‘Why do you seldom write poems these days?’ It’s a question I sometimes get from readers who know that my last book of verse came out years ago. Well, I haven’t abandoned that genre but the focus of my writing-for-publication, which once used to be on poetry, has indeed been on prose fiction for some while now. Why this shift?
My reasons relate to two different factors. One of them is mentioned by Richard King in a recent review of a volume of poems. The pace of life now, he remarks, is increasingly at odds with the slow reading that poetry demands: ‘Assailed from all sides by trivia, we’ve lost the habit of the sustained contemplation needed to engage with this most challenging of art forms.’ So hardly anyone who writes poetry today could realistically expect more than a handful of readers. Twenty years ago it was possible to reach a larger audience.
The other factor is simply that I’ve become more and more absorbed in the capacity of narrative to give meaning to experience. For me, this brief remark sums up the matter neatly:
After a certain point, life presents itself not so much as a mosaic of lyric moments as the unfolding of one thing after another, that is to say a story.
I’m quoting that sentence from Andrew Greig’s At the Loch of the Green Corrie, which is in part a memoir of Scottish writer Norman MacCaig, ‘a recognised master of melancholy’, as Billy Connolly calls him. MacCaig, a poet through and through, disdained other literary genres. ‘Not writing prose, I hope, Mr Greig?’ he would say in stern admonition. Unlike MacCaig (but like me), Andrew Greig has produced fiction and non-fiction as well as volumes of poetry. And in this winsome book the genres pleasantly converge.
There’s a narrative thread, certainly: the author makes his way with a couple of friends to a remote hill district in north-west Scotland in search of an elusive loch, where eventually they do some quiet fishing to fulfil MacCaig’s dying request. But that quest is a very loose thread, and the book picks up several others in its ruminative meander through landscape descriptions, personal memories and candid self-disclosures, anecdotes about mountaineering, digressions into highland history and geological prehistory, and moving reflections on love and friendship and writing.
It also incorporates poetry in two ways. Poems are quoted (sometimes discussed, too) at intervals in the course of the book – most of them MacCaig’s. And in addition to that, from time to time Andrew Greig’s prose becomes so eloquent, so evocative, so memorable in its rhythms and images, that it attains a poetic quality – reminding readers that poetry, though it usually takes the form of verse because line breaks intensify the patterning of sound and meaning, can sometimes inhabit prose as well. As Coleridge remarked a couple of centuries ago, poetry is just the best words in their best order.
There are passages throughout Greig’s book that are powerfully poetic. Here’s one example, chosen almost at random. I’m not a fisherman but these sentences convey an intimate impression of what it would be like to stand at the edge of a secluded highland loch with a fishing rod in my hand:
Through many hours as the sun came and went and wind blew across water and moorland, there was no companion, no human voice. But two hinds raised sleek heads by the loch shore as I approached, jumped up and scuttled away. In the gravel their elegant prints shone even as they filled in. A flight of mallards went by in Fifties suburban hallway formation. A buzzard croaked in circles until another responded across the hill; they drifted towards each other then were gone. A little fish jumped, a silvery apostrophe marking its possession of the moment.
There was sun on neck and cold hands; wheezing of wind over land; russet-tipped grasses rose through heather and bent in the breeze. Numb fingers cut the line, tied on fresh lures. Water glittered, went dark, shifted to blue, platinum, lead, was clear and brown in the shallows. It clucked, clicked, bobbled on the small stones. Thoughts came and went, clouds opened up, slid back, re-formed. The scrawny mountain held its ground.
Greig’s writing in At the Loch of the Green Corrie is thoroughly Scottish. My own directly traceable ancestry isn’t from that country but my father, whose paternal line came from the ‘Ulster Scots’ of Northern Ireland, regarded Scotland as a kind of imaginary home. Tartan accessories were often worn in my family (there’s a goofy photo of me, aged about 4, adorned with a tiny tartan tie); sentimental highland songs were heard around the house; and my uncle played the bagpipes. I learnt much less about a genuinely Scottish view of life from those lineal affectations than from the poetic prose of At the Loch of the Green Corrie.