This month, the theme of the Guardian’s poetry workshop was set by Scottish poet, John Burnside:
‘For this workshop, I want you to go to a tradition outside your own, a way of seeing alien to your own, and write from there - not in an imitative way ("now, here's my pseudo-Aboriginal poem ... ") but by living for a while in someone else's myth-world in order to renew your own.’
I thought that was interesting. It’s clear that different cultures live by different myths, but how that affects their poetry is far from clear. Yet poetry varies from country to country. I know I’m speaking in a general sense and that in a country like the UK, there are countless poetic styles and obsessions, but if you compare UK poetry to Japanese, say, you’ll find a different tradition and different myths in the background.
What’s less clear is whether you’d find a significant level of difference between British and Italian poetry or between British and North American poetry. In the case of the former, I see clear differences, although it’s hard to express what these are with any great clarity. The influence of surrealism on Italian poetry has perhaps led it in a direction that the mainstream of UK poetry has been reluctant to follow.
Between UK and American poetry, I also see differences. American poems tend to come down very hard on all but the most necessary modifiers and strip every sentence to its bare bones. They often have a conversational tone, “conversational” in the sense of Hemingway-style dialogue. I also see more of a focus on logical progression in American poems, a distrust of quasi-surreal imagery and mystery. Of course, as soon as I write this, I think of many U.S. poets who don’t fit into these categories at all, but it could describe an overall sensibility that can be contrasted to the UK.
I’m not sure whether this can be explained by reference to our respective national myths or not. I did wonder whether I could have sent a poem to Burnside’s workshop claiming it to be in a modern North American style based on that myth-world. I didn’t do that though.
Still less would I like to speculate on whether there is a genre of Scottish poetry distinct from that south of the border. But if one can talk of the “New York Poets”, as expressing a distinctive style as well as a geographical unity, then maybe there is a “Scottish Poets” movement out there and I just haven’t recognised it.