'It's like an apprenticeship' – James Robertson and Aonghas MacNeacail on studying the powerful poets of the past
StAnza 2017: two award-winning writers discuss their influences, and how imitation is an inevitable part of art
James Robertson and Aonghas MacNeacail are something of a heavyweight duo in the world of contemporary literature: Robertson, with his five poetry collections, six novels and countless works for children, and MacNeacail with his multi-award winning poems, screenplays and songs. Both writers appeared at StAnza separately this year to talk about their own work. But at the 'Past and Present' event on Sat 4 Mar, they spoke together. This time they didn't read from their own collections at all. Instead, they read from the work of two well-known writers from an era gone by: Hugh Miller and Pablo Neruda.
The 'Past and Present' strand is a regular one at the poetry festival. It showcases authors' influences, and allows writers to talk about the literary figures which have inspired them in some way. In 2017, Alice Oswald spoke about Homer, Stewart Conn talked about Muriel Spark, and Scotland's very own makar Jackie Kay gave a rousing lecture on the work of Nan Shepherd.
That the strand exists at all is a reminder of the way that all literature is an ever-changing canon. New writers are inspired by old ones, and in turn, their work will no doubt inspire generations in the future. This idea is something both MacNeacail and Robertson are aware of, and moreover, are grateful for.
'We were talking today,' says Robertson, 'about the fact that we feel quite privileged. We knew this previous generation of poets who are regarded as real giants of poetry. People like Norman Maccaig, Sorley Maclean and Eddie Morgan. We both knew them to an extent. We think there's a sense that you inherit something from that. Not the poetry, no – but you inherit the fact that they've actually made this poetry over a long period of time. It's that which you pass on to the next generation.'
In other words, it's not the words that these men were necessarily inspired by, but the essence of writing itself.
'The other big thing for our generation,' MacNeacail adds, 'is that they developed book shops that sold reams and reams of paperbacks. It meant you could access the likes of Neruda and others and it wasn't too expensive. They've brought us in contact with those kind of people'
Both poets agree though that there is an element of inherited style as well as substance. 'If somebody reads Robert Burns for example,' says Robertson, 'and they read enough about Burns, you'll find that he was actually massively influenced by this poet called Robert Ferguson, who is largely unknown. But without him we couldn't have the poetry of Burns in the way that we have it.'
'I think you absolutely learn from reading earlier poets,' he adds. 'You learn how they have written poetry, and to some extent you imbibe that. To some extent it may influence how you write. If you're a good enough poet, you'll find your own voice. But I think if you read a poet you like, then the first thing you do is try to imitate it. It's like an apprenticeship. That's not just poetry – that's true with fiction or any other kind of writing. Inevitably, you imitate the people you most admire, and gradually your own voice comes to the fore.'
'Also,' MacNeacail adds, 'It's not just about imitating those you admire, because the range of those you admire widens. Your choices diversify by virtue of the fact that you become aware of other people and different fields. As a student, I discovered Gerald Manley Hopkins. I never saw myself as a writer in the style of Hopkins, but the way he wrote it makes you curious, so you explore and go full circle. With Tom Leonard for example I got to know the American Black Mountain poems and that had an influence on me as a Gaelic poet.'
It's the power of influence and respect that has moved these two writers to talk at StAnza's Past and Present event. When Robertson speaks of Hugh Miller he does so with authority, having edited several of his anthologies. MacNeacail's take on Pablo Neruda is a little more basic: he simply admires the man, and finds his way with words beautiful. In both cases though, the essence of their message is the same: the poets of the past have made the poets of the present who they are, and that's a story as old as time itself.
StAnza 2017 took place from Wed 1–Sun 5 Mar.