W. N. Herbert
- Dundee, Scotland
W. N. Herbert was born in 1961 in Dundee, Scotland and was educated at Brasenose College, Oxford. His doctorate on the work of Hugh MacDiarmid was published as To Circumjack MacDiarmid (1992).
He was Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham Universities from 1994 to 1996, and has also held residencies in Dumfries and Galloway (1993) and Moray Libraries (1993-4), as well as for the Cumbria Arts' Skylines education project in 1997 and the Wordsworth Trust's Dove Cottage in Grasmere (1997-8). In 1989, he launched the Scottish poetry magazine Gairfish with Richard Price.
His poetry, written in both English and Scots, includes the collections Dundee Doldrums (1991), and The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick (1994). Forked Tongue (1994) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and winner of a Scottish Arts Council Book Award. It was also featured as part of the Poetry Society's 'New Generation Poets' promotion and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Cabaret McGonagall (1996) won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and was shortlisted for both the Forward Poetry Prize (Best Collection) and McVitie's Prize for Scottish Writer of the Year. His poetry collection, The Laurelude (1998), won a Scottish Arts Council Book Award and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
He has been involved in a number of collaborative projects with artists throughout the north of England, including the Book of the North, a multimedia project for New Writing North, and has edited various collections, anthologies and critical works. The anthology Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, co-edited with Matthew Hollis, was published in 2000. He has recently edited and contributed to A Balkan Exchange (2007) and co-translated the Poems of Gaarrive with Martin Orwin (2008).
His latest poetry collection, a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, is Bad Shaman Blues (2006).
W. N. Herbert teaches Creative Writing at Newcastle University and lives in a converted lighthouse in North Shields. He was appointed Dundee's first makar in 2013.
W. N. Herbert is a leading figure in the energetic renewal of Scottish poetry carried out by poets born between 1955 and 1965, a group which includes Carol Ann Duffy, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie, Don Paterson and Robert Crawford. Crawford, who like Herbert is a scholar and critic as well as a poet, has been a frequent collaborator with Herbert – and the act of collaboration has been a significant one in Herbert’s career to date: books, music, public art and cross-arts projects have all resulted from Herbert’s vigorous advocacy of poetry in all imaginable contexts.
To grasp the nature of his work it is necessary both to read him as the author of individual poems and as a writer who seeks to shape Scottish (and English) literary culture. The scale of his endeavours on behalf of literary culture recall two of his major inspirations, Hugh McDiarmid and Edwin Morgan. Herbert is a prolific poet of local intimacy and international scope, ranging widely in form and subject, as much at home with the politics of post-Soviet Russia as with the doings of the Broon family, (the characters of a national cartoon epic found in the deadly respectable pages of The Sunday Post, flagship of the Dundee publishers D.C. Thomson). Herbert is also a teacher, not as the survival strategy of the contemporary poet, though he understands it (‘Ye ken why verse is still romantic? / Ut peys nae wage’), but from conviction.
Herbert has made life difficult for himself in the English context by choosing to write partly in Scots – an act at once affirmative and provocative. He has stated that: ‘Scots is a language capable of doing more than English, capable of doing something different from English that criticises and, ultimately, extends English. That is the spirit in which I write Scots poetry.’ His is not the sclerotic, administered Scots of ‘style-sheeters’ but a promiscuous, gluttonous language that draws on extant vocabularies while also freely inventing new ones as required. Herbert’s Scots can encompass the modernist urban night-epic of Dundee Doldrums (1991), making a city often seen as quintessentially provincial into a forcing-house of the imagination. It can also extend and refresh the vernacular tradition of Burns and Fergusson, achieving effects of great delicacy, poignancy and lyric purity (paralleled by Jamie and Paterson) which seem beyond the reach of his English contemporaries, as in ‘Featherhood’ (Cabaret McGonagall, 1996):
'Sae licht the lives that laive us our griefs maun growe insteed;
thi anely weana man can cairry’sabsence inniz heid.'
The sense of tradition is not to be confused with piety, as the mixed tones of ‘The Third Corbie’ (Cabaret McGonagall) indicate. The bird not present in the famous border ballad ‘The Twa Corbies’ is turned into a comic but eerie (and far-from-passive) object of scrutiny. This poem is also Herbert’s reworking of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ – and in Herbert’s hands the play of imagination is anchored, often sombrely, in a tradition where the uncanny retains its power:
'I have seen the third corbie,
the one who doesn’t speak
but is always riding away
down the straight lanes by
Thornhill and Clackmarras on
his bicycle made of dead men’s bones
with a skull for a rattling bell.'
The ballad is a favourite form for Herbert. Its momentum serves his humour, whether dry or uproarious; he in turn lends the ballad the sense of being an especially public kind of poem by seeming to include the reader as a familiar in the discourse. This positional sense serves as an invitation to encounter material which may be comic and celebratory (‘Ode to Scotty’ from Cabaret McGonagall is a poem of praise to the Scottish engineer in Star Trek) but also thematically complex and heavily Scots in vocabulary. He also writes with brilliant light-footedness in Standard Habbie (Burns Metre), as in ‘Address to the English’ (The Laurelude, 1998). Herbert’s sense of audience is a kind of courtesy derived from the sense of art as both democratic property and unapologetically serious – a combination which, again, his English contemporaries have found difficult to sustain. In doing so Herbert fulfils his claim about the critical stimulus which Scots can both provide for English.
The same might be said of his appetite for large-scale works in a period where the short lyric remains normative. The title poem of The Laurelude is a 40-page recasting of Wordsworth’s The Prelude as the life of the comedian Stan Laurel, who was born on the edge of the Lake District, in Ulverston. This impossible-sounding project illustrates one of Herbert’s perennial interests, and an aspect of his originality. The engagement of high art with popular culture often risks humiliation for the former and sentimentality about the latter. Herbert is never to be heard sounding like a consumer. ‘The Beano Elegies’ (Forked Tongue, 1994) converts the innocence of childhood comics into a meditation on Scottishness and religious division:
'Behind these paper ancestors stands
the protestant in me, issueless;
her eyes, bruised blue with illness,
his throat, where cancer got hold.'
Herbert is also able to rise to the occasion of more formal elegy, as in ‘A Lament for Billy MacKenzie’ (The Big Bumper Book of Troy, 2002). The tragedy of the great Dundonian popular singer, who killed himself and whose gift was in some sense his undoing, is made an occasion of public mourning, with a confidence that disposes of habitual ironies about the diminished role of poetry in contemporary life. The poem makes a powerful appeal to tradition; at the same time it opens a utopian possibility amid tragedy: that poetry might awake the civic sense in its audience and wrest the habit of emotional and cultural record from the grip of the merely sentimental:
'The stranger in our city’s voice is dead
so keep all Dundee silent for a day,
sheathe all your spoons within their mourning cases,
fling all your florins in devalued Tay:
let every mirror hold his fourteen faces,
our strangest voice is dead.
our angel of the ragcart and the river,
the patron saint of tinkies, whose gold lips
could loose euphoric shrieks that split our hips –
but now he’s fallen out with song forever.'
Sean O’Brien, 2004