Saturday, May 26, 2007


Below are two poems translated by Osborn Bergin at the start of the 20C. Bergin was a Norwegian academic responsible for lots of translations of poems from the Irish bardic tradition into English, in a very precise and literal way. They are taken from:

Irish Bardic Poetry: Texts And Translations - (1917), which I re-rendered, by cutting out the antiquated language and adding a few words to the second specimen.

The first poem - although in the book - was written by someone without bardic training, and who lived several generations prior to the one which experienced the sudden collapse of the bardic tradition on these islands at the start of the 17C.

Bergin supposed the unknown author of the poem below flourished circa 1500, and writes in the must-read lecture heading the texts and translations:

"His verse is quite lacking the the technique of a professional poet, yet has a charm of its own"


Filled with sharp dart-like pens
Limber tipped and firm, newly trimmed
Paper cushioned under my hand
Percolating upon the smooth slope
The leaf a fine and uniform script
A book of verse in ennobling Goidelic.

I learnt the roots of each tale, branch
Of valour and the fair knowledge,
That I may recite in learned lays
Of clear kindred stock and each person's
Family tree, exploits of wonder
Travel and musical branch
Soft voiced, sweet and slumberous
A lullaby to the heart.

Grant me the gladsome gyre, loud
Brilliant, passionate and polished
Rushing in swift frenzy, like a blue edged
Bright, sharp-pointed spear
In a sheath tightly corded;
The cause itself worthy to contain.


Original translation Osborne Bergin Pimped Up - Desmond Swords

"Unscholarly and therefore unconventional in style" Bergin wrote and each poet in the bardic tradition wore a unique mask, whilst working in a highly conservative tradition.

The second one is another Anonymous work, but this time a trained poet, and a completely different texture and effect than the one above, much dryer and less loose, betraying the highly formalised style the bards wrote in, and was written by an unknown ollamh (ulav), or Doctor of Poetry, the highest of the seven grades the poet ascended through, reached after 12 or so years.

The anonymous ollamh is in italics and my additions are un-italicised.

Casting dice from sun to sun in succession
The course of a chequered smooth

Stream in polished and inverted flux

light that soars aloft in so brief a space
As I traverse this heavy sodded world

Thoughtless and my mouth devoid of

Murmuring arrogance or reproach
Peace with them I bow to the

blind, logical fleet and

blessed smooth and comely band:
Who above all I make friend my orphan
Who left me
not alone


What this pimped up translation renders obsolete and cannot be discerned by the unaware eye, is the incredibly sophisticated metrical form the original printed poem is wrought in, but we do get a sense of airiness and buoyancy, the way the poem floats and how - to my ear - one word can inject a change and reverse the register of gravity in the sixth line to one of weightlessness.

"traverse this heavy sodded world"

These are five words which suggest a blur of earthly goo and mud, and on their own, in this sequence, have a connotational force of linguistic gravity which gives it an earthly charge, yet the very next word dissolves this muddy, liminal state of in-betweenness. One whose force in the aural chamber projects a diffuse and downward gooey sense, sinking rather than air-bound.

This five word sequence, one verb, two adjectives and one noun - with "world" itself an expansive word in a pretty wide ball-park for our minds to haunt, and yet the next word completely transforms our pentagonal party and is the psychic lift off point in the poem.

And this poem adumbrates a template, or poetic form of disembodied Yeatsean address, used in his practice of being an arch spacer and ghostly communicator, and this bardic example is the dreamy, pale, wishy washy scud of tilted utterance, lofty and displays how the addition of one word - "throughout" - can shock the connotational charge of a line to flux and its linguistic gravity, to reverse and re-polarise from earth to air.

So now this small unit of six words are no longer weighted into and by the muddy, sloppy goo, but is inversed into a six word sequence that is no longer the utterance of an earth bound sequence, but one which ascends into a poetic space suggestive of the up, up and away-ness of the crepuscular Celtic twilight Augusta Gregory and Silly Willy Yeats ushered in as the maddest bunch of artists about at the start of the 20C.

The esoteric teachings of Yeats and his transcendental bunch who made up the Dublin wing of the Golden Dawn, lit the minds and practice of many an artist dreaming and being so in Dublin, Galway and London.

Each of these cities has its own charm and yet somehow the combined magical quality in this mix, the DGL ratio, was conducive to creating the ether of possibility in bardic poems, that - as Bergin explains - cannot be fully captured in the dry scholarly and scrupulously forensic re-rendering to English he was famed for undertaking in the early part of the 20C.

The missing magic and key ingredient for our poetical-craic-philosopher, is the intricate patterns and relationship of the verbal parts in the Gaelic original, its sheer metrical sophistication, is a marvel very few come to know ever existed, even though a study of this tradition offers an abundance of information to the serious bluffer and virtual poet-gamer alike.

Perhaps the most obvious source of detecting the undertow and understanding its register is when diving in to these deposits and seeing what happens when one has a go at pimping them up, cutting out the dead words that are culturally obsolete, the "thee, though, wilst etc..." which clutters and detracts the eye from easily greasing along.

And yet this said, the real bardic specimen, seems to my ear, composed by a voice in the clouds, whose washy pastel brush of the fuzzy focus reveals an ultimately unknowable mind-set, steeped in the druidic tradition, whilst our gooey amateur is gloriously human to us.

I wouldn't say either is "better" than the other, because as pieces to an accurate pointer of poetic excellence, one poem lacks the immediacy of the other, and one is the ying to the others' yang.

Let love pilot us,
Lugh haunt our embrace
Amegin Bergin
giving thanks

"for the transcript of the text I am indebted to Miss Eleanor Knott..." Bergie translation.

bogeyman dabble
dance the eye chaotic
measure the neutral
balanced utterance
silence, sound, time
live ratio and unknown
un-bluffable, a unique
fictional windy wind

please smoulder on her
mugshot the severe pinch
of an immensely wonky image
a diet of Stonehouse
never ending slabs of Dutch Gold and Windsor
multiple exes to fill
the dreary day
resident in the underbelly
scanger and scary psychos
terrorise the mind
UK' galatic 70's stunner
Stevie Smith, bore
life's tepid pointlessness - 1942


Dear little bog-Face
Why are you so cold?
And why do you lie with your eyes shut?
- You are not very old.
I am a Child of this World
And a Child of Grace
And Mother I shall be glad when it is over.

Stevie Smith

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