Thursday, August 11, 2016

My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200 (Shearsman Books)

Edited and translated by the contemporary Irish poet Geoffrey Squires, My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200 (Shearsman, 2015) is a refreshing translation of a range of early Gaelic poetry.  Some of the selections will be familiar to readers — “Messe ocus pangur bán” is one of the most well-known (the one about the white cat!), and one of the earliest recorded Gaelic poems.  Squires would have been remiss not to attempt it, and here he gives it new life.  The title poem “Scél lem dúib” may also be known to some, as it appears on a relatively recent t-shirt design.  It’s one I’ve actually translated myself, and I like how Squires has handled it.  The poem to St. Brigit (“Brigit bé bithmaith,” possibly incorporating language used for the earlier goddess Brigit?) is another that I recall reading, somewhere.  There is (arguably) an extract from the Suibhne Geilt series, some from Acallamh na Senórach, and so on, but also many that are lesser trodden.  Out of the hundreds of poems that could be included, Squires’s choices are excellent.  This will no doubt become a standard text for Gaelic poetry in English.  I can see it becoming as indispensable as Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Táin.

Squires also provides excellent supplementary material — introductory essays on the history, landscape, culture, language, and poetics of Ireland in the chosen time range.  He goes into detail about his own approach as a translator, at one point verging into a broader manifesto on poetic form itself: “Since form is a key and sometimes contentious issue, it may be useful to step back a moment and ask the functional question: what is form for?”  Squires proceeds to answer his question in three ways, and his assertions are valuable reading for both poets and non-practicing readers.  It should be noted that Squires’s own work is often seen as being on the “experimental” side of the spectrum, and I think the perspective he brings to this earlier poetry, which often employed intricate or arcane modes of prosody, makes a lot of sense.  Viz: “each [function of poetry] can be performed in various ways and to varying degrees. . . . what matters is that the poem satisfies us in terms of recall, pattern and the fit of sound and sense.”

In terms of the content of this material, it is interesting that the anthology foregrounds the not so cut-and-dried shift in Irish society from pagan to Christian thought, and Squires points out that it was a gradual continuum, still going on long after the arrival of St. Patrick (who is referred to mockingly in a couple of the poems as “adze-head”), often with the two frameworks existing side-by-side in the same place and time, the native tradition hanging on strongly alongside the imported Christian influence.  One example is “Admuiniur secht n-ingena trethan,” attributed to Fer Fio, abbot of Comraire, who died in 762 (making this one of the earlier poems in the volume).  It invokes “the seven daughters of the sea,” “my silver champion / who has not died and will not die,” and “the Ancient One of the seven ages / whom fairy women suckled on their flowing breasts” — all of whom seem non-Christian personages — as well as a litany of metals upon which Squires remarks, “the general evocation of metals in this passage has a quasi-magical ring.”  A Latin, Christian ending stanza is tacked on, but there’s really no other way to see this than as a recycled pagan prayer.

Squires provides copious notes on each individual poem, often clarifying issues in the text or discussing his choices in translating particular words.  My only (minor) criticism in this regard is that we do not get the primary texts (except for seven out of the 81 selected poems), and so often cannot connect Squires’s discussion to the particulars of the Gaelic originals.  He does give an extensive bibliography and a number of websites/URLs where most of the sources are housed, but it would have been much preferable, I think, to have the format of facing originals and translations, side by side.  He defends his decision not to go this route, however, and so it is a choice he has made.

Whatever about that, My News for You: Irish Poetry 600-1200 should become a standard collection, a “go-to” book for any poet or reader, not only those Irish-focused.  In a comment on the language and style of the works herein, Squires observes, “I sense that economy of expression was highly prized among these poets, and it is no accident that when comparisons have been made, they have sometimes been with Chinese or Japanese poetry, rather than neighbouring European models.”  This is something that I myself have often thought, in my own explorations of Old Irish poetry.  Not all of the pieces here are short, jueju-, lüshi-, or haiku-like, but all similarly rich in images.  So, perhaps after your next reading of the of course also great Li Po, Tu Fu, Issa, or Basho, you will want to consider turning to the (unfortunately) mostly anonymous Old-Irish/Gaelic poets, who similarly speak to us, sometimes seemingly as if only yesterday, out of the mysteries of nature and the human mind.

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