Rediscovering Sorley MacLean

October 27, 2011

Sorley MacLean. Photo by Cailean MacLean

It’s a hundred since Sorley MacLean (Somhairle MacGill-Eain) was born at Osgaig on Raasay, off the Isle of Skye.  Towards the end of his life, MacLean became recognised as the greatest Scottish Gaelic poet of the twentieth and perhaps of any century. His 1943 collection Dàin do Eimhir agus Dàin Eile (‘Poems to Eimhir and Other Poems’) revolutionised Gaelic verse, bringing it back into contact with the mainstream of European art and politics. While Gaelic poets had once taken this for granted, the marginalisation of Gaelic culture in the years following the sixteenth century had barred Gaelic speakers from participating as equals in the cultural and political life of the continent. MacLean’s poetry was a radical challenge to that exclusion.

At the heart of the 1943 volume were the ‘Dàin do Eimhir’ themselves, a group of love poems addressed to Eimhir, a mythical figure from early Gaelic literature. But intriguingly MacLean had left gaps in the numbered sequence, which had to wait until after his death to be published in full. The poems take as their backdrop the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and enact the age-old conflict in European poetry between the competing demands of Love and War. MacLean’s speaker is torn between his love for Eimhir and his desire to join the International Brigades in their struggle against fascism. In the fourth poem he asks the question that underpins the sequence as a whole:

Dè gach cuach ded chual òr-bhuidh
ris gach bochdainn, àmhghar ’s dòrainn
a thig ’s a thàinig air sluagh na h-Eòrpa
bho Long nan Daoine gu daors’ a’ mhòr-shluaigh?

What is each ringlet of your golden hair
when weighed against that poverty and fear
which Europe’s people bear and still must bear
from the first slave-ship to slavery entire?

(Translation Iain Crichton Smith)

What was new here was the explicit connection between the plight of Gaelic speakers, here taken to be sold into slavery in the New World, and the fate of Europe as a whole. Echoing the Gaelic song tradition, MacLean takes advantage of the abundance of rhyme in his chosen language to bring his poem to a resounding perfect cadence in these lines. This was Gaelic verse deployed to a new and necessary purpose.

When I first read these wonderful poems, I was struck by that heady mix of erotic desire and political commitment. The unresolved tension that MacLean sustains throughout the sequence somehow makes his politics more passionate, his passion more urgent. But when they were first published, Gaelic readers were shocked by their difficulty and their dissonance, some going as far as denying they were Gaelic poems at all. The place the MacLean’s poetry has come to occupy in the Scottish poetic imagination – while richly deserved – has more to do with the persona the poet adopted in his later life, the weather-beaten representative of a dying culture who could safely be adopted by the Anglophone establishment without subjecting their hegemony to serious challenge, than with his remarkable poetry. MacLean’s acquiescence to the demand that Gaelic writers translate their work into English has damaged his own reputation – he thought his English versions ‘bald scarecrows’ compared to his Gaelic poems, and he was right – but it has also made it more difficult for those that have followed him to continue to develop Gaelic poetry on its own terms, without nervously looking over their shoulder to the expectations of an English-reading public. Today’s Gaelic poets still live in the shadow of Sorley MacLean. He negotiated a place for them in the Scottish literary scene infinitely narrower than that imagined in the ‘Dàin do Eimhir’, where Gaelic poets and musicians rub shoulders with Blok and Beethoven. This centenary year of MacLean’s birth will see the publication of new volumes of his work, with his long political poem, ‘An Cuilithionn (‘The Cuillin’) due to appear in its full original form for the first time. Now, like never before, we have a chance to rediscover Sorley MacLean’s poetry in all of its challenging beauty and complexity.

Niall O’Gallagher is a Gaelic poet and journalist. In 2009 he received a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust / Gaelic Books Council. He lives in Glasgow. This piece was first published in our Poetry Reader issue 9.

I am not a good sleeper, though I am not exactly an insomniac.  I do put in quite a few hours in turbulent unconsciousness, but I have always had frequent wakeful spells.  This is particularly true if I’ve been working on mind-stuff during the day, because I usually go on doing it in bed – whether I like it or not – and sleep is the casualty.  It’s been particularly bad this year because I’ve been writing a book – now finished, thank God – and the damned thing never knew when to turn off and let me alone.

