George Bruce, a Scottish poet, spent a week at the Presbyterian Retreat Center in Montreat, NC, back in 1975, teaching a bunch of us about poetry. A fine poet himself, he willingly shared his knowledge and skills with our group, who gathered in late winter to understand more about the demands of writing poems. I don't know how much skill he engendered in me, but the week was memorable. Bruce was well-known as a poet in Scotland, dying in 2002 at the age of 93.
Among his many awards was the Order of the British Empire, in 1984, and he also was named winner of the Saltire Society's Scottish Book of the Year award in 1999, when he was 90 years old. His 1988 poem, "Cliff Face Erosion," was one that he considered to be a key poem. Bruce endured like the cliff face of his poem: "Ravaged, penetrated,scuffed,/deep-graven -- your face is witness,/ as is the human face, to the years./ I look upon your face and it is mine./I look upon you and marvel."
During his week working with us would-be poets, he recounted a moving story about the time he was asked to judge a national poetry contest for school children. He said that his assignment was to choose the top three poems among the several hundred entries. He found three which were outstanding, and named them as winners. The school officials who had sponsored the contest wrote back, asking him to reconsider, commenting, "You just can't choose these. Are you sure they are the top poems?" And they explained why they were reluctant to accept his choices: his first two winners were boys who lived in dentention homes, as a result of their delinquent behaviors. "What kind of message would your choices send to 'good boys and girls?' they asked. Bruce was willing to test his decisions, and sent the poems to graduate students at the University of Edinburgh for their evaluation. The answer came back: there was no doubt his choices were exactly right; they confirmed his judgment. The first place winner: a 12-year-old boy named John Docherty.
Here, briefly, is John Docherty's background, as George Bruce described it in a letter to me. John grew up in Glasgow, a violent city of a million people. It was a frightening place, noisy and unpleasant. He got into trouble and was sent to a school for delinquents some 12 miles south of Edinburgh. One day the boys were taken on a field trip to a sandy beach on the east coast. This was a new experience for John. He looked steadily at the sea and at the shells lying along the beach, and wrote this later about his new experience:
"My own little sea,/ is held in a shell,/ When I put it/ to my ear,/ I hear the roar/ of the waves,/ Beating the rocks./ I hear no gulls cry,/ No happy shouts,/ All I hear are the waves/ Beating the rocks."
John Docherty was unable to hear the beauty, only the absence of such life for him. As George Bruce described his situation, "The boy left a noisy, noisome place, and while absorbed into the tranquillity of his new environment, still was incapable of the natural happiness of childhood, even though there was solace in the shell, solace in the acceptance of the sadness with which it spoke to his ear. To deprive him of the shell to his ear is to allow the anarchy of his former life to possess him, to which condition the only answer for the child had been the desire to destroy, or to take from others so that he might possess what he had never possessed: love."
I'd like to think that John Docherty grew up with a new understanding of himself and his surroundings. I'd like to think that he became a success in his life in some way. I've tried to find some definitive way of locating him, but the number of John Dochertys in the UK alone is legion, even when I narrow the search to Glasgow. Several were sports figures. Perhaps one of those is the one I seek. I'll continue my search. In addition, I'll always be grateful to George Bruce, poet and humanitarian. His story of this young poet has rich layers of meaning which I continue to fathom.