Sydney Goodsir Smith - Scottish 'Finnegans Wake': a mock-Joycean cum Rabelaisian caper where every word you read is Smith’s own coinage – it makes narrative sense, but the words are also redolent of other things, often innuendos





Sydney Goodsir Smith, Carotid Cornucopius, M. Macdonald, 1947.


Although best-known as a poet, Sydney Goodsir Smith is also celebrated as the author of the experimental novel Carotid Cornucopius (1947), one of the few prose works in Scots published during the Renaissance period. Its exuberant linguistic wordplay has drawn comparison with both Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Sir Thomas Urquhart’s 17th-century translation of Rabelais. Characters from Carotid Cornucopius reappear in Smith’s play The Rout of Spring (or Colickie Meg) (1950). - http://ourhistory.is.ed.ac.uk/index.php/Sydney_Goodsir_Smith_(1915-1975)


I’ve been pondering recently about what to write a blog on and then yesterday, three things related to the Scottish poet Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975) happened. Firstly, I sent off a book proposal for an edited collection of essays on his work – the first of its kind, if it gets the green light. Secondly, the poet Harry Giles began to sing the praises on Facebook of Goodsir Smith’s word-play tour-de-force only novel Carotid Cornucopius – a mock-Joycean cum Rabelaisian caper where every word you read is Smith’s own coinage – it makes narrative sense, but the words are also redolent of other things, often innuendos – it takes a good few pages to get used to the style, but once you have it, it’s readable believe it or not. Finally, I read a fascinating interview with Alex Neish, by Graham Rae at ‘Reality Studio’. Neish was one of the student editors of the Edinburgh University literary magazine Jabberwock which ran from the 1940s through to the late 1950s and published a great name names from the Scottish Literary Renaissance.
When this publication wound up, Neish, disillusioned with what he saw as an increasingly outdated and cliquish Scottish literary scene, started Sidewalk which promoted writing from younger Scottish and UK writers / poets as well as leaning strongly towards Beatnik and Black Mountain Poets coming from America. Its big buzz-word was ‘anti-parochialism’ and it was opposed to the Hugh MacDiarmid cult. The magazine lasted only two issues, when Neish left Scotland to pursue his fortune in the South American business world. Sidewalk published work by writers such as William Burroughs, Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg and its, perhaps less nationalist and more internationalist outlook, served as a precursor for the divisive Scottish International which ran until the early 1970s.
I thought it might be interesting to show you now an item from my Scottish Literature / Sydney Goodsir Smith collection – Goodsir Smith’s personal, annotated copy of Sidewalk 1 which I found in a bookshop in Edinburgh many moons ago:

sidewalk1
What I have been unable to ascertain is whether Goodsir Smith annotated this copy in his own leisure or if this was done for the sake of a review somewhere – it would be fascinating to know for sure. However, you can be sure if a review did appear, it was scathing, judging by the tone of Goodsir Smith’s marginalia. The picture below shows the contents page, covered in pencil scrawl. I’m not sure about Goodsir Smith’s secret code running down the left-hand side, but what can clearly be seen is his comments on the pieces involved. For instance, Ian Hamilton Finlay, who contributes a poem called ‘Orkney Interior’, is dismissed as a ‘jokey surrealist’ (see picture below).
sidewalk2
Now, ‘jokey surrealist’ might be a positive appellation, but I doubt it – Allen Ginsberg’s work is written off as ‘Dada’ and Charles Olson’s as ‘transition Dada’. Goodsir Smith seems to be insinuating that, for him, this work is not challenging and new, but slightly derivative of a literary movement of three decades beforehand. He also adds that the overall ethos of the magazine is captured on page 81. If you turn to that page you find a little pencil squiggle by this line: ‘But remember, things have been moving so fast in the States that by and large it’s already dated’. The only poets / writers who come off lightly are the Scottish poets of around Smith’s generation, such as Morley Jamieson and Iain Crichton Smith (although ten years younger than Smith, identified roughly as part of Smith’s circle). And this picture below shows the extent of Goodsir Smith’s frustration with the writing in the magazine.
sidewalk3
I’m fully aware numerous doctoral theses could be written about the clash of cultures and values in Scottish writing at this time and I don’t really want to get into that here in any length. When Sidewalk first appeared, the first round of ‘folksong flytings’ had appeared in the pages of the Scotsman and the disastrous, or resoundingly successful (depending on how you see it) 1962 International Writers Conference was just around the corner. The usual attitude people take away from this time is one of two diametrically opposed camps – the old guard, Scottish Literary Renaissance poets, like Goodsir Smith and MacDiarmid, who gathered every Saturday in the Abbotsford and went on a pub crawl down Rose Street and the newer, more experimental, more outward-looking (or more explicitly folk culture identifying) writers who often took their ques from literatures outside of Scotland, or overlooked aspects of Scottish culture, such as the poet and folk-song scholar Hamish Henderson.
This is all symbolically typified in the spat, at the 1962 conference, between Alexander Trocchi and Hugh MacDiarmid, where MacDiarmid was dismissed as a dinosaur and Trocchi as ‘cosmopolitan scum’. These camps still seem to remain in academic discussion and criticism – the concrete poets vs. the Rose Street bunch, but I’m more with Hamish Henderson, who, while being involved in these arguments, said it was fundamentally a ‘false antithesis’ – that both camps were often drawing from very similar places or influences (Edwin Morgan was a good lynchpin in this regard). It is certainly true that the ‘old guard’ were a bit of a boozy gentleman’s club and they were, and felt, more entitled and the younger poets, like Ian Hamilton Finlay, were fighting for a platform for their work. But isn’t that exactly the same today, with the exception that the third wave writers of the Scottish Literary Renaissance included figures like Liz Lochhead, whose work in turn paved way for more women poets.
Where does Goodsir Smith’s copy of Sidewalk fit into all this? Well, it certainly shows that cavalier and entitled attitude that I’ve been talking about. But, then again, does it really? I look at Goodsir Smith’s annotations and see a man who felt insecure about his non-Scottish upbringing (he was born in New Zealand) and very defensive of the Scottish Literary Renaissance – it had provided him with a voice and a clear identity and he wasn’t about to betray that with what he saw as a diversion of focus away from Scottish writing to the more attention grabbing Beatnik writers from America. It’s well known that most Scottish writers of this period were not at each other’s throats, unless in public or in print (such as the 1962 conference) where any attention was good if it lead to exposure for the writers involved. For instance, the obloquious exchange between MacDiarmid and Trocchi was effectively stage managed – there are very friendly letters that exist from both that show their fight was really a bit of theatre to hijack attention from more famous writers from across the world who were attending the conference. Of course, with all of these things, it is always a matter of who is telling the story – it was a fascinating, turbulent era in Scottish literature.
Speaking of which, I would just like to quickly draw attention to one glaring fallacy in Alex Neish’s interview I began by talking about – he states that Sorley MacLean was ‘not recognised in Scottish Renaissance circles which just about sums up their vision’. I take great exception to this – when Douglas Young (a major Scottish Renaissance figure in his lifetime) was imprisoned during WW2 for refusing military and industrial conscription, he devoted his energies to translating into Scots and ensuring the publication of Dain Du Eimhir by MacLean. If you have ever seen a copy of the original 1943 edition of this book you will know that MacLean’s Gaelic takes centre stage and Young’s Scots translations lurk at the back of the book, the book (decorated by George Bain) being one of publisher William MacLellan’s finest, with perhaps the exception of MacDiarmid’s In Memoriam James Joyce (decorated by J. D. Fergusson). Also, I think with the exception of Robert Garioch, MacLean was one of the first younger poets to meet and get to know Hugh MacDiarmid – MacLean visited MacDiarmid on Whalsay shortly before MacDiarmid’s mental breakdown in the mid-1930s and he often saw MacLean as his equal, but writing in Gaelic and acting as his Gaelic correspondent and translator, providing English cribs for MacDiarmid’s translation of The Birlinn of Clanranald.
As I’ve already said, all of this is a question of interpretation, but I know what I believe.
- http://www.copy-cats.be/blog/alex-neish-sydney-goodsir-smith-and-sidewalk/


