PETER McCarey’s poem “Glyph” starts with that familiar Scottish phenomenon: rain.

It was written in one of the rainiest summers in Scotland, yet it turns the dismal downpour into something delightful in its second line, and by the time we get to the end, it has brought in birds and sunshine, invisible shapes in air and language, and the unseeable faith in love:

Rain on a pond somehow becomes
piano improvisation
a sparrow swoops to the kerb on a cosine
dimpled air and feathered oars
the water has cut a heart shape in the rock
more even than my heart
no formula no cardioid curve
this is where proprioception
touches itself and falters
intention focusses
and burns its object sun on paper
smoke on sunlight written out
in words
in other wordsto cross from see to say
is not enough
and incoherence
will catch my heel whenever I lose the way
from me to you.

Two of McCarey’s new books of poems are being launched at the Iota Arts Space, 25 Hyndland Street, Glasgow, on Wednesday at 6pm. Orasho is a book of essays and considerations, discussing poems as barriers and bridges, coherences and fragments, amounting to redress, a warranty of justice, still touching but going beyond what everyday occurrence brings.

The National: Two people walk through a large puddle during a heavy downpour of rain at Glasgow Green Picture: Colin Mearns

The poems in both books do what only poems can do. Pogo is a timely series of biting, bitter, antimonarchical squibs, funny, dangerous, nifty and necessary, as the hypocrisies of royalty reach new extents of exposure. Here’s how the book describes itself:

“In the UK, as WH Auden might have said, poetry makes nothing happen. Nuclear disarmament? Carbon neutrality? Decent conditions for essential workers in the pandemic? Politically, British poets have supported nothing in public life more staunchly that they have supported the monarchy. Thus does that sinister façade get a fresh lick of paint and a dishonourable clan gets its reputation laundered. Stop it! Scrap the franchise!”

There’s a different kind of Scottish connection with the English Romantic poet John Keats, with water of a different kind. I’ve written about Keats before in The National but it’s worth reminding ourselves of him here in our watery Spring.

Keats (1795-1821) was in Ayrshire in 1818. Writing to his friend JH Reynolds, he said: “We were talking on different and indifferent things, when on a sudden we turned a corner upon the immediate county of Ayr. The sight was as rich as possible. I had no conception that the place of Burns was so beautiful. The idea I had was more desolate, the rigs of barley seemed always to me but a few strips of green on a cold hill – O prejudice! It was as rich as Devon”.

Keats notes Arran’s mountains “black and huge over the sea. We came down upon everything suddenly – there were in our way, the ‘bonny Doon’, with the brig that Tam o’ Shanter crossed – Kirk Alloway, Burns’s cottage and then the Brigs of Ayr.”

Keats would have come along what is now the B7024 from Maybole, and you can easily imagine his eyes taking in the rural scene in its odd gentle pleasance. Ayrshire, more like Devon or the home counties than the Romantic wilderness, evidently surprised him. If this was delightful, though, his visit to the cottage delivers an unwelcome shock, and he seems to foresee the exploitations to come:

“We went to the cottage and took some whisky … The man at the cottage was a great bore with his anecdotes – I hate the rascal – his life consists in fuz, fuzzy, fuzziest. He drinks glasses five for the quarter and twelve for the hour, he is a mahogany-faced old jackass who knew Burns. He ought to have been kicked for having spoken to him.

He calls himself ‘a curious old bitch’, but he is a flat old dog…

O the flummery of a birthplace! Cant! Cant! Cant! It is enough to give a spirit the guts-ache.”

Keats’s notes are poignant reminders of the liabilities of public fame, and the weight delivered by crudity, commercialism and exploitation.

Such things weigh on all the sensitivities cultivated by great art, whether of Keats or Burns. They are a prophetic warning about our “celebrity culture”. A birthplace demands better than the leaden words of a mahogany-minded jackass. Equally, if Scotland in Keats’s time was becoming internationally familiar in caricatures of wilderness and ideas of the sublime and picturesque, no cliche does justice to reality.

Keats's poems of the time, on Burns, Ailsa Craig, Staffa and the Highlands, demonstrate that. This is the poet who chose as his epitaph, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” It’s a judgement on celebrity, on politics, on vanity and mortality, as well as an affirmation of whatever has lasting value. Life passes. But if you can write well, create for others, give freely, your work might continue to help.

The master of evoking water’s speed and charm is Hugh MacDiarmid. In “Water Music” he rejects the allure of the marvellous watery writing of James Joyce and returns to his roots in the Dumfriesshire town of Langholm, and the rivers surrounding it:

Wheesht, wheesht, Joyce, and let me hear
Nae Anna Livvy’s lilt,
But Wauchope, Esk, and Ewes again,
Each wi’ its ain rhythms till’t.

