‘Mo Shearmon / What I Have to Say’, by Crìsdean MacIlleBhain / Christopher Whyte

In a poem recently published – in Gaelic and Italian translation – on the Internopoesia website, Christopher Whyte responds to an imagined interlocutor who exclaims ‘Nach bochd nach eil thu sgrìobhadh anns a’ Bheurla!’ [It’s a shame that you don’t write in English]. Instead of the promised ‘cliù is aithneachadh’ [honour and recognition] Whyte – or his narrator (and the distance is at times wafer-thin in his poems) – responds that he chose Gaelic ‘a chionn ’s gu robh i taitneadh rium // is mise rithe, chionn ’s gum b’ urrainn dhomh / a sàsachadh ’s a dèanamh torrach’ [because it was delightful to me // and me to it, because I could / satisfy it and make it fertile].

That I have to provide my own translations into English, for a poem defending his rejection of English as the language of his poetry, is telling. Whyte has long been an advocate against translating Gaelic poetry into English, especially self-translation. And his work often returns to questions of who is talking to whom, what they are saying, and in what languages: and each act of communication is a carefully chosen one, a form of pointed whispering in one’s ear. There has rarely been as intimate a voice in Gaelic literature, one who is drawn to what is delightful, while also being attentive to wider questions of cultural conversation and the value of artistic chat (and how the personal and political talk to and over each other). 

How and where do we talk about Scottish literature? Barely and in few places. If Scotland is to be compared to similar-sized European countries it is the lack of various things that stands out: the scarcity of newspaper reviews; of dedicated critical (as well as creative) publications (with a few honourable exceptions, such as the webpages you are reading this on, or the newly energised Glasgow Review of Books); of broader media coverage (as with the ongoing struggles for the Saltire Awards to have them covered in any meaningful depth); of ‘discourse’, in the talking-about-each-other’s-work-in-cafés-and-bars kind of way (pastiched in the Elite café of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark so many years ago now). 1

This is exacerbated when we talk about poetry, and further still if it is Gaelic poetry. There hasn’t been a broad assessment of contemporary Scottish poetry as an ongoing vibrant force worthy of its own study since modern scottish poetry in 2004 (by Christopher Whyte); there hasn’t been a generational anthology of Gaelic poets (whether you like that kind of thing or not) since An Aghaidh na Sìorraidheachd / In the Face of Eternity in 1991 (again, edited by Christopher Whyte). A culture that doesn’t respond to itself, that doesn’t discuss itself, that doesn’t even milk its sacred cows is surely not a healthy one. For Whyte, one of the suggestions of the title of his 1991 anthology is that ‘Gaelic poems, like any poetic word, are thrust into a void which often seems limitless and unresponsive, but where they hope to find an echo, or even a resonance which will persist in time’; I fear that there are still very few echoes in the void in Scottish literary life.2

It is in the context of such a search for an echo or resonance that Mo Shearmon, Whyte’s eighth collection of poems,should perhaps be read; but primarily as a means of maintaining a relaxed but intense conversation, whether or not anyone else is part of it.3 In his author’s note he acknowledges the relationship to the English ‘sermon’ but demurs: 

here the meaning was closer to the Latin ‘sermo’ – relaxed, low level chatting or conversation. So, the title could be paraphrased either as ‘the way I talk’ or ‘what I have to say’, with an ambivalence about subject matter or the manner of putting it across that suited me. 4

These conversations are in part drawn from Whyte’s own experience, and in the title sequence, which makes up the first of the book’s three sections, part of the readerly ‘game’ is identifying who if anyone lies behind the characters introduced. But they also rely on an imagined interlocutor, one who allows chats to be created, staged, replayed, dramatised, given shape, meaning and resonance; and the merging of reminiscence, anecdote and imagination gives this poetry much of their rhythmic power (especially since Whyte, unusually for him, eschews a tight syllabic structure for his Gaelic verse).

That I can quote Whyte in English is also, perhaps, due to a greater ‘relaxedness’ of voice and approach: here he provides his own English translation of each of the nineteen poems. The change is in part financial – there is little funding to pay for translations – in part because of the support of the publisher Clive Boutle (who works with bilingual volumes, and has become one of the most important publishers of Gaelic poetry in the last five years), but perhaps most importantly comes from a greater assurance about the arguments he wants to make: ‘I felt that my point had been made and that, after 70, I could do whatever I felt like without raising too many problems.’5 

Distance – geographical and temporal – was perhaps also an enlivener. It is long since Whyte left Scotland and academia behind. He now lives between Budapest and Ferrara, and the poems in Mo Shearmon draw on experiences of his life, and travels, over the last fifteen years; the title sequence was completed ‘high in the Slovene Kras’. ‘Smuaintean ann an Úsov’ [Thoughts in Úsov], meanwhile, came about in part because this small Czech town resonated – Whyte has told me – because it had never previously featured in Gaelic literature and so it would be in some way disorienting or foreignising for the language: because ‘ann an Úsov, bha Alba // fad air falbh’ [here in Úsov, Scotland is far off] (in the Gaelic text, there is a stanza break between ‘Scotland’ and ‘far off’) (MacIllebhàin, pp. 72–73). There are, nevertheless, connections: this is a poem that focuses primarily on the displacement of communities – Jews from Úsov long before the rise of Nazis, the Germans from the town after the Second World War, Whyte’s own forbears from Ireland to Glasgow.

Distance doesn’t work here, in other words, as it did for Walter Scott, as ‘a magician for conjuring up scenes of joy and sorrow, smoothing all asperities, reconciling all incongruities, veiling all absurdness’.6 Instead it allows a greater openness, a revelling in ‘absurdness’ and incongruities. In particular there is the freedom to adopt a ‘satirical vein’, room for some ‘enjoyable digs at the Presbyterian Church’ and veiled commentary on much of Whyte’s experience of Scottish culture life in the broadest sense (MacIllebhàin, p. 120). There are, for example, direct addresses to his critics, and to the stultifying monolingualism of much discussion of Scottish literary. He berates: 

am proifeasar iomraiteach, cliùiteach
a thuirt air an rèidio, ann am prògram
mu dheidhinn bàrdachd Dheòrsa Mhic Iain Dheòrsa
Nobody can write poetry
in a language he didn’t dream in as a child

[the famed venerable / professor who announced in a radio programme / on George Campbell Hay’s poetry / “Nobody can write poetry / in a language he didn’t dream in as a child”]

(MacIllebhàin, pp. 38–39)

Attending a conference in Szczecin in Poland, meanwhile, he meets a young Englishman who taught at an Italian university:

                   ach nuair a chaidh mi null
a bhruidhinn ris, an ciad rud a thuirt e,
b’e Not many people speak that language
agus chuala mis mo ghuth fhìn ag ràdh
gu soilleir, stèidhichte, a’ toirt
a thruime sònraichte ri gach aon lide
I-just-haven’t-got-the-time

[and when I went over / to speak to him, the first thing he said was / “Not many people speak that language” / and I heard my own voice saying firmly, steadily, giving due weight to each single syllable: / “I-just-haven’t-got-the-time”]

(MacIllebhàin, pp. 48–49)

There is no sense of exhaustion here – though that would be recognisable to anyone who speaks publicly about Gaelic, of having to make the same points again and again in the face of hostility, indifference or even bland inquisitiveness – but instead a decision about how one spends one’s time and energy, which fights to pick and which to let go. And among the things Mo Shearmon is ‘testament’ to (and it comes across cumulatively more as ‘testament’ than ‘sermon’) is Whyte’s ongoing commitment to artistic and aesthetic honesty, to a poetry that addresses cultural failings, pomposities, sex, his family, religion, death, poverty, in which children huddling under a blanket in Naples, or ‘[c]uthachd aighearach nan gobhlan-gaoithe / ann am baile beag san Eadailt air barr cnuic’ [the exultant craziness / of swallows in an Italian hilltop village], or the effect of Sorley MacLean translating his own poetry has had on the criticism of Gaelic poetry can all have a place in which these find a way of talking to each other.

The title poem, in particular, is a coming-to-terms of sorts, a unifying of disparate elements of one person’s life, lived attentively, mischievously, painedly. At times it reminded me of the beginning of Seamus Heaney’s elegy to Robert Lowell (though the writers are temperamentally so different) – ‘The way we are living / timorous or bold / will have been our life’ – with the recognition that life, and communication, ultimately, have to be risked; it is a cautionary tale against the timorous. Among the untitled poems in the third and final section of the book there is a touching portrait of a friend whose fate the poet had avoided, of being ‘ga dhùnadh / ann an cearcall de dh’aonranachd, de ghearradh – / às de dhinnearan (aon roinn a-mhàin)’ [shut inside a circle / of loneliness and exclusion, ready made / dinners (one portion only)] (MacIllebhàin, pp. 82–83).

The final lines of the collection suggest that such loneliness and exclusion can be avoided, if only because the memories we have gathered now come to form much of our experience: 

’M bi sin a’ ciallachadh gu bheil an t-aon 
luach aig an t-athailt dhaor, chaiste a dh’fhàgar 
’nan dèidh ’s a bhios aig ar beathannan fhìn? 

[Does that imply that the faint intricate traces / they leave behind are no less significant / than the lives we actually lead?]

And the very act of being able to leave those traces is testament – another of the ‘testaments’ of this thought-provoking, excellent book – to a life consciously lived, a poetry written with at least one eye open to the delightful.

Mo Shearmon / What I Have to Say is published by Francis Boutle Publishers

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End Notes

  1. Do I just not go to the right bars?
  2. Christopher Whyte, ‘Introduction’, in An Aghaidh Na Sìorraidheachd: Ochdnar Bhàrd Gàidhlig = In the Face of Eternity: Eight Gaelic Poets (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), pp. xx–xxi.
  3. Whyte is a very productive writer. Subsequent to the publication of Mo Shearmon he has published a bilingual (Gaelic and Italian) selected poems Non dimenticare gli angeli (Via Activa Nuova 2023), which won the Premio Rikle in 2023, and The Scale By Which You Measure Me: Poems 1913–1917 (Shearsman 2024), which is his seventh book of translations of Marina Tsvetaeva.
  4. Crìsdean MacIllebhàin, Mo Shearmon / What I Have to Say (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2023), p. 120.
  5. Peter Mackay Interviews Christopher Whyte’, Books from Scotland, 2023.
  6. Walter Scott, The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, ed. by W. E. K. Anderson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), pp. 127–28.
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Peter Mackay

Dr Peter Mackay is a Senior Lecturer in Literature in the School of English at the University of St Andrews. His Gaelic poetry collections Gu Leòr / Galore (Acair 2015) and Nàdur de / Some Kind of (Acair 2020) were shortlisted for the Saltire Scottish Poetry Book of the Year; Nàdur de was also longlisted for the Highland Book Prize. An AHRC/BBC Next Generation Thinker, he is a frequent broadcaster on Radio 3 and BBC Radio nan Gàidheal.

More articles by Peter Mackay


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