Friday, 3 October 2008


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A Poet who Outlived his Fame

Poetry has been likened to a sieve that retains the essentials of life and discards the chaff, leaving a concentrate distilled upon the page in verse or rhyme. The American cinquain is perhaps the best example of such a concentrate being the most succinct and compact poetic form devised and created especially for the English language, arising, so to speak, from its own literary roots.
The Scottish poet, William Soutar(1898-1943) so renown for his poetry in the Scots dialect also wrote many excellent poems in the English lyric form and penned over a hundred in the short, concise, and ingenious epigram form that has now become known as the American cinquain.
William Soutar was a published poet in his homeland with ten titles in the years from 1931 to his death in 1943. He was the only child of John Soutar, a master-joiner, and Margaret (Smith) and was born in Perth, a seaport on the Firth of Tay on the east coast of Scotland. He developed his literary skills at the Academy in the town, joining the Navy from school in 1916, serving in both home and foreign waters. In 1919 he attended Edinburgh University where he graduated M.A in English in 1923. It was at this time his health failed and he became bedridden for the remainder of his life.
William consoled himself with poetry (and later as a diary writer), in the care of his devoted parents. His diaries abound in expressions of gratitude to both his parents for their encouragement of his literary work. In his diary just before his early death at the age of forty-five, he hoped to be remembered as a poet, if for no other reason than that his folks may not be forgotten, or the fact that they had done so much for him, and had received so little in return.
Soutar, as a poet, was as prolific as Emily Dickinson, writing lyrics in Scots, Rhymes and Riddles for bairns (children), lyrics in English and what he termed Whigmaleeries (whims or fancifulnotions). It was his poetry in the Scots dialect that created his fame during his life-time, especially Seeds of Time, poems in Scots for children. His English lyrics remained largely unknown, particularly his epigrams in the American cinquain format of his forbear Adelaide Crapsey, that is ,until recent times.
William's cinquains number in excess of one hundred and are anequal in quality to Adelaide's, perhaps thereby, furthering hisexisting reputation as this cinquain image examples:
WISDOMThe mind
Which can endure
Is made more wise by woe---
As colour deepens on the flower
At dusk.
Despite being bed-ridden William's poetry contains much humourand experience of all that life throws at each of us. From his bed he could view his parent's garden and the hill in the distance beyond. His cinquains reveal that little inside or out escaped his notice.
Also like Adelaide his cinquains cover a wide variety of topics thatreflect the influences upon their life and up-bringing and similar toAdelaide he did not always keep to a rigid two:four:six:eight:twosyllable pattern within the five-line format.
There are five broad categories of to his cinquains, ranging fromthose concerned with nature exemplified by Snow in Spring andSummer Snow to those of the human condition exampled in TheMask and Passion contrasted with others that remind us of William's Christian background in The Task, Symposium and TheCertainities and those that typify the depth of his poetic affinities in those cinquains of a literary bent as For a Poet and Eternal Spring, to the typical epigrammatic form of Consolation and Happiness.
Much of William's cinquains have a down-to-earth flavour compared to the some of the more classical-orientated cinquains of Adelaide e.g her Roma Aeterna and For Lucas Cranach's Eve illustrating their differing influences and backgrounds. Notwithstanding, each in their better cinquains reflect the uniqueness of the American Cinquain as image poetry of th highest quality exampled by Adelaide's November Night and William's The Bridge. Each of which confirm how the cinquain devised by Adelaide specifically for the English language 'work' better than the imported image forms of another culture.
The bridge
Lifts up its brow
Like a half-shrunken skull
Within whose sockets darkly moves
The stream.
None of William's cinquains were published in his life time. A collection of what he termed his best English lyrics he gathered together into a volume entitled 'The Expectant Silence' and were published in the year following his death. He had commenced to write his cinquains in the seven years up to 1933 but the majority where penned in the latter part of his writing career to 1939. It was at this time he also took to writing in the 'doublet' form similar to the Adelaide's epigram doublet On Seeing Weather-beaten Trees. However William did not use theintegral title whereby Adelaide created her doublet into a rival image form to the haiku, but thankfully has left us with many more than the two doublets that we have of Adelaide's.
In addition to his Scots poetry and American cinquains and otherEnglish lyrics William's reputation as a diarist and journal keeperhas been confirmed with his Diary of a Dying Man . His untimelydeath from tuberculosis robbed Scotland of one of its most talented poets of the vernacular dialect. In the wider realm William Soutar's reputation in the burgeoning world of cinquain writers is now enhancing the fame he achieved within his own land in his short but productive life.

This articles was first published in Amaze the online cinquain poetry journal.

Brian Strand is an English cinquain writer and enthusiast and is the editor of Flowers of Life (a selection of cinquains by WilliamSoutar) and the editor of a booklet on short poetic form Short Hand of the Heart and Poiema(a selection of Ekphrasis poetry)

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