All posts by Ken Cockburn

Ken Cockburn is an Edinburgh-based poet, translator, editor and writing tutor.

James ‘Ossian’ Macpherson

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Born in 1736, James Macpherson was a native Gaelic speaker from Badenoch, who studied Classics at Aberdeen. Fragments of Ancient Poetry, collected in the Highlands of Scotland (1760) were supposedly his translations of works by an ancient Celtic bard, Ossian. The Fragments invariably describe a doomed love triangle.

Its success led to MacPherson being encouraged, and funded, by a group of patriotic Edinburgh gentlemen (none of whom spoke Gaelic) to travel to the Highlands and retrieve the epic poem he suggested was extant there. This led to the publication of Fingal (1762) and Temora (1765). Macpherson’s Ossian poems were hugely popular and internationally influential for many decades, even while there were doubts about the work’s authenticity. It seems that Macpherson was working from extant Gaelic texts, which he considered to be corrupted versions of older poems, and which deserved ‘improvement’ for modern tastes in the course of translation.

Samuel Johnson was one of the skeptics. According to Boswell, “he denied merit to Fingal, supposing it to be the production of a man who has had the advantages that the present age affords; and said, ‘nothing is more easy than to write enough in that style if once you begin’.”

One of MacPherson’s champions was Hugh Blair (1718–1800), a Church of Scotland minister who was later appointed Professor of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres at Edinburgh University. MacPherson composed much of Fingal in Blackfriars Wynd, Edinburgh, where Blair lived. Blair wrote ‘A Critical Dissertation on the Poems Of Ossian, the Son of Fingal’ (1763), included in every edition of Ossian after 1765. Here is an extract.

It is necessary here to observe, that the beauties of Ossian’s writings cannot be felt by those who have given them only a single or hasty perusal. His manner is so different from that of the poets to whom we are most accustomed; his style is so concise, and so much crowned with imagery; the mind is kept at such a stretch in accompanying the author; that an ordinary reader is at first apt to be dazzled and fatigued, rather than pleased. His poems require to he taken up at intervals, and to be frequently reviewed; and then it is impossible but his beauties must open to every reader who is capable of sensibility. Those who have the highest degree of it will relish them the most.

And here is an extract from Fingal, which can be read with the benefit of Blair’s, or Johnson’s, perspective.

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Now I behold the chiefs, in the pride of their former deeds ! Their souls are kindled at the battles of old ; and the actions of other times. Their eyes are like flames of fire. And roll in search of the foes of the land. Their mighty hands are on their swords. And lightning pours from their sides of steel.

They came like streams from the mountains ; each rushed roaring from his hill. Bright are the chiefs of battle, in the armour of their fathers. Gloomy and dark their heroes follow, like the gathering of the rainy clouds behind the red meteors of heaven.

The sound of crashing arms ascend. The grey dogs howl between. Unequally bursts the song of battle. And rocking Cromla echoes round. On Lena’s dusky heath they stood, like mist that shades the hills of autumn : when broken and dark it settles high, and lifts its head to heaven. (…)

Each hero is a pillar of darkness, and the sword a beam of fire in his hand. The field echoes from wing to wing, as a hundred hammers that rise by turns on the red son of the furnace. (…)

As the troubled noise of the ocean when roll the waves on high: as the last peal of the thunder of heaven, such is the noise of battle. Though Cormac’s hundred bards were there to give the war to song ; feeble were the voices of a hundred bards to send the deaths to future times. For many were the falls of the heroes ; and wide poured the blood of the valiant.

MacPherson, unfazed by controversy, later produced a version of Homer’s Iliad, became an MP, died a wealthy man and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.

 

Robert Burns

I’m now offering a Robert Burns poetry walk, as well as a illustrated talk about Burns and Edinburgh.

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Robert Burns by John Tweed

Burns visited Edinburgh twice – first from late November 1786 to early May 1787, and again from mid-October 1787 to mid-February 1788 – and there are many sites on or near the Royal Mile with Burns connections.

In the Canongate Kirkyard is the grave of the poet Robert Fergusson, which Burns commissioned; and that of Nancy McLehose, Burns’ ‘Clarinda’, who he met and fell in love with in Edinburgh, and corresponded with for several years.

