Since Christopher Whyte’s Gaelic poetry first appeared in the 1980s, he has been an influential and controversial figure in the world of Gaelic writing. His published collections, together with his work as an editor, translator and critic, have challenged assumptions about Gaelic poetry while mapping out new territory for other poets to explore. In Whyte’s work, this endeavour is inescapably political, bound up with questions of belonging, enfranchisement and equality. But he is also an intensely personal poet, whose appeal to his readers is emotional, a voice seeking to communicate with others who might recognise, and so validate, the experience he describes.
Christopher Whyte was born in Glasgow in 1952. He graduated with a degree in English from Cambridge in 1973, then lived in Italy until 1985. He returned to Scotland, lecturing in English at Edinburgh University before his appointment to a post in the Department of Scottish Literature at Glasgow. His first collection of poems in Gaelic was published in 1991, four years after he had begun writing his own work in Gaelic; it was followed by the first of many novels in English, Euphemia MacFarrigle and the Laughing Virgin (1995). During his time at Glasgow he returned regularly to Italy and spent time in Barcelona, Croatia and Hungary. In 2005 he left Glasgow and university teaching for Budapest, to pursue writing full time.
Whyte’s first contribution to Gaelic verse was a group of poems translated from the Greek of Ritsos and Cavafy, published in Derick Thomson’s quarterly Gairm. Two important aspects of Whyte’s work were already visible in these translations. Firstly, the re-engagement of Gaelic verse with the literatures of Europe, an engagement taken for granted by Gaelic writers until the 17th century, but from which Gaelic had been subsequently excluded. While Whyte has followed the example of Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, George Campbell Hay and Sorley Maclean, he has deepened and broadened this engagement in a way unparalleled by any of his Gaelic contemporaries. Secondly, in his decision to translate Cavafy’s gay love poetry, Whyte displayed a concern to open up Gaelic poetry to areas of human experience which had not been explored in the modern period.
Whyte’s relationship with the Gaelic language defies the stereotypes which Scottish criticism often relies upon when approaching poetry in Scotland’s oldest tongue. In an early poem, ‘Manran’, Whyte addresses the language itself, dismissing those critics directly:
‘Dhearbh iad orm gu robh thu aosta / ach chuir t’ òige fo gheasaibh mi’ (‘They told me that you were old / but your youth enchanted me’, tr. Christopher Whyte).
For Whyte, Gaelic is a new speech, one which offers his speakers a way past the silencing his poetry so often describes. But this new speech comes at a cost. In his essay ‘Against Self-translation’ (2002), Whyte argued against the then almost ubiquitous practice of Gaelic poets providing English versions of their own work. Since his first collection, Ùrsgeul (1991), he has preferred to find other poets to translate his work – which has appeared in a range of languages – or to leave his poems untranslated. At first glance this might seem self-defeating. But this tactic encourages readers and translators to engage with Whyte’s work in his chosen language rather than through English versions which might render that work obsolete. In the long term, this is a gamble, that the speech afforded to him by Gaelic will give his work a greater permanence, and that it will find a readership ready to approach it on its own terms.
In the meantime, the resistance of Whyte’s poetry to capture and classification, the critical lepidoptery that fixes poems in glass, has allowed it to pollinate new forms of poetic expression. In ‘An Daolag Shìonach’ (‘The Chinese Beetle’), he describes his poetry in just these terms, as the eggs of an exotic insect which leave after them
‘…boladh / mìorbhaileach a dh’fhairtlich e / air sgoilearan is gàirnealairean / na cùirt gu lèir a mhìneachadh’ (‘a brilliance that all the sages, / the senior gardeners of the court, / could not explain’, tr. Sally Evans).
In this way, he claims for his poetry a transformative effect that transcends barriers of scale. Whyte’s own work has never recognised such limitations, and its author has become the foremost exponent of the long poem in contemporary Gaelic verse. First among these is ‘Bho Leabhar-Latha Maria Malibran’ (1996), a narrative poem in the voice of a 19th-century opera singer who was a contemporary of Rossini. In the epilogue, the poet’s own voice appears to challenge those who would consider such subject matter unfit for Gaelic poetry. Elsewhere, in ‘Cumha Alasdair Chamshroin’ (‘Elegy for Alasdair Cameron’), he connects this exclusion to a refusal of Scottish society to accept gay people in its midst:
‘Tha mi claoidht’ le sàmhchairean, / oir rugadh sinn an dùthaich / nach eil gar n-iarraidh’ (‘I am oppressed by silence, / for we were born in a land / which does not want us’, tr. Michel Byrne).
The conflict between speech and silence in Whyte’s poetry is most keenly felt in ‘Dealbh Athar’ (2009), the book-length sequence that makes up Whyte’s third collection. Published with facing Irish translations by Gréagóir Ó Dúill, the sequence collects two decades of poetry. Like ‘Bho Leabhar-latha Maria Malibran’, the underlying issue in ‘Dealbh Athar’ is paternal abuse, but Whyte uses the sequence to stage a philosophical enquiry into the nature of suffering and the possibility of healing. Poetry itself is central to this process, not as the mundane equivalent of the psychiatrist’s chair or the confessional booth, but as a means of creating speech that cannot be silenced, words that will outlive the individual who utters them. The final poem in the sequence ‘Their mi ann an cagar e, ach their…’ (‘I’ll say it in whisper, but I’ll say it’) ends with an explicit statement of the power of poetry to overcome silence in this way: ‘a chionn ’s nach eil e feumail / an glaodhaich, oir bidh cagarsaich a’ fòghnadh’ (‘since there is no need / to shout, because a whisper will suffice’, tr. Niall O’Gallagher).
In scale, difficulty and ambition, Christopher Whyte’s poetry stands out on the contemporary Gaelic poetry scene. A writer who has spent much of his career travelling and living in Europe, his poetry has followed him to new destinations, continuing a process of discovery and exploration in modern Gaelic poetry that was begun by MacLean, Hay and Thomson in the generation that preceded him. His hope must be that the poetry itself will continue to travel, independently of its author, to destinations as yet unimagined.