Well, no sooner have the bags been unpacked from my grandmothers funeral and before that the U.S. trip i find myself refilling them for a trip to Norway to teach alongside Coleman Barks and Lisa Starr at the Festival of Silence this weekend, just outside Oslo. The mechanics of this meant obtaining a day turn around passport from the office in Peterborough, up near my parents. Hand over the dosh and a a four hour wait. Still, thats it done now for the next ten years.
So here is something of an enticer for the 'Entering the Bardic Secret' retreat in August (see above). There are always exceptions to what i write below, but the main points are worth considering i think - in general it's a call for a kind of freshening up of the word Bard really (especially that it applies to both genders (and passing adders and learned sparrows) - the thought that it's a kind of mens club is appalling to me, even if thats what history has pathetically attempted from time to time). I know this freshening process is already underway in certain bardic orders and huzzah and kudos for that. There is a cut off date approaching with this retreat - july 15th, so apply now or forever hold your peace. If you haven't worked with me before i will require a letter stating your intention in undertaking it and previous experience. Contact
We could look at what the word bard really means. Bard in the way many people use it, and I have myself, frequently, is a woman or man poetically alive to the mysteries – and having the facility to translate that into some expression of art. As time moves on the historical reality often becomes somewhat different. I will mention a few of those differences, whilst also suggesting that the force of a word should not be bound by its historic content exclusively – it could indeed be re-seeded, wrought anew.
Firstly, over the centuries the working bard sometimes developed into creatures of court, not of the forest, paid to construct verse in a very specific, un-spontaneous, rather laboured form that confirmed the wealth and prestige of the lord, his family and history. In other words, they were on tenure. Secondly, and a crucial point, is that the bards crafted verse of a specific cadence, a cadence they worked very hard to master, but in doing so, completely annihilate their local, regional speech patterns. If you aspire to bio-regionalism this is a disaster – the bardic verse rhythms do not hold the mutterings and wyldish syntax of a specific area. Be it Welsh or Scottish it can be hard to find much difference. It is an elevated language, which has its beauty, but the price is severe. There is a weightlessness, a cutting of the bard from their home ground.
A storyteller friend of mind speculates that the elevated language may have been a way of delivering hard truths in a form that ensured their safety, rather than in their more spontaneous, local tongue. A kind of ritual protection.
Thirdly, the image of the bard as kind of singer is a fiction – these really were not songs. Studying the meter and breaks of the verse it is clear that whilst they were to be accompanied, it would have regarded as rather common to call them songs. Still, that doesn't have to count for a jot now does it?
Fourthly, bardic speech swiftly became frozen speech. It was claimed that you could take a praise poem for a Leinster king of the 8th century, and, given a quick touch up here and there, present it as a 16th century panegyric (Bergin 1912 :206). There are dazzling displays of technique down the centuries, but less inspiration. The ground of image they are permitted to use has been so negotiated it loses much of its joie de vivre.
So are we to rid ourselves of the word ‘bard’ ?, has my rather depressing act of journalism robbed us of the beguiling story that has been wrapped around them these last few hundred years? I don’t think so.
We could claim the name, re-sacrilise it to the porosity of wild intent, ground it again in a hundred yards of dark earth. We could expand the role of the bard to a complete reversal of its previous ambitions – to laden its speech with the inflections and knowledge of a range of country say five miles around where we works and live. This is not to be luddite, but to playfully reclaim the power of the word, rather than academically strike it off the list.
Much is still admirable, from the astounding feats of incantational memory to their retreats in total darkness. A graduated bard would have mastered 60,000 lines (Macalister 1991 :122) of verse. We have an account from as late as the 18th century from Martin’s Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (Martin 1934), “They (the poets) shut their doors and windows for a day’s time, and lie on their backs with a stone upon their belly, and plaids about their eyes being covered as they pump their brains for rhetorical enconium or panegyric; and indeed they furnish such a style in this dark cell that is understood by very few…”
The focus of the bard was the preservation of language, the anchoring of history and wider knowledge of genealogy and heraldry. It seemed they had to cover much inner ground before the emergence into the wider field of court life. At its best it originally offered an emphatic kinship to the earth and a genuinely prophetic undertow. A bard was not orginally a career move, it was not really even about composed poetics; they were a beautifully carved totem of bone and heartbeat that absorbed the lucid curls of inspirations foam and the heat of animistic companionship.
My wondering is just what happened to that inner development when faced with the rigidity of the courtly system?
The greatest poet of Shiraz, Hafez, was a kind of bard, and composed incandescent lines of attack on the hypocrisy of “faking a religious faith” (Lewisohn 2008 :70). He is an exemplary focus on the true bardic spirit and would bear intensive study for any student of wild intelligence.
Bearing in mind the linguistic restraints, one of the strangest things I ever heard was that, were he alive 1000 years ago, Ted Hughes would have been a Bard. Pardon? Hughes carried the dialectical strain of rural Yorkshire through his poetry his whole life, revelling in it, a boar in dark mud. From this point of view he is absolutely, resolutely, cut from the cloth of the travelling minstrel, ecstatic, Seanchai, Cunning Man, not the tired clichés of a paid up, please the boss, court poet.
....And yet, from the common perception of the Bard as wilderness seer than he fits the bill with a bow wrapped around it. He even took what we could just about regard as a bardic chair when he became Poet Laureate, although the effect that had on his poetry is hotly contested.
When we look at how we generally speak, the bardic perogatives are hardly high on the list. We know we mostly speak a language with the fat trimmed off. If it veers off down esoteric pathways then we are clearly pretentious rather than attempting to hold delicate ideas within a tender net of words. Lets stop awhile here, and stalk the rebel notion of being a mongrel bard, a lucid reclamation of ...
And for the next stage you will have to sign up for the retreat!
Copyright Martin Shaw 2011