Langholm was MacDiarmid’s birthplace – or to be precise, the birthplace of CM Grieve, in 1892. MacDiarmid appeared first in print in 1922, so 2022 is his centenary year, the same year as Joyce’s Ulysses and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land were first published. MacDiarmid returned to Langholm as if in defiance of Keats’s estimation of “the flummery of a birthplace”: for MacDiarmid, it was a great well of natural resources alive in his memory. And here the rivers come:

Archin’ here and arrachin there,
Allevolie or allemand,
Whiles appliable, whiles areird,
The polysemous poem’s planned.

Lively, louch, atweesh, atween,
Auchimuty or aspate,
Threidin’ through the averins
Or bightsom in the aftergait.

Or barmybrained or barritchfu’,
Or rinnin’ like an attercap,
Or shinin’ like an Atchison,
Wi’ a blare or wi’ a blawp.

They ken a’ that opens and steeks,
Frae Fiddleton Bar to Callister Ha’,
And roon aboot for twenty miles,
They bead and bell and swaw.

Brent on or boutgate or beshacht
Bellwaverin’ or borne-heid,
They mimp and primp, or bick and birr,
Dilly-dally or show speed.

This is poetic onomatopoeia at its most delightful. Just try it in your own voice. What larks! The sounds of water caught in intimate eddies, flowing in full strength, rippling or swelling, magnificent or pretty, so exhilarate the poet verbal effervescence that he’s about to disappear in lofty exuberance, but then he hauls himself back to earth – but let the poem do the work:

Cougher, blocher, boich and croichle,
Fraise in ane anither’s witters,
Wi’ backthraws, births, by-rinnin’s,
Beggar’s-broon or blae –
the critters!

Or burnet, holine, watchet, chauve,
Or wi’ a’ the colours dyed
A’ the life abune and plants and trees
That grow on either side.

Or coinyelled wi’ the midges,
Or swallows a’ aboot,
The shadow o’ an eagle,
The aiker o’ a troot.

Toukin’ ootrageous face
The turn-gree o’ your mood,
I’ve climmed until I’m lost
Like the sun ahint a clood.

But a tow-gun frae the boon-tree,
A whistle frae the elm,
A sput-gun frae the hemlock,
And, back in this auld realm,
Dry leafs o’ dishielogie
To smoke in a ‘partan’s tae’!
And you’ve me in your creel again,
Brim or shallow, bauch or bricht,
Singin’ in the mornin’,
Corrieneuchin’ a’ the nicht.

MacDiarmid returns again and again to the territory around Langholm, where at the moment a major push is taking place towards buying the land from the estate of the Duke of Buccleuch.

Visit the Langholm Initiative Tarras Valley Reserve Buyout website:

We’ll have more to say about this in the coming weeks. But stay with MacDiarmid’s rivers for the moment. Here he is, in “The Point of Honour”, watching the Esk again:

I would that once more I could blend her
With my own self as I did then
Vivid and impulsive in crystalline splendour
Cold and seething champagne.

(Cut water. Perfection of craft concealed
In effects of pure improvisation.
Delights of dazzle and dare revealed
In instant inscapes of fresh variation.

Exhilarating, effortless, divinely light,
In apparent freedom yet reined by unseen
And ubiquitous disciplines; darting, lint-white
Fertile in impulse, in control - keen.

Pride of play in a flourish of eddies,
Bravura of blowballs, and silver digressions,
Ringing and glittering she swirls and steadies,
And moulds each ripple with secret suppressions.)

Once, with my boy’s body little I knew
But her furious thresh on my flesh;
But now I can know her through and through
And, light like, her tide enmesh.

Then come, come, come let her spend her
Quivering momentum where I lie here,
Wedding words to her waves, and able to tend her
Every swirl and sound with eye and ear.

Birds, birdsong and water: movements and music heralding life in its sweetness and variety. Mortality is its measure. By our temporal existence, the value of what we see and feel is known, deeply.

And then we must leave it for others. It’s a simple lesson but it has to be learned again and again across every generation. Fools will deny it, cowards try to evade it, murderers decry it, but a poet as brilliant as this can show you how it works with delight:

A wagtail flits but noiseless – by knowledge awed
Of some great unseen presence? or food its gob in? -
Then suddenly, with expanding sweetness, a glad
Clear note rings out: Revelation!; Robin?

Stranded, I with them! Would I wish to bend her
To me as she veers on her way again
Vivid and impulsive in crystalline splendour
Cold and seething champagne?

No. So life leaves us. Already gleam
In the eyes of the young the flicker, the change,
The free enthusiasm that carries the stream
Suddenly out of my range.