IT’S wonderful to become Scotland’s Makar, the country’s “national poet”. But what does it mean?

It’s an honour but also a job, with at least three tasks. The post is about encouraging reading and writing poetry throughout the land. Secondly, it’s about providing new poems, a few every year, to mark national events. The forthcoming opening of Parliament is one such event. Another is COP26 in November, which will concentrate minds on the climate emergency. Poets have always been at the forefront of thought about the natural world, it would be brilliant to have a poetry presence there. Thirdly, I think the role has international value too, because poets keep open cultural connections with other countries and languages. Communication and translation is integral to poetry.

These are the tasks, which I welcome. I don’t think any national poet is going to “speak for the nation”. I don’t know if that’s possible in pluralistic societies. However, I do still want to believe in a common humanity which a poet can sometimes express.

Some folks still shiver at the word “poetry” perhaps remembering exams which demanded they grind “meaning” from an unhappy text. However, given a wedding or a funeral, a baby-welcoming, a falling in love or love’s ending, griefs or joys, poems and songs come to our aid. They heighten our moments and deepen our feelings. Poems can surprise us and catch us off guard.

That is the everyday work of poems. But the public reception to the first three national poets and now myself has been so warm that I’m beginning to think there’s something else going on, something that reaches beyond the classroom and the life event. I’m beginning to think that, in poetry reading and writing, people sense virtues which have become increasingly rare in public life. I mean truth, sincerity, and integrity, and the dignity of language.

Yes, poetry is where we can read and write, privately or in a community, and be moved or consoled or surprised or irritated, and that’s enough. But more than that, we also trust that the words and lines of poetry are true. They are not there to shout us down or troll us, or make us change our minds or part with our money, or even provide “information”. The world is loud with political noise and opinions and with instant, un-reflected upon reactions.

The world is awash with information. Poetry doesn’t do that. Whatever it is, a real poem is not an “opinion”. Poems are thought about, crafted, sung – or should be. They can bend or extend or play with language. Poetry is a place where language matters, where nuance matters. Observation is crucial, as is listening. These things gather around poetry and I think many people appreciate that, who don’t actually read or write poems themselves.

READ MORE: Kathleen Jamie: Who is our national poet, Scotland's new Makar?

And language is something we all have. Every one of us has at least one language, so every one of us can make or enjoy a poem. The language of poetry can be rich and grand (Dylan Thomas), or plain and wry (Norman McCaig). Yes, a poem can speak out in public, it can right wrongs and make proclamations (consider Amanda Gorman’s poem for President Biden’s inauguration) but it can also be for questing inwardly, privately. Perhaps we have thoughts we can’t disclose.

Perhaps what we actually feel doesn’t conform to what our community thinks we ought to feel. We can test that in poetry. Writing a poem can clarify something to oneself. (Personally, I never know what a poem is going to be about when I start it.) Intimate moments, moments of joy or grief happen in poems. They are places where we can hear ourselves think, and hear others’ thinking as it trends toward song. We can hear the voices of the past, because poetry is about memory. We hear our nation’s past – and the individuals who make it.

Whatever poetry is or can be, I think a country is culturally richer and better for having a national poet. As I say, even people who are not that interested in poetry sense its cultural value and its ethical value. Having a national poet is a national acknowledgement that there is more to life and language than the din of politics, the news cycle, TV game shows. People are in need of that depth, especially during a crisis like a pandemic. They want to observe the world for themselves, then think and make work with integrity. They want to read work of value – and musicality too.

The National:

What the appointment means in practical terms will become clear as the weeks unfold. But it’s a wonderful thing. It’s not a political appointment – no politicians were involved in my selection. I was chosen to serve by a panel of people drawn from Scotland’s literary life, and their choice was endorsed by the First Minister.

IT’S very grand, but I began writing poems as a teenager, as a lot of youngsters do, and just kept going. Writing, reading. That’s all. I’m nearing 60, but she’s still in there, that slightly bewildered, sometimes bolshy teenager. I’ve written many poems and essays, and still nothing beats that moment when I feel a tug, a hunch, an image and know that I might write a poem. (Incidentally, when someone says to me ‘Kathleen, you could write a poem about that!’ they are always wrong.)

So for those not keen, do try reading a poem. Slowly. Just for the sound of it. Or perhaps listen to recordings, the internet is full of them. Jump in at the Scottish Poetry Library website. We might not “understand” a poem at first, that’s fine. (And if not, just try it again, and a third time, slowly. No joy? Then either stay and wrestle with it, or move on to another. There are plenty of poems, and we all have our blanks. I could name a couple of major poets I just don’t get.)

For those who do already hold poetry close to their hearts and minds, let’s not be ashamed to say that, and live by it.