With Burns Night just around the corner I am turning to poems from my native land to inspire my writing sessions. As this month’s theme is ‘Folklore & Fairytales’ I’ve selected four poems of myth and magic, poems that encapsulate that eerie sense of uncanny which Scottish writing does so well. If you’re following #mymonthofwords on Instagram, I’ve included prompts below each poem on how you might use these poets’ interpretations of fairytales and legends to add a touch of the supernatural to your own writing.
If you are simply here for the poetry then I hope you enjoy these poems as much as I do.
1. Black Water – Niall Campbell
It’s China that has, as the image of sleep,
the sleeper drinking from the night sea -
their bowl first lowered, and then raised with ocean;
a fisherman’s son, I’m drawn to this.
On second, third, fourth reading I grew increasingly captivated by this poem of myth and frustrated sleep. The insomniac poet listens to the night-noise of his Hebridean fishing village and later looks over at his wife’s black-stained lips, pondering why he cannot drink from the same cup. It poetically captures a feeling many insomniacs will be familiar with - that the entire world has drunk of a magic sleeping potion and you alone are awake in an empty, eerie land. I like that the poet’s final resolve is to ‘raise this waking to my mouth, and drink’, to be at peace with sleeplessness. I imagine many a fine poem has been penned beyond the witching hour and this is certainly one of them.
PROMPT: Is there an everyday activity – making a cup of tea, commuting, going to bed – that might be made more magic?
2. The Fourth Craw – Nalini Paul
And from these things –
sparks in the high darkness
a smouldering moon –
came music, the raven’s song.
It’s sound could wither the feathers of eagles
make fire from ice
play tricks with existence
changing form at a whim.
There was a song we used to sing as children called ‘Three Craws’ (in Scots a crow is a ‘craw’). We performed it when we went guising at Hallowe’en. The last verse mentions a fourth crow who ‘wasnae there at a’’ (was not there at all). So this poem speaks to my childhood curiosity – who was the fourth crow? Nalina Paul’s poem imagines a mythic bird, a shape-shifter and scourge of the eagles. It is a poem of fireside darkness and broken moons, conjuring an uncanny familiarity that has my brain turning over the rhymes and songs of childhood to find new interpretations.
PROMPT: Can you think of any fables, songs or stories from your childhood that might be mined for poetic gold?
3. Hallaig – Sorley MacLean
Time, the deer, is the wood of Hallaig.
The window is nailed and boarded
through which I saw the West
and my love is at the Burn of Hallaig,
a birch tree, and she has always been
between Inver and Milk Hollow,
here and there about Baile-chuirn:
a straight, slender young rowan.
I could pick many, many poems by Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean but it is his most famous, Hallaig, which stirs me most. Perhaps it is because I’ve visited Hallaig, read the poem in stone, where, drenched by rain and sorrow, a spark of imagination from my drowned mind sprang. I saw the ruined cottages, I saw the cliff disappear in water and mist, until there was only the village, the abandoned homes and memory. The ghosts are there, time is there. The poem and the place rooted in sadness where the people are inseparable from the land and time is a deer, that Scottish motif of wild nature and beauty. That the speaker’s lover is a birch tree, a rowan, part of the landscape itself, explains why Hallaig is yet haunted by the spirits of those forced to leave. For as supernatural and fantastical as MacLean’s writing is it speaks to real-life tragedies – the cultural genocide of the Highland Clearances, people forced to leave the very woods, rivers and hills that their spirit is made from. The poem suggests that their spirits have not quite left, haunting still the woodland and hills of Hallaig, repossessing their homeland as birch trees, fast-flowing burns and broken stone.
PROMPT: Think about the geography and folklore of your immediate surroundings – rivers, trees, skyscrapers, traffic lights – how might these surroundings be brought to spiritual life? What ghosts awaken?
4. Medusa – Carol Ann Duffy
A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes
as though my thoughts
hissed and spat on my scalp.
My bride’s breath soured, stank
in the grey bags of my lungs.
I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,
There are bullet tears in my eyes.
Are you terrified?
Carol Ann Duffy’s poems are deceptively simple looking but say a lot with a little. No word is superfluous. In this poetic monologue she humanises the Gorgon Medusa by giving Medusa a voice previously unheard. Dark humour builds to a terrifying crescendo – Look at me now. Is Medusa asking for our pity, to look sympathetically upon a woman made monster by the abuses of man, or is she commanding her lover to look at her so that she may turn him to stone?
PROMPT: Think about the villains, anti-heroes, robbers and beasts in fairytale or myth and write from their perspective. Is there any justice to their actions? Have they been dealt an unfair hand?
After reading these poems and prompts I hope, like me, that your fingers are reaching for pen and paper! Thank you to the writers who have taken in part in January’s theme so far. It has been liberating (but difficult) to break away from my usual writing habits and reading the captivating responses to the Month of Words challenge has kept me motivated and inspired.
Follow the tag on Instagram using #mymonthofwords and check back here at the end of the month for a round-up of my favourite responses to the tag.
As a closing note, if you are at all interested in Scottish poetry I recommend visiting the Scottish Poetry Library website, which is a treasure trove of writers creating work in English, Scots and Gaelic. There is far more to Scotland’s poetry than Burns! Perhaps if you’re attending a Burn’s Supper or ceilidh this coming week you could try reciting something new?