Liz Lochhead, The Colour of Black & White: Poems 1984-2003; Dreaming Frankenstein & Collected Poems 1967-1984, Polygon
With Dreaming Frankenstein and The Colour of Black & White Liz Lochhead collects over three decades of work. In the author’s own modest phrase, these are poems written “for consolation, and for fun”, but the thirty-years journey has been a long and interesting one and the poems are more substantial than Lochhead’s self-deprecation might suggest.
Although English and drama was important to Lochhead at the Motherwell secondary school she attended - where she wrote the best essays and won the lead parts in school plays - against her headmaster’s advice she left not for university but for the Glasgow School of Art. That was in 1965, when abstraction was exercising the minds of students and teachers alike at Glasgow. Open to the appreciation of abstract forms, Lochhead nevertheless felt that her own figurative sensibility and working practice could not find a grounding in the contemporary milieu. So it was in turn art that pushed her back to language. Attending several encouraging workshops by the poet and playwright Stephen Mulrine, based in the Liberal Arts Department, and then, after graduating with a Diploma in Drawing and Painting, occasionally participating in the different workshops run by Philip Hobsbaum and Tom McGrath, Lochhead found that poetry had become extremely important to her, and that she was very good at writing it. With the success of her first book Memo to Spring (1972), which sold 1,500 copies in a few months – this in a market a tenth the size of England’s – she also found herself actively participating at the heart of a Glasgow literary renaissance.
It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of the first half of the 1970s to contemporary Scottish literature, and of Glasgow at this time in particular. It is also hard to prise apart the different forms - poetry, the novel, the short story, performance art and drama – that would all intermingle in any account of the period. There is a pre-history to it, with Edwin Morgan’s heterogeneous The Second Life (1968) a presiding spirit, and Alexander Trocchi and Kenneth White being hard man and shaman bookends at the wobbly edges of the Glasgow canon. Before Morgan’s extraordinary example, and the unsettling novels of George Friel, there was also the post-war reconstruction exemplified by the poetry and arts publisher William McLellan. Yet out of those writers workshops thirty years ago came authors whose work has driven the much more recent and sometimes more popular successes in Scottish fiction and poetry. Alan Warner, Jackie Kay, Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, Donny O’Rourke, Ali Smith, Robert Crawford, Kathleen Jamie, David Kinloch, Peter McCarey and Peter Manson have surely emerged and become their individual writing selves in significant part through the work of Alasdair Gray, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Alan Spence, and Liz Lochhead, even if one or two others less known from this critical period, such as James McGonigal, are still to receive their due. It has not all been a Glasgow thing, of course, especially as far as the leading poetry magazines are concerned, most of which were and are Edinburgh based. It is also notable that Lochhead has cited the crafted Edinburgh voices of Robert Garioch as one of her principal influences, a master of the sonnet. America and European translation have had their part to play, too. But it is fascinating that for a city, unlike the capital, which to this day has a relatively poor publishing infrastructure Glasgow should have such a good writing one.
Such a context for Lochhead’s poetry might seem to lead towards debates about realism and “authentic voice” in her work. Kelman and Leonard in particular are sometimes championed as working class realists as if the myth of tough Glasgow, real Glasgow, has to be overlaid on each and every Glasgow writer’s work. But Kelman’s work employs a high degree of stylisation, making comparisons with the director David Mamet’s speech patterning as appropriate as any appeal to grit. Similarly, Leonard’s early and continuing interest in sound poetry, and the sophisticated visual/oral disjunctions in his own verse, make it a grave mistake to see his work within the normal bounds of realism, as if his poetry were the transcripts of a miked-up undercover snoop.