All the more need, therefore, for some friends by the bedside to help me through the wee small hours when everyone else is asleep.  Luckily,  I’ve had some good companions recently.  The most spectacular came from Graeme Gibson, Margaret Atwood’s husband, and a distinguished author in his own right.  The volume in question is The Bedside Book of Birds: An Avian Miscellany,  and it is an absolute treasure.  As the name suggests, it’s a book about the ancient relationship between birds and humans.  Ideal watches-of-the-night reading, it is full of short observations, longer essays and terrific poetry.  For instance, I was moved all over again by re-acquainting myself with Robinson Jeffers’ wrenching poem about a defiant raptor with a broken wing, ‘Hurt Hawks’.  Look it up and thrill with pride and sorrow.

And I’ve been dipping into C P Cavafy again, after a friend reminded me of Che Fece…Il Gran Rifiuto:

              For some people the day comes
             when they have to declare the great Yes
             or the great No.

Louis MacNeice is by my bedside too, writing his Autumn Journal.  I love MacNeice.  The decent uncertainties of his mind, and that tugging undercurrent of loss that beset him early: Come back early or never come…Great stuff for the watches of the night.

Finally, there’s Byron Rogers’ fabulous biography of R.S.Thomas, The Man Who Went into The West.  I heard RST do a reading at Edinburgh University in the 1970s and he looked like God with a migraine.  Now I am beginning to think he was playing with us all the time.  Getting his own back, maybe, because of the way God kept playing with him.

Richard Holloway is one of the most outspoken and best-loved figures in the modern church. In 2000 he stood down as the Bishop of Edinburgh. He was Gresham Professor of Divinity in the City of London and remains a Fellow of the Royal Society. He has written for many newspapers in Britain including The Times, the Guardian, the Sunday Herald and the Scotsman and presented his own series on BBC Television. His books include On ForgivenessLooking in the DistanceGodless Morality and Doubts and Loves. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 2. 

The best books to read in bed are those that you can put down quickly when your eyelids refuse to stay open. I can only read Denise Mina or Andrew Greig on holiday because it is alwaysso hard to stop. Episodic works are safer. Armchair travelling has its attractions but bedtime travelling is even better.

Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson has given me enormous pleasure, particularly since their horseback travels from August to November in 1773 take place in such atrocious weather. Boswell brightened my adolescence when I discovered the outrageous passages in his 1762-1763 London Journal, a copy of which appeared so innocently in a family bookcase. Boswell is the ideal tour manager to arrange Johnson’s gigs. It is fascinating to see how the intrepid pair take Highland chiefs to task for abandoning old clan customs.

Fictional discomfort works as well. I have been reading Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona in which the London government of 1751 has no such admiration for Highland ways. Ian Nimmo’s Walking with Murder chronicles his lifetime’s expeditions to walk out the details of David Balfour and Alan Breck’s breathless flight through Scotland. It is wonderful to read in bed how Nimmo does not take a tent on his first expedition but sleeps in the open under stars or rain.

Malcolm Lowry’s collected poems are by my bedside. He has fine lines like: ‘The lighthouse invites the storm and lights it.’ But these are diamonds in the mire. The good images in his poems do much better when they end up in his wonderful prose. I have been rereading his interlinked story collection Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place. The last of these stories brought me to love Lowry after undergraduate irritation with the protagonist of ‘Under the Volcano’ wasting himself on tequila when the world is full of untasted wines. ‘The Forest Path to the Spring’ is a lyrical celebration of the years spent with his second wife in a shack on the shore on the north side of the Vancouver in let. I saw the site of the shack in July during the conference to mark the centenary of Lowry’s birth. My conference contribution was to describe his influence on two films of Orcadian Margaret Tait. Her three beautifully produced volumes of poems are very special to me and I always keep one of them in the leaning tower beside my bed. She is sometimes witty and jaunty, sometimes emotionally intense. I have never been able to read aloud the last few lines of her lament for Allison, a sister-in-law who died young and unexpectedly. I wish she had written more.

Lovely Michael Romer is the owner of wine merchants Peter Green & Co of Marchmont, suppliers of alcoholic beverages to many Scottish Poetry Library events. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, issue 6.

J.O. Morgan on the titles he’d like to see back in print.

Four books by Ted Hughes. Each an example of his interest in artistic collaboration, of different ways to present a book, of books that have a particular singular theme – not necessarily narrative in form. The pictures in these books are not presented as a mere aid to the richness of Hughes’s wording, nor to make the poetry more accessible to younger readers. On each the phrase is  “drawings by” not illustrations. The pictures are distinct within themselves. Their artistry to match in pen and paint what Hughes achieves in language.

