As my patrons know, old and medieval Irish poetry is completely captivating me at the moment. I've been working for a while now on a series of poems inspired by these early writers and creating a book that, for the moment I'm calling, “My Irish Poems”.
I'm translating old Irish poems into contemporary English and then into contemporary Irish (with the help of ChatGPT, Google Translate and my wonderful Irish poetry editor).
With its distinctive patterns, rhythms, and harsh, ancient wisdoms, old Irish poetry is very different to the Anglo-Irish-American tradition I'm steeped in, and different again from the Eastern haiku mode that's also been part of my poetic practice for years.
Translating Early Irish Poetry
It's not easy translating early Irish poetry and you have to take great leaps over logic and rely even more than usual on the works of earlier poets and scholars.
The challenges are manifold.
Much early Irish poetry was meant to be recited aloud and memorized and this oral tradition
impacted its structure, making it mnemonic and rhythmic. I've always been a page poet. While I have published audiobooks, I write to be read more than to be heard.
It's not just how the difference in language brings about variations in phonetics, rhythm, and sound devices, thought. It's deeper than that. It's a matter of sensibility–a different way of thinking and being within the poem, and within the world.
Literal translation may not always capture the exact poetic nuance of the original, especially in poetry. The Irish language has its own rhythms and nuances, and this translation tries to keep the spirit of the original as much as possible, as I reach across time.
For example, early Irish poetry often employed specific metrical forms, like the deibide, a quatrain with seven syllables per line that feels deeply unfamiliar. As does the way early Irish verses relied on intricate internal alliteration, consonance, and assonance.
For all these reasons, the poems in my are not straight translations but very much my take on a world and way of thinking long gone, which still has much to say about life, love and creating.
Spirituality and Nature
The earliest of these poems were crafted in a socio-cultural milieu where warlords ruled, druids were spiritual leaders, and the supernatural was a palpable aspect of daily life.
A strong characteristic of early Irish verse is its passionate engagement with nature and its spiritual intensity. So expect much of that. Also frankness about matters sexual and biological.
And praise poems about solitude. These are the people of monasteries on the edge of nowhere, of the Skelligs and beehive huts.
Their poems often celebrate being joyously alone, an art we seem to have lost.
Early Irish poetry was deeply rooted in nature, the landscape, mythology, and the daily life of a tribal society. It frequently referenced natural elements like the wind, sea, and animals. It has no concept of the urban experiences, introspection, global issues, and diverse personal identities that my writing often circles around.
So it's an interesting departure for me. I'm learning a lot from these poets of long ago.