This Woman’s Work: Liz Lochhead, The First Lady of Scottish Literature…
I’ve been lucky enough to have a few chats with Liz over the years and what strikes you when listening to her is her passion for life. Poetry, and art for that matter, is not a job or a hobby to her. It is a central part of her being, and her belief that poetry improves peoples lives is one that I, and hopefully you, share. Part of the remit of the Makar is to promote poetry to the people, to fire our enthusiasm, and Liz will revel in this. When she was the writer in residence for the Department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow University her door was always open, and she helped many budding writers and poets, organised writing groups and also held one on one sessions. Always positive, even when being highly, and justifiably, critical; people always left with the feeling that their writing would improve as a result of her input. She would appear at reading groups, happily and generously giving her time to those who shared her passion, reading from her own work when asked, but more often giving encouragement to others. She is still a regular reader at schools and colleges. She knows that education is a life long undertaking, but that those formative years are vital.
What Liz’s poetry shares with that of her predecessor and close friend Edwin Morgan is an accessibility for all. You don’t need to have been taught about iambic pentameter or assonance to appreciate their work. I’m always wary of any art that comes with a set of instructions which are apparently required for you to enjoy it. The best poetry can be read on many different levels, but it should always be inclusive rather than exclusive. We have been lucky that Morgan and Lochhead are the most welcoming of poets.
Here are a couple of my favourite Liz Lochhead poems, one which is obviously very personal to Liz, the other which was once very personal to me:
SORTING THROUGH The moment she died, my mother’s dancedresses turned from the colours they really were to the colours I imagined them to be. I can feel the weight of bumptoed silver shoes swinging from their anklestraps as she swaggers up the path towards her Dad, light-headed from airman’s kisses. Here, at what I’ll have to learn to call my father’s house , yes every duster prints her even more vivid than an Ilford snapshot on some seafront in a white cardigan and that exact frock. Old lipsticks. Liquid Stockings. Labels like Harella, Gor-ray, Berketex. And, as I manhandle whole outfits into binbags for Oxfam, every mote in my eye is a utility mark and this is useful: the sadness of dispossessed dresses, the decency of good coats roundshouldered in the darkness of wardrobes, the gravitas of lapels, the invisible danders of skin fizzing off from them like all that life will not neatly end. *
OPEN WITH THE CLOSING (Song) You should never try to make a Lover Of someone who ought to be a Friend So let’s open with the closing – Begin with the end.
Don’t have to be a Guggenheim scholar To realise when I’m beat – Don’t get all hot under the collar when I tell you I’ve got cold feet.
What right had I to think it might be easy? Why was I so sure it would be fun? You know we’d hate to complicate it – So let’s end it before its begun.
First the phonecall, starter’s orders For an over-eager heart – I was off before the pistol. False start.
No, no, never try and make a lover Of someone who ought to be a friend. So let’s open with the closing, Begin with the end. *
Perhaps the best place to start if you want to read some of our new Makar’s poetry is her 1984 collection Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems which collates her first three volumes of poetry. I would also suggest that everyone should own a copy of her play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, which is one of the most accessible and entertaining Scottish plays of the 20th century, and, if you want a fuller picture, you could do worse than get a copy of True Confessions & New Clichés which features songs, monologues, raps, prose and other oddities that don’t fit easily with her poetry. There is also a lovely anthology by Canongate Classics which features poems by Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Liz. It’s called Three Scottish Poets and it would make a great introduction to three of Scotland’s best for someone you care for.
There may be other poets who you prefer. I tend to read Don Patterson more than I do Liz Lochhead these days, but this appointment is not about who is someone’s favourite, it’s about who is best placed to represent Scotland in poetry and, through that poetry, to promote Scotland to others and to itself. It is this that makes Liz the perfect choice. I raise a glass to her and hope you’ll do the same.