1963 – the earth-owl and other moon-people
Six years before Buzz & Neil set their prints into the lunar dust, Hughes showed the terrors that might await them. The fluctuating length of lines and simplicity of the rhymes fit perfectly the playfulness; as intriguingly inventive in form as the host of hostilities the moonscape provides. On the moon, even numbers can kill. R.A.Brandt provides the drawings. They are hazy. Shadowy. Like bark rubbings. A specific indistinctness that allows the horror depicted to complete itself within the viewer’s mind.

1978 – Cave Birds (an alchemical cave drama)
The foot-long format of this book suggests why it received no reprint. On the left of each double page: a poem, as rich in death and viscera as ‘Crow’. On the right: an ink drawing by Leonard Baskin, as scratchily feathered and bloated as the drawing for ‘Crow’. The similarity of form and execution is clear, though the story within: less so. Does each picture match each poem? Sometimes it would seem: no. As though two separate trains of thought had come together inone book, both offered up for careful vivisection.

1984 – What Is The Truth?
That same big-page format. The story:  God and his Son descend by night to the hill top of a rural village, to summon souls from sleep and hear of creatures that the villagers have encountered. The farmer’s soul sings of partridges to be shot, the farmer’s son of his tamed badger, Bess. Chalk and charcoal drawings by R.J. Lloyd intermingle with the text; busy imagery, space-filling; many show the bright circle of the moon. The songs are long, are stories in themselves. The book’s question will be answered by its end.

1986 – Flowers and Insects (Some Birds and a Pair of Spiders)
The most conventional of the four books. Individual poems with a naturalistic bent. With here and there a watercolour by Leonard Baskin; impressionistic plants, sharply detailed beasts. A deft examination of minute complexity in living things. These works exemplify how poetry need not merely be collective, how poetry need not merely be words. If only they were back on the shelves – they wouldn’t linger there for long.

J. O. Morgan’s book-length narrative poem, Natural Mechanical (CB Editions, 2008) won the Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Forward Best First Collection Prize. This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader, Issue 6.

Watching Poets Work: Crear

August 10, 2010

Robyn is in Crear this week for her annual translation workshop, so it seemed an ideal time to revisit her piece in our Poetry Reader, issue 6.

Once a year, in partnership with Literature Across Frontiers, I facilitate a translation workshop in Scotland.

We began in 2002 at Moniack Mhor, went to Shetland in 2005 and to Crear in Argyll in 2006, to which we’ve been returning. It’s a beautiful, isolated place where the intensity of the workshop process is countered by the surrounding space, and the ever-changing view across the Sound of Jura to the Inner Hebrides. You know the islands are there, although sometimes the land is indistinguishable from the clouds. Such a blurring of boundaries, and sudden illumination, is an apt metaphor for the work.

Literature Across Frontiers (LAF) encourages literary translations between lesser-known languages, in these workshops using English as the bridge (elsewhere it might be French or German). This year we brought together poets from Poland, Romania and Germany, and added Donny O’Rourke to the mix. Over several days, I have the privilege of watching the poets work – occasionally acting as sheepdog at their heels. Translation is the closest form of reading, and it is not an entirely comfortable process to have your poems minutely scrutinised by your peers. Sometimes this involves physical demonstration – ‘How do you mean, hold hands in the air?’ – sometimes a back-story (‘Well, I’m using two Indian folk-tales here’); often a cultural reference: ‘In Poland we say “Love does not rust”.’ (This saying inspired a lovely new poem.) We learnt that there was no Romanian equivalent of ‘nightcap’, that Scots gave a good edge to German memories of childhood in the shadow of the Wall – ‘we played “people’s polis” an defektur cheils’.

The process requires hard work, intense concentration, immense generosity, and a good seasoning of humour. Working, eating and reading together is a rare opportunity for these writers. Although they give a performance at the end, they don’t simply parachute into a festival and then go their own ways; some lasting associations are formed. They try on other voices, learn new ways of working, have their own poems carried into different cultures over the bridge of mutual trust.

‘I find it hard to make the transition back to a world of buildings and commerce, talking to people who aren’t concerned how the crow flies into another language as the raven.’

