Hugh MacDiarmid, the 20th-century Scottish poet, once wrote of his love for his homeland: “The rose of all the world is not for me. /I want for my part/ Only the little white rose of Scotland /That smells sharp and sweet – and breaks the heart.”
A USM professor of English who specializes in Scottish poetry, and particularly that of MacDiarmid, discovered that same love for Scotland a number of years ago. She was honored in April for her research and scholarship in Scottish literature by one of the top literary organizations in that country.
Nancy K. Gish, who has been teaching at USM since 1980 and also is founding director of the USM Women and Gender Studies Program, traveled to Edinburgh to be confirmed during a reception as an Honorary Fellow of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies (ASLS). Gish is a faculty member in the USM Department of English, College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
Announcing the award in an acknowledgement letter to Gish, the ASLS Council members “expressed their recognition and admiration of the valued and major contribution which you have made to the support and enrichment of the tradition of Scottish literature.”
Gish called the award “an enormous honor” and “a recognition of a life of work that started in 1975.”
“I was absolutely stunned and thrilled, and I’m still full of myself over it and very excited about going to Edinburgh,” she said recently. “When I looked at the letter, I couldn’t believe who had sent it.”
“Professor Gish is an exemplary scholar and teacher and well deserving of this award,” said Lynn Kuzma, dean of USM’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. “She not only distinguishes herself, but also our college and university. We are very proud of her.”
Founded in 1970, the ASLS is an independent educational charity, similar to the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) that aims to promote the study, teaching, and writing of Scottish literature. In 2010, for its 40th anniversary, the organization members decided to confer honorary fellowships on a select group of distinguished contributors to the field of study, but later realized there were more who should be honored.
It was decided to confer the award on 100 contributors over the first three years and then add a few each year. Gish, who received her doctorate of philosophy in English from the University of Michigan, has been named as one of those honorees, who include such notables as the late Seamus Heaney, Irish poet and playwright and 1995 Nobel Prize winner in literature.
Gish pointed out that there are very few scholars in the U.S. who study Scottish modernism or Scottish literature, with some exceptions for such writers as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. She said the country “is a distinct, fascinating, extraordinary culture and not simply part of a generalized ‘Britain.
“Scottish literature has largely been ignored by Anglo-American critics,” Gish noted. “There are quite a few reasons for this,” including the dominance of English culture, economics, language and literature.
The professor first started doing Scottish studies in 1977 after receiving a copy of MacDiarmid’s poetry. Comparing it to the work of American poet Emily Dickinson, Gish said, “I started reading it, and it was brilliant. I thought, ‘I’m supposed to be a specialist in modern literature, and I’ve never read it.’ … I felt as if my head was coming off.”
In 1979, she received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to do research for a book on the poet, “Hugh MacDiarmid: The Man and His Work,” published by Macmillan in 1984, followed in 1992 by another book, “Hugh MacDiarmid: Man and Poet.”
In 1977, Gish went to Scotland and met MacDiarmid, visiting him in his home and interviewing him for about an hour and a half. She also got to “interview everyone I could find who had known him,” she said, including relatives and colleagues, including Heaney on MacDiarmid’s influence on Irish literature. MacDiarmid, who died a year later, actually wrote two letters giving Gish permission to copy his literary materials for her work.
“I still have the letters he wrote to me personally,” Gish said, adding that she hoped some day to preserve them in a permanent collection.
That trip led to more books, a critical monograph and an edited collection of criticism and numerous articles. Fascinated by Scottish literature, Gish has continued to write about not only MacDiarmid, but also contemporary Scottish women poets, such as Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay, the latter whom Gish brought to USM as a visiting faculty member.
Gish’s current scholarly work focuses primarily on the effect of World War I on English, Welsh and Scottish poetry, and she now is teaching a course at USM on that topic. She also is an authority on modernism and in particular, T.S. Eliot. She has published three books on Eliot, as well as numerous articles, and has made a number of scholarly presentations about him in the U.S. and Europe.
The USM professor said that studying Scottish literature “has made my life far richer and wonderful.” The ASLS award, Gish said, is “an affirmation of a lifetime of bringing international ideas and understanding to students at USM … my students deserve to have a window into the world.”
For more information about the USM Department of English, go to http://usm.maine.edu/eng