ALMOST 8,000 poems – that’s what stalwart readers of The Herald were offered over the period 1996 to 2021. To my knowledge, this makes ours the longest-running poetry feature in the UK (and probably anywhere). It started modestly enough when the then editor asked if we could sustain it for a year. In the event, it was still running strongly 25 years later. Always a labor of love, it has now become a weekly feature in The Herald’s Saturday Magazine.
The astonishing longevity of the daily poem and the popularity of poetry generally among our readers can be seen partly in a historical context. Since 1783 no fewer than five editors have been poets, or at least skilled versifiers. And Robert Burns is supposed to have contributed poems anonymously to the paper in the 1790s. Oh Robert Burns. He has made a deep imprint on Scotland’s psyche. Almost every Scot can recite or sing bits of his poems by him, from Ae Fond Kiss and To A Mouse to Tam o’ Shanter; and the world joins us in singing Auld Lang Syne to welcome in the New Year.
Many Herald readers have studied English and Scottish literature at the nation’s universities. These classes could be several hundred strong, huddled in the big tiered classrooms of Glasgow University’s Arts Quadrangle. That’s where, in my student days, we were introduced to the great sonorities of Milton by Burns’s modern successor, Edwin Morgan.
The popularity of the daily poem was proven in the early 2000s, when a broom-sweeping new editor abruptly stopped it. He was apparently besieged by complaints. Within a couple of weeks he was on the phone, admitting ruefully that the poetry column had turned out to be one of the most popular features in the paper. He asked me to return. Yo hice.
It has been, and remains, a rare privilege to choose material from the endless riches of English, Scottish, and American literature, as well as the occasional translation from French or Latin, German or Chinese. Occasionally, too, I contribute poems of my own, as in today’s Magazine.
When the daily poem was set up, I hoped it would be a small oasis for reflection and enjoyment among the often dark news material surrounding it. And by and large the tone has been light. But poetry can, and sometimes must, deal with the most chilling circumstances. Every November, around Remembrance Day, there has been a sequence of war poems, including such harrowing Scottish classics as Charles Hamilton Sorley’s When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead and Hamish Henderson’s magisterial Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica.
My own taste in poetry has ranged widely over the years: Thomas Hardy, the Scottish cleric-poet Andrew Young, the New England masters Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, have joined the indispensable Wordsworth and the Metaphysical brigade, particularly Andrew Marvell, among my favorites. .
Admirable poetry publishers such as Bloodaxe Books, Carcanet, Polygon and Luath and a host of small publishers have kept contemporary writing to the fore. Poetry collections even come from New York.
Poems from such sources will remain the bedrock of the new Saturday column.