The material from the writing workshops which took place on Zoom as part of the Words into Music: Continuity and Change project is now available below.
If you would like to contribute writing to thIs project, please email your work to email@example.com by midnight on Friday 21 May. For further details about the project please go to GMB Centenary Words into Music: Continuity and Change.
All the poems read and discussed in the workshops can be found in The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown (John Murray, 2005).
‘Dead Fires’, ‘Old Fisherman with Guitar’ ‘Hamnavoe’ and ‘Sonnet: Hamnavoe Market’ also appear in Selected Poems 1954-92 (John Murray, 1996).
‘Ikey’s Day’ and ‘The Sea’ and ‘Henry Moore: Woman Seated in the Underground’ are printed below with kind permission of the Estate of George Mackay Brown.
Workshop 1: Saturday 24 April 2021
You may like to read To a Hamnavoe Poet of 2093 from Following a Lark (1996) to see how the themes of continuity and change emerge in George Mackay Brown’s writing.
(Please note there is a typing error in the final line, ‘purse’ instead of ‘pure’.)
Stimulus 1 – Beachcomber
Here is poem you might like to use as a stimulus for your own writing, Beachcomber from Fishermen with Ploughs (Hogarth Press, 1971).
It has seven stanzas and follows a week in the life of the beachcomber, reflecting Orkney in the first half of the 20th century.
Preparing to Write
Think about a walk you might have in a place you know well – whether on the shore or in the countryside or in the town. Think about the things you take in – the sights, the sounds, the smells.
- Think about the changes you see on this walk. These might be signs of recent change – or change in your lifetime; change created by humans; or seasonal or naturally occurring change.
- Write down as many of these as you can. Now highlight or underline up to seven that seem particularly interesting or significant to you.
- Now think about things that are, for you, signs of permanence, stability, continuity.
- Again, write down as many as you can. Highlight or underline up to seven that seem particularly interesting or significant.
Write your own poem
Write up to seven stanzas, two lines each.
You might focus on an object or scene in the first line, then make a comment that reflects its impact on you – your thought or response – in the second. Or you might want to add some description.
You might stick to one set of ideas – continuity or change – or you might decide it’s effective to mix them or alternate them.
Stimulus 2 – Dead Fires
‘Dead Fires‘ was first published in GMB’s collection, Fishermen with Ploughs (London: Hogarth Press, 1971).
Stanza by stanza, the poem ‘visits’ the abandoned crofts of Rackwick in Hoy. Each stanza mentions one by name, mentions a remembered inhabitant who has left the island or has died, and gives a glimpse of the empty croft, its fire dead, its hearth empty.
It ends with a plea or prayer to protect the township from ‘a black pentecost’. At Pentecost (the 50th day after Easter Sunday) the Holy Spirit came down on the 12 apostles, bathing them in benign flame and filling them with the ability to speak the languages of the world.
A black pentecost, then, can be imagined as something devastating and destructive rather than wonderful and enabling. GMB may have been imagining the threat of nuclear war; or the threat to the fabric of coastal and island communities, and threat to the environment, of oil industry development.
The composer Peter Maxwell Davies would later use the words as a title for a composition, Black Pentecost, a troubled reflection on the dangers of exploiting the uranium seam found between Stromness and Yesnaby.
Writing: A Black Pentecost
Think of the various threats the world faces now; or those that seem most real in the place where you are.
What threat is most real and fearful to you now? You might write:
- A short prose piece describing the ‘black pentecost’ that might loom for this place; or write, if you wish, about what might avert it.
- A poem or prose piece; the reflections, perhaps, of someone deciding to leave this place, now so threatened or changed.
- A poem or prose piece about the return to and revival of a familiar place.
- The experience of the last survivor of disaster . . . or of someone who has come through it, seeing how there may yet be hope of building a different way of life . . .
- A piece inspired by George Mackay Brown’s ‘Dead Fires‘ written in any way you choose.
Stimulus 3 – Old Fisherman with Guitar
This poem, from The Year of the Whale (1965) was inspired by a painting, The Old Guitarist (1903) by Pablo Picasso. Again it reflects ideas of continuity and change – the continuity from one piece of creative work into another; the change from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic ocean or North sea; and the continuity or common source of human experience. Wherever the man is, the music comes from intense experience – whether of trauma and loss; or of love and desire.