In 1928, the New Zealand forensic scientist Sydney (later Sir) Alfred Smith took up the post of professor of forensic medicine at the University of Edinburgh, bringing with him his wife and their son Sydney. The boy’s subsequent domicile in Scotland provided the background for his development into a writer in Scots and a prominent figure in the second wave of the Scottish Literary Renaissance.
Sydney Goodsir Smith was born on 26 October 1915 in Wellington, New Zealand; his mother, Catherine Goodsir Gelenick, was of Scottish origin. He was educated in England and began studying medicine at Edinburgh University, but left to read history at Oriel College, Oxford, where he gained a third-class degree in 1937. Due to chronic asthma he was turned down for active service in the Second World War, so worked instead with the War Office, and taught English to Polish troops. He was at one time employed by the British Council, and was Art Critic for The Scotsman, as well as a freelance journalist and broadcaster.  In 1938 Smith married Marion Elise Welsh, a doctor, with whom he had a family of two children. After her death in 1966, he married schoolteacher Hazel Williamson.
Although at school in England, during the holidays Smith absorbed the language and Scottishness of rural Scotland when he stayed with his prep school teacher in Heriot, and his sister’s nanny in Moniaive. It was a gradual absorption which intensified in adulthood, as Tom Hubbard summarises in his entry on Smith in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Although he was not a native speaker of Scots, Smith succeeded in developing a convincing idiom based on the speech which he heard in the pubs and in the streets, enriched by his absorption of the great medieval Scots makars (makers, poets). The consequent range of registers, from the vernacular to the highly ornamented and stylized, was an invaluable resource for a poet concerned with sudden and contrasting changes of mood and feeling.
While studying in Edinburgh he had begun writing poetry, in English, but according to Norman MacCaig in For Sydney Goodsir Smith:
With the suddenness of a conversion he seceded from English, adopted Scots, and never wrote a poem in English again …. An extraordinary fact which is worth recording only because in that at first almost foreign tongue he went on to write poetry in Scots of a quality hardly equalled in this century …
In Language, Poetry and Nationhood (2000), J. Derrick McClure traces the development of Smith’s sureness in handling Scots: ‘It is in The Deevil’s Waltz (1946), however, that Smith emerges as both a poet of unchallengeable stature and one of the great synthesisers of Scots.’
Though there were some who thought Smith merely substituted Scots words for English, the skill of his use of the language is surely borne out by the fact that in 1951 he was one of the prizewinners in the Scots section of the Festival of Britain poetry competition, alongside native Scots Olive Fraser and Alexander Scott.
The sequence Under the Eildon Tree (1948) is generally agreed to be Smith’s masterpiece, making full use of his lyrical talents and exuberant energy. It comprises twenty-five poems on great lovers of history and legend, interspersed with reflections on the poet’s own love life; the poet/lover veers between the highs of passion and the lows of disappointment, and the sublime and the ridiculous are interwoven.
Smith’s love of language meant he looked furth of Scotland and delighted in taking inspiration from Europe, like so many Scottish poets, as Tom Hubbard has pointed out:
He translated poems by Tristan Corbière and Aleksandr Blok into Scots, and his celebrated ‘The Grace of God and the Meth-Drinker’ is the Edinburgh Grassmarket's equivalent of the tatterdemalion grotesqueries of a Villon or a Baudelaire:
There ye gang, ye daft
And doitit dotterel, ye saft
Crazed outland skalrag saul
In your bits and ends o winnockie duds
Your fyled and fozie-fousome clouts
As fou's a fish ... 
The 1950s was a prodigious decade for Smith; he published six books of poetry, followed shortly after in 1960 by his most successful play, The Wallace. It was performed in the Assembly Hall at the Edinburgh Festival that year and inspired some in the audience to rise to their feet and sing ‘Scots Wha Hae’ as the curtain went down.
Known as ‘the kilted kiwi’ or ‘The Auk’, Smith earned his place in the thriving Scottish literary scene in the 1950s and 1960s, centred as it was in Edinburgh.  In 1959 Smith, Hugh MacDiarmid and Norman MacCaig were installed as the ‘club bards’ of the newly founded 200 Burns Club.
Smith found his true home in Edinburgh, and became a poet of his adopted city in all its different moods. His long poem 'Kynd Kittock’s Land', commissioned by the BBC and televised in 1964, celebrates the two sides of the city, ‘The hauf o’t smug, complacent … the tither wild and rouch as ever …’. He was most at home in the Old Town, as it was then, a place more of pubs and real life than of tourist shops: ‘A queerlike canyon is the Canongate, / That murmurs yet wi the names / O’ lang deid bards …’.
He died suddenly on 15 January 1975 at the age of 59. In the Scotsman obituary, George Bruce wrote ‘The name Sydney Goodsir Smith, especially at this moment, invokes such affection as to make evaluation of the poet’s brilliant talent difficult.’ Many others have attested to his ‘kindly, good-humoured, witty and charitable nature’, and his passing was widely mourned. He is buried in the Dean Cemetery, and a bronze plaque, bearing his likeness in profile, is affixed to the wall of his former residence, 25 Drummond Place, Edinburgh. - http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/sydney-goodsir-smith