His memorial, on the side of Calton Hill, can be seen from the kirkyard, while lower down is Graham Fagen’s work in neon, ‘A Drama in time’ (2016), “centred on the story of the Roselle, a ship that sailed from the Port of Leith to Kingston, Jamaica in 1786. Robert Burns had booked a passage on the boat, but never sailed.”

For more details see Walks and Talks, or get in touch.

Norman MacCaig

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Norman MacCaig by David Annand

It’s almost a quarter century since the death of Norman MacCaig, on 23 January 1996.

MacCaig is often thought of as a poet of remote places – Assynt and Harris, in particular – but he lived and worked most of his life in Edinburgh, and the city features in many of his poems, including these lines on the Scottish Parliament building’s Canongate wall:

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You’ll also encounter him on Rose Street:

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MacCaig, from ‘November Night, Edinburgh’, Rose Street

I’ve just come across ‘Drop-out in Edinburgh’ from his collection The World’s Room (1974), in which the sounds of the city are neatly summed up as

… warpipes and genteel pianos
and the sawing voices of lawyers.

That poem articulates the city’s opposites as “caves of guilt… pinnacles of jubilation”. In an earlier poem, ‘Out from a Lecture’, having bemoaned the dullness of lectures and book-learning, he is heartened by an everyday epiphany:

The High Street sticks his elbows in my ribs,
Lifts up a dram of shopfronts; shuts that book.
– And I raise my little glass where like a cherry
The sun’s stuck on a chimney-stack, and drink.

Slàinte!

 

 

The Gentle Shepherd

Allan Ramsay

The poet Allan Ramsay died in Edinburgh on 7 January, 1758.

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He is remembered in Greyfriars Kirkyard by this stone, erected a century or so after his death, whose opening text reads:

In this Cemetery
Was Interred the Mortal Part
of an Immortal Poet.
ALLAN RAMSAY
Author of the GENTLE SHEPHERD,
And other admirable Poems in the Scottish Dialect.
He was born in 1686, and Died in 1758.

The following four lines confused me when I first read them, as I knew them from a gravestone elsewhere in Edinburgh.

No sculptur’d Marble here, nor pompous lay,
No storied Urn nor animated Bust;
This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er the Poet’s dust.

Written in 1787 by Robert Burns for Robert Fergusson, these lines are carved on the latter’s headstone in the Canongate Kirkyard. They have been borrowed, or repurposed, to remember Ramsay, though in the process Burns and Fergusson have been forgotten. Cut-and-paste, 19th century style.

Burns Fergusson epitaph

Ramsay’s The Gentle Shepherd is a pastoral comedy in Scots from 1725. A few steps away from Robert Fergusson’s grave is that of Adam Smith, who said of Ramsay’s work, ‘it is the duty of a poet to write like a gentleman. I dislike that homely style which some think fit to call the language of nature and simplicity and so forth.’

Here’s a brief extract, in which a young man praises his love’s singing.

PATIE.
Jenny sings saft the ‘Broom o Cowdenknowes’,
An Rosie lilts the ‘Milkin o the Yowes’.
There’s nane like Nancy ‘Jenny Nettles’ sings;
At turns in Maggy Lauder’, Marion dings;
But when my Peggy sings, wi sweeter skill,
The ‘Boatman’ or the ‘Lass o Patie’s Mill’,-
It is a thoosand times mair sweet to me;
Tho they sing weel, they canna sing like thee.

Edina Europa: after the Fringe

These are a few photos from the Edina Europa poetry walks, which took place during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last month. They were taken by Alison Lloyd; my thanks to her for letting me use them here.

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In the Canongate Kirkyard, looking towards the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill and the Old Royal High School.

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At the grave of Johann Friedrich Lampe (1703–1751), a composer and bassonist who came to Edinburgh in 1750 to play at the recently opened Canongate Playhouse. I read from Robert Fergusson’s poem, ‘On the Canongate Playhouse in Ruins’, written after the theatre closed in 1769, and which includes the lines evoking the sounds of the playhouse:

Here shepherds, lolling in their woven bowers,
In dull recitativo often sung
Their loves, accompanied with clangour strong
From horns, from trumpets, clarinets, bassoons;
From violinos sharp, or droning bass,
Or the brisk tinkling of a harpsichord.

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Reading from Burns, with the Burns Monument emerging from the trees in the background.

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Reading another Burns poem at the grave of Adam Smith.

