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Little Magazines and Scottish Modernism

What is an editor doing with their magazine? It doesn't matter too much what they hope to do, or what they say they are doing: what does the magazine itself actually do? This is the question I've been asking as I go through as many British literary magazines as I can trace across the last century, many of them held at the British Library. I'm working with the poet and research fellow David Miller to compile an annotated bibliography that I hope will help document this world, in particular the magazines with a poetry focus.

To be honest, it is a monotonous task. Most magazines sincerely publish readable poems, but if I had to criticise them - and I think I do - I'd say most of these were slightly but not catastrophically inept and that they veered in tone between sleepwalkers' verse and placebos for hymns. Perhaps I have just read too much poetry, but I can see why it doesn't sell: it's not just the tacit ban of it from the general media and the bookshop, it's that there is just so much lukewarm verse. Writing in good faith is not enough.

Many of these magazines have a review section with reviews that are neither wholly amateurish nor exactly of a professional standard. The editorials usually imply that they try to encourage new writers within a forum that publishes more well-known ones: in other words they are accepting the idea that their magazine represents a large section of the life-cycle of poetry publication, rather than - as a more partisan magazine would - a very small part of it. That makes them very similar to all the other magazines. One way in which they differentiate themselves, though, is through a regional or national filter: a magazine will encourage work from a particular geographical territory. It may not be the initial intention, but particularly in the closing quarter of the last century this territorality is increasingly linked to local authority and central government funding.

Frequently there will be a stated language filter, too: there will an interest in translation, say, and there may be positive discrimination for texts in a particular language. Editorial stance is not always easy to match with what is actually published. Many Scottish magazines, for instance, while saying that they support Scots and Gaelic, don't, for a number of understandable reasons, actually publish that much. Many magazines with a stated translation interest are actually only able to secure translations of work from decades or even centuries ago. Again, there is nothing wrong with this in itself: in fact, a historical sense is no bad thing in a poetry magazine. Nevertheless, in looking back across a century of literary magazines I have the feeling of a largely directionless dutifulness, a having to churn work out which actually goes against the declared ideals of editorial judgement.

I'm not taking a holier-than-thou attitude. As an editor for many years, I know full well that I've done many or all of the above - except "catastrophically inept" may apply to more of my own poems than I'd like to enumerate - but I don't look back on those years with guilt. On the contrary, I'm proud of trying to be a general encourager, of being engaged in serious if general literary and political debates, and I have no intention of losing faith in the ideals I thought I was representing as a co-editor. In this essay, though, I'd like to point to a few poetry magazines that were different. They were different because, even if they differed little in their intentions from the kind of magazines I've just described, they published work of a much higher standard than their contemporaries (or ours), or else because they were totally different, had no wish to be representative, and worked in either a more polemical or, actually, more oblique, way.

Though I like lists, the intention isn't to describe a hit parade of the last century, and I have deliberately minimised discussion of magazines which are still being published today. I've concentrated on Scottish magazines, though just what "Scottish" is I've left open.

My first choice emphasises the openness of the definition: Hydra. This was edited, printed, and read in Scotland, but most would associate it with English poetry. If I say it was published by the Craiglockhart War Hospital from 1917 onwards, you'll maybe get the point: it was edited by Wilfred Owen, among others, and Owen's first printed poem, "Song of songs" was published in no. 10 (September 1 1917). Work by Owen's mentor Siegfried Sassoon was also published there, and, as Franz Fanon would later try in the south of France, it is clear that Hydra was in part a therapeutic tool for the hospital. I rate a few of Owen's poems very highly: they contributed to the modernisation of poetry in both England and Scotland, and they are, of course, angry and moving poems.

Where would Scottish literature be without Hugh MacDiarmid? Let's not fight about it. It's clear that his magazines were important, and not just for publishing his own poetry. The Scottish Chapbook, edited by that C. M. Grieve - whose name seems less real now than the MacDiarmid pseudonym - published groundbreaking articles on Scottish literature's history and culture, and it was the first magazine to publish MacDiarmid's Scots lyrics. It only ran from August 1922 to the end of 1923. The Scottish Chapbook's title probably alludes to Harold Monro's Monthly Chapbook, one of the key magazines of modern poetry in English, though of course the word Chapbook and its variants is a popular literary magazine word, drawing as it does on a certain nostalgia for the books that pedlars had to sell for a living.

Although MacDiarmid was obviously very interested in looking again at the past, the magazine's motto was "Not traditions - precedents". That line should be in his Collected Poems, if it isn't there already. Contributors included William Soutar, Neil M. Gunn and Edwin Muir - writers who form part of the Scottish canon now, but in the case at least of Gunn and Soutar were prescient choices then. Like that of Hydra the publisher was unconventional. It was Grieve himself, and the location was neither in Scotland's capital nor its largest city, but the small north-eastern town of Montrose, where Grieve worked as a journalist.

It was from there that he also produced The Scottish Nation, running from May 1923 to December of the same year: despite its title, it was the more internationalist sister of the two magazines. As Margery McCulloch has pointed out recently it was one of the first places, for example, to publish an account in English of Friedrich Hölderlin. The two magazines, running concurrently for several months, complemented each other in that way and were the beginnings of MacDiarmid's lifelong attempt to cover vast areas of Scottish cultural life, historically and as a cross-section of his own time, while he also hoped to cast his net over a utopian mass of biological, physical and trans-national phenomena. It is one of the paradoxes of his work that his striving for an almost 1:1 representativeness - an ideal heterogeneity of matter - made him seem partisan and polemical. MacDiarmid ticked all the metaphorical boxes he could put his pen to, then had to cover the back of the foolscap sheet with more.

