Friday, 2 March 2012

By leaves we live

'By leaves we live' is the motto of the Scottish Poetry Library (quoting Patrick Geddes, I think), so what better place to do the research for an anthology of poems about trees? I'm very excited to be working with Saraband Press to compile an anthology, which will be based around the Gaelic Tree Alphabet but not restricted to Scottish poems. I had a list of about 80 poems, which I'd used in the A-B-Tree project events last year (see my web page on the project if you don't know what I'm talking about), but I knew there must be more tree poems out there, waiting to be discovered. Thanks to the Poetry Library I have more than doubled that number.

I just can't rave about the Scottish poetry library enough. If you have never been, and have even a passing interest in poems, you must visit the next time you're in Edinburgh. It's down towards the bottom of the Royal Mile, on the right, pretty much within shouting distance of the Parliament (that's if shouting poems is your thing). It's staffed by lovely people, has a uniquely peaceful atmosphere and it's simply packed from the basement to the attic with the best writing in the world.

I've been a friend of the library for a few years. They do free postal lending to friends, which is an absolutely brilliant service. I start each day reading poetry in bed with a cup of tea, and feeding my habit would be impossibly expensive if I couldn't lift the phone, ask for some books and receive a few days later a package of goodness for my bedside table. It means I can take wild risks, read experimentally, ask for poets I've barely heard of, and gorge myself on fat collected works that would break the bank and bend my shelves.

It also means I can read books that Amazon and the rest say are unavailable or out of print. As a poet who has two out of print books now, I know exactly what that means. It's very comforting to know that even though publishers can't (or won't) keep work available, the library is there making sure an inquisitive reader can have their curiosity satisfied.

So, I'm a long-term fan of the library, but only over the past couple of weeks have I discovered the full depths of the miracle that is their catalogue. I've used it, of course, because you can use it anywhere, which is a great help to someone for whom a round trip to the library is more than 500 miles. I fairly regularly type in the name of a poet or book title I want, to see if they have what I fancy in the lending section or only available for reference. But until I started researching the tree poem anthology, that was about the extent of my enquiries.

But now I know what treasures it contains. You can do a subject search, type in a tree species (say Birch), and up comes a list of 38 entries. Some of these are books by familiar names - The Poetry of Robert Frost is there because of his famous poem Birches - but many are by poets new to me. Even pamphlets are in there. Even the priceless concrete poetry art of Ian Hamilton Finlay. And then there are the mysterious items that are not books, but are individual poems in the Scottish Poetry Index.  These are gold dust!

Here's one: The Leaning Tree, by Robert B Shaw. Clicking on its title takes me to a page that tells me that it's in Verse. To be precise, it's in Vol. 7, no. 3 (Winter 1990); p.66. Verse is a now-extinct poetry magazine. There are masses of these, and they are the lifeblood of the poetry scene. Publication of individual poems in little magazines is how most poets get established, get their poetry seen and take part in the literary world. But the magazines are obscure, ephemeral, specialist and you can't possibly subscribe to even all of the good ones and keep pace with what's currently being published, let alone search their back lists. Except you can! Because a deity at the Scottish Poetry Library has catalogued them! 

I've done searches for all 18 species in the Gaelic Tree Alphabet, which threw up about 250 items that looked new to me or needed investigating, and I spent much of this week in Edinburgh going through my lists, in the library, checking up on them. And what treasure I have found! A Norman MacCaig poem that isn't in the big collected works; ancient Chinese writers meditating on pine; old Scots poems; Gaelic poems; poets completely new to me, like the Norwegian Olav Hauge, beautifully translated by Robin Fulton, and poets who were previously just names, like Michael Hamburger, who it turns out share my passion for trees.

Most of these discoveries would have been completely impossible without the catalogue (and all the years of data entry it must have required to build it). To all of those involved, each time I could follow the directions to an old copy of Lines Review, or West Coast Magazine, or Chapman, including even (thank you, thank you!) the page number, I offer my heartfelt gratitude. 

I felt as if there should be a shrine where I could make an offering, burn an incense stick, leave some flower petals or titbits of food. Instead, this blog post is my puja. Blessings and thanks to the Goddess of the Scottish Poetry Library Catalogue.

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