This week at the Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies seminar, we were treated to a variety of poetry readings by Rody Gorman. Gorman is the editor of the Irish and Scottish poetry anthology An Guth, and has been a fellow at University College Cork, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in Skye and An Lanntair in Lewis. Gorman showcased some of his recent work in Gaelic, English, and Irish, accompanied by an insightful discussion of the themes such people, landscape, sound, and language in verse.
Several of the works read by Gorman were based on a powerful combination of the poetic form of blues music and the traditional formulaic imagery of Gaelic poetry – resulting in composite compositions that retain the traditional 12-bar blues format combined with the phraseology that typifies the Gaelic poetic tradition. Gorman told us how the marriage of blues sensibility with Gaelic nature imagery in his work was inspired by his interest in the country blues music of the interwar US South, that made use of the formulaic repetition of stock imagery and phrases, which struck him as resembling Gaelic poetry. This was the start of his ‘village verse’ – a poetry of natural, physical imagery and steeped in a very specific locality; intricately tied to place, community, and the Gaelic language.
Gorman penned many of his works during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020. The poetry reflects this unique context, using the Gaelic concept of the glasadh-sluaigh – the “green-grey lockdown” – as a literary device. This is used as the equivalent of the English ‘lockdown’, however also carries connotations of incarceration, as well as calling to mind a very specific colourscape, reflected in the use of glas – that elusive grey/green/blue divide common across all three Gaelic languages. Gorman weaves this theme into his poetry, drawing on the concept of eadar-theangaich (or ‘inter-tonguing’) to explore the connections and disconnections between the Gaelic verse and its English counterpart in the act of attempting to represent all the semantic instances of a Gaelic word with an English one.
The profound societal change that all communities experienced during these lockdowns was captured by Gorman through his defamiliarization of community events, such as a funeral in Sleat in Skye, where the contrast between song and silence was brought to the fore. Gorman notes that, during this time of restricted movement and reduced activity, the village community became his entire universe. Sounds were replaced by silence, the “silence of absence”, and yet in this silence certain sounds became accentuated, such as that of children playing in the playground. In this way, Gorman explored the passage of time in a clearly recognisably local environment, noting both the changes and the permanence of the landscape.
The theme of eadar-theangaich, of translation and recontextualization, came through in more of Gorman’s work, specifically in his reimagining of the great Gaelic bard Alexander McDonald’s Birlinn Chlann Raghnaill. This iteration as Gaeilge, the Birlinn Ó Domhnaill, takes place in Co. Donegal in Ireland, and necessitated some cultural shifts, such as substituting Colmcille (St. Columba) for God in the blessing of the boats. This work was also an exercise in recursive translation, as we were invited to compare the English-language version to that of the Irish, and also of the original Gaelic work, and to notice the preservation of some of the original rhythm of McDonald’s work.
This is only a snapshot of the work that Gorman presented us with at this seminar, and of course no substitute for hearing a live performance! The seminar was a thought-provoking exploration of the themes of locality, sound, language, time, and more, and invited us to reflect on our own ‘villages’.