Oh, that's enough MacDiarmid - though he edited several more significant magazines over the decades. My next choice would be a magazine that seems forgotten among discussion of the interwar years in Scotland, perhaps because it was published by the London publisher Stanley Nott. It's funny, sometimes I think that today's Scottish media prefer to review and give accolades to Scottish authors only when they've been validated by publication in England, while Scottish academe tends to prefer Scottish authors who were only published in Scotland. Perhaps I overstate the case, but it would be good to see a more bilateral approach. Anyway, The European Quarterly was an exemplary magazine. Co-edited by Edwin Muir and the Russian Janko Lavrin, it ran for only four issues, from May 1934 to February 1935. It has a modern sensibility to it that MacDiarmid's magazines, ironically enough, sometimes lack, and it published early translations of work by Otokar Brezina, Lorca, Kafka, Blok, Tadeusz Micinski, and Kierkegaard. George Barker, David Gascoyne and C. M. Grieve himself also appeared, as did various essays on the politics and culture of Europe. To me, there is an urgency to the magazine: Muir and Lavrin were trying to bring Europe's finest work into Britain before Fascism obliterated it at source.

Back in Scotland, The Modern Scot, edited by the American James H. Whyte, was one of the most impressive titles in the 1930s. Again, its publication was unconventional: it had an office in Dundee, was printed in Montrose, but Whyte's art gallery and his Abbey Bookshop, both in St Andrews, were key locations for the joined-up infrastructure he established around the magazine. The link to the visual arts is quite an important one for poetry. You can see this in Apollinaire's heralding of Cubism and Surrealism, with Mayakovsky and Russian Futurism, and in a smaller way, with Wyndham Lewis's association with English Vorticism. Lewis's Blast of 1914 and 1915 was a magazine that was as much a file of manifesto posters as it was a work of criticism and review. The idea of the poem becoming a visual artefact did not, of course, begin in the twentieth century, but the modern magazines that pursued this - like vulgar, bright pink, sans serif Blast - are among the most impressive of their time. There is always a danger with this, a danger that is to do with the way the visual can sometimes be mistaken for good taste, and this is that a kind of Habitat or Ikea insipidness creeps into the vigorous use of typography and white-space. This phenomena does not hit literary magazines until, I think, the last quarter or so of the century.

A few more Scottish magazines to ponder. For some reason many of the best Scottish magazines were published well away from Scotland. In the early 1950s, Alexander Trocchi's Merlin (Limerick, U.S.A. then Paris, France), published Beckett, Ionesco (the first printing in any language), Sartre, Genet, Neruda, Henry Miller, and Trocchi himself. At the end of that decade, Gael Turnbull's Migrant was a slim affair - why are magazines so obese these days, do they have to copy America in everything! - and not interested in literary criticism, yet it heralded fascinating poets on both sides of the Atlantic, poets who would shift the boundaries of poetry in the decades to come. Published in Ventura, California, then Worcester, England, it only ran for just over a year, for eight issues from July 1959 to September 1960. Yet it published early work by Roy Fisher, Edwin Morgan, Robert Creeley, Cid Corman, Charles Olson, Larry Eigner, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Denise Levertov, Anselm Hollo, Robert Duncan, Edward Dorn, Charles Tomlinson, and others. The influence of or affinity with Turnbull's friend W. Price Turner, who edited The Poet earlier on in the decade (from Glasgow), is felt in the understated design and the transatlantic spread of the contributors.

It must be becoming passé to cite Ian Hamilton Finlay's Poor. Old. Tired. Horse as one of the best Scottish poetry magazines of all time, but there it is. Running for twenty-five issues, from 1962 to 1967, it was quietly, discriminatingly, assuredly, an extraordinary poetry magazine. It included work from Brazil, Russia, the United States, France, England and Scotland: in turns it was interested in verbal, visual, futurist, objectivist, concrete and minimalist poetry, not to mention art and photography; and, as with all Finlay productions, it was executed with style (executed is a good word, considering some of Finlay's work, I guess). It is a highpoint in the history of the little magazine, full-stop.

Later good magazines would come, though. There was the grown-up general cultural review Scottish International (1968-1974) and Duncan Glen's beautifully designed and provocative poetry review Akros (1965-1983). In the 1990s, there was Drew Milne's Parataxis, which featured experimental poetry and the phrase that dare not speak its name in Scotland as far as contemporary poetry is concerned, intelligent literary criticism. There was also Peter Manson and Robin Purves's Object Permanence, publishing largely American and English experimental poetry, with a handful of that endangered species, the Scottish avant-garde.

Almost all of the magazines I've discussed here were "non-aligned", made no claim to represent a demographic or territorial designation (while not claiming that these things weren't important), and most were not funded by the state; many were published outside Scotland, some by folk who would have to make special pleading in a Scottish passport test. Does it make you think?

[This article was first published as "Little" in Northwords Winter 2002/03, pp.33-35]

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