in soot.

My father wore dungarees and a bunnet, and as a farm worker, occasionally smelled of dung. My bullies, “the teachers’ and bankers’ daughters” of Magi’s poem, laughed as they pointed at me, shrieking “smelly” before skipping off. I didn’t smell, but I was poor, and they were setting me “firmly in my place". But like Magi, I am “proud to wear those dungarees today”.

Femicide and Our Boys, dying in doorways

Thirty-five years later, her new collection of poems, I Like Your Hat, is as direct and life-affirming as her first poem. Empathy, humour, anger, hope, despair, spill out from the pages. She writes words to be spoken out loud.

Our Boys tells of the homeless men, once engaging young boys, who now sleep in doorways and ditches across Scotland. “They die, you know, left out on nights like this,” she reminds us, snug in our socially distant bubbles in the week it was announced 1,264 Scots died last year of drug misuse.

Dead Women Count is about the women murdered, not by a stranger, but by a man “who said he once loved her”. It is a homage too, to Karen Ingala Smith who created The Femicide Census with Women’s Aid (England), a record of every woman in the UK killed by a man since 2009.

And F*** This Shit recalls an encounter with a disdainful young female shop assistant, a scene every woman over the age of 50 will recognise.

“Listen, child, I want to say, excessive frowning causes wrinkles; ageing is not contagious, the crone in many cultures is revered…

…and if you’re very lucky you will live long enough to learn this too.”

Hope and history can rhyme

Speaking to Magi via email, where most of my conversations are now conducted, she tells me there has been a huge outpouring of poetry this year. Online communities have flourished across the world, and Scottish poets like her and Jenny Lindsay have been very much part of this renaissance.

“Poems can be an escape hatch in difficult times, a return ticket to a time or place of happiness,” she says. “As a society we turn to poetry to help us untangle difficult emotions like grief and loss.”

We also look to poetry to help us celebrate. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay – which will be fully online for the first time in its history – has commissioned Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar, to help mark the arrival of 2021. Her new epic poem Fare Well, narrated by David Tennant, Siobhan Redmond and Lorne MacFadyen, will be broadcast over three days, starting on December 29.

Even politicians use verse. US President-elect Joe Biden quotes the poetry of Seamus Heaney with a force that even the most carefully crafted campaign speech cannot emulate. His favourite lines from Heaney’s The Cure at Troy have become his signature tune.

"History says, don't hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme."

Why we need poetry

We all need hope and history to rhyme in 2021. This year has tested all of us to our limits. We may pretend that everything is normal, sipping cocktails, laughing at the antics of friends and family on FaceTime, surfing Netflix, shopping on Amazon, but it is a façade. The virus has infected every aspect of our lives.

Even the prospect of a vaccine cannot assuage the bleakness. It will be many months before enough of us are protected from the virus to allow herd immunity. In the meantime, many more will die.

The economic outlook is grim. The OECD predicts that by the end of 2021, our economy will still be 6.4 per cent smaller than it was in the fourth quarter of 2019. Tens of thousands will lose their jobs, their homes, their hope.

And as we emerge exhausted and fearful from Brexit, Scotland’s politicians threaten us with another divisive battle over borders. There seems to be no respite.

This is why we need poetry. Why culture, from Coronation Street to JK Rowling to Stormzy, is as essential as shelter to our survival.

It helps us make sense of the chaos that has threatened to engulf us since the first human stood up and walked. It was part of our lives before science and will exist as long as humans roam the Earth. And it makes us happy when we are sad. Magi, I love your hat.

Explore Magi’s work here:

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