I FIRST encountered Joan Ure as a playwright when I picked up a book of Five Short Plays published in 1979 by the Scottish Society of Playwrights, in an edition of 350 copies of which mine is numbered 85. These plays hooked me immediately.

“Something in it for Cordelia” gives us King Lear and his youngest daughter at Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station waiting for the last train; in “Something in it for Ophelia” a 20-year-old woman, Hannah, and an older man, Martin, waiting for another train at Waverley, discuss a performance of Hamlet they’ve just seen at the Edinburgh Festival with Hannah feeling urgency (“we have … 20 minutes to share”) intensifying, just as it does in LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka’s play, Dutchman (1964); “Seven Characters Out of the Dream” takes off from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; “The Hard Case” addresses the disaster at Ibrox football park when the match of January 2, 1971, between Celtic and Rangers ended with 66 fans being crushed to death; and “Take Your Old Rib Back, Then” obliquely addresses what we might call the “Eve and Adam Paradigm”.

David Hutchison, in his study, The Modern Scottish Theatre (1977), suggested that the delicacy, irony and fastidiousness of Ure’s plays may have limited her audience, and Ian Brown, in Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity (2013), sees her work in the context of new plays by women such as Ena Lamont Stewart and Ada F Kay, then later, Sue Glover and Liz Lochhead. Anne Varty, in her essay on “Poets in the Theatre” in Brown’s edited volume, The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Drama (2011), places her in the good company of Jackie Kay, Stewart Conn and Edwin Morgan. Varty tells us: “Working indefatigably for the Arts Theatre Group at Glasgow University (1965-71), then as founder member of the touring Stage Company (Scotland) until 1973, she wrote over 30 short plays, which were performed across Scotland and on BBC Radio.”

Throughout her work, in poems as in plays, “sexual inequality, and the loss incurred for women’s creativity” is “literally a matter of life and death”. What Varty calls Ure’s “formal, epigrammatic English” uncovers depths of emotional intensity, the enclosures of social positions and power structures, the despair of those caught in the traps of cultural convention and the strengths of their resistance. With respect to that dramatic urgency and the tension between what’s seen and what’s obscured, Ure is a fine writer and important precedent for the work of Lochhead, Kay and others.

With the publication of The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems (Buckquoy, Orkney: Brae Editions, 2018), edited by Richie McCaffery and Alistair Peebles, with a foreword by Alasdair Gray, a serious reassessment of the quality of her poetry is clearly required.

She was born in 1918, named Elizabeth and known as Betty, the eldest of two sisters and a brother. When their mother fell victim to tuberculosis, Betty left Langside Academy in Glasgow at 14, looking after the household and working as a clerk. She married John Lochhead Clark in 1939 and they had a daughter, Frances, whom she raised while John went to fight in the Second World War. She wrote essays as well as poems and short plays and a small booklet of her writings was published in 1970, but she died in 1978 and the Five Short Plays volume was published posthumously. Her writings are held in Special Collections at Glasgow University Library and can be seen by appointment. So this new, slim, beautifully produced book of her poems is a timely prompt to remind ourselves of her work and to re-value her poems in their own right.

This is the opening of the title poem:

There was this woman and she had this tiny talent.
I call it talent for things must have a name.
She had this talent that it happened to be death
to hide. She knew this empirically because, having
the first time, tried to hide it, she
broke out in a rash.
But she was Scots and difficult to convince.
No worse for that perhaps but we shall see.

The tensile, delicate, devious development of meaning through these twisting sentences, that sly insinuation of what being a woman and being Scottish might mean in terms of ability and potential, and the resistance to the pressures of convention and normalcy, are all palpable there. Alasdair Gray’s description of her seems apt: “small, slender, fair-haired, with beautifully clear-cut features and always very young-looking, though sometimes too boney, because her guilt-feeling about being supported by someone else, implanted in childhood, lasted through marriage and led her to eat too little. She made her own clothes and dressed very well. She was eye-catching in a way that was too individual to be merely fashionable, too smart to be merely eccentric.”

Poet, critic and playwright Ian Brown recollected that she once told him, prompted by the politically charged plays of 1970s: “The thing is, Ian, if you want to write about Lenin, you don’t want to write about Marxism-Leninism, you want to start from the fact that, it seems to me, he wouldn’t have done what he did if his brother hadn’t been executed by the Tsarists.”

That observation relativises and humanises Lenin and takes nothing away from the socialist priorities he espoused. This characteristic of endorsing the ideal while exercising the human is Joan Ure’s method.

