Sunday, 11 December 2016


Nativity scenes, wise men, Christmas trees, doves, dogs, cats, snowy scenes and even sprouts (yes!) – but this year I’ve yet to receive a card with a picture of reindeer on it.  There’s time yet.  Reindeer are creatures of the chill polar north and the 1823 poem The Night Before Christmas popularised them as draft animals for the sledge of Father Christmas.

There is a Sami myth that the divine creator took the beating heart of a two year old reindeer and placed it at the earth’s centre.  “The rhythm of the heart is the rhythm of the world, the pulse of life, the source of all being.  When times are difficult, the people have only to press their ears to the ground and listen: if they hear the beating of the reindeer’s heart, all will be well, they will emerge from the hard times.  If they do not, they are doomed”.

This piece of Sami folklore, quoted from Harald Gaski, opens John Burnside’s short essay A Poet’s Polemic which I picked up at the Scottish Poetry Library a couple of weeks ago.  The essay is subtitled “Otro Mundo es Posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV”.  Burnside’s essay is political in the widest sense of the word.  He challenges a world in which we are reduced to consumers of bland mass-produced homogeneity (I think of Joseph Brodsky’s opening lines of “December 24, 1971”:
    “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.
      At the grocers all slipping and pushing ...”
  just substitute supermarket for grocers).

It’s worth remembering that Burnside is a novelist as well as a poet, but it is the role of the poet which he singles out to be dissident, to oppose the cultural imperialism of mass identity.  In a world which substitutes “the manipulated image for the thing-in-itself, fundamentalism for generosity of spirit, the virtual for the real, the managed for the wild” the poet is called to pay attention to and reaffirm the detail of the world “in all its vital, messy, beautiful, tragic reality”.

A few days later I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s article “Losing Touch” in which he admits “I’ve found myself checking email while giving my kids a bath, jumping over to the internet when a sentence or idea doesn’t come effortlessly in my writing, searching for shade on a beautiful spring day so I can see the screen of my phone”.  Meanwhile the internet is tracking our every move and reducing us to profiled consumers.

How easy it is to reach for the technology.  Sailing round Scotland in small boats I’ve seen dolphins and basking sharks very close.  I’ve resisted the urge to attempt to photograph them.  Instead I’ve concentrated on that magical moment when the skipper cuts the engines and the boat floats idly while the sleek glistening bodies of dolphins leap from the water or a basking shark cruises like a dark rippling underwater shadow, its jaws wide open for plankton, only its two fins breaking the surface.     

Seamus Heaney’s poem “Postscript” directs the reader/listener to drive out to the Flaggy Shore in County Clare when
 “ ... the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans”
But, he goes on, “Useless to think you’ll park and capture it”.  This is an experience where
“ ... big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
Those moments when the heart is caught off guard are vital to our experience of life.

Burnside quotes a letter from Don DeLillo to Jonathan Franzen: “Writing is a form of personal freedom.  It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us”.  Burnside goes on to say “What a good poem does is take us out of ourselves” (this is as true in the process of writing as of reading).  Such a poem implies that “another world is possible”.    “We must refuse to join with a system that denatures everything, from the supermarket apple to the ground under our feet, for profit’s sake.” 

Poetry is ultimately an “ecological discipline”.  We need to put our ears to the earth and listen.  If we can hear the reindeer’s beating heart we will go on.

Read on
John Burnside’s stimulating essay A Poet’s Polemic subtitled Otro Mundo es Posible: Poetry, Dissidence and Reality TV is worth reading in full.  It was originally published by the Scottish Book Trust for National Poetry Day 2003.  I picked up a free copy at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh

There is an extract from the essay on the Scotsman website

Jonathan Safran Foer’s article “Losing Touch” was published in the Review section of The Guardian 3 December 2016.  You can find the article at

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