Atop the cnoc, the moon is new
And scooping swifts adorn
The inky blue.
The verse above, dear readers, is not just a brand new poem written by a participant in the Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms project, but it is also a brand new poetic form.
You will be familiar with haiku, the Japanese three-line poem, typically featuring nature and often with 17 syllables in a 5-7-5 pattern. Recently on Twitter, Adam Streeter-Smith, Access Officer for the Cairngorms National Park Authority, set off a Cairngorms haiku thread with contributions from several folk including Grant Moir, the Park CEO. This was mine:
Wherever you go
on the mountain of blue stones
the wind goes with you.
For the non-locals, the ‘mountain of blue stones’ is a reference to the name Cairngorm which is Gaelic; cairn means a conical pile of stones, often built to mark a summit, and gorm means blue. And anyone who’s been up there will know what I mean about the wind!
But the Twitter game got me thinking. There are various poetic forms that have arisen from the haiku. In 2016, poet Alistair Young wrote a collection in Gaelic and dubbed the term ‘gaiku’. Last century, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg felt haiku form didn’t really reflect American life, so coined the American Sentence, which is simply 17 syllables, usually in a straight line.
One of Ginsberg’s:
Four skinheads stand in the streetlight rain chatting under an umbrella.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. It was after reading this out in the writing class on Wednesday that I said, “See? You too can write a poem!” More than that, I told them that by the end of the night everyone would have written at least one poem, and probably several. And so it proved.
She walked through
The wild blustery night
Hair plastered to her face
Drizzled and drenched.
A caver drifts softly into the trees
and a jowie falls to its tiny death.
You might not think the three poems above from our class follow the same rules, but in fact they do. After thinking about haiku and American Sentences, I decided Shared Stories was the perfect opportunity for us to invent a new poetic form that celebrates this remarkable place. And so, ladies and gentlemen, it is with enormous delight that I present (trumpet voluntary – or should that be skirl on the bagpipes?) the Cairngorms Lyric!
The folks at the Aviemore workshop road-tested it with me this week and we have agreed the following rules:
A Cairngorms Lyric is made up of:
– 15 words
– an element of nature in the Cairngorms Park area
– at least one non-English word
The syllables don’t matter, just the words; it can be any number of lines which can be any length and contain whatever sentencing or punctuation you choose. It can be in any language but must contain at least one non-English word. Here’s another from the class:
Scots pine in the spiral of stones,
axis mundi of the dead,
Yggdrasil’s withering sprout.
You will notice some of these Cairngorms Lyrics have a title. That’s allowed and can be included in your word count or can be additional. (See how generous I am?) Anna Filipek’s example includes Latin and Old Norse and she is also fluent in Polish and Portuguese, but such erudition is not a requirement. Nor do the poems have to be serious. Victoria, who has two young boys, enjoyed the fun of the form:
A-slop, a-squelch, a-splorroch.
Wellies tugged back by the peaty yerth.
Playfully we leap on home.
Many of these evocative words were drawn from A Scots Dictionary of Nature by Amanda Thomson, which is a rich collection of Scots words relating to the landscape, wildlife and rural activity. We also took inspiration from Gaelic place names, particularly those of the Park.
The pink and blue of that gentle sky
Upon the Monadh did not foretell the evendoun.
Meanwhile, I converted my haiku into a Cairngorms Lyric:
Wherever you balter
on the mountain of blue stones
the wind will balter wi’ you.
Why use non-English words if people can’t understand them? As the daughter of linguists growing up in South Asia, language has always fascinated me and I’ll write more about it another time, but for now, the reasons are:
– we want to retain and revive the rich heritage we have in Scots, Gaelic and Doric
– we want to celebrate the many languages of the people of Scotland
– we want to move beyond the dominance of English
Interestingly, as in Debbie’s poem above, we often sense the meaning of a word even without knowing its definition. Evendoun refers to ‘a very heavy fall of rain’. Balter means to ‘tumble; dance clumsily’. How about this one:
Cnoc of Tulloch white well stand muzzled with plark of death.
Children climb to stand high to view.
If anyone out there is a pedant like me and feels compelled to count all the words in these offerings, you may already be bouncing on your seat with your hand in the air trying to point out that Craige has gone over by three. Well, in the spirit of the haiku master Basho, whose work frequently didn’t conform to rule, I’m going to let such deviance go. I think it’s in the spirit of the Highlands too, where people tend to be more laid back and not such sticklers for detail, traits I’m still trying to attain! Here’s another, from someone who turned up at the class for the first time this week but threw herself in with enthusiasm.
Columns, splinters, settling yerth
Eyes closing, velvety moss
Huam, rain-bird, lullaby
Breathing, pine scented warmth.
So why the 15 words? Because: The Cairngorms National Park was established in 2003; it stretches into 5 local authorities; it has 5 of the 10 highest mountains in Scotland (Ben Macdui, Braeriach, Cairn Toul, Sgor an Lochain Uaine, Cairn Gorm) and its waters flow into 5 of Scotland’s most famous rivers (The Spey, The Dee, The Don, The Tay and The Esk.) 3 x 5 = 15.
blue black swoops
These are such expressive pieces, but what if you feel you haven’t got a poetic bone in your body? Well it never stopped Allen Ginsberg, some might mutter. And it shouldn’t stop you. Whoever you are, why not give it go? Try writing a Cairngorms Lyric and sharing it on social media with the hashtags #CairngormsLyric #SharedStories. No job too small, no poem too silly. Despite how much we loved one participant’s work, he insisted on adding #Gobbledybollocks. You can use that too, if you like.
And why make the Cairngorms Lyric about nature? Because the whole point of the Shared Stories project is to strengthen our relationship with it; to recognise the inter-dependent relationship we have with our living environment. As we observed in our first class, when we write about nature we pay closer attention to it, and when we do that, we might value it more and see what it needs – and what we need – to thrive.
Weasel-like, cat-like, but neither
A forest ghost, woodland sprite
Marten. A muggled marten.
And why call it a Lyric? The definition is loose, but in poetry it’s a form that nearly always expresses something of the writer’s personal feelings. We also use the term to mean the words of a song, and in Highland tradition – as many parts of the world – poetry and music go hand-in-hand. Victoria is musical, and sensed how these poems could have the rhythms for singing. I hope she puts some to music, but for now I will finish with one of hers that not only demonstrates that potential, but also perfectly captures how Shared Stories is not just about celebrating nature and language (kippen is rabbit, doo is dove), but also about legacy: about passing on these words, these loves and this earth to our children.
Who will teach the wee ‘uns of the kippen and doo?