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Taking advantage of having the poet on hand, I asked Angus Reid to read his ‘split sonnet’ about the Scottish parliament building, dedicated to Donald Dewar and beginning with the question:

And with what sign should     the gathering place
be shown…

Thanks to everyone who came on the walks – it was as ever a pleasure to share the poems with you, and the unfolding conversations.

 

Gaelic Birdsong (1)

As Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival Writer-in-Residence for 2019, I’ve been creating new work exploring the links between birds, art and the landscape, inspired by my experiences during Spring Fling. The new work will be revealed at Wigtown Book Festival (27 September – 6 October) but in the meantime here are some insights and sneak peeks…

I’ve been researching place-names in Dumfries and Galloway which relate to birds. There are many, covering all sorts of ground, from coastal rocks to inland moors and up into the high hills. Many of these place-names are derived from Gaelic, spoken in Galloway until the 18th century.

Here are three, given with their English meanings, together with a description of the place taken from the Ordnance Survey place-name books compiled in the 1840s and 1850s. The map extracts are taken from OS maps published around the same time.

Benyellary OS Sheet 13

Benyellarie (N of Glentrool)

“A large lofty rocky heathy hill on the farms of Palgown… on its eastern side is a large precipice called “Scars of Benyellary.”
Benyellarie, from beinn iolaire, the eagle’s hill

Cairnywellan Head OS Sheet 31

Cairnywellan Head (by Port Logan, S of Portpatrick)
“A head land which terminates Port Nessock Bay on the South side. It is a Conspicuous object & well known to mariners.”
Cairnywellan, from cárn na bhfaoileann, cairn of the seagulls

Drumadryland OS Sheet 11

Drumadryland (E of Cairnryan)
“A Broad heathy hill on the North side of a large Moor or marsh, and on the farm of Delhabach”
Drumadryland, from druim na’ dreolan, ridge of the wrens

The OS information can be found at https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk

Translation as Conversation

“I like the elements of ‘serious play’ in Arne’s work. ‘gingko leaf fairy tale’ links the Brothers Grimm and Hiroshima to suggest, touchingly, both a loss of innocence and a reconciliation with the past… ‘the forgotten dream’ makes succinct comedy from inarticulacy.”

“The conversation with Christine has been, like her readings, measured and occasional. Her work deals in nuance, glimpse, intuition, and part of its appeal for me is that I don’t always understand it entirely.”

Extending the Possibilities: Translation as Conversation is a piece I’ve written for the Year of Conversation website. It outlines my reflections on translating the work of Arne Rautenberg and Christine Marendon, over many years.

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Arne Rautenberg & Ken Cockburn, St Andrews, 2019

I was lucky enough to read with Arne at this year’s StAnza festival, and to hear Christine read at the Portico Library in Manchester.

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Christine Marendon, Portico Library, May 2019

“A Year of Conversation 2019 is about us all celebrating, initiating and exploring conversation in our lives. There will be some events involving many people at places you might expect – festivals for example. But there will be many conversation events that are smaller and more intimate too. What is a ‘conversation event’? It’s simply something that’s been planned – that you might have planned – in which conversation plays a significant part or which gives rise to conversation. So it may be a performance of some kind or it may be a group of people (you have) chosen for a special reason to share a meal. There will be information about events on the website, but there will also be space for you to reflect on your own experiences of conversation.” Tom Pow, Creative Director, A Year of Conversation 2019

Making POETRY for the Inspiration Machine

Thanks to Angus Reid for helping me make a 10-second video for the Edinburgh Fringe’s Inspiration Machine. It takes work to make something that short!  We used an old poem of mine, POETRY, which is based loosely on a Pepsi ad from the 70s. These are Angus’s drawings that we used in the video, throwaway style, like Dylan in ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. (Nothing like showing your age…)

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Primary Four’s Edinburgh

As last year, this spring I led another project at Leith Primary School with Lorna Irvine and Suzanne Butler, and supported by the church of St James the Less, Leith. We worked with the two P4 classes on poetry, drama and song, focussing on their impressions of Edinburgh, and keeping fit and healthy. My group wrote about the games and sports they play, visiting Holyrood Palace, and the food they like to eat, as well as saying hello and goodbye in several languages. They also created a series of individual letters, which I collaged together to create ‘headings’ which were projected during the performance.

