The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure

This pamphlet of 22 poems by the playwright and poet Joan Ure, pen name of Elizabeth Clark (1918-78), was published on November 5th of her centenary year. It represents the first occasion on which her poetry has appeared within its own covers. The selection was edited by Richie McCaffery and Alistair Peebles, the present writer, and it carries a foreword by Alasdair Gray.

Among others who have helped, we have to thank Christopher Small, Ure’s literary executor, for permission to reproduce her work. Publication was supported by a grant from Creative Scotland.

As an example, here is the first section of the title poem:

from The Tiny Talent

There was this woman and she had this tiny talent.

I call it talent for things must have a name.

She had this talent that it happened to be death

to hide. She knew this empirically because, having,

the first time, tried to hide it, she

broke out in a rash.

But she was Scots and difficult to convince.

No worse for that perhaps but we shall see.

The rash, unfortunately, cleared up quite soon.

‘It was no proof that I am hiding a talent’,

she said, ‘or I would have proof positive now and not

simply overnight’. She said ‘I’ll go and

hide my talent in another place.’ She did good

works and other useful things. This time she

fell down in a faint! She could not blame good

works, so on she went being ‘useful’ everywhere

she could. Next time, she wakened in a sweat.

‘The Devil’, she said, ‘The Great Deluder uses

ways like these and every one of them is to lead

a poor woman far astray.’ And it happened that

this argument made it easier to live with her family

who had always been suspicious of what she, now

and then, saw as her talent, for doing something else!

The poem appeared in issue 27/28 of Chapman magazine, entitled Woven by Women, published 1980. Alasdair Gray, a friend of the poet’s, has written several times about her work, as he does in that issue:

By [the outbreak of the War] she must have appeared as she did in the last twenty years of her life when I knew her: small, slender, fair-haired, with beautifully clear-cut features and always very young-looking, though sometimes too boney, because her guilt-feeling about being supported by someone else, implanted in childhood, lasted through marriage and led her to eat too little. She made her own clothes and dressed very well. She was eye-catching in a way that was too individual to be merely fashionable, too smart to be eccentric.

Her childhood, as Gray describes it, was filled with difficulty, repression of self being its chief focus.

When Betty was twelve, her mother entered hospital with tuberculosis, and Betty became her father’s housewife and working mother to her brother and sister. Mrs Carswell came home after two years and thereafter managed the house from her bedroom. It was important for Betty to keep looking happy. Depression was thought ungrateful to the mother who bore her, the father who nourished. How did she avoid becoming a neurotic drudge or empty-headed puppet? By imagination, by developing an inner world where, for a change, she had authority.

Someone else who has written about her work is the new pamphlet’s co-editor, most recently in the magazine Dark Horse. McCaffery’s survey is entitled ‘Mither Tongue: Scottish Women Poets of the 20th Century’. His article concludes with a discussion of Ure, which he begins with the following comment, stating unequivocally:

Glaswegian poet and playwright Joan Ure … was the most outstanding voice of her time, still at risk of near-total neglect.

(It’s worth pointing out that his article was written, though not published, well before there was ever any idea of embarking on this selection of her work. An account of this process will follow in a later post.)

It might now be hoped that Ure’s voice now stands a much better chance of being heard. As Olive M Ritch noted, in her review of the launch in Stromness:

With the publication of The Tiny Talent, Ure will no longer be overlooked and, more importantly, her work will now reach a new readership.

Happy Paul Violi Day

A friend wrote from Spain this morning to wish me ‘Happy Paul Violi Day’, on what would have been the New York poet’s 74th birthday. He hoped, he added, to read some of Paul’s poetry online later. I misunderstood, imagining a kind of digital reprise of the small event that he and I and some others held in tribute to Paul at the Pier Arts Centre, Orkney, in May 2011, a year or so after he passed away. And I said that I looked forward to hearing him…

On the assumption that Ann Violi would approve, therefore, I’m posting the work you see below, so that Todd and other friends and admirers of that exquisite thing, the Paul Violi poem, will have something to read that they may not have seen before. Read to themselves, or over the airwaves, if they’ve a mind to.

HEAPS-PV

As far as I know ‘HEAP’ is unpublished. I do know that I’ve never published it, though I still intend to. Paul sent it to me in early October 2010, accompanied by the message that follows. I’d asked him for a contribution to a loose collection I was planning to publish, of my photographs and texts I was collecting by others, the whole thing entitled HEAPS. He said:

I wrote the attached soon after first hearing from you but didn’t send it because I figure it’s not what you have in mind.  It’s an off-the-top-of-my-head list of every job (outside of teaching and poetry) I’ve had since childhood. Unusable I’m sure, too damn long, but I’m sending it anyway to let you know I gave it a shot.

I’ll explain below the reason for the long delay (‘too damn long’, indeed), but everyone else I asked came up with something wonderful, including Todd McEwen. He it was who first introduced us to Paul and Ann, when they were on an anniversary visit to Orkney, and we ‘tromped’ with them wide-eyed around the usual sights, though long before the Ness of Brodgar had heaved itself into view. Carol and I visited them in turn in Putnam Valley a few years later, going for martinis first when we met him after work, at the Grange Hall, itself long gone under. We walked next day to the lake near Cedar Ledges, to see the boat he kept moored there, then we drove with him to Storm King, before catching the train back south.

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Paul and Carol at Storm King, 2003

So, Happy Paul Violi Day!

P.S. As to the why for the delay—aside from the usual practicalities, it’s largely because more pressing matters had begun to take charge. HEAPS had started a couple of years before I wrote asking Paul for his contribution, but by that time, I’d already begun what was becoming a very heap of research activity on the work of the Scottish poet, artist and gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay. (‘Finlay was always big over here,’ wrote Paul, and he continued: ‘I remember being surprised to learn he’d been in WWII, for I had assumed for a while that he was my age.’ I’ll return to that interesting assumption later on.) At that point, my interest was focused on the early career especially, but it’s long been extended to the whole. Of which, much more below. Brae Editions did manage to put out a few titles in the meantime, and I’ve long intended to start this blog, to cover the activities of the Brae, as we say (Up the Brae!), as well as some aspects of my work on IHF. When Todd wrote, this anniversary seemed a good place to start. A First Post.

P.P.S. For those interested, here’s a link to Paul’s obituary in The New York Times.

P.P.P.S. A heap, text already applied—Stromness, April 2008.

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© Alistair Peebles and the Estate of Paul Violi, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of original material published on this site without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or the copyright owner is strictly prohibited.