Poet as bullfinch murderer

17th November 1995 at 00:00
WORKING WORDS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF SCOTTISH CREATIVE WRITING Age range 14 to 16 By Valerie Thornton Hodder Stoughton Pounds 5.99 0 340 61870 1

Part one of Working Words, which ostensibly "gives students the formal tools to analyse the writing of others" is mercifully short and easily ignored. If this anthology is aimed at pupils aged 14 to 16, what on earth have they been doing in their first three years of secondary school? The pupil who apparently needs a quick recap on the nature of nouns is subsequently asked to share G.F. Dutton's analysis of his own work as "this cross-symmetrical interplay of delight and destruction".

The choice of material for the main body of the anthology is, however, very impressive. Valerie Thornton integrates the great and the good with the lesser known Scottish writers. One of Janice Galloway's two fragments is a fine example of that sub-genre of creative writing which concerns itself with accounts of cat killings.

Bernard MacLaverty contributes to the literature of school examinations in The Miraculous Candidate, in which the hero finds himself hovering above his chair in a sanctity-induced fit of levitation. The spell can only be broken by the witless but clearly very holy candidate shouting a three-word phrase beloved of those Scottish bigots who lack any fine feelings for the Primate of Rome.

This glorious tale is completely undermined by the Questions and Thinking Points which follow: "Question 2: Swearing is not generally encouraged in creative writing assignments. Why do you think that is? To what extent do you think the swearing is justified here? You may first like to consider this question objectively...". We can, I suppose, just about picture a harrassed English teacher quoting the question verbatim by way of justification to righteous and probably Catholic parents. Elsewhere David Kinloch refers to the moment of silence that follows a reading of his poems as "perhaps the most eloquent of all". It is precisely these eloquent moments that are undermined in this anthology by the formulaic set of questions that accompany each piece of creativity.

More successful is the decision to include the writers' own analyses of their work. There are gems here; Valerie Gillies writing in the "bacon roll cafe in Perth"; Daniel O'Rourke's disingenuous shrug of a response "with this simple poem what you see is that you get," Norman MacCaig's confession, "I don't like Mankind, though I like Johnnie and Jeannie and Mary and Malcolm and plenty more". Some of the insights provided by the writers are so tantalising that initially you want to ask questions of them, not their work. Perhaps devising appropriate questions would have been a better pupil activity.

There is a wonderful element of visual prediction built into the anthology. Each section ends with a full page portrait of the writer in question. As we read Elissa Soave's account of anorexia we can't but wonder what she actually looks like. And can the man on page 93 have really written a poem about killing 27 bullfinches?

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