Poems by Sydney Goodsir Smith:

'Some dreams are sleepin in the bottom o' a glass,
some ride in the freezing winds of space,
some snore in the dampest oxter o' a tree'

('Kynd Kittock's Land')


Sydney Goodsir Smith (26 October 1915 – 15 January 1975) was a Scottish poet, artist, dramatist and novelist. He wrote poetry in literary Scots often referred to as Lallans (Lowlands dialect), and was a major figure of the Scottish Renaissance.
He was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and moved to Edinburgh with his family in 1928.[1] He was at school at Malvern College. He went to Edinburgh University to study medicine, but abandoned that, and started to read history at Oriel College, Oxford; whence he was expelled, but managed to complete a degree. He also claimed to have studied art in Italy, wine in France and mountains in Bavaria.
His first poetry collection of many, Skail Wind, was published in 1941. Carotid Cornucopius (1947) was a comic novel about Edinburgh. His A Short Introduction to Scottish Literature, based on four broadcast talks, was published in 1951. His play The Wallace formed part of the 1960 Edinburgh Festival.
Smith was also associated with the editorial board for the Lines Review magazine.
Under the Eildon tree (1948), a long poem in 24 parts, is considered by many his finest work; The Grace of God and the Meth-Drinker is a much-anthologised poem. Kynd Kittock's land (1964) was a commission of a poem to be televised by the BBC.
He died in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh after a heart attack outside a newsagents on Dundas Street in Edinburgh and was buried in Dean Cemetery in the northern 20th century section, towards the north-west. His wife, Hazel Williamson, lies with him.  - wikipedia


Sydney Goodsir Smith was a significant figure in the 20th-century revival of poetry in Scots. His masterpiece, 'Under the Eildon Tree' (1948), comprising 23 variations on the subject of love, draws parallels between his personal experience and that of great lovers in history and mythology. It is one of the great love poems in Scots. Sydney Goodsir Smith spent his first years in New Zealand, then in 1928 moved with his family to Edinburgh. From the outset he chose Scots as the language for his poetry. Three collections appeared in the 1940s: 'Skail Wind' (1941), 'The Wanderer' (1944) and 'The Deevil's Waltz' (1946). A humorous novel, 'Carotid Cornucopius', followed in 1947. In the 1950s, with the publication of 'So Late Into the Night' (1952) 'Orpheus and Eurydice' (1955), and 'Figs and Thistles' (1959), he was hailed as the best Lallans poet after MacDiarmid. His play, 'The Wallace', was staged at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival. 'Kynd Kittock's Land' (1965) gives an affectionate portrait of Edinburgh.  - http://digital.nls.uk/writestuff/smith.html

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