Regina Weinert writes in memory of William Bonar (1953-2021)
Sometimes you receive a gift before you know it. A friend put me in touch with William Bonar, Billy to his pals, because he thought we were on similar paths as writers of poems. And so I had the pleasure of Billy’s company from September 2020 until his untimely death in September 2021. I had met Billy in the early eighties, but didn’t know that, after a working life as a teacher and then as an educational psychologist, he had become a full-time writer. He was already a well-established member of the Scottish Poetry community and unfussily generous towards me. We quickly fell into step, sharing poems and comments by email. It was a reminder of how fruitful such exchanges can be when they are based on respect and honest critiquing of the work. Billy was a founder member of St Mungo’s Mirrorball, Glasgow’s network of poets and readers of poetry, and his encouragement and support have been warmly appreciated by his fellow travellers.
He was born in Greenock. The shipyards of Port Glasgow, where his father worked as a plater, formed a large backdrop to his growing up and later to his writing. He was fond of the landscapes of Argyll, intrigued by its Celtic mythology and the notion of “thin places”, thresholds and portals of all kinds, which poems can be. His work is always rooted in the “mundane” (as he liked to call it), yet unfailingly invokes a wider historical and socio-cultural picture. It tries to unearth what shapes us, how we move beyond our beginnings, and what we wrestle with in the process. The trappings of masculinity are a recurring preoccupation, also mortality and how to live well with it, our chances in love, the value and cost of thinking about things. He writes from the vantage point of a matured person with a keen humanist intelligence and with wit. His relish for language is infectious.
William Bonar has two publications with Red Squirrel Press, the pamphlet Offering (2015, currently sold out), which won the James Kirkup Memorial Poetry Prize, and a full collection, The Stuff of the Earth (2021). Most poems are written in English. A few are in Scots while many weave in Scots words and expressions. The overall impression is seamless, rendering an assured and genuine voice. Both publications are enhanced by some translations, glosses and general notes.
His work is always rooted in the “mundane” (as he liked to call it), yet unfailingly invokes a wider historical and socio-cultural picture. It tries to unearth what shapes us, how we move beyond our beginnings, and what we wrestle with in the process
The poems achieve depth by laying everything out clear and sharp, yet with feeling. The language is considered and direct, as recognisably his as the forms and the compelling imagery. Jim Carruth writes on Offering that “You cannot help but trust a poet who treasures the briefest moments in his journey, and works them back to the very essence that will keep them bright always.” He made the unpunctuated poem and stanza very much his own, with an architectural sense of composition, proportion and spacing. He achieves this balance and control in both short and longer form. He has fun with it too. He was also a fine storyteller and conversationalist, which resulted in some more expansive and discursive poems. He gives us a ballad, moving addresses to relatives and poets, and a twelve poem narrative based on his childhood experiences.
There is naturalness to his poetic technique. Sound correspondences are unforced and create cohesion and associations in a satisfying way. At the same time his style springs from his everyday speech and tone. It’s time for some examples.
Offering is a honed work that brims with energy. A sense of the elemental suffuses it: weather, light, water, sky, glass, metal and a mostly cool colour palette. This is where human beings find their place, momentarily, and leave their marks.
The first poem illustrates many features of William Bonar’s work. It situates the person and the poet subtly and firmly, foreclosing nothing. It has his signature spacing, which never becomes a mannerism, as it is always in step with sound, rhythm, image and content. It also shows his skill in inserting concepts that anchor a poem.
The Early Days of a Better Nation
once the weather suiting
the architecture I caught
The Modern crystalline
as pure water it must have been
June pupils gone
I walked a glass-walled corridor
a man in a movie alone
geometry and sky
at home with possibility
The poem directs the reading pace. Line breaks perch on the edge of things. The speaker pauses, deliberates; chooses the appropriate expression, the right time, the fitting comparison. We are shown scale: the individual as part of something much bigger. A delicate balance is implied in a few words: ‘water’, ‘glass’, ‘sky’, ‘architecture’. Unobtrusively, openness is sounded: ‘caught’, ‘Modern’, ‘water’, ‘gone’, ‘walked’, ‘walled’, ‘corridor’, ‘geometry’, and finally, ‘possibility’. Consider again the impact and richness of that initial word ‘once’. Humans get their chances, once in a lifetime, once in a generation. The title is well-judged, taking us beyond the Scottish context. But despite the grand scheme, we still have this one man who is maybe just looking forward to the holidays and a bright day is making him feel optimistic.
