When I lived in Palo Alto, California, I fell in with a creative writing group called Waverley Writers who were pushing the envelope with ‘performance’ poetry long before ‘slam’ poetry became popular. To them, poems belonged both on the street and in your face and not kept as genteel trinkets, twittering on shelves like a caged bird.
They introduced me to their new world of writers, from Walt Whitman to Bob Haas but one that stayed with me was a one-time US Air Force fly-boy-become-offbeat professor at the University of Montana at Missoula called Richard Hugo. He wrote many fine gritty poems on everyday American life but he spoke most deeply to me with a slim volume born of his sabbatical in Scotland: The Right Madness on Skye.
Today, I am on Skye for the first time since being introduced to Hugo. And in the streaming rain, across the rolling heather-purplish moors, beneath Cullins combing tumbling clouds with their towering heads, I am looking for some trace of him where I might pay homage. For what he taught me, travelled as I was when I first read him, was that, in any inhabited place is always a deep rootedness, a consciousness of where you are and—almost more importantly—what and who went before you.
Richard’s poems muse about inhabitants long disappeared; a knight in a churchyard at Kilmuir that he imagines acted above himself and with whom he falls out; two skulls marked by a huge boulder where he can’t work out why anything meriting a boulder would not merit a more formal burial. He ties his human observations into the landscape, moving in and out of the past with a fluency any historian would envy.
Whether it’s because I am driving too fast or not spending enough time at each stop, I grow in frustration, realising that I am very much the tourist, skimming the surface of this profound and convoluted island. From the lack of boats at Elgol to the dismal selection of hotels in Dunvegan well past their sell-by date, there is very little by which I can connect with the people, let alone the place. Although he spent less than one year here, Richard did, gleaning a fulfilment from the hopes of ordinary people, seeing their tough existence with the same phlegmatic resolution they did.
If we could turn our lives that way, the way
the mill stones turned, slow and even,
the milled grain falling dreamy all day, we’d find
some recent peace, a composure we never quite trust
in family portraits.
—Mill at Romesdal
I can’t even find a proper black house, let alone a deserted clachan, eyeless from the Clearances, much less living traces of the Gaelic that streams across the landscape in place names like repeated waterfalls ribboning the steep mountainsides. Even though he died a quarter century ago, Richard goes on teaching me about how to see what is around me here. There are fine poets who have written well about Skye, some who have the Gaelic, some, like Richard who have not. But perhaps it takes an insightful incomer like Richard to teach a cultural Sassenach like me about my own country.