A Conversation With George Bruce
UNTIL GEORGE BRUCE died on July 25, 2002, at age 93, he was the oldest living poet in Scotland. The summer before, I had been fortunate to hear him read at the International Book Festival, and subsequently interviewed him at his home in Edinburgh on Tuesday afternoon, August 21, 2001. That interview, excerpted here, will be the basis of a one-hour documentary, The Thing Itself, incorporating his poetry, archival photos, interviews (with family and friends, collaborators and critics, his literary editor Lucina Prestige, etc.), and, of course, spectacular footage of the Northeast of Scotland.
Mr. Bruce gives a charming, warm and witty interview, at the same time detailing how in the face of Hitler’s onslaught and his own stance as a conscientious objector, the struggle to find an authentic voice in the midst of what appeared to be a “decaying civilization,” led him to reject the local poets and to look to American poets Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams to “free the language.” He tells the story of a non-conformist whose life in poetry spanned almost the entire 20th century, while he struggled to chronicle the times with a freshness and authenticity that earned him a distinguished place in the Scottish Literary Renaissance. He actively worked up to the end of his life, constantly revising and honing down his work, balancing vowels and stanzas, which his daughter says, “he achieved by sheer labor.” His granddaughter says of him that, “he was a master of life.” His son-in-law says, “He was a child in an old man’s body.” What can endure in a world that is essentially destructive? This was a recurring theme in the mind and poetry of George Bruce: permanence versus the decay, manifest in humanity’s inability to rise above its own gross and destructive tendencies. “We are the endangered species,” he writes in the poem, “The Singing of the Foxes.” Likewise, in both “My House” and “Cliff Face Erosion,” two poems that mark the major shifts in his voice, he explores the duality of rock, simultaneously a symbol of destructiveness and “a means of learning” for humanity. One is reminded of the line from William Carlos Williams’ poem “A Sort of Song:” “to reconcile the people and the stones.” An extraordinary man with an enormous talent, one of the last practitioners of what is now referred to as the Scottish Renaissance in Literature, George Bruce was born 1909 into an “unusual family” that had a herring-curing business for generations in Fraserburgh, a fishing village on the Northeast coast of Scotland. (Fraserburgh is also known locally as The Broch.) George Bruce remembers his father explaining Einstein’s Theory of Relativity over the soup and reading DH Lawrence’s treatise on creativity when he was 12 years old. The debating of ideas was the family sport. His mother wanted him to be a painter, which instilled in him an enduring love of art throughout his life that is evident in the many Rembrandt, Cezanne and Velasquez poems he created. But he was hardly the ideal schoolboy. In later life, he would laugh about his inability to concentrate on anything at school. Despite a proclivity towards mathematics, the young George “wanted to be absorbed” instead by Shelley and by politics. A brilliant footballer, George Bruce was offered a position on Arsenal, a major soccer team of the time. His father insisted on college, however, and despite failing his entrance exams in everything but math and physics, he went on to receive extreme honors in English at Aberdeen University, where he would later garner an Honorary Doctorate.
The period leading up to and including World War II had an enormous effect upon him. He — along with some of other leading artists of the time — became a conscientious objector. The influence of FR Leavis (the prominent Cambridge critic of the time who stressed the important social role of literature and attempted to distinguish between serious writers and entertainers) during his time at university resulted in an unending concern with society and what appeared to him to be its “imminent destruction.” This led him away from the popular poetry of Burns and towards the search for a voice to more reflect the currency and turbulence of the times.