Poems such as these demonstrate what Don Paterson identifies as one feature of Scottish poets from MacDiarmid onwards. They “excel […] at the anti-baroque: leaving words standing so sharp and stark and bold on the page that you can hear the wind whistle round them”, an “ability to make each phrase a discrete lyric event.”Introduction to Ten Poems from Scotland, Candlestick Press, Second edition 2018, first published 2014 They leave much room for the poetic breath, as it were.
The wind often whistles in Bonar’s poems. He is quite mischievous in leading us through the weather into something else. The metaphors are never contrived.
learn in this year of rain
its beauties its whelmings
starbursts on tarmac streets
Not bad advice if living in the west of Scotland, or falling in love. I also read it as an exhortation to appreciate what’s in front of you: at the end of the poem “washed light gold / dripping from trees”; or, in ‘Late September Testament’, “colours hint / this is now this will do”. This stands in contrast to the title poem, where a younger travelling self doesn’t quite know how to receive what an Italian host offers, due to his “stern northern spirit”. And possibly also because of what has been instilled as acceptable male behaviour.
Bonar comes at questions of masculinity from different angles in his poems. It can be a word, “manta ray / man-car “(‘Halloween Skite’); a display of innuendo by young lads, their “Adam’s apples pulsing” (‘Ardrishaig’); or, as we’ll see later in his full collection, scenes from his childhood. Mostly he observes rather than interprets.
The poets featuring in the two publications are all men. He shows empathy and respect by engaging in dialogue with them, seeing parallels with his own struggles maybe. In Offering, three masters are placed at the centre of the pamphlet like a triptych: George Mackay Brown, Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid. The first poem, ‘In Orkney (with George Mackay Brown Eyes)’ opens with a startling reversal.
in Orkney the dead
are always at home
to our haunting we’re
no matter to them
In the second, ‘Assynt April’, MacCaig is conjured through the landscape only, the seven-line poem finishing with
grain by grain
takes to the air
The third, ‘MacDiarmid on Whalsay’, ends with the poet “hammerin sang frae stanes”, a reference to MacDiarmid’s long philosophical poem ‘On a Raised Beach’. Hard graft for any poet giant, hard acts to follow. Which route to take? The middle one between religiosity /spiritualism and philosophy, aiming for a grounded, though elusive, balance? I don’t presume to sum up any of the poets’ works, of course, and certainly not their intentions. But the poems invite reflection on such matters.
Bonar does push on with his own art and craft, exploring new horizons. Next up we get ‘A Johannesburg Quintet’, a tableau of five punchy short scenes set against the background of a partner’s past. This is followed by, among others, love poems where late chances are taken. The final one, ‘Ne’erdayists’, is filled with water, light and sky, liquid borders and blurred boundaries, and this is reflected in a natural flow of sounds. These are thin places and there is more than one way to cross.
at Bellanoch’s bridges
The Add meets
the tide its spill
frozen on salted moss
blue light lies
in this shallow bowl
through loch and sky
If Offering is threaded through with a sense of possibility, The Stuff of the Earth is more concerned with laying things to rest, albeit through open-ended reflection and questioning. This includes moving portraits of parents and siblings in the first part of the book and, as the second part, ‘The Stuff of Life’, centred on childhood experiences and the relationship to his parents.
If Offering is threaded through with a sense of possibility, The Stuff of the Earth is more concerned with laying things to rest, albeit through open-ended reflection and questioning
The cover image – a skull floating above an hourglass – connects to lines in the poem on George Mackay Brown in Offering: “as if their skulls / were not filled with sand”, which in turn echo GMB’s poem ‘Beachcomber’: “Friday I held a seaman’s skull, / Sand spilling from it / The way time is told on kirkyard stones”. Time and nearness of death meet the reader from the first page. This title poem is clever and playful: tiles are given a gently mocking voice.
The Stuff of the Earth
he’s that pleased wi himsel
him wan o Adam’s boys
unearthin us eftir whit?
forty fifty years?
naethin at aw really
he sees lustre
green glaze a wee bit crazed
Hearth tiles he cries us
The boy likes their shape because it “makes it easy tae see / wan o us is missin”, but there is a hint that he doesn’t entirely connect to the “Hearth”. The poem then shifts focus:
ever since he showed up
ach nae time ago
he’s been drawin borders
makkin distinctions discriminatin namin
thinkin he is because he thinks
ha! he’ll be gone soon.
