A Book of Poems - Scottish Art and Poetry

In December 2014, a selected group of poets gathered at the Hunterian Art Gallery to read newly penned, specially commissioned works, inspired by The Hunterian displays. Professor Alan Riach of the University’s Department of Scottish Literature (pictured) oversaw the project. To celebrate the publication of these collected works, Friends Assistant Eleanor Capaldi spoke to him about the process and what Friends can look forward to from the book their donations, in conjunction with support from the Tannahill Fund, helped to create.

Q. How did the poetry collection come about?

Deborah Bennett of The Hunterian Friends, and Mungo Campbell, Deputy Director of The Hunterian, invited me to organise an evening of readings to open the pleasure of a dialogue between poetry and painting. I wanted to bring together a company of complementary artists, to take part in a living conversation that others could hear, and maybe even take part in, too. I proposed to invite a range of very different poets, who would write in a variety of ways. In his essay, ‘The Relations Between Poetry and Painting’ (1951), the great American poet Wallace Stevens says this: ‘The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us. There is the same interchange between these two worlds as there is between one art and another, migratory passings to and for, quickenings, Promethean liberations and discoveries.’

Q. How did you decide who to approach to take part?

The event I was aiming for I hoped would match Jack Yeats’s definition of what a painting is: ‘A painting is an event. You can plan events, but if they go according to your plan they are not events.’ I wanted to ensure that the three languages of Scotland in which most of our literature has been composed – Gaelic, Scots and English – should be represented, and to ask as many women as men. That was as far as I wanted to go with self-conscious design. Beyond that, what the poets would do was up to them entirely. There were many more poets I might have asked than those I did, but the resources of the Hunterian are extensive – perhaps there will be a follow-up volume!

So we have the Scots Makar Liz Lochhead, writing about the Scullery Maid and the Cellar Boy as depicted by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), we have a cluster of poems about Whistler, a number of poems responding to the Colourists, a variety of different individual artists are read in new ways in poems that take idiosyncratic approaches and invite you to look again at paintings that might be familiar, and to see them in new ways.

Thus, Rab Wilson encounters The Spey Wife by Jan Steen (1626-1679), while Liz Niven imagines a dialogue between the brothers Anthonie Leemans (1631-73) and Johannes Leemans (1633-1688), Gerda Stevenson gives us the monologue of Mary Queen of Scots at the moment depicted in the painting by Gavin Hamilton (1723-98). We travel through the history of European art, the history of Scottish painting, and various other human histories – all illuminating each other in different, unpredicted ways.

Q. Why do the paintings lend themselves so well to being interpreted by poetry?

In putting the work together as a book, I thought it would be appropriate to organise the material not in any mechanical way – according to the birth-dates of the poets, or of the artists, for example, but rather to orientate the reader’s way through some major areas of the Hunterian collection. So what we have is an encounter with various paintings, but also an invitation to the Hunterian collection generally. Sometimes that can be illustrative and revealing, as with Janet Paisley’s farmer’s worker, the woman in The Turnip Field by Robert McGregor (1847-1922) or with Jim Carruth, currently Poet Laureate of Glasgow, in his account of paintings by James Guthrie (1859-1930). And there are curiosities. Aonghas MacNeacail takes us to a Landscape outside Glasgow by David Donaldson (1916-96) and a sense that the farming world, with uncultivated terrain beyond that, is essential to what we mean by ‘Scotland’.

When I asked Aonghas to contribute, he sent a poem with the same title as Donaldson’s painting, in English. When I wondered if there was a Gaelic original, he sent the Gaelic poem, ‘feasgar samhraidh’ along with an English version of it – which was not at all the same as the first poem. All three poems relate to the same painting, though, and prompt consideration not only of different approaches to the same scene (which, of course, was most famously Cézanne’s approach to Mont Sainte-Victoire), but also to the different ways of seeing initiated by different languages. And each painting has its own language, so to speak, so you are entering a whole world of meanings, across time and geography, when you pass through the portals of the Paolozzi doors.

Q. Which poems resonate with you the most?

Every one of them has its own dynamic, as it opens multi-faceted dialogue with each painting. You might rather ask, which paintings do you like best, because the poems take you into them, in various ways: they might take you to the artist, literally putting his or her pigment on the canvas, Joan Eardley, for example, in Glasgow or on the east coast at Catterline, or they might take you into the historical moment depicted, like the Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots, or they might muse upon ideas the paintings raise, the threshold in The Visitation in the painting by Stanley Spencer and the poem by Elizabeth Burns.

For Jim Carruth, who succeeded Liz Lochhead as Poet Laureate of Glasgow, there are the paintings by James Guthrie (1859-1930) and George Henry (1858-1943) and for David Kinoch, there are Balances – literally shown in the painting by James E. L. Dunbar (b.1949) but suggesting more than one meaning than the simply literal, in David’s poem. There are so many – and they all work with each other, in that sense: they are complementarities, quickenings.

Q. What can Friends expect from the finished publication?

A book that matches the event, when the poets, who studied and wrote about the individual paintings closely and from a startling diversity of points of departure, and the company of Hunterian Friends, gathered and walked around as a group, from one canvas to another. In so doing, exploring and discovering ways in which pigment and depiction, language, voice and forms of address, could interact and disclose new and unpredicted meanings, or deepen meanings that we knew were there already.

Now, in this book, we can present this to a wider readership. Gerrie Fellows, in her reading of ‘Paysage Mysterieux’ by William Gear (1915-97), looks closely over an almost abstract mapping of a familiar, yet defamiliarised, terrain. The painting recollects ‘a flag...cloud...a reel of sky...or breakers furled’ and all of these are ‘vectors’ of ourselves, somehow projections and gifts, from and to our observant eyes, our searching presences, as we stand and become sensitised to the mysterious journey across this country’s ultimately unconquerable, infinite, terrain. She returns us to the ‘tawny oxides / of shadow earth’. A Scottish earth, no doubt, but part of a universe made palpable for us through art, through the arts – painting and poetry, working together.

The publication, ‘The Hunterian Poems’, will be launched on 2 December 2015 at The Hunterian Friends Scottish Art and Poetry Event.

First published: 26 January 2015

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