The most famous writer I have ever met in person is the late George Mackay Brown. Visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Orkney, I encountered him fleetingly after Mass once in Stromness, in a tiny congregation where he was a self-effacing although (due to his familiar features) a highly visible part.
Reading Mackay Brown’s Collected Poems, it is significant to see how many are full of religious imagery. The original collections bore such titles as Loaves and Fishes, The Wreck of the Archangel and Corpus Christi. Many individual works draw from the Lent and Christmas Christian narratives. Yuletide examples include “King of Kings”, a prose-poem of the letters which the inn-keeper at Bethlehem writes to one of Herod’s security officials; “Winterfold” and “Stars : a Christmas Patchwork”, dramatic speeches by the various characters of the Nativity story; and shorter pieces like “The Lodging”, “Midnight Words” and “Carol : Kings and Shepherds”.
More striking still, though, is how all his poems are immersed in, and imbued with, the life and history of his native Orkney Islands. Poems full of seasons, weathers, tides, travel, crops, food and drink. Poems full of Orcadian place names, and of characters historical and fictional. Poems of different shapes and sizes and forms, often more like pieces of prose or drama.
To his poems, you could certainly apply the cliché that they have a timeless quality. The way he uses words is reminiscent of Chaucer, classical poetry, medieval poetry, Burns; especially when the subject matter is centuries-old crafts and trades such as crofting and fishing. However, you can certainly also identify his kinship with more recent poets like Eliot, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Manley Hopkins, Hughes and Heaney.
You sense that, as a person, he might have come across as austere and a bit old-fashioned, but in his writing these characteristics are present in the best possible sense. They show someone who understood and appreciated qualities and values from the past and knew how to pass them on: a seer, a sage.
Some of my favourites from Collected Poems are the early “Chorus : Soon Spring Will Come”; “The Stranger”, with its Rashomon- style multiple perspective narrative; the often-anthologised “Hamnavoe”; “The Sailor the Old Woman and the Girl” , with its hints of Keats and traditional ballads; “New Year Stories”, where the favourite device of an assembly of colourful local characters is adapted towards a wish to bless the forthcoming year; and “The Return of the Women” which is a play really, about the group of women in a tiny community dominated by Saul the Skipper.
More of Mackay Brown’s poems can be sampled here.
Reference : Bevan, Archie and Murray, Brian (eds)(2005) The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown London : John Murray