Once I see the relationships being established, the exchanges starting, then I am both part of and apart from that community of endeavour. It’s an inspiring experience, and like the poets, I find it hard to make the transition back to a world of buildings and commerce, talking to people who aren’t concerned about the difference between ‘golden dust’ and ‘gold dust’, or how the crow flies into another language as the raven.

When I see the SPL’s name in a Czech literary weekly, or in a collection of Icelandic translations, I’m proud that the Library has this international presence, and that the encounters between Scottish and European poets are memorable, sustained and sustaining.

We called these pieces about significant poets ‘Getting to know…’ because sometimes it feels as if a writer’s body of work is too rich  or too varied or just too imposing to find a way in.

But though reading more widely and deeply will of course repay all your efforts, something small like a single poem or a letter can suddenly have you hooked.

The body of work left by Ian Hamilton Finlay when he died in 2006 is imposing in its size and scope. His approach still stretches definitions of reading, asking you to read and respond to his Little Sparta garden, his sculptures and collaborative pieces, his large prints and tiny cards. But while his art explores violence and injustice, political subterfuge or the enervating weight of depression, it also recognises that we need enduring toys to help us play and create and spark new ideas, just as small children do.

‘We need enduring toys to help us play and create and spark new ideas, just as small children do’

Here are some of the things that will hook you into Finlay’s world: early poems: the garden at Little Sparta; letters and papers in the National Library of Scotland; his early stories about fishing; his small cards and postcards, produced in collaboration with artists and designers; photographs of Finlay, particularly the 1965 image of him on a doorstep by Jonathan Williams, and the arresting portraits of him as an older man by Robin Gillanders. You can easily start to explore them through the Scottish Poetry Library’s collections, the National Library of Scotland’s manuscript collections, and the continuing work of the Little Sparta Trust and the Wild Hawthorn Press (websites below).

These lured me in as I helped out with research for Ken Cockburn’s selection of Finlay’s earlier writing, Dancers Inherit the Party: Early Stories, Plays and Poems (Polygon, 2004). The book, compiled with Ian Hamilton Finlay’s approval, is a good starting place to explore his earlier writing, and a salutary reminder of the way in which his work was never restricted to one genre, even as a young man. Start with Ken’s introduction for a clear sense of Finlay’s earlier life and work – and savour the foreword by the American poet Robert Creeley, reprinted from Polygon’s publication of the poems in The Dancers Inherit the Party and Glasgow Beasts, an a Burd, in 1996. And if you prefer not to start with introductions but like to dive into poems first and make up your own mind, then try, for example, p223. If you don’t instantly hear a voice bursting with feral, foxy energy and a love of the hunt, then just feel thankful you’ve never overheard the chat-up lines of a particularly predatory kind of lad just before last orders are called.

‘Life sparks from the wartime envelopes marked with his rank and number; scraps of paper used to test out colour pastels; a PS asking for the return of a typed manuscript, when each copy meant typists’ invoices in pounds and shillings’

Poems like these drew me in, but I was also captivated by the little personal, terribly ordinary things that are a reminder of the life that goes on outside the art. Sure, they are just the clay moulds round the work, with no artistic value in themselves. But they are a reminder of what has shaped the work, the restrictions and spurs of health or love affairs or irregular income or homesickness or the cost of paint. Life sparks from the wartime envelopes marked with his rank and number; scraps of paper used to test out colour pastels; a PS asking for the return of a typed manuscript, when each copy meant typists’ invoices in pounds and shillings, not a click of the print button.

Story after story about fishing and water and sea made me feel I was diving for pieces of Finlay’s life scattered on the sea-bed. And at the same time I knew from the NLS papers and Ken’s research that The Scottish Angler was edited by a supportive poet called Crombie Saunders, and for a while The Scottish Angler could use anything Finlay sent them as long as it was about fishing, and pay well too. Does that mean stories like ‘The Sea-Bed’ or ‘The Blue-coated Fishermen’, or even the bitingly funny ‘Advice from the Author’, are any less powerful because they owe their existence to the need to make a living?

When we contacted Robert Creeley to ask about reprinting his foreword, I was disconcerted to hear one of the fathers of American post-war poetry over a crackly phoneline, talking politely about proofing corrections and email. I get the same kind of electric jolt from Finlay’s humanity, weaving together of fishing boats and Greek gods, neo-classicism and beehives, stony studies of fascism and voices for animals and toy boats all tangled up in the same world. Below are just a few ways in to his work. Take them off our shelves. Start to play.