Then, after WWII, Bruce also departed from the theorizing of friend and fellow poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. Born CM Grieve, MacDiarmid (1892-1978), famous for his radical politics and flamboyant behavior, had made a devout commitment to the revitalizing of Scottish nationalism and identity through language (which he called “Lallans,” or Lowland’s Scots). Though he wrote in both English and Scots, MacDiarmid in his most famous poem, The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, called for a cultural revolution to reject the sentimentalized Burns and the anglicized imperialism of the British Empire. But, as we in the interview here, this recurring debate of Scots vs. English in Scottish poetry is a conflict Mr. Bruce rejects — while insisting on the need to make his own choices of language in order to get through to “the thing itself.” During his 93 years, George Bruce traveled extensively with his wife Elizabeth, and lived in eight different states in the U.S., teaching at several colleges, including The College of Wooster in 1976-77. At the invitation of Mary de Rachewiltz, Ezra Pound’s daughter, he also traveled to St. Andrew’s College in North Carolina to lecture as well as help annotate Pound’s Cantos, an enterprise he chronicles in Epistle to Edwin Morgan I. (Mary de Rachewiltz also invited him to lecture at Brunnenburg, Pound’s castle in Italy). George Bruce was the first Creative Writing Fellow at Glasgow University and the Scottish Creative Writing Fellow at New South Wales in Australia, and in 1984 was the recipient of an Order of the British Empire. He also served as an arts producer for the BBC for over twenty-four years, meeting and interviewing many of the top writers, musicians and artists of the twentieth century. He was a Theatre and Literary critic for the Sunday Times — as well as writing and editing scores of books and essays on poetry and art.
When his wife died in 1994 after over 59 years of marriage, he transformed his sadness into a renewed burst of activity which led to a collaboration with artist John Bellany and the producing of a limited edition book of etchings and poems called Woman of the Sea. In 1999, at 90 years of age, he won the Saltire Award, the top literary prize in Scotland for his book of poetry Pursuit. His latest book, Today Tomorrow, was published in both the United Kingdom and the United States in 2001. At the time of his death, he was working with artist Elizabeth Blackadder on an illustrated book of haikus, Through the Letter-Box, which is now being prepared for publication, and another new collection of poems, The Singing Of The Foxes, which will appear posthumously as well. For those interested, some of Mr. Bruce’s original manuscripts are archived at the National Scottish Library and at the Poetry/Rare Books Collection at University Libraries, SUNY-Buffalo. —Mallie Boman, New York City, September 9, 2002
Mallie Boman: There seems to be a great debate going on currently about the use of Scots versus English. I noticed that your earliest work was written entirely in English, while your use of Scots shows up in some of your later poems, particularly the Rembrandt poems. Then in “The Edge, Returning to The Broch,” you employ both seamlessly. On what side of this debate are you?
George Bruce: Well the thing is that in my case, there was no debate. One I dismissed Scots. Out! And two, I recognized that MacDiarmid had discovered a wonderful music — and it was of no use to me or to most people. In fact, they just made a mess of it for a term after that. MacDiarmid’s Scots, after the first burst of lyricism, which he himself didn’t recognize for its own qualities, went on to a much more social program, you might say, in The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the thistle being Scotland, the drunk man being MacDiarmid. At any rate, you’re quite right. Throughout the ’30’s and ’40’s there was this grand, nonsensical, I think, debate about whether we could refer to ‘Lallans’ (which really means ‘lowland Scots’), which Burns used. He called it “Lallan”-singular, Lallan, lowland Scots, and it’s quite true there is variance all over the place, but the substance of it has a common base. But there’s another common base — English itself. We note the American/English complex easily enough. Well, there’s a Scottish/English complex as well. So, in these circumstances, as far as I am concerned, there is no debate. The thing is given for a specific purpose. The poems I write about Rembrandt are all in Scots, because Rembrandt’s Dutch is much closer to Scots than it is to English, apart from anything else, you see. And, although Lucina Prestige decently — for the sake of English people — has done a kind of English translation of my Scots poems, I think it’s unfair. I think the readers should be made to look up what they don’t know.
Boman: Because the work feels Scots to you?
Bruce: Yes. But, generations have done this, for goodness sake. And the simple truth is I doubt very much that people who have no Scots background really write good Scots. It is too artificial. The tones and pitches are very much more subtle things than realized. Again, they don’t know their objectives. I wanted-my early objective was to get through to — (and I came across this phrase in Plato): “the thing itself.” “The thing itself” was what mattered. This is the thing to grasp, to get a hold of. And “the thing itself” did me very well, you might say, over many years.
Boman: Yet, isn’t the argument still there?