So here is a starting point for a new piece of writing: your own choice of painting or sculpture, piece of music, or craft work which to you reflects the themes of continuity and change. Write your own response, a poem or short prose piece, to the work you have chosen.
Workshop 2: Wednesday 28 April 2021
You may like to read Hamnavoe from Loaves and Fishes (1959).
It is a tribute to GMB’s father, John Brown, a postman, and celebrates the rich variety of the time he lived in, following him from the start of his day when ‘Hamnavoe’s morning broke’ till ‘he quenched his lantern, leaving the last door‘. The poem gives the sense of a way of life passing; and of what might be recorded and remembered in the future: ‘In the fire of images gladly I put my hand to save the day for him.’ As in To a Hamnavoe Poet of 2093, George Mackay Brown hints at continuity as well as change.
Stimulus 1 – The Sea
‘The Sea’ is the first of a set of Four Elegies first published in Winterfold (1976).
The poem explores the idea of the sea through time. It is the domain of the creatures that inhabit it, and is filled with beauty – ideas given vivid expression in the skaldic kennings which name and characterise it: ‘the Swan’s Path’, ‘the Whale’s Acre’ and ‘the Garden of White Roses’. But these names conceal its threat and danger to the coastal communities that live by it and depend on it: ‘The word “sea” is small and easily uttered./ They utter it lightly who know least about it./ A vast ancient terror is locked in the name/ Like energy in an atom.‘
Preparing to write
a) Think of the ocean that surrounds us – or perhaps a river you are familiar with. What is there about it that is, for you, ever present; unchanging? What are the things about it that you notice changing?
b) Think what you would call it if you did not know the word sea/ocean/river – think of as many names as you can and write them down – descriptive phrases or kennings that characterise it.
Write your own poem or prose piece
Think about your own response to the ocean/sea/ a river you know; what it is, what it does; what it means to you and how it affects you.
Write your own poem or short prose passage inspired by ‘Dead Fires’; you might include your own descriptive names or kennings where appropriate.
Stimulus 2 – Ikey’s Day
First read ‘Ikey’s Day‘ from Fishermen with Ploughs (1971).
Now write down the significant parts of your own day – moments, activities, routines, things you notice or observe. The more specific the better. Give a sense of the time you live in now.
Write your own poem, a 21st century response to ‘Ikey’s Day’.
Stimulus 3 – Henry Moore: Woman Seated in the Underground
The poem is inspired by one of Henry Moore’s series of Shelter Drawings in which people are shown in the Underground where they sheltered during bombing raids in World War 2. It appears in The Wreck of the Archangel (1989).
GMB represents the seated woman as a timeless figure: the wars themselves may change over the centuries, and from one place to the next, ‘Troy, Carthage’, Warsaw’, but she has endured, fearful and vulnerable, yet sustained by life’s routines and rituals:
She breaks the long vigil
With spinning, baking, gossip, welcomes and farewells.
With the world ‘burning and breaking above her’, GMB sees her as a figure of hope and renewal: ‘Persephone, wait on your throne’. She will return to the world above and life will resume: ‘In April she will set daffodils in a jar’.
Write your own poem or prose piece
Think of the things that have troubled and/ or sustained you in the last strange and difficult year – the changes and / or the continuities or things that have sustained you.
Write your own poem or short prose piece drawing on or inspired in some way by ‘Henry Moore: Woman Seated in the Underground’.
Stimulus 4 – Sonnet: Hamnavoe Market
If you are attracted by working in a particular poetic form you might like to write a sonnet. In ‘Sonnet: Hamnavoe Market’ in Voyages (1983), also included in Selected Poems 1954-92 (John Murray, 1996), GMB conveys the excitement and magic of a child’s day out in a Shakespearean sonnet. The speaker sets out in the morning with his grandfather, and recounts the sights and sounds of the Market, its stalls and attractions. In the last 2-3 lines it grows late and the child returns home in the gig through a night that is ‘dark as ink’.
Write about a memorable experience of your own in a way that captures the time in which it happened. You can write prose or use another poetic form of your own choice if you prefer.