Review: The Magicians of Scotland by Ron Butlin
Magic For All
As the title suggests, The Magicians of Scotland follows on from Ron Butlin’s previous collection, The Magicians of Edinburgh which emerged from the poet’s first term as Edinburgh Makar (2008-2011). The present volume collects the fruits, commissioned or otherwise, of Butlin’s second and final term in office from 2012 to 2014. Divided into three sections, ‘Magic Places’, ‘Magic People’ and ‘Magic For All’, it sees him casting his net a little wider both within and outwith Scotland, for all that the nation’s capital remains a key source of subject matter.
As he says himself on his website, Butlin believes that “Laureateship is A Good Thing”. There are, admittedly, a few ways of looking at it. In an age where poets sometimes struggle to reach readers not themselves engaged in writing poetry, the desire to reach and be responsible towards a larger community is understandable. On the other hand, the practicalities of such public appointments can be restrictive. Though there have been notable exceptions, few poets write their best work as laureates.
Butlin’s best work is very fine indeed. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the Makar poems in The Magicians of Scotland, written to some extent in response to official requirements, too directly with others, presumably born of internal necessity. Much of the book would probably work well in performance – indeed, the seven-part sequence ‘The Commonwealth Games’ was written to be read (guess where) alongside jazz accompaniment. I enjoyed the wordplay of the fourth section, ‘India (Raga)’, which is made up entirely from Indian place names. Another site-specific sequence, ‘Stations of the Rush Hour’, can apparently be found on the timetables of Edinburgh’s tram stops, with a poem for each station from York Place to the Airport. Puckishly, the one for Princes Street notes that “the budget allowed for one stop only / along the entire length of our capital’s main street” and urges passengers to make the most of it.
Elegantly illustrated by James Hutcheson, most of the poems in The Magicians of Scotland also carry short prose introductions, glossing the text for readers unfamiliar with Skara Brae and the Ninth Legion, for instance. On the whole, I didn’t feel these explanations added much to my experience of the work itself. Though there’s nothing wrong with occasional poetry, I don’t think it’s all that unreasonable to expect poetry to be its own occasion. While notes can help elucidate a difficult poem, in the age of Google it’s not so hard for people who don’t know what Skara Brae is to find out for themselves. Contemporary laureates are to some extent required to be ambassadors for their art. However, it needn’t follow that they do all the work for the reader.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poems I found most effective were the more personal where Butlin dispensed with paraphrases, trusting his public to make the extra effort. In the elegiac ‘Remembering a Good Friend’, Butlin writes, both wittily and movingly,
“No history but what we take for granted. Our lives are
as already read. And here’s the writing on the wall.
We wrote it.”
‘All That We Have’, which concludes the second section, is a finely held love poem. The last poem in the book, ‘Prayer’, is similarly strong, ending,
“when I return at last to this same hour
and this same place,
let there be someone raising even
the emptiness in their hands
For all the occasional inconsistency of The Magicians of Scotland, lines like these ring true.
(Originally published in Gutter issue 14)
The Magicians of Scotland by Ron Butlin, Polygon, £9.99, 109 pages