Recent Updates Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Billy Mills 12:58 on 09/09/2022 Permalink | Reply

    106 Early Irish Poems: edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires: A review 

    106 Early Irish Poems: edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires, 2022, ISBN 979-8525523869, £9.99

    Six years ago this month my review of My News for You: Irish Poetry 600 – 1200, edited and translated by Geoffrey Squires was published by the Dublin Review of Books. Squires’ new book, 106 Early Irish Poems, is an expanded and much enhanced reworking of that earlier volume, but in terms of cultural and social background, the challenges of translating and the comparisons with previous translation, I have little to add here and recommend the interested reader to click that link and read the previous review.

    So, what’s different about this new book? The most immediate change is the addition of 25 new translations, a significant expansion in range and scope that makes 106 Early Irish Poems easily the most comprehensive readily available anthology of its kind. This, in turn, means that the Notes section is expanded, naturally, and in some cases significantly rewritten, and the notes are really integral to the book, partly because Squires begins each note with the original Irish version of the first line, an invaluable aid when it comes to locating the full originals on the Internet. The notes also discuss specific points of complexity in the translation process, both comparing Squires’ reasoning behind the choices he made when bringing over unclear or ambiguous words and phrases into English and comparing his decisions with those of earlier translators. This aspect of the notes gives the general reader some very useful insights into both the nature of the Irish language(s) during the period the book covers and Squires’ approach as a translator, which on the whole tends towards tonal rather than formal veracity. At any rate, as many of the notes make clear, the formal structures of the originals are very often the result of conjecture on the part of modern editors as they set out to transcribe from their manuscript sources.

    In the earlier book, the reader was provided with an appendix that contained the originals for seven of the 81 poems translated; here a different approach is adopted, with 13 poems appearing with accompanying Irish text (8, 8a, for example). Four of these originals appear in both books, so he reader with access to them both will have 16 originals to compare with their translated versions. In addition, this new volume contains a very useful appendix that analyses some opening lines by providing transcriptions of what they sound like and discussions of their syntactic, semantic and phonic structures, an invaluable aid to those readers with limited or no knowledge of the language.

    The other significant addition is the 30-page bibliography, an excellent list of resources covering the cultural, linguistic and historical contexts in which the poems were written, as well as source texts and other translations. It’s an invaluable resource.

    One background area that definitely impacts on these poems is the shift to Christianity from the older pagan order. All of the poets here were at least nominally Christian and the poems are often marginalia in devotional manuscripts, so unsurprisingly many of them are straightforwardly religious. However, there is a strong element of an older Ireland that emerges, sometimes as whole poems (the nature poems and some of the Fenian narratives) and other times as an element in a poem that also has clear Christian tones. While this might seem odd at first, it strikes me as probably reflecting the reality of the wider context in which the poems were written. Societies and individuals don’t change overnight, and Christianity was particularly adept at coming to accommodations with earlier systems of belief. Like the poems they wrote, these poets contained within them elements of the pagan and the Christian. Perhaps this fusion in the poetry was facilitated by the fact that they were written in the vernacular; as the language of the church, Latin might have tended to impose a more religiously orthodox approach.       

    And what of the translations? Squires remains faithful to his earlier approach, “to make of these originals an equivalent poem in English” and does so in the new versions as he did with the first set of 81. I note some silent changes of wording, as for instance in the poem ‘Fil súil nglais’ which changes from ‘a moist eye’ in 2016 to ‘a wistful eye’ now. As Squires notes, a literal translation would read ‘a green eye’ and previous translators have rendered the adjective glais as blue or grey, but his sense is that the speaker (nominally Columba) is expressing grief at leaving his native island, hence the move away from colour to emotion. A small point that provides a valuable window into the translator’s thinking.

    Another small but significant (in my reading, at least) is that in 106 poems the first letter of each stanza is almost invariably capitalised whereas in the 2016 versions, this is limited to the first stanza, excepting proper nouns and the pronoun ‘I’. This shift has the effect of changing how you read the versions, with each stanza acting more as a discrete unit, disrupting, however slightly, the flow of the eye down the page. Of course, I can’t be certain that this was Squires’ intention, but the result is, in a way, to add a stateliness to the versions here.

    The more I read it, the more I think that across these two volumes, Squires has recreated medieval Irish poetry for our times. This book is essential for the reader with an interest in Irish poetry, or poetry in general, or Ireland, European literature, or all of the above. Read it.

  • Billy Mills 14:00 on 07/09/2022 Permalink | Reply  

    Arthur Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses 

  • Billy Mills 08:27 on 26/08/2022 Permalink | Reply  

    The Columbia book of Chinese poetry : from early times to the thirteenth century 

    Edited and translated by Burton Watson

  • Billy Mills 09:00 on 24/08/2022 Permalink | Reply  

    Launching my Patreon site: After Bashō 

    I’ve finally gotten around to adding some content to my Patreon site, my versions of 31 haiku by Bashō, including three versions of the famous frog, from my Very Far After, a book very much in search of a publisher.