This is not to diminish these writers’ sensitivity to the spoken word and there is certainly an interest in the speaking voice in Lochhead’s poems. Another volume that would further mark the scale of Lochhead’s achievement would make a selection of her many works for theatre, outstandingly the ensemble piece Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987) and Quelques Fleurs (1991), whose central character, the voracious consumer Verena, was originally played by Lochhead herself. Clearly the uttered word occupies the border lands between her poetry and her drama, and that is a territory she shares with her friend Carol Ann Duffy, dedicatee of several poems in The Colour of Black & White. Lochhead’s 1981 collection The Grimm Sisters, an exploration of fairy tale and archetypal women, often in their own imagined voices, may well have created aesthetic space which Duffy has been able to develop. Others have learnt from the slightly more oblique elements of Lochhead’s poetry, especially its examination and lyric reinvigoration of common sayings, “true clichés”, and here the Jo Shapcott of Phrasebook certainly suggests productive kinship.
In interview Lochhead has been rightly cautious about her poems being categorised as “for performance”. Her drama is certainly poetic, but not in the slightly limp, worthy way that “poetic” can sometimes mean when allied to the stage. Rather it manages to utilise a great range of registers as well as interpolations from other forms, from schoolground rhymes to proprietory names, and is not always shy of attaining a higher, more sonorous language. Some of her poems certainly do read as if in character, which is one kind of performance, although usually, as with the short staccato sentences of “Spinster” (1981), which affectionately parody self-help advice, the effect is not linear but something rather fuller, rather more complex, as with the image of elastication holding body and soul together: “My life’s in shards. / I’ll keep fit in leotards.” Other poems have a propelling rhythm, where character is not so important as fleetfoot wit, another kind of performance. Even if the provisional and rather condescending category of “performance” is accepted, and also acknowledging the curse and gift of Scottish poetry’s social context, in which poems are under a burden of both conviviality and benign teacherlyness, then these are fine poems, but viewed in that way they are not the half of what Lochhead offers.
From early on there has been both an interest in and a resistance to the lyric, so that in the near title poem, “Memo to Myself for Spring” the persona describes the threatening “forest of cosmetic counters” as “lyric poetry”. In another poem of that period, “Object” (1972), despite an occasional proseyness, parallels can be found with the practice and politics of some in the more direct-speaking elements of those associated, rightly or wrongly, with the Cambridge school: “I am limited. In whose likeness / do you reassemble me? / […] It’s a fixed attitude you / force me into. / Cramp knots calf muscles; / pins and needles rankle in my arm; / my shoulder aches; / irked, I am aware of my extremities.” This looks forward both to later Denise Riley, although Lochhead seems to have then left cooler enquiry for others, and to Duffy’s “Standing Female Nude”.
By the time of Dreaming Frankenstein (1984) Lochhead’s hesitation towards and self-conscious examination of the lyric self has become both more relaxed and more confident: “Hafiz on Danforth Avenue” nods to Frank O’Hara, Hafiz and Edwin Morgan without being overcome by them, without losing its reality as a love poem, and “A Gift” risks some very abstract nouns “I see / when well-meaning / other lovers brought you their gifthorses of nightmare & / selfhatred you somehow stayed unscathed”, by working the varied line-lengths, unexpected line-endings, and mini sound riffs (the “ay” sound in the last line), against its prosaic qualities. Metaphors are mixed or only partially activated (“gifthorses”, “unscathed”), but these infelicities are absorbed by a sense of an improvisational, thinking, pace. The shift by the time of The Colour of Black & White is essentially a thematic one, not one of technique, though there are some surprises – in particular the poem that writes the “same” childhood experience in Scots and then in English (“Kidspoem/ Bairnsang”). The focus is now on recalling the days of the 50s and 60s, memoirs of Lochhead’s mother and father and other people from that time, including herself, and, rather than girlfriend-boyfriend relationships, at the heart of the book are weddings and marriage (as with Verena in Quelques Fleurs). Like the new edition of Dreaming Frankenstein this re-affirms Lochhead as a poet whose work is sociable and always intelligent.
More Literary Criticism
Alphabet of Poets | Ideas
Essays, Articles, and Reviews
All texts unless otherwise stated are ©