THERE is at least one great singular virtue that comes through what we might call civilization: conversation.

I was talking to myself, silently, which is to say, thinking. Then I thought if I were to publish these thoughts, conversation is not only what they are about, it’s what they do. And it takes time, to let meanings and values arise. So what do I mean by that first sentence?

Law exists for two reasons: to protect the vulnerable and to further human potential. Beyond that, the greatest privilege of education, social stability and international engagement with others is conversation.

So what does “conversation” mean?

Differences engaged with each other. The engagement has to be open, which means, more than two voices: dialogue is good but it isn’t enough. You have to admit, acknowledge, give way, to the fact of multitude, plurality, many voices, many nations, all within the constraints of human habitation. We can’t live underwater or in outer space: we’re of the earth, and the earth means conversation. Geographies and histories, places and time, colours and rhythm, dynamics and rest, listening: and then taking part, engagement, investment, to try to help to make it worthwhile.

So ... Scotland, writers, singers, storytellers, artists, composers: all who stay open to the conversation, but not to be swamped. Not to be overwhelmed by the inanity of others, in a 24/7 cacophony, the perpetual avalanche of the banal, the assertive, the closed. You have to sense and exercise, deliver that duty to maintain your own voice. Television? Faceless, contact-free, electronic media? Politicos and Management? No. We’d like to talk with you.

I was talking to someone recently who said she had not dared to speak her preference for No in 2014, the Scottish independence referendum. She felt, she said, intimidated, by the exuberant enthusiasm of the Yes people. I said she should have talked to me. I would have loved to hear more, quietly, in conversation, why she would wish to vote No. I’d like to understand.

But fear makes ignorance, ignorance violence, violence stoppage, and stoppage is blockage and thwart.

There’s a horrible familiarity about this. It’s there all the time these days, in news programmes and interviews with politicians, but it was there long before. When politicians say, “I am very clear about this,” you know perfectly well they’re obscuring and evading whatever might be said honestly. And when you put two or more of them in front of a TV camera and let them start talking, it’s obvious how quickly many choose to escalate the volume and assertiveness and interrupt the other, not to get their own point across but to end all possibility of exchange. To drown out the other, and if in so doing they drown themselves too, so much the better. People get tired watching them, listening to their braying. Not only do individuals become lost to engagement, the very issues they are discussing are lost to apprehension, and thus, to understanding.

So often, increasingly, between 2016 and 2019, we hear “members of the public” saying that they simply wish the politicians would “get on with it”. In other words, they disengage themselves from care. No wonder. And so many of our media people seem to either have no ability to present the issues in greater depth and subtlety, or to be conspiring in the bombardment of sensibility, the numbing of sensitivity, the dumbing-down, the closure of access to knowledge. This is a technique as well as a result. It’s a symptom as well as a cause. It’s contagious in a culture susceptible to its own disease.

As the American poet Edward Dorn puts it: “Either we define our allegiances to certain honorific aspects of human nature or we don’t. Most of us know all the time that politics in poetry really amounts to enunciation. Politics in politics amounts to subterfuge, obscurantism, and hiding all you can.”

So why not be contagious in a better way?

If you demonise the other, you end all conversation’s possibilities. Recognise that other as a person and the prospects become infinite.

So please, let’s have that conversation. Here’s an open door. And the open door leads into the world, all its societies, all its conversations. It leads us into the broader spectrum of writers and artists whose commitment remains to a vision of a different social order, where, in William Dunbar’s words, law might be delivered equally to ape and unicorn, eagle and wren. These would include Scottish poets from long before Robert Henryson to long after Hugh MacDiarmid and further, and writers from all around the world, from Dickinson and Whitman and Tolstoy and Akhmatova to Lorca, Neruda, Soyinka and Joyce.

Kathleen Jamie sets it out in her poem, “The Way We Live”: “Pass the tambourine, let me bash out praises / to the Lord God of movement …” She concludes with praise: “To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems / to be: let me bash out praises – pass the tambourine.”

And here’s Ed Dorn, in “If It Should Ever Come”:

And we are all there together
time will wave as willows do
and adios will be truly, yes,
laughing at what is forgotten
and talking of what’s new

And here’s MacDiarmid, listening to the sound of those three rivers, the Wauchope, the Esk, the Ewes, coming to a confluence in Langholm, writing their sounds and movement in his poem “Water Music” and ending its first part like this:

And you’ve me in your creel again
Brim or shallow, bauch or bricht,
Singin’ in the mornin’
Corrieneuchin’ a’ the nicht.

The prospect of the day: let’s sing ourselves into that, happily. And then, when the night falls, let’s start talking through it, let’s have that conversation.

Which reminds me of Adrian Mitchell (1932-2008), that fine English writer whose poem, “To Whom It Might Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)”, that gave its name to his book Tell Me Lies: Poems 2005-2008 (2009), has stayed in my mind since I first read it.

When Mitchell died, I was asked to contribute to a collection of elegies in his memory, and was glad to. It so happened that a few weeks before, my wife and our two sons and I had been driving somewhere in the north of Scotland, and Mitchell’s voice, reading his own poems, came over on the radio, and we started quoting him to each other. So here’s my poem, The Two Travellers, for Adrian Mitchell, 1932-2008:

It was on an island far away, on the other side of the world
A long, long time ago, and I remember our two friends:
They were talking to each other, about someone –
In a friendly way, remembering, a long, long time ago –
And I was listening to these friends, talking about this person,
Because I’d never met him, but I knew who he was,
And at the end of the conversation one of them said to the other one,
“Well – and have you heard from him lately?” and our other friend said,
“Ah, well. He’s dead just now.”
And I thought, “Aye. He’s dead just now.”
It was here on an island on this side of the world
In the year 2008. Your words were in the air,
On the voices of our children, on the voices of my friends,
Giving their tones and perceptions, giving their assurance,
Richly, in chuckle and snarl, addressing the difficult areas:
Teenagers’ angst and adults’ hard anger, seeing so clearly through shams.
One calling for laughter and good reassurance,
The other for scorn to be added to. Both, then,
Calling for company, voices to add to their own,
Just as yours would be added to ours. What honesty you had,
Recognised, welcome, what plenitude of fitting form,
Fine rage and that endless, undespairing strength,
Friendly to all that stays good. Well, dead just now.
All right. But pass me the book. Let’s keep that conversation going.

And the thing to understand is, it is already here. All art is a conversation, usually with the dead. But it is a living dialogue, between any reader and all the wealth of the world, through time, and between readers all over the world and our contemporaries, here and now.

Which is once again to acknowledge: listening. Good reading. Good writing. Books and poems, good newspapers, all the arts, all take part in conversation. And good conversation means that others attend. These things teach us how to be attentive. Your own response, as that of others must be, is, exactly that as well: responding to what’s been said. What you say, unsaid before, is only a contribution, freely given. Or as someone else once put it:

Say what it is, you have to say.

If nothing, then be silent.

So there’s good guidance. What remains is everything. It’s a big world, pilgrims. Let’s take a big bite.