Monday, 24 February 2014

wilderness vigil: 4th - 12th July

(please note: if from the U.S. you may want to consider The School of Lost Borders in California for something like this.)

The dates have arrived for the Wilderness Vigil in Dartmoor national park this summer:
Friday 4th July to Sat 12th.
Cost £600.

The Basics:
The first two days are spent orientating to the area and finding your spot. There will be daily one-to-one sessions with myself, and on-going sessions with the wider participants and the base-camp crew. You will receive full preparation and a deepening context for your vigil and it's place in history. Food will be healthy and slightly reduced in size as preparation. We advise giving up caffeine in advance. Health and safety will, of course, be observed.

Monday morning you leave base camp and head for your alone spot. For the next four days you will be completely alone fasting in a wild place. During the entire time the crew will stay at base camp. I will return daily and attend to whatever is needed. You will take plenty of water/ a tarp for keeping the rain off/a warm sleeping bag.

On the fifth morning you will return to base camp for a gentle re-orientation to a new world. When fed, watered and rested, you will tell your story to your fellow questers and an experienced and supportive crew. This is the last time you will tell the story in depth for one year - to allow it time to settle. At some point on the saturday we will pack up base camp and leave.

The vigil usually proves tough/ wonderful/ scary/ sometimes boring and deeply mysterious. All and more. It can be a life changer. It won't make you a good person or your life simpler, but it will help you relish its complexity. Come if, as Yeat's, you say; "I'm looking for the face i had before the world was made".

To apply we require a PDF biography of your life up to now. Not just stories of achievement, but the difficult parts too, everything that has got you to this point. No more than ten pages no less than six. Secondly a non-refundable deposit of £200 if accepted.

If it feels like it's your time to be on the hill, we will be in touch with preparatory material - reading and practical work.

Please note, you will need your own equipment (tent for base camp, tarp, bivvy bag, sleeping bag etc).

Martin and the base-camp team.

* Martin has almost twenty years experience of both undergoing and leading wilderness vigils. The experience is a crucial underpinning to his mythological work.


Wednesday, 19 February 2014

It's on its way: tony hoagland with review copy of SNOWY TOWER

hughes as mythteller

Saturday, March 8
Time: 7:30pm
Location: Point Reyes Presbyterian Church
Tickets: Free event. Donation requested

(get there early - these evenings at the church get very full)

“The Crow-King and the Red-Bead Woman”
Vocation, Imagination, and the Royal Road of Story

Event Date: Saturday, March 1
Time: 10:00am to 5:00pm
Location: Petaluma ranch location (to be announced)
Tickets: Sliding scale ($85–150)
For details or to register, contact Lisa Doron at

(again - a big demand for places so please don't delay in booking and risk disappointment)

Holed up in the rather lovely Cardinal hotel in downtown Palo Alto preparing for a day with students and our final study of Parzival tonight. Sun is shining and i have excavated part of an essay which includes - not for the first time - a brief defense of Ted Hughes. More soon! M

Mad as the Mist and the Snow
So how do we find a language porous enough to hold red berries and fish scales in its syntax? We turn to a kind of poetics; a raised torrent that pleases the invisible world and some humans. But I do say ‘some’. For others, it is unwieldy.

Ted Hughes, one of the grittiest poets on animism that the English language has ever had, has received consistent criticism for the overloaded, almost violent range of image found in even one line of his poetry. The author Nick Bishop (Bishop 1994), decries Hughes' early work as “wielding language as a broadsword”, it “forcing the head down into submission”. He claims it all arises from some emphatically masculine impulse to ram an elevated literary consciousness down the throat of the unsuspecting reader.
For Bishop, the intense flavours are an avoidance of revealing psychological realities alive in the poet. All this drama – of horses and drumming ploughland – is merely a smokescreen for a hidden Hughesian consciousness. He’s hiding. Much later in Hughes’s timeline, he supports a lessening of ego, highlighting ‘Go Fishing’, a stanza I include here:

Join water
Let brain mist into moist earth
Ghost loosen away downstream
Gulp river and gravity

With these eastern infused lines, Bishop relaxes, far away from the battlefield of the earlier work. This can be approved of, in a wider, slightly vague western approval of eastern‘oneness’. Now Hughes has ensured that there is “no longer an arbitrary division between serenity and beauty above, and violence and beastliness below”. But that division is partially what makes Hughes’s work so compelling. That division and its pains are what the reader experiences as resolutely anchored through their own lives. It makes it relatable, despite its gnostic twists and almost unbearable tensions between ecstatic and hellish. Within myth, that division is called the wound, or the limp. And it's knowledge of it that activates genius. Not enlightenment necessarily, but genius.

Nature has ego, display, bloodied scenes, cruelties, spasmodic tenderness, and it is Hughes' dark inheritance that he allows it to wriggle madly though almost every line. To claim he should somehow get his learning, his spell-crafting, out of the way, to make some kind of more benign flow, is an appalling notion. He is a stag clearing ground in those early years, taking space, claiming air filled with twitters of lesser poets.
He’s not there to make nice.