Bruce: Yes. There was such an argument. Scots have carried on page after page of this. “Scots is artificial.” “Scots isn’t real.” But, there’s a local poetry involved that uses it. I can speak Scots at any moment. I mean, in and out without any problem at all, you see. And, therefore, normally attractive, it had no attraction for me at all, because it had been sentimentalized so much. The true bit of the language — the technical part, knowing that ‘adze’ is an English word for the sharp end of a cutting tool, whereas the Aberdeesher word is ‘eitch’ — these were facts, but I didn’t realize that this was going to be of importance to me. Of the matter, Edwin Muir made the mistake of saying, “Scots is becoming a language of sentiment.” Whereas, from my point of view, it was the reverse. It had been sentimentalized for a long time. Well, there was partly the fact of Burns, you see. Magnificent as he is, there was gradual deterioration — no, not gradual, rapid deterioration — just more and more of the sentimentality, and that was no good to me. Then there came, as significantly as anything, the condition of the times. As a student at Aberdeen University, the irrelevance of most of the poetry I was coming across struck me very fiercely — very considerably. I mean, 1925, 1926, right on up to the Hitler business. And therefore the sensation of a decaying civilization-I was almost going to say culture as well — this sensation was not being met in any way, as far as I knew, by any writers until I came to Ezra Pound. Then I knew that the nervous speech energy, which Pound largely got from Browning, had an immediate contact for me. And this was confirmed, surprisingly enough, by the Scots poet William Soutar, who in his poems wrote little of that side to it. But, in his secret diaries — (so to speak, they weren’t all that secret). Well, anyway, he kept a diary. He was in bed for nearly 13 years. There you find it repeated again and again, his being increasingly, aware of (what’s it called — yes) “the grossness of our society.” Well, you think what it’s like now, the awareness of the total vanishing of any kind of sensitivity whatsoever; only the corroboration remaining, I would say, of this grossness and this appalling fragmentation so that people don’t recognize they are all human beings. This is what we have witnessed since Willie died a long time ago. He died when he was forty. 1988 would have been his 100th. So, at any rate, there was that side of the matter, but still it was no use to me because I just felt that despite Pound’s natural energy, it seemed so hopeless and the deterioration seemed so imminent.
Boman: Yes, this was a great period of uncertainty in the world, especially for Europeans.
Bruce: The sensation of life coming to an end was stronger for me in the twenties than now. Much stronger. The sense of ending, and of going into nothing. It was much more powerful in part because I was looking at society all the time then. Not only that, but the people shaping me at Aberdeen University were people like Leavis and company.
Boman: The intensity of the times can both inspire and shut down a poet.
Bruce: Yes. There was an extraordinary chance then. I was a teacher at Dundee High School. One December night, during a blackout as we had in this country all over the place, I felt then, going down the street, there was only one thing for it — to write another Waste Land in my own terms of reference. As I got to the train, however, I found myself writing something totally different:
Where the Firth flows,
East the sea.
Holds the first
Blow from the North,
The first from the East,
In the dark
I, a child,
Did not know
The consuming night
And heard the wind,
That was the true beginning. Recognizing the limitations, you might say. But, at the same time, here was a positive which had been in the mind of generations of generations, you see. And therefore it took its final symbolism or symbol in the “rock”, which is destructive in itself in so far as the human being was concerned and, on the other hand, it is a constant, as well as a means of learning and knowing. I had to find a language which would penetrate the language of poetry — so you were hardly aware of it being poetry. You would be very close to prose except there was passion involved. It was only after that that I began to get this grip, this grasp, this recognition: ‘no adjectives.’
Boman: Well, that’s the real skill, to hone down the poem into its essence. But I’m curious about the range of influences over the years. You’ve traveled extensively, lived through an entire century which encompassed two world wars, space travel, enormous discoveries in medicine, science, technology. You’re associated with the Scottish Renaissance in poetry and letters. You appear to be the quintessential Renaissance man, having diverse interests and associations with some of the leading thinkers and artists of the times. Where does it all come from?
Bruce: I can’t go into all the influences. I was very fortunate in my upbringing in terms of music, poetry, opera and all the rest, as well as being surrounded by a family — very open-minded, endlessly debating. Everything was debated! (sighs) My brother at the age of 10 or 11 said to my father, “I am an atheist.” And my father said, “Give me your reasons.” So he gave his reasons. And then my father said, “I can give you better reasons for being an atheist than you have given me.” Now, that’s not in the game, is it? (laughs). But it indicates the kind of open mentality. They simply were unshockable, my parents. We did our best, but we failed.
