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From Renaissance to Referendum: Poetry, Culture and Politics

Blog • • Dr Greg Thomas

Next Thursday (12 November 2015) the Scottish Poetry Library will host the second in a series of free, public seminars co-organised with Edinburgh University, funded partly through a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship which I’m currently undertaking at the University.

The idea behind this series developed naturally out of the research I’m conducting for the fellowship, on the Scottish poet and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. I’m looking at Finlay’s work with a special emphasis on its political and polemical allusions: not just the references to revolutionary thought and politics embedded in his work itself, but those which arise from some cursory awareness of the cultural contexts into which he inserted it. From the late 1960s, that is, Finlay’s practice developed against an almost unbroken backdrop of theatrical feuds and flytings with cultural and political institutions; and while no-one would deny the often controversial political content of his texts, images and sculptures, it’s my contention that Finlay’s flytings themselves constitute an under-acknowledged aspect of his creative practice: one which often grants it an implicit topical significance, throwing into relief its engagement with ideas of timelessness and immutability in aesthetic, moral, and political terms.

The connection between poetic and political expression in Finlay’s work got me and my colleague at Edinburgh University Alex Thomson thinking about the idea – perhaps the cliché – that throughout Scottish history, and certainly across the twentieth century, Scotland’s poets have played an unusually prominent role in shaping the cultural and political life of the nation. In the wake of last year’s independence referendum that claim would appear to be as valid, or at least as relevant, as ever, so this seems the perfect time for an engaging and inclusive series of discussions which would contextualise, nuance, perhaps even question that idea; whilst at the same time exploring some of the most significant cultural and political themes which Scottish poets have explored over the last century or so. Our seminars cover issues of class, identity, language and ecology, and bring poets, critics, and poet-critics into conversation in an inclusive, public setting. Take a look at our blog to get a better sense of the range of events: www.renaissancetoreferendum.blogspot.com.

At next Thursday’s seminar David Farrier (Edinburgh University) will discuss Kathleen Jamie’s 2005 publication Findings, one of the first in a wave of recent works which have reengaged with JA Baker’s seminal work of nature writing, The Peregrine. Poet and critic Samantha Walton (Bath Spa University) will explore ecological thinking in Scottish poetry from Nan Shepherd to contemporary small press publishing. We’ll be starting at 6.30pm, and we’d love to see you there. Visit the blog to book a seat.

From Renaissance to Referendum is supported by the British Academy and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

Greg Thomas is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, undertaking a three-year research project on politics in the life and art of Ian Hamilton Finlay, part of which involves looking at Finlay’s battles with public and cultural institutions as an element of his creative practice. He has recently published articles in Studies in Scottish Literature, the Scottish Literary Review and the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry; a book chapter is forthcoming in Spatial Perspectives: Essays on Literature and Architecture. He is also preparing a book manuscript on concrete poetry in Britain, based on his PhD research.

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