‘Memo for Spring’ by Liz Lochhead (50th Anniversary Edition)

Lochhead began writing while studying Drawing and Painting at The Glasgow School of Art from 1965–1970. She felt she had lost her way with visual art and so turned to writing as her primary mode of expression. By 1970, when Lochhead graduated with a Diploma in Art, more than half of the poems published in her first collection, Memo for Spring, had been written.1 Her sense of frustration with her own drawing and painting can be felt in ‘Notes on the Inadequacy of a Sketch’, written in response to the experience of observing Millport Cathedral in March 1970 in ‘crude felt-tip line’.2 Lochhead writes:

(My sketch mentions no rain
neither how wet it was nor how straight
it fell nor that seagulls tried to call a halt
to it.) From my quick calligraphy of trees
no real loud rooks catcall the sea’s
cold summersault.3

Lochhead describes her sketch as ‘a simile at best. It’s no metaphor’.4 Poetic language enables her to go beyond what she perceives to be a surface level rendering of the scene. Lochhead reflects on her younger self in the new preface to the 50th Anniversary Edition, writing that ‘she thought that she had given up on drawing and painting, that she’d gone to art school where she had somehow lost the urge to be any kind of visual artist’,5 but she does return to drawing and painting in later years. Lochhead’s drawing, Fugitive Colours at the Favourite Place (2016), is the cover image for her most recent collection, Fugitive Colours (2016), published at the end of her term as Scots Makar (2011–2016).

‘Object’ provides another reference in the collection to Lochhead’s visual art training. The ‘object’ of the poem is a life model, ‘capable of being looked at / from many different angles.’6 Lochhead makes the object of the poem the subject and gives the traditionally silent female muse a voice. The poet imagines the sitter recording her own image while she is observed, thus the model returns our gaze and the poem’s focus shifts to what she can see:

Random spatters on the white wall –
cerulean, terre verte,
transparent golden ochre; black
dust on white ledge; chestnut tree’s topmost
pale candles flickering beyond the sill7

Lochhead’s painter’s eye for colour and detail and her capacity to conjure a vivid visual image in writing is evident throughout the collection.

The theme of human relationships, ‘especially as seen from a woman’s point of view’,8 as Edwin Morgan writes, is central to the collection. Lochhead jokes that she ‘specialised in Drawing and Painting and unrequited love’,9 and a relationship breakdown is most effectively explored in ‘Inventory’. The poem opens with the words, ‘you left me’, and its form, with lines that are a series of depressions and protrusions, mirrors the silhouette of the gap-toothed comb which has been left with ‘an odd hair or two of yours’10 and illustrates the physical separation of the lovers. The useless and discarded objects which include ‘nail pairings’ and ‘orange peel’11 echo the speaker’s feeling that they too have been cast aside. The themes of love and loss which are woven throughout the collection still resonate today.

Memo for Spring emerged in a male-dominated literary landscape in Scotland in 1972 and through poems such as ‘Object’, ‘How Have I Been’, and ‘Morning After’, the collection establishes a longstanding emphasis on female experience in Lochhead’s writing. The Anniversary Edition uses the same cover image as the first edition; the photograph was selected by the publisher Gordon Wright and Lochhead felt it was too pretty, ‘I remember that I wasn’t too sure about either title or cover at the time.’12 Her account in the preface of a distinguished Scottish critic telling her that he fancied her from the book cover and was disappointed when he met her in real life is testament to the gendered landscape. Memo for Spring altered this landscape, providing a fresh, new female voice. It paved the way for a generation of writers, including Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie, and Ali Smith, who has written a new introduction to the Anniversary Edition.

The first print run of 1500 copies in 1972 sold out and Memo for Spring went on to sell a further 3500 copies, making it a bestseller in poetry. Ali Smith bought one of these copies at the increased price of 95p in 1981. Lochhead’s preface and Smith’s introduction are welcome additions to the 2022 publication. Smith recalls her first encounter with Memo for Spring in 1979 while babysitting for an English teacher. For Smith, the collection was a revelation, it showed that ‘in writing, and especially right then in Scottish writing, what was possible was anything, everything.’13 The 50th Anniversary Edition celebrates the enduring appeal of Lochhead’s work and follows the Makar collections, Fugitive Colours and A Choosing: The Selected Poems of Liz Lochhead (2011), where Lochhead is in control of her own canon and ‘chooses’ how to present her corpus to a new audience.

