In the approach to his 70th birthday, Aonghas MacNeacail might be forgiven for pausing to take stock. But the poet known as Aonghas Dubh – ‘Black Angus’ – is still a relentless force of nature, despite the silvering of his distinctive beard and shaggy mane.
The next few months will herald a summation of sorts, with Polygon bringing out a new and selected poems, dèanamh gàire ris a’ chloc / laughing at the clock, but also new directions. His first pamphlet of Scots poems ayont the dyke, is being published by Kettilonia and there are also plans for a new English language collection, a possible poetic autobiography, and an anthology based on his time as writer-in-residence at MacDiarmid’s cottage. Despite gaining the status of grand old man of Scottish literature, MacNeacail still fights to avoid inertia and pigeon-holing.
‘I’m a bit tired of being a Gaelic poet. He insists I’m a poet. I’m proud of Gaelic poetry, and that I write it, but in the wider world the minute you put a word like “Gaelic” to a poet or to poetry, it gives people the chance to set you aside, to not understand you. I’ve often heard people say “I don’t understand your work”, but [raising his hands incredulously] I translate it!’
Surrounding MacNeacail’s work, and all recent Gaelic poetry, is the question of what is gained, as well as lost, in translation. A minor rammy arose at the turn of the millennium over whether Gaelic poetry should be published with en face English translations. Broadly speaking, it was those – like Mac-Neacail – who make a living from writing (without the safety-net of an academic job), and who wanted their work to reach as wide an audience as possible, who triumphed.
Translation, though, is not just a matter of poems but also of poets travelling between languages; his Scots writing is the latest of MacNeacail’s linguistic adventures. In 2010 ‘Aonghas Dubh’ became ‘Innes Dow’ to enter and jointly win the McCash Poetry Competition with ‘Simmer’s Bairn’, written in a form of synthetic Scots (‘but don’t most of us write synthetic English anyway?’). For James Rob-ertson – the novelist who runs Kettilonia press – this is the continuation of an august tradition: MacNeacail ‘is not afraid to search the dictionary for rare yet rich words, and to exploit the subtlety of their meanings… The whole effect is MacDiarmid-like in its simultaneous economy and expansiveness.’
For his part, MacNeacail sees himself rather as the successor of George Campbell Hay and William Neill, who also wrote in Scots, Gaelic and English. He also – characteristically – traces his exposure to Scots back to his early childhood, to the fishermen from the Black Isle who worked out of Uig on Skye: men whose ‘strange speech’ he encountered before he ever heard English.
MacNeacail was born in Uig in 1942 and raised in nearby Idrigil, said to be the birthplace of the poet and land agitator Màiri Mhòr nan Òran. Until he went to primary school he was, apart from those brief encounters with Scots, a monoglot Gaelic speaker; at school Gaelic-speaking teachers taught Gaelic-speaking pupils through English.
MacNeacail talks of being born B.E. – before electricity – but this could just as easily be ‘before English’. The rupture that primary school wrought between Gaelic and English, memory and history, and between hearth and authority informs much of his poetry. ‘dol dhachaigh-1 / going home-1’, for example, weighs the respective importance of the affirmative ‘sin e’, ‘seadh’, ‘aye’ and ‘yes’; a footnote within the poem archly notes that ‘yes, as any teacher of English will confirm, is the “correct” word’.
The coming of English (and electricity) into MacNeacail’s childhood inevitably brought gains as well as losses. Gone were various traditions, like that of putting candles in the windows of each house to greet a honeymooning couple to their new home, the ﬂames ﬂickering on the far side of Uig bay. Gained, however, was a different kind of community, a different kind of communion. The radio could be taken upstairs, in privacy, to listen to rock ’n’ roll; now, traditional Gaelic songs jostled with Radio Caroline and Elvis.
His ear tuned to both English and Gaelic most of his life, MacNeacail has long worked between them. He started writing poetry in English in the late 50s, and publishing – in both English and Gaelic – in the late 60s. Since then, he has written in both tongues, with the exception of his ﬁrst spell as writer in residence at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig in 1977, when he wrote solely in Gaelic, for fear of seeming to be there ‘under false pretences’.
It was in the late 60s that writing became central to his life. In 1968 he matriculated at Glasgow University as a mature student, with the express intention of writing poetry. ‘I remember getting an anthology of contemporary Scottish poetry, and noticed that everyone in this anthology had ‘M.A.’ after their name – everyone except Alan Bold. Alan had gone to university, but left without ﬁnishing his degree; and I did the same as him. But what sent me to university in the ﬁrst place was that I saw it as the door into poetry.’
MacNeacail’s entry into poetry did not, however, come through lectures, but through the writers’ group organised by the inspirational Philip Hobsbaum. Following success with similar groups in London and Belfast, Hobsbaum had gathered together writers including Tom Leonard, Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Liz Lochhead. A poem of MacNeacail’s – ‘the divide’, about two old brothers on the islands – caught Hobsbaum’s eye. ‘That’s a poem’, he said, ‘write about what you know – go back to your roots’.
MacNeacail followed his advice; but this was not simply an atavistic return. Alongside the contemporary British and Irish poetry he encountered through Hobsbaum’s group (ﬁgures like Heaney and Hughes, to complement his own reading of Dylan Thomas and Sorley MacLean), MacNeacail was also discovering – through the playwright, poet and pianist Tom McGrath – the work of William Carlos Williams, the Black Mountain School and Charles Olson. This American poetry still inﬂuences much of MacNeacail’s distinctive style: the way he eschews standard orthography and punctuation, the emphasis on phrases – or ‘breaths’ – rather than complete lines, and the adoption of a bardic voice derived from a mix of Eastern philosophy and new-age environmentalism.
It was with these poetic tools and a left-wing political engagement – in effect a Gaelic post-colonialism – that MacNeacail returned to his roots. In the English pamphlet Imaginary Wounds (1980) and [the] collection Rock and Water (1990) he witnesses and recreates the community he grew up in: ‘among the many items stocked in jock’s old corrugated iron general store’, for example, clearly evokes a rural economy. ‘history lessons’, meanwhile, contrasts the clan-and-chief histories of the classroom with the example of the ‘piper’ – the ganger in charge of tarring the roads outside the school who had been sent to the front as punishment for striking a superior ofﬁcer, but who survived the great war unscathed.
MacNeacail’s Gaelic poetry shares the keen eye and political edge of his English work, but goes further, and takes more risks. ‘bratach / banner’, the first poem of an seachnadh agus dàin eile / the avoiding and other poems (1986), presents a full-blown bardic stance: ‘a charaid, is mise / an t-amadan naomh / am bàrd / amhairc is éisd rium’ (friend, I am / the holy fool / the bard / observe and listen,’ ‘a’ chlach / the stone’, from laoidh an donais òig / hymn to a young demon (2007), risks bathos to use this representative stance to give voice to the eponymous stone: ‘suathaibh mi, a shiantan, ur / frasan ga mo nighe, sìnibh orm’ (stroke me elements, your / showers wash me clean: rest on me).
MacNeacail pulls off this combination of acute historical awareness and the willingness to go beyond the human and what is accepted as the ‘polite’ or reduced role of the poetic voice largely because of his verbal and – in particular – musical adeptness. His poems work first and foremost on the level of sound, calling upon a whole orchestra – and rock ’n’ roll band and Skye congregation – of effects. It is no surprise that he is a skilled librettist and song-writer (as well as script-writer): his song ‘breisleach / delirium’ was taken up by Donald Shaw of Capercaillie for their breakthrough album Delirium.
Music and performance are part of his home-life: he is married to the acclaimed actress Gerda Stevenson, daughter of the composer Ronald Stevenson, with whom he has two children, Somhairle Rob and Galina Edith. They also inform his reading persona. A magnetic reader of his poems in the high bardic tradition, he has performed all over the world. A particular highlight was taking these poems – in a seemingly dying language – to the Capitol in Rome, where the statue of the Dying Gaul stands; as MacNeacail affirms, the Gaul has been dying for centuries and yet ‘we are still here’.
That defiance (and historical outlook) underlie the new and selected poems in dèanamh gàire ris a’ chloc. The book does not, unfortunately, include any of his English work, but is drawn exclusively from an seachnadh agus dàin eile, the Stakis Prizewinning Oideachadh Ceart agus dàin eile / A Proper Schooling and other poems (1996), and laodh an donais òig; the long, atmospheric sound-and-image poem An Cathadh Mòr / The Great Snowbattle (1984) is also included, but Sireadh Bradain Sicir / Seeking Wise Salmon (1983) is not.
The new poems build on the commitment to Gaelic, and the manifold histories of his tribe presented in this selection. Particularly striking are his eulogies to people who have helped revive Gaelic culture: Sorley MacLean, Runrig, and Norman Gillies, the ex-head of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. In these poems, memory is once more wielded as a political weapon. In ‘craobh a chuir somhairle / a tree sorley planted’ the axis of elder and factor is attacked with the comment ‘cha b’fheàrr leotha ach nan dèanadh cuimhne / ar mealladh’ (it would suit them if memory should / deceive us). Memory does not slide into nostalgia, however: among the things that have to be remembered in ‘nam biodh fiughar / were there prospect’ is how a ‘poverty of hope’ could lead to domestic abuse. Hope is not something that Aonghas Mac-Neacail could be said to be poor of, however. After almost fifty years of writing, there is no sign of him slowing up: ‘I’ll keep going as long as my memory doesn’t fail me. As long as there’s some pith to my mind, poetry will keep rising to the surface.’
LAUGHING AT THE CLOCK NEW AND SELECTED POEMS
POLYGON, £12.99, ISBN: 9781846972300