If there was anyone we’d describe as laughing at the clock, it would be Aonghas MacNeacail. Acclaimed as the foremost poet writing today in the Gaelic language, his skilful way with words and general bonhomie make it very hard to believe his latest collection Déanamh Gáire Ris A’ Chloc – Laughing at the Clock is published to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Aonghas talked about his experience of ‘being a poet’ on the Scottish Poetry Library’s blog, Our Sweet Old Etcetera.
“The moment when an individual decides to be a writer of poetry is not at all the same as that when the same individual can be said to have become a poet. In my case, around five years of exploring how words work – those of acknowledged practitioners, and – clumsily – my own.
Being told to ‘go back to your roots: write about what you know’ might seem like obvious advice, once it’s been taken. I might wish to have received it earlier, but those years of obsessive reading, and obsessive writing, were also a kind of affirmation that I had the tenacity to follow this path – that I had chosen / had chosen me – through to a productive conclusion.
Once poems begin to appear in print, you are then liable to be introduced as ‘the poet…’ which can itself be discomfiting, when you’re aware of only having, at most, seven adequately abandoned (in the ‘Valeryan’ sense) poems. And there are those days, weeks, months, when nothing at all is written: terrifying. Have I said all that there is to be said? But you keep reading, and there’s a part of the brain always open to the possibility that something interesting may present itself: which, eventually, if you let it, happens.
Those politicians who argue that ‘incentives’ – i.e. lots of cash – are necessary to encourage the creative process (‘enterprise’, they call it) have clearly never experienced the itch at the back of the brain that insists on being turned into a poem. It may be a word, phrase, visual image, sound, or simply an inchoate feeling that there is something to be said, and it’s your job to say it. What eventually turns out may seem inordinately slight, ludic, ludicrous even, but if you can say, with reasonable confidence, that it is a poem, then that is enough.
When asked, usually by children, ‘What’s the best poem you’ve written?’ I invariably reply, ‘The next one’. Whether writing to commission or responding to an unexpected trigger that sets the creative juices going, the process is always going to be one of discovery: sometimes the material is drawn entirely from memory, at other times it may depend on considerable research.
But even the least personally experienced subject can only be responded to successfully if there are enough points of recognition to enable the poet to engage with the material. The previously unknown has to be uncovered until it becomes thoroughly familiar: once it becomes a ‘known’ which can then be explored with the same level of assured curiosity as any other subject, all the fun, and torment, may begin.
It’s maybe just as well that such commissions are not daily occurrences. Even after half a century of writing, I am still more accustomed to the mysterious pleasures derived from writing ‘to find out what I have to say’. That the spark may present itself in one of three languages, and in poem or song form, merely adds to the satisfaction gained from being a poet.”
Laughing at the Clock: New and Selected Poems – Déanamh Gáire Ris A’ Chloc: Dáin Ùra Agus Thaghte is published today on Aonghas’ 70th birthday by Polygon, £12.99 pbk