Sometimes the mythological has far more true expression in it than thinned out ‘I’ statements. Its broad back carries depths that we sense in ourselves, but that are beyond anything we may have consciously lived through. It carries cosmos not just jumbled neurotic history.

Hughes is loyal to both the intensities of a thunderstorm and also to the oral storytellers love of copia – what I described earlier in the book as “the ready supply of inventive language”. His fame is not mistaken. He is truly loyal to his impressions of the living world and a clear vocation as mystic and thinker. His logos disciplines hard craft to the boundaried corral of his mythos abandon. His work is a place to go.
Bishop again takes him to task by suggesting that an early and brief debt to Dylan Thomas somehow makes the poetry less authentic, as if he should he have leapt like a jack-in-the box pristine into the world of 1950s poetry. The mythworld – the world he constantly drew upon – and the storying tradition that comes from it, does not work like that. Certain energies get mysteriously handed down, images find beds in the imaginations of different artists in different generations. Sometimes its a sculptor, or a wandering ballad singer, or a Lincolnshire healer. When handled with grace they are not a steal but a life giving re-visioning. They honour and sustain the echo locations of the earth, something just occasionally caught here and there, far more than just the legacy of that one individual.

Certain images are very precious, and require repetition.

Like the forest trails the hunter takes, when the way is obscured with brambles, something immense is lost. The mythteller carries a sharp bill hook to respectfully re-clear the leafy trail so the image can roar through into consciousness again. This is mythtelling we are witnessing, not just a moment in time, but outside of it altogether. As he stared into the Dart river fishing, the truths of this must have settled in the bloodied lump of Hughes’s brain.

So I hope this book has been true to the notion of an associative mythography. We have soaked our boots in Dartmoor snow, bent our minds to history's radical happenings and book-knowledge, padded loyally after the story itself as it charges through the yellowed gorse and foaming stream – sometimes a jackdaw, sometimes a tor, sometimes words sheltering from icy sleet, tucked in tight with the hay-warm goats.

So yes to wild language, and yes to the discipline of crafting them into a form that can be slowly taken into the body. In the era of Shakespeare, inventive language was true wealth, it refuted the sluggish but built delicate word-cairns in the humming air around the speaker. Men and women would stagger from the Globe theatre, beautifully assaulted with vast armies of flowered language - to be treasured, seeded, unpacked, and cultivated in the strong privacy of ones own chest. It was gold, corn, single-malt, rubies, a salted hoard. You could literally speak a cosmos back to life. Yes to this.

Yes to the storied tongue – the tongue of those Suffolk farm hands,
and to the slathered foam of Devon’s south coast shores, the frost encrusted field, the far distant kestrel, the heavy horse and the orchard, the hare’s joyful lope through the fragrant spring grasses.

How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and the snow?
W.B. Yeats

copyright martin shaw 2014

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

for the valentines


We really like to celebrate the beginnings of things; none more so than in love. We are deluged with stories about the burning ground of soul mates and true love. There is sudden changes of plot, divine sickness at the thought of the beloved, in general far more time stewing in the fantasy whilst they're absent then the growingly more mundane reality of their presence. We are told that this is what love is.

Love seems to indicate full bloom, an endless seasonal riff between spring and summer: it’s all connections, support, giddy leaning in, eye-contact, once-in-a lifetime imaginings. If there is much in the way of autumn's bare trees, or the iron ground of winter, then surely love has died, we were mistaken, we have to seek the giddy feeling of newness again. And again. We expect relationship to be mono – the unchanging characteristics we societally approve, rather than myth's poly – changeable, distant at times, suddenly wildly intense. It is not just one tree but an entire scrubland of copses, muddy streams and ghoulish owls. Complicated.

Because love rarely sustains the dynamic of the earlier, celebrated stage, we are often adrift at this deepening. Where is the giddy heights? The long married have no glamour, their stories do not litter the tabloids, we prefer to see them as stuck, or co-dependent, as we shuffle wistfully on to the next honey-gorged flower.

The writer John Welwood (2006) talks about two kinds of love – absolute love and relative love. Absolute love is that love which stands beyond human relations, but occasionally, fleetingly, shines through. When caught in its radiance we feel accepted, connected, at peace, part of the wider turning of stars and seasons. It’s wonderful. Spiritual folks will spend large amounts of their time trying to get tuned up to this, but for the wider world, we often experience it in the early stages of falling in love. So confirming is its presence that we decide that this must be love’s essence. It's core.

The problem is that if we experience this through the temporary gaze of another human we have to then realise the frailty of the human heart. Although the outpouring is majestic, it is also finite: we are so littered with defences and hurts that this absolute acceptance cannot be maintained by a human perspective indefinitely, our very life history will cause this divine light to grow dim and fluctuate. It is here that we find relative love.