In five tight quatrains and a final couplet the poem takes us from the Bible to the Enlightenment. It sets up the collection’s preoccupation: the poet’s urge to unearth decades old personal history, thirled as he is to making some sense out of life and his place on Earth. He’s “a wee bit crazed” himself maybe, with all that digging in history, religion, philosophy, and so on. Where does it get you?
Four poems deal directly with William Bonar’s own experience of illness and near-death. It was important to him to be open around this and he contributed poems to the anthology Living our Dying Living our Dying, edited by Larry Butler and Sheila Templeton, Rymour Books, 2021. The poems are unsparing, almost clinical, yet also calm and not without humour. In ‘Awake’ he wonders whether it was the “two-tone hooting of owls” that woke him, “penetrating my ear like a bolus of ice-water”, or whether it was the full moon, “whatever”:
I must face that brilliant eye endure
its lunatic indifference
It is a highly dramatic metaphor, but to me not melodramatic, because it contains just the right amount of literalness and captures sleeplessness to the point. The way ‘brilliant’ / ‘indifference’ and ‘endure’ / ‘lunatic’ echo, like the ‘two-tone hooting’, is spot-on – a visible but unshowy linking of form to content
In his Ars Poetica poem ‘A pen’, Bonar sees his tool as a scalpel or lancet, his creativity surfacing as blood, “as faint hints of the heart”. The imagery suggests an attempt to get closer to human love and vulnerability. These are traced in poems about this father, too. We get to see that the father-son relationship was not an easy one and there’s a need to make peace with this. The following poem is in Scots and there is no translation, but I hope readers will get the inspired take on Stanley Spencer’s painting. It is quite a blast. In line two, “croodit clay” (crowded clay)“croodit” may also invoke a physical sense of “clotted”, from “crood” or “crud” is a nod to MacDiarmid’s resurrection poem ‘Crowdieknowe’.
The Resurrection: Port Glasgow The Resurrection: Port Glasgow by Sir Stanley Spencer at the Tate
Steer yersel, Faither!
Fling aff the croodit clay
juist hou Stanley Spencer
pictured it, lang syne,
daunderin uit the Glesca Road
betimes in the gloamin,
when his daft vision wis oan him,
the nichts the bombers didnae rin.
Mon wi me up the brae.
Ye dune yer best n yer waur
wi whit ye kent, n there wis luve
Ye ken whit? Ah unnerstaun.
Ye hud a script in yer heid
that ye tuik fur hou things are.
The theme continues in ‘The Stuff of Life’, a narrative sequence of twelve poems. I was fortunate to hear William Bonar read from it on two occasions. More than maybe any other of his poems, they gain in the telling. I think they would suit being dramatised. He thought the sequence could have been tightened here and there and I tend to agree. But this isn’t the place for a full-scale critique, only for giving a flavour, which is strong.
Poems are suited to expressing the episodic, disorderly nature of our experiences, through shifts in perspective and focus, and through re-imagining. They allow for an emotional truth
‘The Stuff of Life’ presents journeys taken by the poet as boy and man to Port Glasgow and Brightlingsea in Essex, where the family moved briefly for his father to work in the local shipyard. The poems are filled with lively descriptions that appeal to all the senses. The social and historical scope is wide, while the focus is on family, in particular the parents. In a major way it is a piece in search of the boy and how he fits into it all.
I: Boy – Port Glasgow, December 1960
You can see him clearly from here
on top of The Rocks, his fortress. Seven years old,
grey shorts and hand-knitted jumper.
Port Glasgow lies at his feet. Giant cranes
swing on the shore where men lay keels, raise ribs,
bend, stretch, hammer, punch, rivet, weld
and caulk plates of raw steel into curving hulls.
We are led straight to this boy, and to the adult man’s perspective on him: shorts, hand-knitted jumper – raw steel and tough men. On the way, we will see the decline of shipyards and industries and their effect on workers like his father.
III: Man – He Explores Brightlingsea,
No latticed cranes in the West Yard, no steel
prows louring over people and buildings,
no giant chains, no blue welding blooms,
no rivetting din, no rust, no cold metallic
taste. Only rows of pleasure yachts
We meet the boy again at the start of the journey towards Brightlingsea, away from all that is familiar, confronted by strange new sights, sounds, smells and tastes. We see a sensitive boy who wonders about things and doesn’t know quite what is expected of him.
