Gaelic Poetry for English Classes?
(The text of a paper given to the ASLS Schools Conference in 1994)
I have been kindly asked to speak at this conference to make the suggestion that you might include some modern Gaelic poetry in translation in the work you do with your English classes. In my talk I hope to let you decide if this would be a good idea by talking about the poets involved, the books where their work is to be found, and the perspectives from which their work might be usefully studied.
Before I start on such practicalities I should take a moment to address the question of why teach Gaelic poetry in translation at all. A purist could argue that translation makes a nonsense of poetry and in some sense that is undoubtedly correct. A defence might be made on the grounds that poetry is in any case a translation – a translation from feeling to words, from a private insight to a parallel, hopefully communicable, experience. If this partially defends the teaching of translated poetry, I will continue with defending the teaching of Gaelic poetry, though perhaps to this audience no defence is necessary.
I would make such a defence on three grounds, the most important of which must be that there is some very good Gaelic poetry. At school level there is no point looking at inferior poetry simply because it’s there as we do when we want to get a picture of the whole or are in search of the sociological factors made evident in a poem. To inspire young people in the enjoyment of poetry only the “best” should be searched out, and I believe some of “the best” can be found in Gaelic.
The second argument is compatible with the notions of a child-centred curriculum. Gaelic, as one of the cultures constituting this nation, is bound to impinge at some level on all of the population. Any exposure bringing understanding and respect between the cultures can only be a good thing. I would be pleased to see a speaker on this platform next year representing translated poetry from other cultures in Scotland – translated for example from Urdu, Punjabi.
A rather more political point is that after centuries of the active destruction of the Gaelic language and culture by the school system, there is now a chance to make good a wrong. I would not want to make this claim on political grounds alone, if there were any question of pupils having to suffer for the sins of their fathers. But there is good material ...
I’ll turn now to the practicalities of books. For the purposes of this lecture I would recommend firstly an anthology, Nua-bhardachd Ghaidhlig; Modern Scottish Gaelic Poetry, edited by Donald MacAulay. It was first published in 1976 and is due to come out again next month, November 1994. I feel it is a book where virtually every poem works. That may be too subjective a remark to be useful. The book as a whole has a certain homogeneity about it; it comes from a distinct time and a distinct place, with distinct perspectives on the world. All of the five contributors are Highlanders, born between 1911 and 1930, all are men and university-educated. They all share some of the following characteristics: an anti-clericalism which demands as fundamental the individual’s – and not the community’s – values; a sense of outrage at the history of the Highlands and Islands and the country’s indifference to the language and culture; a sense of tension between the security of belonging to a small rural community, at the price of being required to conform, and the freedom, in particular, the intellectual freedom, of city life, at the price of an anonymity which slips so easily into existential dread. This hurt is made clear in the lines of Derick Thomson:
The heart tied to a tethering post, round upon round of the rope, till it grows short,
The most important characteristic uniting the poets is the passion and honesty of their probing which accepts no easy answers. When their poetry was first published this was particularly refreshing as for over a century new Gaelic poetry had consisted mostly of sentimental evocations of a past that never was. It was as if Gaelic poetry couldn’t, or wouldn’t, look Gaelic society in the eye. There was of course good reason for this: with the upheaval of Clearance and emigration too much had been shaken for the old models to stand; likewise the present was often too gloomy to be the subject of the songs that emigre Gaels gathering socially in the cities would want to hear. It is no wonder if their preference was not for reality, but for a few hours of escapism that could hold them together before their return to the wheels of British Industry.