My thanks to the school, and especially the class teachers, Mrs McDonald and Mrs Kinneil. Here are some extracts from the script.

Hi – sup – heya – yo –
Bonjour — Salaam aalekum – Nihau – Priviet –
In other words… Hello!

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We’re going on the bus to Holyrood Palace.

Outside the palace we looked around and saw
a tower that was 500 years old,
shields that had a unicorn and an eagle,
a bath house and a flower garden,
the learning centre and Arthur’s Seat.

Inside the palace we saw
the room with all the jewelry,
the king’s gorgeous jewels and golden swords –
some swords had diamonds in the middle.

We went into the gallery with 96 paintings
but barely any furniture
and our challenge was
to find a sword slash in one of the paintings
and a secret door that leads to the kitchen
and to count all the paintings

and we had to do all of that in 2 minutes!

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In the evening we go home,
We’re hungry and want some food.
My mum’s banana split and coffee –
That sounds really good!

And when we go to the café
What we want to eat
Is toast or macaroni cheese –
What a delicious treat!

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We hope you have enjoyed
Spending the day with us
In our Edinburgh.

Au revoir – Gudafis – Zytien – Papa –
So long – See you later – Cheerio – Missing you already –
In other words… goodbye!

Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival

Sellars birds
Urpu Sellars, Birds

I’m working as the Spring Fling x Wigtown Book Festival writer-in-residence 2019. My chosen theme for the residency is birds.

Gallant wrens
Jo Gallant, Wrens

Over the Spring Fling weekend (25–27 May) I visited artist studios across Dumfries and Galloway, from Gatelawbridge to Port William, speaking to artists and visitors. As well as seeing a fantastic range of bird-themed artworks, I spoke to lots of folk who shared their sightings and memories of birds.

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Lisa Hooper, Friends from the North

Over the next few weeks and I’ll be reflecting on my Spring Fling experiences, and writing a new piece of work to be presented at the Wigtown Book Festival in the autumn.

Sammons Arctic Terns
Amanda Simmons, Arctic Terns

In the meantime here’s a selection of birds from the weekend – some spotted during conversations and workshops, some glimpsed as I travelled, and some contemplated in  studios and galleries. My thanks to everyone involved.

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Sarah Stewart, origami birds

Conversations
I heard of an oystercatcher nesting on a roundabout, a crow that kept banging into the window, and jays burying acorns. I was told there are no magpies around Kirkcudbright and Wigtown – some say they were exterminated, others that they can’t co-exist beside carrion crows. I heard of swallow fledglings standing in a line on a beam, sometimes for three or four days, before they launch themselves, of thrushes littering the garden with broken snail-shells, and of a buzzard swooping to lift a frog from a pond, like an osprey takes fish. I was told of stock doves nesting in owl-boxes, and that there are more egrets now, but fewer lapwings and swallows. I heard from a member of a rowing club who enjoys seeing gulls, sandpipers and herons up close, and a member of a golf club who sees mostly magpies. I was told of a sound like someone in distress, which turned out to be a barn owl, and of green woodpeckers, red kites, small owls and bittern in Cambridgeshire. I heard of a heron which stands in the pond that’s not full of newts, and of a raptor which, falling on chaffinches gathered at the bird-feeder, misjudged its flight and crashed into the fence, before picking itself up and flying away embarrassed. I was told of a thrush singing at Carstairs Station, of blackbirds flying out from the bay tree, and of a hen pheasant which planned to nest in the field behind a house until the neighbour’s cat disturbed it. I heard of the bell in the County Buildings remaining silent when the ospreys didn’t return, and of sedge warblers which sound like techno and hiphop.

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Goldfinch, on a chair by Bill Johnston (1893–1974), in Kirkcudbright Galleries

Observations
From the car I notice a woodpecker land on the verge, its distinctive black-and-white striped head, while a large puddle in a lay-by that loops off the road has attracted a duck and several ducklings. The looping flight of siskins around a flowering laburnum tree, oystercatchers heard through an open door, the songs of a Galloway hedgerow in late May. At the Cairnholy stones, a blackbird flies from the nearby house to the far side of the valley in seconds. From within an evergreen a thrush emerges, stands speckled on the threshold a moment as if deciding where to, then off. A buzzard circles above the green slope at Port Castle Bay, now seen, now hidden.

Buzzard Port Castle Bay