VI: Boy – His Journey from Port Glasgow
to London, December 1960
Their train steams into tobacco-smoked,
coal-smoked Central Station, its dragon chuff
of engines, its fug of announcements
pierced by whistles; its playground of grown-ups
rushing, standing, suddenly moving.
Somewhere in the night the bus slows, arcs
across crunching ground, juddering
as the engine dies. He washes and washes
the stench from his hands; gorges on salty,
fat sausage rolls and sweet, milky tea;
the grown-ups’ sleepy talk, their funny
laughter like war-game Tommy Guns.
VII: Boy – Victoria Bus Station, London,
Is it his Daddy? Strange among strangers.
Overcoat, collar and tie, his hair combed back
in a wave, an odd look on his face.
The boy glances at his Mammy but can find
no clue in the strangeness of her face.
The boy’s vulnerability is often laid bare. The poems convey a rawness to which the adult is alive.
IX: Boy – Brightlingsea, December 1960 –
Port Glasgow, September 1959
His Big Cousin never seems to be there
in the evenings. He has no ally
against the other two. He can’t hit
his Wee Brother because his Daddy
will hit him; he can’t hit his Wee Cousin
for fear of his Auntie. The Wee Boys
call him names, giggle over silly rhymes,
pull his ears, nip, dig his ribs with fly elbows.
One evening his rage overwhelms him.
He threatens them both but his Daddy
says they are just kidding him on. They jeer.
As we move through the sequence, we glimpse greater understanding for parents’ actions, their losses and feelings as well as for the boy himself. Poems are suited to expressing the episodic, disorderly nature of our experiences, through shifts in perspective and focus, and through re-imagining. They allow for an emotional truth. It’s a great challenge to write about the child we were. But feelings lodge in us and deserve our attention. As he says on the last page of the sequence, “we hope for the best, invent stories / that lend shape, if not meaning, to our lives” – ‘lend’ being the apt word.
Following the collection, Bonar’s writing continued in full swing. Three short poems were published in Pennine Platform (Issue 89), as sharp and layered as ever. Others appeared in Ink Sweat & Tears and Gutter, 23. He shared more drafts. There is much to be enjoyed and I would hope that new readers may also get the chance to see more poems from Offering.
William Bonar’s work makes us sit up from the word go and says look, what are we to make of this. He never pretends he has the answers, but readers can count on him having worked something through. His poems are wide awake, acutely observed, nimble, affectionate, and full of wit. He was and is a sociable poet who engages and entertains. He does so in the company of poets, past and present, “the hail clanjamfrie’s singin”“the hail clanjamfrie’s singin” is from the poem ‘The Resurrection: Port Glasgow’ in The Stuff of the Earth – still. He’s one of the rabble. Let’s hear it.
on a giant bare sycamore
a throng of Glasgow starlings
no murmuration this
full-thrapple releasing a deluge
of joy as if their team
had scored a wonder goal
no smart-arsed mimicry
just the unaffected piping
whistles of a hundred flutes
a tad discordant owning
this November afternoon
raising the tone raising the sky
(from The Stuff of the Earth)
With thanks to Eric Wilson.
The Stuff of the Earth is available from Red Squirrel Press here
Read or listen to ‘A Johannesburg Quintet’ and ‘SQRL’ from Offering on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website
Read ‘Reaping the Whirlwind’ on Ink Sweat & Tears
Listen to William Bonar read ‘Rebound’ on Pennine Platform
William Bonar’s first pamphlet, Frostburn Steel (Dreadful Night Press, 2004) is out of print. It is available on loan from the Scottish Poetry Library
|↑1||Introduction to Ten Poems from Scotland, Candlestick Press, Second edition 2018, first published 2014|
|↑2||Living our Dying, edited by Larry Butler and Sheila Templeton, Rymour Books, 2021|
|↑3||“croodit” may also invoke a physical sense of “clotted”, from “crood” or “crud”|
|↑4||The Resurrection: Port Glasgow by Sir Stanley Spencer at the Tate|
|↑5||“the hail clanjamfrie’s singin” is from the poem ‘The Resurrection: Port Glasgow’ in The Stuff of the Earth|