Lilias Fraser

Where to start

The Dancers Inherit the Party: Early stories, plays and poems, edited by Ken Cockburn (Polygon, 2004)

Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A visual primer (Reaktion Books, 1985)

Jessie Sheeler with photographs by Andrew Wilson, Little Sparta: The garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay (Frances Lincoln, 2003)

The Blue Sail, edited by Thomas A Clark (WAX 366, 2002)

Ian Hamilton Finlay (DVD; Illumination, 2005)

Further sources

Wild Hawthorn Press

Little Sparta Trust & website

Ingleby Gallery

This piece first appeared in our Poetry Reader issue 3

In 2008, I was chosen as one of five artists nationwide, and the first poet in the 90+ year history of the program, to participate in the Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP) as a war artist. For eighteen  months I have observed and written about the 1st Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry battalion as they prepare for war. A few weeks ago, I attended live-fire exercises, next week I go to Wainwright, Alberta, to participate in the ‘dressrehearsal’ for war at a Canadian base that has fake Afghan villages and real Afghans. There, I will be embedded once again with the infantry and will have a chance to watch how they continue to prepare. In the autumn of 2009, I will be deploying with Task Force 3-09 to Afghanistan.

My war work, some of which can be found online in beta (real-time, unedited, continually developing) at, is the direct result of a single question: what is the colour of Afghanistan’s demon dust? In 2006, after returning from Edinburgh, I read about the death of a young Canadian soldier in Panjawaii district, Afghanistan. My immediate response, as poet and human being, was to write ‘Elegy for an Infantryman’. My first lines:

In fields of grape vines and hot white dust

– Afghanistan –

set the tone. A landscape-based poet, I needed to get the details correct and knew the dust wasn’t white yet I couldn’t tell, from photos or YouTube, its exact colour. I requested to speak with a vet from Afghanistan and received permission from Department of National Defence to interview Corporal D, a young Canadian infantryman who had just returned. We spent dozens of hours together looking at his photos, chatting, looking at his videos. It was then suggested by the Canadian Forces that I might want to apply for the war artist program. Amazingly, I was chosen.

In August, 2008, I had met LCol. Walsh, the CO of 1Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. I told him that I wanted to go to Afghanistan and he said, ‘Come with us.’ He invited me to spend as much time as possible with 1PPCLI as they prepare. This invitation has opened doors to a world I knew nothing of before this project.

Over the course of a year I visited Garrison, several bases, armouries etc. I have spent thousands of hours with soldiers, their spouses, parents, friends. I have been on ex (exercise) with them several times, shared meals with the soldiers, slept in tents with them, been sick with them, laughed with them, been bored with them, celebrated, and mourned with them. I know what it means to wear a frag vest, a helmet, sit in the belly of a LAV for 20 hours, sleep out in the open, run for safety, eat hard rations, rise at 4:45 with the cooks and dollop out food in a flying kitchen, listen to Karl Gustav, a truly frightening weapon, all day and feel his percussion through my body (exhausting, fearsome). I have done night watch in a gunner’s turret, seen live fire, sat for hours in the Quarter Master’s… it’s all been fascinating.

It’s been equally fascinating watching the response I’ve had to this project. Once the soldiers realize that I’m not a journalist, they open up. I’ve had 99% positive reactions to my project from the general public, and the other 1% have used me as a target at which they can fire opinionated shots. I’ve been kissed and yelled at … pretty interesting stuff for a poet.

I’m often asked if I’m afraid to go to Afghanistan. Perhaps foolishly, I’m not afraid. I believe 1PPCLI will protect me so well that I’ll be mad at them for not letting me see anything. But what I’m afraid of, and I’m being honest here, is that my work will not be good. To date I write everything on the fly. I have so little time for reflection, for revision. I long for an editor. Still, I post my work in its rough state because I heed the words of the great Canadian- Scots poet Tom Bryan, who has helped me so much throughout my work, ‘You need to be getting your stuff out there while Canadian boys [and women] are being injured and dying.’ I just returned from an ex where a soldier died. I have written about it. Someday I’ll publish it. A huge challenge is to differentiate between witness and exploitation.

Ultimately, I see my work as witness. I try not to love the troops. I want my work to be record. I can only hope I have the courage to really write.

For a description of Suzanne’s work and projects, visit her site,which includes a BBC World Service interview from October 2008. Poet Suzanne Steele wrote us this letter for Issue 5 of our Poetry Reader.