Douglas Dunn, quoted on the front cover of The Magicians of Edinburgh, describes Ron Butlin, in the inevitable cliché, as “the best, the most productive Scottish poet of his generation”. On the back cover, Sorley Maclean calls Butlin’s poems those “of a man who can think and feel”, adding that “poems come [to Butlin] because they must.” And yet, judgements about “the best” anything are patently subjective; there are many men who can think and feel; being very productive is not a poetic value and the need to write poems does make one’s poems necessary.
These well-adjusted, often happy poems are those of a generous and benevolent man. They are likeable, and (as the Scots say) couthie. Butlin walks to and fro in his beloved Edinburgh present and past but the poems are not pedestrian. Comradeship, humour, compassion and wisdom are in evidence throughout. There’s a friendly, moralising wit, and the moral sentiments are conventional; occasionally another kind of feeling, more tragic and unreconciled, breaks through this emotional apparatus, especially when some underlying darkness which is not at Butlin’s command asserts itself. At such moments, Butlin’s poetry-making escapes him and lives autonomously.
The attempts at inclusiveness – this is after all public poetry (hence the frequent use of “we”) – can at times come over as patronising; and to that extent, Butlin’s handling of tone is not guaranteed. On the other hand, sometimes, as in “Absolution on the Edinburgh City Bypass”, metaphor sustains itself beautifully without announcing its status as conceit. The city is by no means simply idealised: “Nicolson Square” is a harrowing poem, and its book-and-story metaphor provides a light, non-intrusive note. By contrast, the conceit of “West Newington Place” announces itself from the outset – “He’s curled at the edges, broken-spined and ready / to be withdrawn from circulation; / few have glanced at the early chapters” – and is kept up to the conclusion: “There is no other copy to refer to.” The pity of this is not the poem’s derelict himself, who ostensibly qualifies as an object of compassion; but rather, that he is reduced to the subject of a poem whose real preoccupation is its own wit, and whose metaphoric organisation is pleased with itself.
This is among the inescapable occupational hazards for those who write poems “because they must”, namely that even at their most compassionately inclusive, they may sound as though the poems are about their own need to write: that everything is, more or less, simply matter for poetry-making. Butlin seems embarrassed by his metaphorising in “West Newington Place”: “He’s on loan, as it were, to a public who’ve stopped / reading books like him” (italics added). He seems disinclined to stay out of the poem: “From what I saw today the pages are slipping out of sequence”. Edinburgh and its inhabitants are very much Butlin’s city, Butlin’s people.
This is (but trivially) in the nature of things. The readers who will most enjoy this book are those who want their poetry recognisable, warm-hearted, already processed and pre-digested, and which they may therefore safely endorse. But there’s a difference in kind between poetry which exists because the poet ‘must’ write, and poems which exist because, as achieved art, they feel objectively necessary. Butlin’s poetry sometimes transcends him. It cannot be denied he has facility, although wherever facility is, the facile is not far behind. Finally, the lengthy epigraphs and drawings are irritants, and a distraction. The poems should have been left to speak for themselves.