258. George Mackay Brown’s Seven Poets

Most of the people who read this blog are writers, or want to be writers. I know from visiting your websites that you range from beginner to professional, and many of your writings have impressed me.

Friends, I have something for you. I’ll give you details below, after the set-up.

I discovered George Mackay Brown in 1987 when my wife and I went to Europe for the first time. We started in England, then went to Scotland to see the land of my wife’s ancestors. Along the way, I visited bookstores to pick up reading material that I wouldn’t find at home and discovered Neil Gunn and George Mackay Brown, two Scottish authors who deeply enriched my life. Both write elegantly about their own experiences in Scotland and the Orkneys (technically part of Scotland but very different). I’m sure I’ll talk about them both from time to time in this blog, but today I just want to shill for one short piece by George Mackay Brown.

I recently had reason to flip through my George Mackay Brown collection, looking for a story I read years ago, and stumbled onto The Seven Poets, the final story in his collection The Sun’s Net. It is a post-apocalyptic story, but it is a fable, not science fiction.

    *     *

The world has reverted. After machines and cities swallowed up the earth, there was a revolution. Machines were banished. Cities were destroyed. Now there is a world wide agreement that no settlement can have more than 250 members. When a village grows beyond that, some are chosen to leave and form a new village.

(Now don’t tell me this wouldn’t work. I know it and GMB knew it. It’s a fable; a set-up to make a point about writing.)

The world is calm, serene, and boring; some men can’t abide that. They become wanderers, without a village, without a community, welcome everywhere for a brief stay, but welcome nowhere as permanent residents. Our narrator is such a man. He has wandered the whole world, through a long lifetime, staying with men of every occupation, but most usually, staying with poets.

Every village has a poet, who spends his year writing a masque for the midwinter festival. In Spain, such a poet told our narrator, “The world was created by one Word. Every poet makes, in his lifetime, a tiny fraction of one letter of that Word.” Another poet’s voice had deserted him. Another was a heretic to the new order who wrote of machines, but when his villagers performed his masque, their mocking turned the performance into a parody of his thoughts. In Siberia, a poet wrote in the inhuman language of roots and salmon and blizzards . . .

    *     *

I can’t begin to convey the depth of sensible weirdness of The Seven Poets. That would require exactly a many words as GMB took, exactly the same words, and in the same order. Prose written by poets can do that to people who try to paraphrase it. I can only say that his fable has captured beautifully the strangeness of trying to nail life to the page with words.

There doesn’t seem to be an online source for The Seven Poets, but it’s probably only fair that you’ll have to seek it out in print. I guarantee you a singular experience if you do.

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