Widening national horizons with poetry

A dazzling dawn over Loch Rusky, Image by John McSporran Creative Commons

April is not always the cruellest month. To misquote TS Eliot, after an unseasonable winter we’ve got May, June and the rest of a turbulent political year to follow. Yet, through all the roar and turmoil of national and international elections battering 2017, a quietly persistent question remains: what kind of Scotland do we want to be?

Poetry opens the question wider and deeper.

Can we keep the citizen central to the plan, the heart:

a living, breathing city; not just a backdrop or vista

or playground for the wealthy or the tourist? A place

where decision-makers are incorruptible and honest.

That’s Christine De Luca in A Drama in Time, a poem offering glimmering choices of what Edinburgh might be in 2050; the title inspired by the visionary Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and his views on urban planning.  Perhaps against expectations, the poem was commissioned by the City of Edinburgh Council for their Edinburgh 2050 City Vision – the City Planning Department had requested it as a result of their online conversation with citizens.

So, politicians need not always govern in prose? It’s a maverick idea, but what if it could take hold and spread?

Read the rest of the poem (published in full below) and you will see why Sceptical Scot was delighted when Christine De Luca, Edinburgh’s Makar, agreed to set the tone of our Good Society? discussion. Although the event planned for Tuesday 25 April in the Traverse Theatre has had to be postponed, the question (and the plan to explore it) remains. We will come back to it later this year. We need to talk, and poetry, with its ability to open hearts and minds, will be an essential part of the conversation.

That’s no small ambition. We chose the Traverse as a ‘safe place for adventurous ideas’ (remembering David Greig’s description of theatre as a civic space where citizens can explore new or challenging ideas with mutual respect). And we asked Christine if she would start the evening with a reading or two. Like theatre, poetry seems to create a safe space for unearthing troublesome truths.

A shiver down the spine

I’ve seen how the mood of a public event can change when poetry intervenes – how the panel of politicians on BBC’s prosaic Any Questions turned human when a member of the audience asked them to quote their favourite poem; how a full council meeting of Edinburgh City Council paused for breath when the then Makar, Ron Butlin, opened proceedings with a poem instead of a prayer (Poetic licence in the City Chambers).

There may even be sound scientific reason for this mood change according to British Council research findings (Poetry, Music, Emotions and the Brain). Listening to music, looking at the stars, reading or remembering a favourite poem can induce that involuntary shiver down the spine:

You know that thrill, that feeling you get when listening to music? It seems the same thing can happen in the reading experience according to a study which opens up fascinating questions around reading, the brain and emotions. British Council

Could that offer scientists, derided ‘experts’ and ethical politicians a means to communicate difficult truths and essential facts of the world we inhabit? Inspiring curiosity is the best way to overcome the dead weight of confirmation bias according to ‘Undercover Economist’ Tim Harford (The problem with facts).

Or as Christine De Luca put it when we asked her why poetry seems to enable a more constructive way of talking:

We depend on words to communicate our ideas and our dreams, sharing them respectfully with one another.  As an art form, poetry demands that we select our words carefully.  Whether we are writing a poem in which meaning is succinct and clear, or one in which ambiguity or complexity is explored, our word choice is critical.  Whichever it is, a good poem is a bit like an origami bird: it can be appreciated from several viewpoints but it looks simple.  The poet hopes that, like a bird, it can take off!

Maybe poetry can help us clarify our thinking about some of the important issues facing Scotland, indeed the world, today?

Building with words

It’s hard to think of a time when such clarity was more needed. Christine De Luca was appointed Edinburgh Makar – a builder with words – in June 2014 when the (first) Scottish independence referendum campaign was in full flight. Her poem The Morning After was read publicly for the first time in the week before the vote in September 2014. It resonates still with its healing message seeking understanding and shared purpose through ‘the unseen things that bind us’ in a small nation.

Was it about the powers we gain or how

we use them? We aim for more equality;

and for tomorrow to be more peaceful

than today; for fairness, opportunity,

the common weal; a hand stretched out

in ready hospitality.   

Now with her three year term slightly extended to September 2017, Christine has a full diary, with imminent trips to Colonsay and then Venice while Europe trembles on the edge of new electoral uncertainties.

But there are broader horizons and longer views to consider in stretching towards a common weal of fairness and opportunity. Let’s pause now for breath – and we will return to the conversation later this year with an open invitation to explore Scotland and reach out across a world of possibilities. Imaginations ignited by poetry.

A drama in time

Edinburgh 2050

Look back four decades: who would have thought

we’d change so much or be so digital-dependent?

Look ahead four decades and make a wish-list for

our planners to raise their game, ignite imagination.


Think of our city in 2050: bigger and more diverse;

an interplay of hopes and dreams and possibilities.

Still skylines to delight, still grace and open space,

but good homes, good health built-in for everyone.


Can we keep the citizen central to the plan, the heart:

a living, breathing city; not just a backdrop or vista

or playground for the wealthy or the tourist? A place

where decision-makers are incorruptible and honest.


We’ll need wise choices to be easy choices for how

we work, play, move around, connect with nature;

how we shop, and share and interact. Will algorithms

still play second fiddle to intuition, wonder, instinct?


We’ll need solutions from material science; from

environmentalists, technologists and architects.

And what’s after 10G? The use-by date on skills

and knowledge ever shortens – we’ll need a city


that tutors us from nursery to nursing home.

And let’s make the city’s culture more contagious,

enchanting all our citizens, while reaching out

across the world with stunning offerings.


Let’s banish laissez-faire and set aside that mantra,

the one that says it’s aye been; make space for newness,

even the exotic. Let’s gets the structure right, conserve

the best, so others can transform it for their future.


The title of the poem comes from Geddes, writing in relation to urban planning. (Quoted by Cowan, R (1998), The people and the process, in Introducing Urban Design: Interventions and Responses, edited by Greed, C., Roberts, M., Longman)

Featured image Breaking Dawn – Loch Rusky by John McSporran CC-BY-2.0


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