WN Herbert – called by Don Paterson “One maverick genius of a compatriot” – is a prolific, and prolifically virtuosic, poet, both influential in contemporary Scottish poetry and also inimitable. Following on from the previous generation of poets like MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan, he writes in the Scots dialect as well as in exuberant, inventive English. One of his subjects, whatever his poem is about, is language itself.
Along with Richard Price and others, WN Herbert was a founding member of the Informationists, a movement in Scottish poetry in the 1990s. They responded to what was then commonly called the 'information superhighway' - the increasing ubiquity of data and information brought about by the IT revolution - through mixing linguistic registers, Oulipo-like restraints, found poetry, and so on. They have this in common with later movements, like American Flarf. Herbert, along with Richard Price, edited the defining Informationist anthology, Contraflow on the SuperHighway (Gairfish/Southfields, 1994).
W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he published his DPhil thesis on the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid (To Circumjack MacDiarmid, OUP, 1992).
Since his first poetry collection, Sharawaggi: Poems in Scots (with Robert Crawford), was published in 1990 (and followed a year later by Dundee Doldrums) Herbert has occupied current British poetry from a very specifically Scottish position. This is both about language and what it can do, and a sense of nationalistic attitude. There is a long tradition of poets writing in Scots, of course, going back to Robert Burns and beyond, and it is certainly a form of political statement. But as with with the highly experimental poet Edwin Morgan before him, WN Herbert's use of Scots often seems to be an extension of his general sense of play - a word which denoted a very serious activity - as way of extending his range.
He has said, “Scots is a language capable of doing more than English, capable of doing something different from English that criticises and, ultimately, extends English. That is the spirit in which I write Scots poetry”. Herbert's poetry is so abundantly rich in tone, vocabulary and frames of reference that it's possible to believe no one language would be enough to contain him.
Herbert's poems come in the form of blues, ballads, found poems, meditations on objects, shaggy dog stories, dreams, lists, and fantasmagoria. They are frequently very funny. They are also frequently very long.
In 'The Laurelude' (which begins his collection The Laureludes, 1998, written while he was the first Wordsworth Fellow at Grasmere) Herbert creates a sort of verse epic around Stan Laurel, who came from Ulverston in the Lake District (widely regarded as the home of Romantic poetry), and is as much about poetry and the processes of its creation as it is about Stan. As an epigraph it has a quote from Oliver Hardy: “I have nothing to say.”
Lent lilies, Tenby daffs, the latter rare
as they were common back when Dorothy
first saw them, back when William borrowed words
(first hers, then Mary's) to make poetry
out of the simply seen: always an act
of theft or dubious alchemy. How does
it go? Stan, you should know this much at least:
'I wandered lonely as a trout
that doesn't like to swim in shaols
when all at once I heard a shout
from little prawns that lay on coals
upon the barbies by the lake...'
A later poem in the same book enacts Informationism:
of the book that can't
be written even though
I'm not asleep since
dream texts however
outré the vellum or
copious the illustrations
merely alter every time
you thumb through the Whovian stills
with a white glove
and do not like this book extend
like a building the
walls and floors of which
are capable of duplicating
themselves within themselves
Herbert's most recent collection was Bad Shaman Blues, in 2006. “The antithesis of the slim volume”, as Edwin Morgan called it, the book teems with cultural iconography across several continents, focusing on the conceit of the poet as an ageing shaman, turned to only in desperation by people who don’t really care.
Eh’m itherwise an oabject o disdain fur baith this sexes –
that’s jist thi bad shaman blues (it’s jist thi bad shaman blues).
Eh like tae think it helps tae write yir symptoms doon
but Eh feel lyk Eh’m thi public fiss of Eccles thi Goon
sae Eh scrieve these bad shaman blues (scrieve these bad shaman blues).
Aa guid people wi hough fur herts
jist get yirsels tae sleep
Eh’ve a vigil set wi Virgil whaur thi Devil farts
that Eh’m too feart tae keep.
But that’s the violet-shrinkin, cannae stop thinkin
bad shaman blues
ut’s jist thi Buffy-lovin, Tufty-clubbin
bad shaman blues.
His last five collections have won numerous accolades. Forked Tongue (1994) was selected for the New Generation promotion, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and was shortlisted for both the T.S. Eliot and Saltire prizes. Cabaret McGonagall (1996) was shortlisted for the Forward and McVities prizes, and The Laurelude (1998), written whilst he was the first Wordsworth Fellow at Grasmere, was a PBS Recommendation. All three books won Scottish Arts Council book awards, and Cabaret McGonagall also won a Northern Arts award. The Big Bumper Book of Troy (2002) was longlisted for Scottish Book of the Year and shortlisted for the Saltire Prize. Shaman Blues (2006) was a PBS Recommendation, and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot and Saltire prizes.
WN Herbert has also written numerous libretti, and with Evangelina Rigaki he is currently working on the opera ‘Bankers in Hades’, funded by the Irish Arts Council.
In recent years Herbert has edited an exchange anthology of translations from contemporary Bulgarian poetry called A Balkan Exchange (Arc, 2007). Together with Martin Orwin, he translated the Somali poet Gaarriye for the Poetry Translation Centre, published in a pamphlet by Enitharmon in 2008. He also worked with the prominent Chinese poet Yang Lian on Jade Ladder, a book of translations from contemporary Chinese poetry, which appeared from Bloodaxe Books in April 2012.
Recent publications include Three Men on the Metro, a collaborative volume of verse about the Moscow Metro written with Andy Croft and Paul Summers (Five Leaves Press, 2009), and work for numerous anthologies.
His new poetry collection, Omnesia, will be published by Bloodaxe in 2013.
Herbert is currently Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University. He lives in an old lighthouse in North Shields with the novelist Debbie Taylor, editor of the magazine MsLexia, and their daughter Izzie.
Sharawaggi: Poems in Scots (with Robert Crawford) Polygon, Edinburgh, 1990
Dundee Doldrums, Galliard, Edinburgh, 1991
Forked Tongue, Bloodaxe, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1994
The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick, Arc, Tormorden, 1994
Cabaret McGonagall, Bloodaxe, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1996
The Laurelude, Bloodaxe, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1998
The Big Bumper Book of Troy, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2002
Bad Shaman Blues, Bloodaxe, Tarset, 2006
Poems, by Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’ (translated, with Martin Orwin), Enitharmon, London. 2008
Omnesia, Bloodaxe, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2013
Herbert's page at the Scottish Poety Library.
The British Council’s page on Herbert.