I will return to discussing each of the five poets individually in a moment, but first I would like to mention another anthology of younger Gaelic poets, An Aghaidh na Siorraidheachd/ In the Face of Eternity, edited by Christopher Whyte and published by Polygon, that came out in 1991. Poems are not written to an agenda, but we inevitably teach to one. Therefore it is important we realise the limitations (this is in no way a criticism, but a statement of fact) of the first anthology which are partially righted by the second. Four of the eight poets in the second anthology are women, three are conventionally religious, three are Gaelic learners, one is gay, and all of them reflect the world thirty or forty years later on. If my talk were addressed to teachers of Gaelic rather than English I would speak much longer about this second anthology, because I think it is important that young people from a Gaelic background do not think (as they might gather from the first book) that you have to be male and reject established religion to be a "thinker". For Gaelic speakers, the second volume is interesting precisely because it does not have an exclusively island perspective. The language rather than the subject-matter defines it as Gaelic in what I believe is a healthy expansion of domain. But for English classes, it is because In the Face of Eternity is not so obviously a window on a different culture that I want now to return to the "Famous Five" of the first anthology, MacAulay’s Modern Scottish Gaelic Poetry.
The oldest poet amongst these, and indeed the inspiration of much of what followed, is Sorley Maclean (b.1911). Most of his poems were written in his late twenties and were a sort of enquiry into the conflicting demands of love, political idealism and self-preservation. The scenario which generated many of the poems was as follows: MacLean was a young man in love. This experience inspired in him new levels of commitment to humanity, which at that time meant fighting fascism in Spain. The contemplation of such heroic action also entailed the contemplation of death, and hence an end to love, but his fear of death also deprived him of the self-worth necessary to pursue love. I think many young people can relate to this sort of perfectionism. His poetry can also be used to discuss questions of social justice, in particular the Clearances (see the poem Hallaig) and to show symbolism at work with his use of the dramatic landscape of Skye.
I expect the most ‘teachable’ of the poets in the anthology is Derick Thomson. He has a number of highly-crafted poems where some features of the old way of life in the islands (a hand-made coffin, a well,etc) becomes a metaphor for change. These illustrate very clearly how the interweaving of the concrete and extended resonances make for a poem in which the overall effect is far greater than the sum of the parts. They are also the poems in the anthology which most poignantly grieve for the past.
The poetry of Iain Crichton Smith well illustrates the use of highly-coloured, if not surreal, language and imagery. These generally serve in making a plea for a fuller way of living, without the cramping of society’s ideologies (a frustration known to every adolescent). The poetry of Donald MacAulay makes much the same plea, and asks that people be given the respect to live by their individual yardsticks. He shows a suspicion of group behaviour and easy answers, and is critical of the sort of censorship practised by the very communities which Derick Thomson regards with such nostalgia.
George Campbell Hay stands out from the other poets in the anthology as being a poet of celebration, using beautiful language to evoke beautiful scenery. His anti-war poems too come from the same premise that life is beautiful and war a most unnatural evil.
I hope I have shown that this anthology could be a rich source of poems in the upper school and that I have given an idea of some possible approaches, both thematic and formal. The book itself has a detailed introduction and citations of other publications should a deeper study of an individual poet be required.
I would like to end with mention of a poem by the youngest poet in the second anthology, In the Face of Eternity. She is Anne Frater (b.Lewis,1967) and the poem is called ‘At the Fank’. In detail, she describes herself watching with a group of neighbours busy with sheep-dipping. At first she is reluctant to join in, feeling slightly cold and the job being messy. Gradually she is ‘moved to usefulness’ until at the final point of involvement and warmth she finds herself speaking ‘with her own language on her tongue’. I leave you here with this typically island scene depicted by a young woman who recognises language as the ultimate source of her identity.
Aig an Fhaing
Nam sheasamh thall aig geat a’ phreiridh,
’s mi a’ coimhead cach cruinn
Mi seasamh, ’s a’ coimhead
Mi siubhal gu slaodach
Ceum no dha eile
At the Fank
Standing over by the prairie gate
as I watch the others gathered
I stand and watch
Another step or two
Copyright © Meg Bateman 1994.
Aig an Fhaing / At the Fank copyright © Anne Frater. First published in Gairm magazine, and reprinted here with kind permission of the author.
Last updated 19 August 2010.