In “TWO out of a DOZEN OPINIONATIONS” she writes, “What is bad / about having to stay in Scotland / from childhood / is that it unfits me now for getting out.” And concludes: “I am so used to subduing my gentler / inclinations. / There are no feminine virtues / that are useful here.” But her judgement is not passive or pessimistic: “Only hardened hearts / go on beating in Scotland. / It must be about time / for a change.”

Prompted by the suicide of her sister, “In Memoriam 1971” annotates the recently departed: “Virginia Woolf and then, / my only sister … Sylvia Plath …/ Then last year, the poet, Crae Ritchie, / my friend for not long enough, / a waver of flags for peace and joy. / This year, older, Stevie Smith.”

In Scotland – or Ulster – she’d have
survived for about half the time
by my stopwatch for I’ve been watching.
It used to be men who died for a cause
that other folk could hardly see. Now
it is women, rattling cans for aid to
the helpless, and young boys drugging
before they’ve even learned brutality?
I, personally, am getting scared
for me and my sons. And what if
I have a daughter?
Don’t drown us out of the world:
it could be springtime.

Glasgow especially is subject to her judgement: “It is a land of wee / hard men and all I / am wanted for is to / stand and cheer.” Yet the mood shifts quickly from justified scorn, from the personal, “Oh I am sick / to bloody death / from the gritty NO / of a sour people”, suddenly, to:

I sharpen my stainless skates
and I skate wild
on the frozen Yes
of my own joy
my joy, alone.
How about you?

That sense of turning, a willingness to recognise ambiguous blessings in the most damnable places, is central to what is perhaps the most beautiful poem in the book, “We Must Eat a Bird for Christmas”. The tone of that title is so appropriately ironic, as if it were “enacted” by a voice, flourishing a conviction that it is not to be taken literally but at the same time implicitly satirising brutal self-righteousness. The poem begins “out of doors” where, under “a bright sky”, “the skeletons of trees / trace a lacy pattern between me and my neighbours”. Indoors, downstairs, looking out through the kitchen window, we watch with the poem’s narrator the “twittering small birds” who are “eating the nuts we provide daily”: greenfinches “(I call them linnets)” and a great tit, and “city birds, sparrows, intelligent / of necessity” and finally, a robin:

Its red breast bared, divided
like a heart, or a pear if you’re precise.
Somehow – I don’t know how –
for it has all been terrible this year,
we have deserved a robin,
with its heart bared to the cold air.

The ambivalence there, of vulnerability and resolution, and the gratitude for a nature that supplies both such things, is essential in Joan Ure’s work.

It reminds me precisely of that sense we get in Shakespeare’s Macbeth of the world of “babes and martlets” – those tender creatures, vulnerable living things. In Shakespeare’s play, children and old men are murdered, yes, just as modern Scotland like everywhere else has seen great human potential wasted, but the play, like Joan Ure’s poems and plays, also reminds us forcefully of the strength in those tenderest things. As Michael Long puts it in his study of Macbeth (1989): “It is wonderful that a babe can stride the blast, that a bloody babe can overcome a tyrant, and that they both turn out to be stronger than anything that concentrated, ruthless will-power can muster.” What Joan Ure delivers is similar: the “deepest sense of the beauty and fragility of life-forms is found here, together with [the] paradoxical sense that what is fragile is also of immense strength.”

That ambivalence and sense of driving purpose is neatly and powerfully expressed with reference to John Knox’s legacy of prioritising schooling and book-learning, in “Answer on the Side Drum in 1963 to the Blast of the Trumpet in 1557, with Less than Respect”. Knox, Joan Ure tells us, spent 19 months as a prisoner in the galleys, rowing: “It does not mak siccar you ken aboot women / but you do ken aboot slavery.” Therefore, some acknowledgment must be given:

I owe that man my education
I cant help while being glad of it
I know he meant the books for the boys
But now they have got to me.

So this ratiocinative poem winds on to come to an essential point about this ambivalence in Scotland’s history: “The truth is, once you open as a question / the authority, for a start, of the weemin … you get the hale notion of equality started!”

And there is no end to that.

The Tiny Talent is distributed by Stromness Books and Prints, 1 Graham Place, Stromness, Orkney, KW16 3BY. +44(0)1856850565 / grahamplace1@hotmail.com Copies are available from Good Press Gallery, 5 St Margaret’s Place, Glasgow G1 5JY and Lighthouse, 43-45 West Nicolson Street, Edinburgh EH8 9DB.