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.

Burns’ birds

July 14, 2011

Our friends at the BBC thought you might like to know about this programme: Burns and Birds – a special programme from BBC Radio Scotland‘s Out of Doors team.

Broadcast on Saturday 16th July at 7.06 and again on Sunday 17th at 11.05 am on BBC Radio Scotland….

We hear from Burns enthusiasts about the attention to detail he had when featuring birds in his poems.

We learn about the bird which is displayed on the heraldic device Burns had made for his seal – and the controversy surrounding it.

We hear about changes to bird populations over the centuries since Burns’ time.

We discuss what could be Burns’ favourite bird.

And we visit Ailsa Craig – from where Burns wanted to source three to four stones of bird feathers for his bed.

The small birds rejoice‘, read by Billy Boyd

Prizes: a round up!

May 30, 2011

The Breakfast Room (Bloodaxe) by Stewart Conn has scooped the poetry award of the  Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards, in partnership with Creative Scotland. Stewart’s collection was one of four long-listed titles: Eddie Gibbons – What They Say About You (Leamington Books)Kei Miller – A Light Song of Light (Carcanet) and Robin Robertson – The Wrecking Light (Picador). As one of the four category winners, Stewart receives £5000. One of these books will be crowned Scottish Book of the Year, giving the author a total prize of £30,000. The overall winner will be decided by a public vote: have your say!

Anna Crowe‘s Figure in Landscape won the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award from a shortlist of six pamphlets, with publisher Hamish Whyte of Mariscat Press accepting a cheque for £750. The publisher also holds the Callum Macdonald Quaich for 12 months. Anna will be the Michael Marks Poet in Residence at the prestigious Harvard Center for two weeks in July. The residency is a new prize this year for the poet of the winning pamphlet in the Callum Macdonald Memorial Award. Runner up JoAnne McKay was awarded a cheque for £250 for her self-published pamphlet Venti.

The winners of the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets 2011 will be announced at a reading and awards ceremony at the British Library on 13 June 2011. Tickets are now on sale from the British Library box office, here or in person from the British Library main building at St Pancras.

The seven short-listed pamphlets chosen from over 100 entries are:
Neil AddisonApocapulco (Salt)
Simon ArmitageThe Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right (Smith/Doorstop Books)
Sean Burn, mo thunder (The Knives Forks and Spoons Press)
Olive BroderickDarkhaired (Templar)
Ralph Hawkins, Happy Whale Fat Smile (Oystercatcher)
James McGonigal, Cloud Pibroch (Mariscat)
Sophie Robinson, The Lotion (Oystercatcher)

And the five short-listed publishers are:
The Crater Press
Kater Murr’s Press
The Knives, Forks and Spoons Press
Mariscat Press
Roncadora Press

Congrats to Stewart and Anna, and good luck to all involved in the Michael Marks Awards!

Brownsbank Retreats 2011

March 23, 2011

We were delighted to hear that Biggar Museums Trust Brownsbank Committee is offering Scottish-based writers the opportunity to spend between one and four months during the summer months at Brownsbank Cottage to pursue their own work in 2011.

Proposals are invited from individuals living in Scotland who write in any form, including prose (fiction and non-fiction), poetry or drama.

Each writer will be provided with a stipend of £750 per month to a maximum of £3,000, accommodation in the Cottage, the support of Brownsbank Committee members and access to Biggar Museums Trust facilities.

For more information: Brownsbank website.

Our friends down the close at BBC Radio Scotland thought you might like to know about an upcoming special programme to mark 100 years since the birth of Norman MacCaig.  It will focus specifically on his love of Assynt, and the way that this landscape influenced his poetry.  Here’s the blurb below, and here’s the BBC Radio Scotland website.

The poet, Norman MacCaig, was born 100 years ago this November.  Much of his poetry celebrates the landscape of Assynt in the North West Highlands.  In a special programme, Mark Stephen explores the mountains, lochs and beaches of Assynt through the poetry of MacCaig, and discovers why this ancient landscape is so special.  That’s ‘Norman MacCaig’s Assynt’ on Out of Doors on Saturday 6th November from 7am, and again on Sunday 7th at 11am on BBC Radio Scotland.

Our poet of the month for July is Kei Miller. We loved Kei’s reading at StAnza in March, and are delighted that his presence on our homepage coincides with the July launch of his new collection from Carcanet, A Light Song of Light and his latest novel, The Last Warner Woman, published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. You can find out more about Kei on his A – Z page, read his poem ‘If this short poem stretches’ and listen to some audio.

Kei will also be performing along with more than a dozen poets taking the stage at Fife Council’s Welcome to Fife Pavilion, which will be showcasing the highlights of ‘2010: Fife’s Year of Culture’ during the Golf Open Championship, taking place at St Andrews, 11-18 July. Others include Kevin Cadwallander, Angela McSeveney and Eddie Gibbons, all of whom appeared at StAnza back in March. Other StAnza poets taking the stage, from 13-18 July, include Jim Carruth, Anna Crowe and Milton Balgonie. For full details of the line-up and when the poets are appearing, visit the StAnza website. There will also be updates on Twitter. So if you can’t stand your golf without a side of poetry (and music, dancing, displays and cookery demonstrations, offering a sample of the cultural riches Fife has to offer) then this championship is for you.

It’s sad to see that the larger-than-life Russian poet, Andrei Voznesensky, has died. He visited the old library in 1998, looking and sounding every inch the great public face of Russian poetry, with his striking checked jacket, expansive gestures and rich accent. I was overawed, and remember being thrilled when, as I demonstrated our INSPIRE catalogue for him he patted me on the shoulder and said we knew more about his poetry than he did. This was a man who had, like Yevtushenko, read to packed stadiums in the heady days of the 60s, and who had had a minor planet named after him!

He was in town for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, appearing with Edwin Morgan, who read from his translations of the Russian.

What a combination – from Glasgow to Saturn to Planet Voznesensky.

Andrei Voznesensky, May 12, 1933 – June 1, 2010

~ Lizzie