The structure remains the same as the 1972 edition, though, notably, ‘Poem for my sister’ has been omitted. The collection opens with ‘Revelation’ and closes with the triumphant yet cautionary title poem, ‘Memo to Myself for Spring’. The theme of growing up is present throughout this debut collection and in ‘Revelation’ a young girl visits a farm and is taken to see the farm’s bull. The bull’s power, his ‘big bulk and a roar to be really scared of’, and the darkness of the outhouse are in direct contrast to the white, ‘self-contained’,14 femaleness of the eggs and milk the child is there to collect. The oft-cited poem is now taught in schools as a Scottish Qualifications Authority set text for Higher pupils. This opening poem establishes a female voice that resists containment and is, as Smith suggests, ‘an answering power in itself.’15

Other poems in the collection point to what become key thematic concerns in subsequent writing by Lochhead. Though the emphasis is on personal, female experience, she begins to explore Scottish experience, particularly in the west coast of Scotland as seen in poems such as ‘George Square’. The industrial landscape of Motherwell, where Lochhead was born – its ‘pitted / and pockmarked, slag-scarred, scraped land’16 – is the subject of ‘Poem on a Day Trip’. By contrast, Edinburgh, the location for the day trip, is described as ‘No mean city’ in a self-conscious reference to the 1935 novel by H. Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur, ‘but genteel, grey and clean’.17 Lochhead’s rejection of binary views of both women and Scotland is present in the humour of the poem’s closing lines:

I rush for Woolworth’s anonymous aisles,
I feel at home here
you could be anywhere –
even in Glasgow.18

Memo for Spring brought a new perspective to Scotland’s literary scene and with it a sense of possibility for a generation of writers. Reflecting on the fiftieth anniversary of the collection, Lochhead is surprised by the ‘freshness and directness’19 of these poems written in the spring of her literary career. The collection explores everyday subject matter such as a man sitting on a bench, time spent in hospital, growing up, and falling in and out of love in poems that stand the test of time. It reminds us to find meaning in the events of daily life, made all the more poignant by society’s emergence from the darkness of the pandemic. The anniversary edition ensures that readers familiar with and new to Lochhead’s writing will continue to enjoy Memo for Spring for another fifty years.

Memo for Spring is published by Polygon


End Notes

  1. Alison Smith, ‘Liz Lochhead: Speaking in her Own Voice’ in Liz Lochhead’s Voices, eds. Robert Crawford and Anne Varty (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993) pp. 1–16, p. 6.
  2. Liz Lochhead, ‘Notes on the Inadequacy of a Sketch’, Memo for Spring: 50th Anniversary Edition (Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2022) pp. 30–31, p. 30. This and all other references will be to the 2022 edition.
  3. Ibid. p. 31.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Liz Lochhead, ‘Preface’, Memo for Spring: 50th Anniversary Edition, pp. ix–xvii, p. xvi.
  6. Liz Lochhead, ‘Object’, Memo for Spring: 50thAnniversary Edition, pp. 52–54, p. 52.
  7. Ibid. p. 53.
  8. This is taken from the foreword to Lochhead’s 1984 anthology, Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems 1967–1984, an excerpt of which is included on the back cover of the new edition of Memo for Spring.
  9. Lochhead, ‘Object’, p. x.
  10. Liz Lochhead, ‘Inventory’, Memo for Spring: 50th Anniversary Edition, p. 22.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Lochhead, ‘Preface’, p. ix.
  13. Ali Smith, ‘Introduction’, Memo for Spring: 50th Anniversary Edition, pp. xix–xxii, p. xxi.
  14. Liz Lochhead, ‘Revelation’, Memo for Spring: 50thAnniversary Edition, pp. 3–4.
  15. Smith, ‘Introduction’, p. xx.
  16. Liz Lochhead, ‘Poem on a Day Trip’, p. 28.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Lochhead, ‘Preface’, p. x.
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Nia Clark

Nia Clark graduated with a PhD in Scottish Literature from the University of Glasgow in 2021. Her thesis titled, ‘[N]ew connections strung out over time’: a study of Liz Lochhead’s poetry and drama from 1972–2016, won the Ross Roy medal.

More articles by Nia Clark

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