    This is the first in a planned monthly series of new poetry available to subscribers for a modest 3 Euro per month.

    I intend to keep my book reviews freely available here, so that poets and presses under review feel no obligation to subscribe; I’m not paid for reviewing except in hard copy books, and I like it that way.

    Yu can subscribe by using the Support Me Patreon link on the right hand side of the blog, if you feel so inclined. Thank you.

  • Billy Mills 09:25 on 19/08/2022 Permalink | Reply

    Peter Finch Collected Poems in Two Volumes: A Review 

    Collected Poems Complete Set, Peter Finch (Ed. Andrew Taylor), Seren, 2022, ISBN: 9781781726709_9781781726716, £30.00 (individual vols £19.99 each)

    Peter Finch’s Collected Poems is a two volume set, with volume 1 covering 1968-1997 and the second 1997-2021. Running to almost 1,000 pages it is, in one sense, a monumental piece of work, as long as you don’t conflate monuments with the past, as Finch is going strong and apparently the first collection for inclusion in volume 3 has already appeared. It is too large a body of work to allow for a detailed reading in the limited scope of a review, so what follows is a number of thoughts provoked by reading these two books.


    The first thing that strikes the reader is the incredible range of Finch’s work, from ‘conventional’ lyrics through experiments in sound and performance, to visual and concrete work, he is constantly pushing the boundaries of what poetry might mean and of readerly expectations. And he is the master of the formal mash-up, producing list poems in prose that contain elements of found material and sound poetry, or an anecdotal poem that dissolves into its constituent sounds, for example.

    This formal range enables Finch to make poems ‘about’ nothing and everything:

    Two Interruptions

    we should be able to make a

    poem out of anything apple

    tase shift should we are able

    to make a poem (poem) out

    of anything shift taste made

    a pommel out of it door

    should be shift should we

    are able to refuse to donate

    the poem out of shift anything

    shift able to make

    Here, as elsewhere, the process of transposition (shift) is made visible, accessible even, to the reader who is invited to inspect the workings of the poem.

    None of this should be taken to mean that Finch’s poetry is aesthetic, is art for art’s sake; he is frequently, I might argue usually, politically engaged, and this engagement moves through 1960s radicalism to a disgust at the destruction of his native Wales under Thatcher (“she listened but did not hear”) and a recurring evisceration of arts administrators, corporate business speakers, and bullshitters in general. See, for example, ‘Words Beginning with A from the Government’s Welsh Assembly White Paper’:

    a a assembly an assembly assembly assembly and assembly and assembly assembly assembly assembly assembly annexes and arrangements assembly and assembly affairs and authority accountability a achievement assembly autumn assembly a affect an an assembly assembly assembly and a alongside a an assembly assembly assembly allocate assembly and and acts assembly assembly assembly administrative agriculture a an annual and authorities and agency and authorities are accountable address assembly and answerable across assembly assembly assembly assembly assembly and arrangements are assembly assembly are assembly agriculture and and and and arts and annex a assembly approval assembly all after assembly assembly affairs and and assembly assembly and a and account appropriate assembly acts and are acts a assembly are assembly a authority and and able as and a assembly authorities agencies assembly able assembly assembly and a and and a a a assembly assembly and able able assembly about a assembly and a assembly as appointments also and assembly assembly as assembly assembly against as as able and authorities against and assembly are a and a assembly assembly and assembly assembly a affairs assembly authorities and and and and all and ahead and are across and as assembly and assembly a attuned a agency and authority authority and and and and and any agenda assembly a assembly able a a a adopting assembly and and are a authority and afford an ambitious and a an as as an and air and agencies assembly a and administration agency a and assembly agency already an all and and and agencies authority authority as a and and assembling and authority are agency acquired and and address an a a across and assembly and appoint agency a a assembly authorities at and agency and a and an agency assembly assembly agency arrangements and agency authorities a and attracting and and assembly action action action and a and a assembly assembly agenda assembly at all agenda assembly and and appointments also and are also a and a and an authorities agencies and advice advice approximate a assembly and at affairs annual a and assembly and actions assembly assembly assembly and a administering assessment agency assembly assembly assembly a are and agriculture aborigines advisory assembly and adequate appropriate appropriate areas and approximate arrangements are appropriate approximate appropriate arrangements and assembly art assembly are arrangements approximate appricimate appropin approximarly approximin approximit approximate appropinate appropriate approlution approximate apprealin approling approf appross apprit approx approximate appropriate arsembly approt approt apprit aparse amprim arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit arsenit approximately assembly and arsen assembly all art and agriculture agenda appropriately alltittle all al aswoon apricot artle at assen ash arsenit assuitable assuage annual after amiddle approximate appealment apparliament arprat aprat art arse alltold approximate flatart anti anemia academic and averted arse art all assembly anti any attitudenal arseweakness all appropriate approximate approximate apripple affected arse affected all affected and any affected apathy apathy and responsibility for ancient monuments arses arses arses and wishing wells


