Opinion: Stanza 2016 shows Gaelic poetry isn't just traditional, it's progressive

From Alan Riach to Meg Bateman, Gaelic poetry's present is as bright as its past, says Rebecca Monks

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Opinion: Stanza 2016 shows Gaelic poetry isn't just traditional, it's progressive

Meg Bateman

If you're looking for a good 18th-century Gaelic poem (and let's face it, when are you not?), you can't really do better than The Birlinn of Clanranald. Originally written by Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair (Alexander MacDonald), it details the journey of a ship from South Uist to Northern Ireland, and is full of epic language and imagery (think Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but choppier, and you know, in Gaelic).

At StAnza, Scottish poet and Alan Riach appeared in an event entitled Past & Present, where he spoke about the poem. Riach has translated the poem into English, and at the festival, he talked about its themes, its value and his own interpretation of it. That such an event could prove so popular (which it certainly was) is a testament to the value of this traditional piece of writing.

But when it comes to Gaelic writing, particularly Gaelic poetry, there is a slight tendency to frame it all as 'traditional', since the language is not as prolific as it was in the time of Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair. While it is essential to acknowledge and indeed enjoy historic Gaelic poetry, it is also important to acknowledge the importance of modern Gaelic poetry.

StAnza does this well. At Sunday's Border Crossings events, Gaelic and English poetry was fused in a reading from renowned modern writer Meg Bateman. Over her career, Bateman has co-edited and translated four anthologies of historical Gaelic verse, sure, but she has also published several modern collections to widespread acclaim, and has won the Scottish Book of the Year award in both 1997 and 2007. Bateman is a testament to how modern Gaelic poetry is just as significant and important as the traditional stuff, and the fact that her appearance can pull in such a big crowd at the festival on its closing day shows that there is a big audience for Gaelic poetry in the 21st century.

StAnza programming writers such as Bateman shows that Gaelic poetry is not just traditional, it is progressive and relevant. There are so many exciting modern-day Gaelic writers (Christopher Whyte, Martin MacIntyre and Kevin MacNeil for three) to get excited about, and to see this festival putting Gaelic writing at its forefront is a very good thing indeed.

Rebecca Monks is a researcher and writer at The List. She regularly performs her own poetry and spoken word around Edinburgh. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Monks

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