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A Quieter Fire

10/11/2006
Went to hear the fine Gaelic poet, publisher and scholar Derick Thomson (or Ruaraidh MacThomais in Gaelic) read on Wednesday at the usual haunt. The audience was far smaller than that for Sharon Olds. That, I suppose, is predictable, but it’s also a poor reflection on the knowledge of the poetry-reading public in Edinburgh.
Gaelic poetry in or after the classical style is difficult to translate well into English, given that its dense sound patternings are lost, leaving a much barer experience, but Thomson writes in a modern free style that works well in English. His poetry is witty, lucid and rich in unexpected turns, such as the idea that people in 2121 will ask why we watched the box in the 20th century “instead of reading Plato”, that Princess Diana “still speaks with a Glasgow accent” or that, when the Norsemen went ashore at Ness in Lewis, “they were afraid”.
Thomson is a quiet, self-depricating man, which helps to make him an engaging reader. He is somewhat unexpectedly apologetic about reading the oringinal poems (the Gaelic versions), but not at all apologetic about his Scottish nationalism. (Still, perhaps one expects a little Caledonian antisyzygy now and again.) Remarkably, he’s 85 and hardly showing his age. Long may he continue in that vein.
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