Boman: How many brothers had you?
Bruce: Just one brother, Robert, who died last August. He was very different from me. He was logical-and talked umpteen languages in a logical sense — while I, he maintained, was all intuition. We were hopelessly different. I don’t know — he was Marxist for years, and after he’d taken his degree, my father said, “What are you going to do?” And he said, “I have no idea.” My father said, “Civil servant.” And my brother said, “That will do.” So my father then filled the application in for him and sent it off. The interview consisted of, “Are you sure that’s the one you want to go to,” referring to a post in Mali.
Boman: How many languages do you speak?
Bruce: (laughs) I’m hopeless at languages. I just get stuck in them, I do. And then I can’t get any English to come. I’ve written in Italian, you see, though I didn’t mean to. I woke up early one morning, 3 or 4 in the morning, and there was a wonderful happening going on. I knew that my granddaughter was in Thailand and very much becoming a Buddhist. Immediately I began to write. But I couldn’t get any English words, so I had to write it in Italian. I wrote several things in Italian, then went back to sleep again.
Boman: I had to laugh when I read the poem written to your dentist explaining why you missed an appointment. Writing a poem is rarely a planned event, or even a chosen thing.
Bruce: This is one of the problems. People ask you: how did you come to choose? I don’t choose anything; it chooses me. There was this particular occasion. Chopin once lived in Number 10, Warrington Crescent, for thirty-eight days to be precise. This house is now the Polish Circle, an Arts Center, several houses down from mine. Well, there was a girl from Cracow there, playing with great feeling, with passion. I then wrote a poem, which I sent to her. But it was what happened after that that was so strange. Nearer to the time of year of Chopin’s death, on October 6, I woke up at 3:45 in the morning and I shouted out in a loud voice, “It was the cold that got ya! Well, it was. These houses was very drafty and all that.” Then I went to sleep again. But, of course, I waked up my poor wife and she didn’t go to sleep again so easily. Then a day later, exactly the same time, I sat up in bed, and in an even louder voice, shouted out, “It was the cold that got ya!” and then laid back down to sleep. But my wife wouldn’t let me. She said, “You’re not going to sleep. You’re going to write that poem! Go downstairs and write that poem!” There was no heating on. We hadn’t yet got central heat. In this case, who’s choosing anything there? It’s the same thing with Scots English.
Boman: Then there is that wonderful poem of yours, “On the Edge — The Broch,” in which you employ both languages effortlessly.
Bruce: It’s too long to read here, the poem about the Broch. It begins with me as a child kicking a football about, and some fisherman coming along and from the wet sand getting the bait. And I knew how to get the bait for them and they knew I knew. So they say, “Come and help us.” It’s all in Scots, and the last word in that section is the word “hame.” But the first word in the next section is the word “home,” because I am at home, here in Edinburgh, and speaking very much the language as we speak it now. The whole poem is a single response to life. Therefore, there’s no doubting as to which should be which, in these terms of reference. Syne means “then,” by the way:
As the sanle leapt oor hand’s flasht,
but they, like lichtnin back tae their
sand hame, but again an again the graips
flung up sods o’ sand and his loons catcht
the sma fish in air or they dove,
like they were siller needles richt through
thon thick sog oot o’ sicht and deep doon
and never seen again. Syne, we ran for hame.
Home: bed: nor-east corner: night winds beat
about the granite house. The lighthouse beam
stalks the room, is blunted on the walls,
sweeps off, and in the black dark
in sea’s far-off roar, I sleep deep.
And it continues like that — in a neutral language, until the influence of the personal circumstances modifies it. On that particular occasion I was seven and my father decided we’d go to Bruce’s Lookout. It was built higher than anywhere else, so you could see the whole round of sea like that and I can discover the horizon.
Boman: What would you say was the next biggest shift in your work after “My House”?
GB: “Cliff Face Erosion.” How can I date that one? I’ve got it: 1988, a man presents me with a picture of an eroding cliff. It destroyed me nearly. Cliffs don’t erode, as far as in my imagination at least. But it’s perfect. This one has just gone to pieces practically. And I have to write a poem. Well, it was splendid! The whole thing opened up as a result of it for me. The whole business. Lucina, my editor, says there were many good poems before that. But, at any rate, that was a crucial point. But the change didn’t simply apply to language. It was partly a realization, a recognition of the acceptance of a very wide view — a ‘Eurodency’, which linked, in a sense, with my family. The establishment of at least something that would stay, that might be there tomorrow. Something of use. It didn’t have to make up a civilization, that would be far too much to claim for it altogether. Nevertheless, I didn’t need to return to the inward world of Virginia Woolf — let’s put it that way. But the sense of the tremble, the inevitable destruction of what remains of a blighted civilization, prevailed. And I was still in that condition of “let me have no adjectives.”
Boman: “Cliff Face” uses the powerful image of the eroding cliff to explore, not only as you’ve mentioned, the sense of “a blighted civilization,” but the human experience of aging as well. This layering makes the poem enormously intense.
Bruce: I’d had a positive within it and a negative. The negative, it was, that made the positive infinitely stronger, the acceptance of the negative. “I look upon your face and it is mine.” That was written towards the end of the last century. I think of Auden’s face. . .
I am old. Yet the breathing intimacies
of air, those inspirations from the forever
fresh wilderness of sea, even the sea pink
I picked from the marram grass as child
has carried through the years, unfearful,
trusting, secured through time into this now,
this moment of putting pen to paper, as if
this wholeness indestructible outdated
time, and gave to us a permanence of being.
You tell me what I would not know.
From the frail page you stare at me
with the authority of millions of years
and I am diminished to the point not
to be picked out even by that
electronic scan that determines existences
light years from this planet; and you
present indifferently substance and
ephemera, darknesses and lights, yet
no more are you the bastion that you were,
resisting and denying access to sea’s force,
the great wave falling from you, and you
remained yourself. Now to the gnawing salt,
the flux of waters, cross-fire of elements,
you concede. Ravaged, penetrated, scuffed,
deep-graven-your face is witness,
as is the human face, to the years.
I look upon your face and it is mine.
I look upon you and marvel.
[“Cliff Face Erosion”]
Boman: This wide view you mention, it relates back to the family and school environment you came out of?
Bruce: Yes. I remember D.H. Lawrence, a passage being read to us. I was about 12 years old, by my father at the dinner table. Midday, he said, “This is something that should interest you, it’s about the creative process, etc, etc.” So, we all listened, put up with it, while we got on with the soup. (laughs) Nobody told us this was a slightly unusual household.
Boman: All of your early poems are centered in the life of your hometown of Fraserburgh. You mentioned previously, there was a war beginning. Was it difficult to have your work published?
Bruce: At the time I’m a student at Aberdeen University. And, quite right, all my earliest poems are about Fraserburgh, and somehow they make their first appearance in Contemporary Poetry USA. It was Mary Miller Ogden who published my poems. And that led to Kathleen Moore, then the librarian of Buffalo, who writes me saying, “We’ve collected all you’ve written!” This so horrified me, but I couldn’t do anything. I mean, the awful stuff I’d written as a student. Most unfair. I rather hoped to God they hadn’t collected that. In the meantime, now I had become a teacher in Dundee and what we’d been doing, we’d been using my manuscripts to light the fire with or send off for salvage. My wife Elizabeth said, “Give ’em the lot, give ’em the lot.” So we piled everything up and whoosh, like that, sent them to Buffalo.
Boman: What were you doing for the BBC?
Bruce: I did television for about 24 years. Then they handed it on to a much lighter person, and he didn’t bother to learn what it meant. A very beautiful song of Burns, wherein Burns’ words — he didn’t make up the tune in this case — began, “I walken o. . .” Well, they’ve got a couple walking along a beach. But it doesn’t mean that at all. It means, “I was awake all night,” and other lines go on to emphasize this, that she can’t get to sleep for thinking of her lover. So the word “walk” means “waken” you see. “I walk on, O’walk I and weary / O’ can’t get to sleep, sleep I can’t get for thinking of my dearie.” It made nonsense of the whole thing. And when I complained, they said, “Oh it doesn’t matter.” Nothing matters you see, nothing matters any longer.
Boman: I heard you were almost a footballer, or as we Americans say, a ‘soccer player’.
Bruce: I wasn’t very good at school. I never got my mind at the right moment on the matter in front me. But it was a good thing I was good at football. My father was quite despondent because the firm was going down; it was the end of the herring business. And I said, “All your worries are solved about me, I’ve been offered a trial for Arsenal. And he said, “Oh, so you’re finished when you’re 28 years old.” But at that time I was only 15 or 16. I was a brilliant footballer. Nowadays I’d have made vast sums of money. But even a manager didn’t get much in our day. Anyway, I failed my entrance exams at the University, what they called “Preliminaries.” Underneath my name “George Bruce,” they said “Passing the Whole by Compensation.” “By Compensation!” The boy had no brains it meant. (laughs) And so I had to go see the Secretary at the University, and he said, “Well, it’s like this, Mr. Bruce, you’ve failed everything, except one, and what you failed you were just below the surface in each case except one. But, at that one, you were outstandingly good.” I said “English?” and he said, “No, you failed that! Mathematics.” So, I went off to do mathematics.
Boman: Your father, was he any kind of an artist?
Bruce: He was a businessman, with quite unusual concepts. My father was ducks in mathematics at the Fraserburgh Academy. And my mother, she was eight years younger, she was ducks at mathematics, too. When I was about eleven my father said, “You know, this business of relativity is quite simple. You can easily understand it.” And then when calculus came along, he was still on about this same business. “It relates to relativity, you understand.” But I said, “I don’t know any physics, I’m not doing this.” Then, by an extraordinary stroke of luck, there was a new Physics Professor, and he set up a far too difficult paper. Though to me, it was simplicity itself. And when I got off the train at Fraserburgh, forty miles north, my father said, “How did you get on?” I said, “Very badly.” He said, “Did you?” “Yes,” I said, “it was too easy.” So he immediately got the paper, went through the whole test and said, “You’ve got everything right.” I sure had. Over ninety-five percent. (laughs) But I didn’t want to do mathematics.
Boman: You wanted to write.
Bruce: No, not at that stage. I wanted. . . I loved to be absorbed into, not only Shelley and his “spirit is like a charm. . . / Sweet singing like a boat. . . ,” but also the long passages of protest and all manner of that kind of thing. It was the right thing for debate in our house. It didn’t matter what you debated, as long as you debated.
Boman: In your poetry, it seems that you access the world and language from a unique vantage point of intensity that begins in a particular time and place, becomes filtered through the mind, and then finds the resultant intense emotion embodied back in a concrete image.
Bruce: Apparently I didn’t know this, but I’ve always lived life with such intensity that the after-image stays with me for perhaps 20 years. That’s why I’m good at telephone numbers and all sorts of irrelevant things like that. But, the experience can come back with tremendous intensity. And therefore, my brother is always surprised, “How could you remember that — where the boy drowned?” I’d say, “You mean you don’t remember the rock stuck out like that?” and he’d say, “No I have no picture of that.” But to me, it’s as vivid now as it was then.
Boman: You’ve written so many poems about paintings and artists. I can see you spend a lot of time in the National Gallery of Scotland, that you’ve been inspired by art.
Bruce: My mother wanted me to be an artist. My father just didn’t care. The great thing, we lived in Fraserburgh right out on the very point. You could see the sun rise out of the sea in the morning and see it setting in the west in the evening.
Boman: So how could you not be a poet?
Bruce: I know, it was terrific, I haven’t thought in these terms for ages. But no, no, it was very different. The interesting thing too was that my mother was all logic and my father was all intuition. He did all the crazy things, you see. We never asked him for more pocket money because we knew he would give us too much. So we asked her, you see, and she’d do the right thing. She was sensible, like most women are sensible. (laughs) Well, I know I’m not sensible because my daughter told me so. She said to her brother, right in front of her mother she said, “He’s no sense,” meaning me. And her mother just said, “You’re right. That’s right, he’s no sense. So you just have to accept that.” The trouble with me always was, to quote my mother, “George is not listening.”
Boman: Perhaps you were listening to something else.
Bruce: I thought I was listening. It’s a terrible escapist device, but I never noticed it. There was book knowledge and there was the knowledge of life itself, and when they come together, it’s like one thing, like poetry. Then you’re right. But you can’t get together until you’ve got the language, until you know you trust that particular language.
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