The very openness that love engenders will awaken the coal-dark hounds of unfinished business and general misery that always hunt close to the lover's garden. There will be an equally strong counter intention to the intention of a fulfilling love relationship. These hounds sprinkle distorted perceptions, age old hurts, and defence mechanisms into the mix. Relative love, as Welwood reminds us, is dependent on time and circumstance. It is changeable, dependent on what gods stand behind us that day, the invisible inner-balcony of family members, how much sleep we were blessed with the night before. With all this in the mix, then the notion of love as a steady, unchanging state is highly naïve.

We are frequently being hurled between a sense of delicious oneness back to a relative two-ness, often unexpectedly. We reach tenderly to the resting lover and are faced by a teeth-snapping wrathful ogre.
Welwood points to openness to these moments of the absolute, but not an unreal expectancy that it is ever available. It almost never is. For every wave of euphoric connection he advises acceptance of the salty crash that will surely follow as a wider aspect of love, not as something ‘outside’ the experience, or that it has failed in some way.

This longing for oneness grows frantic when a truly religious sensibility diminishes in the world, because love becomes the only place to glimpse something that is, in truth, often beyond our conflicted psyche. It’s a glimpse of eternity. Gnostic groups of all persuasions and Sufi groups the world over have built elaborate systems to ritually encounter its radiance. The aspiration is deep and will not go away because it is the elusive core at the experience of life we all share. It is the business of connection.

All shape-leaping stories, nine day fasts, bizarre esoteric disciplines are hints of this animistic multiplicity of oneness, and that everything is alive and everything is connected. We hear this kind of language all the time - it gets tedious - but to actually experience it as fact is anything but ordinary.


A Shaw/Hoagland translation:

The Owl-Court of Ifor Hael
Welsh, From Evan Evans; 1731-88

This eerie ruin among the alders,
ghostly hump of bramble and thorn,

was once the court of Ifor Hael.

Boys don’t make
their stick-dens here.

The thrush and badger
are discreet visitors

in a low lying fog,
or at dawn's yellow glitter.

Where are the poets?
the bard and storied-harp?

or the generous lord,
with a cup of wine at his arm?

For Dafydd,
chief of the skilled singers,

it was a bleak woe
to lay Ifor in the slick clay.

As he lit the red candles,
and the snow wetted his beard

then Dayfydd knew
that the game was up.

This used to be a welcome ground,
a broad thoroughfare of song,

but is now an owl-court
for those lost in the forest.

For all fame's
beating of shields

there’s no ramparts here
jutting through this ivy,

Just a moon-blue cry
from the thin, black branches.


FEBRUARY 13, 7:30PM – 9:00PM

“Myth,” says storyteller Martin Shaw, “is not about a long time ago.” Created communally, over time, in full contact with the natural world, myth is instead a particular way of understanding ourselves and our world that offers new routes through the binds of the modern world. “Poetry,” says acclaimed poet Tony Hoagland, “offers a clarifying force through its similar use of polymorphic and enduring images.” Together, myth and poetry understand us in an uncommon way.

In this special evening, Shaw and Hoagland will weave myth and poetry to reveal how the deep shapes of their stories give us surprising ways for meeting the challenges of contemporary culture. Alongside select stories and poems, they will talk about the mysterious wisdom retained in these forms and how they can help us overcome the constraints that our culture imposes on our imaginations. Shaw and Hoagland will also read and discuss some of the translations of old Celtic poetry they have been collaborating on over the last two years.

Martin Shaw, PhD, is author of A Branch from the Lightning Tree and the forthcoming Snowy Tower: Parzival and the Wet Black Branch of Language. He is a master storyteller and currently Visiting Lecturer in the Oral Communication Program at Stanford.

Tony Hoagland is the author of four collections of poems, and winner of many prizes, including the Mark Twain Award for Humor in American Poetry. He teaches at the University of Houston and elsewhere.

Free and open to the public

Copyright Martin Shaw 2014

Sunday, 2 February 2014

The ONLY day gathering to be taught in Marin by Martin this winter

Vocation, Imagination, and the Royal Road of Story
A day gathering with mythologist, storyteller and author Martin Shaw.

Sat 1st March 10-5 sliding scale: $85 - $150 sign up and details email Lisa Doron at

An ancient Siberian tale insists that when the right bride appears for the son of the Khan, she will arrive from the edge - when she speaks precious red beads will pour from her mouth, and black sable will stroll where she walks. In this way the wild is wedded to the village.

However, on the day of the wedding, the community accept a sorceress who, when she speaks, rancid frogs spill to the floor and vicious ermine trail her hooves. We ask: in modern times what does it mean that our vision is so entranced we can’t discern the difference?

Through a day telling of the story, time in the wild and fellowship by the fire, we will explore the relationship of the story to the development of character and imagination. Padding alongside the story will be the image of the daemon - the spirit-being that turns our attention to the kind of life our soul signed up for. It is the daemonic intelligence that is the seat of the discernment we require to truly welcome the red- bead woman to the feast. Shaw will be bringing new Lorca translations to complement the mix.

No one can ignore their destiny.
It's the water in which
we drench our souls.