Liz Lochhead: hickies, nappies, and twelve inch tellies

Liz Lochhead. Photo:- Norman McBeath.

Liz Lochhead. Photo:- Norman McBeath.

I DISCOVERED Scottish poet Liz Lochhead in the 1993 Bloodaxe anthology The New Poetry, and a few years later she came to Galway to read at the 1998 Cúirt Festival.

I remember seeing her sitting in the lobby of the Atlanta Hotel, late of Dominick Street, site of that year’s festival club. Back then, I was far too small to go over and talk to an actual poet.

In ‘After The War’, perhaps her most famous poem, Lochhead shows the best poetry is often to be found in the apparently mundane: “After the war/was the dull country I was born in./The night of Stafford Cripp’s budget/My dad inhaled the blue haze of one last Capstan/then packed it in.” Into this poem’s 26 lines she manages to cram sex, nappies, the Berlin airlift, unmarried uncles on the verge of migrating south to the dull British midlands town of Corby, and the crucial arrival into the house of her childhood of “a twelve inch telly.”

Some young poets – and a few who are not at all young – think real poetry can only be written about grand concepts, such as hegemony or imperialism, and must include as much vagueness as possible. Our President, Michael D Higgins, a man with a known interest in poetry, should immediately issue a decree compelling all such poetasters to spend at least 10 minutes each day reading Liz Lochhead.

There is a school of thought that poetry should be good for you, like cod liver oil or giving up chocolate for Lent. One of the most appealing things about Lochhead’s poetry is that it strays far from such pretensions to worthiness. In ‘The Hickie’ she finds poetry in the mark one lover leaves on the neck of another during an extra-marital tryst: “I mouth/sorry in the mirror when I see/the mark I must have made just now/loving you.”

Her poem ‘Spinster’ is deliciously funny because it is also, sadly, often the case: “This is no way to go on/Get wise. Accept. Be/a spinster of this parish./My life’s in shards./I will keep fit in leotards.//Go vegetarian. Accept./Be frugal, circumspect.”

In Lochhead’s best poems there is a sense of a woman liberated from puritanical notions, freed from the need to impress, or placate, prim little people of both sexes (and neither ), and likely to say just about anything.

Her first publication – a pamphlet titled Memo for Spring – appeared in 1972. It quickly marked Lochhead out as part of a lively and self-confident movement of Scottish writers, others would include poet Tom Leonard and novelist James Kelman, who rejected the idea that Scottish literature had to be male dominated, terminally middle class, and forever looking longingly towards London.

I do not know what Liz Lochhead’s views are on Scottish independence. She is certainly, though, part of a Scottish cultural revival which has been a precursor to this coming autumn’s referendum, which if passed will see Scotland separate from the rest of the UK.

Liz Lochhead’s reading at this year’s Cúirt Festival of International Literature takes place at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday April 11 at 8.30pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie

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