THE next few essays will introduce a little collection of books of poems otherwise bound for relatively small readerships that might reach a few more people through noting them here. To start with, there’s a broader context of appreciation for them and a sense of their intrinsic worth.

It seems pretty clear, looking over the whole terrain of a century of Scottish poetry, that the prevailing currents and characters of different decades could be crudely characterised like this. In the 1920s, in the aftermath of the First World War, the Russian Revolution and the Easter Rising in Ireland, Hugh MacDiarmid galvanised the Scottish Literary Renaissance in poetry, literature, all the arts and politics, to open up the prospects and possibilities of a multi-faceted, multi-vocal nation, distinct from the unitary imperial story of the British Empire so catastrophically concluded in the second decade of the last century – and yet still not concluded. Just look at the zombies in Whitehall.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, another rising tide of poets, predominantly men, produced a major body of poetry in what’s come to be termed the “seven poets” generation. Where MacDiarmid had conjured up a single nation of diverse identities, from the Borders to Shetland, from Montrose to the Hebrides, this company favoured particular locations: Norman MacCaig in Edinburgh and Lochinver, Sorley MacLean in Raasay and Skye, Iain Crichton Smith in Lewis, George Mackay Brown in Orkney, Robert Garioch, Sydney Goodsir Smith in Edinburgh, Edwin Morgan (below) in Glasgow. There were many other poets working in these and other eras, but these names suggest particular priorities of geography.

The National: Edwin Morgan, pictured at his home in Glasgow in 2002.

Since the 1970s, another generation, pre-eminently women, beginning most emphatically with Liz Lochhead and opening to include another diversity of voices, has changed the scene once again. Meg Bateman, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, Gerda Stevenson, Bashabi Fraser, Gerrie Fellows and Elizabeth Burns all developed new forms of poetry which established not only the voices, perspectives and experiences of women as central to the story of Scottish poetry but also the fact that the judgments of women are of equal value to those of men.

The patriarchy was not self-determinedly enforced by the preceding generation of poets, but it was inescapable simply by virtue of their masculinity. And yet no succeeding poet of any worth has failed to learn things from their predecessors, and MacCaig, Crichton Smith, MacLean, Mackay Brown and maybe especially Morgan. All demonstrated kinds of writing succeeding generations learnt from. The scene changed, though, and the geographical predilections of those men were complemented and corrected by the gendered voices of their successors.

Perhaps the most evident aspect of this is in the imbrication of domestic realities in any sense of the international or “male priorities” of “political” poetry. At least since the 1970s, the second-wave feminist declaration of intent made forceful in the slogan “The personal IS the political” has been subsumed in poetic practice.

Thus, Liz Lochhead in her breakthrough first book, Memo for Spring (1972), satirically and scornfully pictures herself as woman, reading the Mirror and her boyfriend as male, reading the Observer: a caustic, witty shorthand summary which she would demolish explicitly and explosively in Mirror’s Song from Dreaming Frankenstein (1984), one of the great poems of the last 50 years:

Smash me looking-glass glass

coffin, the one that keeps your best black self on ice.

Smash me, she’ll smash back –

“Smash me for your daughters and dead / mothers, foe the widowed / spinsters of the first and every war” and from this demolition, from this “cave she will claw out of”, there emerges, “a woman giving birth to herself.” It’s one of those rare things, an angry poem that stays angry. Rage is its justified sustenance. And there’s no going back from that. And there’s no reason not to keep that rage white-hot.

So when Elizabeth Burns writes a beautiful, moving, tender, quiet poem,“Listening to Bach’s B Minor Mass in the kitchen” or her defining exposition of the meaning of cradling and being cradled in her poem “Held” (for my money, another recent classic), there can be no denying the presence of the feminine in the best poems of recent decades, a presence more difficult to find in the ethos of the 1950s and 1960s. This is an advance.

And, since the 1990s, another ethos has come to prevail: the world of online technology. This has led to an immense multiplication of electronic publishing platforms along with a vertical decline in literary criticism, public intellectual engagement of any kind in mass media, a general rule of literary ineptitude in politics, and the almost absolute absence of any critical reviewing of new work or revaluation of the old.

"Dead white men” may be unfashionable but there’s still a lot to learn from them (well, some of them), and always will be. Good poets always know who to learn from, and whatever their disposition, they are intrinsically subversive of the foreclosures of one-sided assertion. All the arts are dialogues, usually with the dead. How else do you learn anything?

Since 2000, also, a prevailing priority of ecological self-awareness has affected poets’ work to a further degree, in poems by men as much as women, with poets diverse in their geographical belonging, whether settlers or natives, ancestrally connected to a specified geography or of multiple national histories. The best of us will welcome such a sense of difference. It helps measure value in the depths of knowledge and experience. Which gets us more or less to now, and a world where it’s almost impossible to say, as might have been said 50 or 70 or 100 years ago, these are the major figures: watch them, pay attention to whatever they do next. You’ll learn from them.

Perhaps it’s simply that the achievements are more clearly seen after time passes. And other people will draw the maps in different ways, of course. This one is mine, as best I can make it, and I can demonstrate quality, but there are always other perspectives, and priorities do change.

Nowadays, there are so many writers doing so many things and many of them are worth paying attention to but none of them rise supremely above all the others. Maybe the best way of appreciating any of them is taking your time to drop in here and there, with your own preferences, not with an agenda but simply armed with the intrinsic optimism of curiosity.

Lesley Benzie’s books Fessen/Reared (Glasgow: Seahorse Publications, 2020) and Sewn Up (Glasgow: Wisdom Teeth, 2000) are testaments to the hope poetry generates, neither wishful nor sentimental, but tough. Because poems slow you down and hold forth images that stay with you, rather than the forms of reporting that go out with each day’s newspaper or into the ether with everything else on screens, they stay with you.

The National:

In Fessen/Reared, we read about John Pilger, “backed up by meticulous research”, sitting across from a US senator, giving an account of the US role in destabilising Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Haiti and Venezuela. The intensity of the drama of the personal confrontation makes the human horror intensely memorable. Violence enacted, self-righteousness asserted, humanity defended, against all odds. There are wonderful, intimate poems imagining Joan Eardley in Catterline, and in Glasgow, where the economic forces and brutalities dehumanising the world so pressing in the John Pilger poem are equally behind the poverty, the fishing cottages and their austerity, the tenement children in Rottenrow, which Eardley’s paintings vivify across time.

In Sewn Up, fond and evocative poems of place, “Tobermory” or “Calgary Beach” are placed alongside poems reporting on the human cost of the massacres in Rwanda. Why do people turn against each other so viciously? Why do we kill each other so much? Only when you take the questions away from the banality of political reporting and into the world of pause, dwell on that, and consider carefully what the words mean, what these actions are, only through the stillness and distance given for thought conferred by art, can we find answers that allow us to grow the needed opposition into strength.

Likewise, there is no excuse for “the relentless, sentimental dross written, sung and filmed about love”. We need to be tougher than popular media. The title “Sewn Up” is a reference to the healing sutures given to children whose mouths have been sliced to the ears by machetes wielded by adults. Their faces may be forever disfigured but their lives and their appetites might be renewed.

Ours, too, if we can read and use our imaginations and critical skills as effectively as we must. The arts are no longer the privilege of the leisured rich, the pontificating church, acquisitive royals, the wealthy, the landed classes, toffs and twerps. Their provision is necessity, survival is their only promise. The world demands it of us all. And Scotland, more than ever.