    Both editor Andrew Taylor and Nerys Williams, who provides the Foreword for the first volume, refer to William Carlos Williams’ idea that a ‘poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words’, which is apt circumstantially as Finch reworks the American poet’s ‘This is just to say’ a number of times but more pertinently because it points towards the central thread of Finch’s poetic; that language is material, and is the material of poetry.

    This is as apparent in the ‘plain text’ poems as in the visual work. On one level, it’s the focus on the hard particularity of words in passages like this:

    We walk single file. Shellduck on the

    mudflats, groyne teeth, breakwater, boat ribs,

    wrecked hard-core. the slope to the sea estuary

    toughened with a boulder skin rough as a navigator’s


    [from ‘Lambies’]

    On another, allowing the levels to be a continuum, the simple beauty of the visual work:

    In a number of poems he plays with paradigmatic relationships through the use of brackets, as inn these lines from ‘Fold’:

    We (us) (I) (you) were (weren’t) (won’t) (will) a (the) (this)

    people (pointed sticks) (prime numbers) (purple patch0 taut

    (tired) (tiled) (tight as fists) for (from) (frightened) (foaming)

    war (wet fish) (wet fist) (wet fear); the (those) (these)

    hills (hovering) (hollow) (high) (high) (high) (heated)

    (hardened) were (will not) (can not) (can) no

    (none) (neither) (normal) harder (holding) (heaving)

    (happy as barber’s poles) (hard hosts) (home)

    The bracketed items create opportunities for multiple readings, multiple folds through the poem. It is also typical of Finch’s work that they create and seem driven by patterns of sound, and that these have a timeless quality, reaching back perhaps to the earliest poetry in Welsh and English:

    the (those) (these)

    hills (hovering) (hollow) (high) (high) (high) (heated)


    In an amusing but useful note to the poem, we are told: ‘(cant) (explain) (can)    (might)      (read on)’ (‘cant’ being both a private language and can’t).


    In the late 1990s, two things happen; Finch begins to play with he haiku and his sense of Welshness, already present as an undercurrent, becomes much more central to the work. And I mean not just his own Welshness, but some kind of exploration of what being Welsh might mean in the late 2oth century, post mining, post-industrial world.

    Finch being Finch, there are visual haiku:

    sound haiku:

    nnn nnnn nn nnn n

    nn nnn nan n nn nnn nan

    nn nnnn n nn non

    haiku that nod to the form’s great tradition:

    so boundless

    frost on the pond

    light on fire

    and Welsh haiku:

    Dim mynediad the farmer’s sign

    The cow parsley

    Goes right on in

    Apparently around this time Finch had learned Welsh but decided to continue writing in English, but to my ears at least it’s an English with an increasingly Welsh inflection:

    rydw i am fod blydi i am

    rydyn ni rydw i rody i

    rodney rodney i am

    rhydyn am fod I am I am I am

    rydw i yn Pantycelyn Rhydcymerau Pwllheli yes

    RS Thomas is an important figure whose presence recurs across Finch’s work, not just as a poet but as a kind of exemplar of varieties of Welshness:

    In his work are there traces of this place,

    where he was born, reluctant, leaving

    as fast as he could? Do the streets of Cardiff echo?

    No, they don’t. Do we honour him in this

    city as a lost son? Plaque, statue, trail?

    No we do not. He wouldn’t want them.

    Not Welsh enough, us, for a man redolent of

    rural fields and revolutionary fire.

    In Wales, cities are alien places.


    In addition to Thomas, the figures of Williams and Bob Dylan recur. There are a number of reworkings of William’s famous ‘This is just to say’, my personal favourite is this one from 2001 and included in the Unpublished Poems section at the end of the second volume:


    thj tsayI hv eatentplumat rein thicebox

    & wch youreprob savbreakForgive thy

    redelicious sosw eet &socold wmcls m

    The object made sound.


    There is so much more that could be said, for example about his use of the list form or the internet poems that work on the page but come to life online. but I’d like to close this review by going back to a Twitter discussion on the nature of experimental poetry started by Beir Bua Press while I was reading these books. What Finch, a determinedly ‘experimental’ poet, shows is is that this kind of work is more formal than so-called formal verse in that it is constantly in search of form, that it delights in failure, or the risk of failure, because it knows that without that risk we are left with the comfortingly numb, it is, in short, whatever you want it to be.

    These collected poems are a joy to read; so go read them

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
%d bloggers like this: