Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Naming of Solitary Art

Art's brother, Connla, is sat at the side
of his father on the summit of Uisnech,

Conn Cétchathach, Conn of the Hundred Battles.

Seeing an unfamiliar woman of otherworldly
bearing, beauty, mien, and dress, Connla asks:

'Whence have you come, O maiden unknown to us?'

"From the land of an ever living joy, eternal
faery feast, free from all guilt. A host of Aos Sí

with no inner strife, and harmonious in spirit,
I come from the good people of peace."

'Who are you talking to?' Conn of the Hundred
Battles asks his son; and with none but Connla

seeing the woman wholly spirit, She replies:

"He's talking with the Leanan Sídhe
ever young and beautiful, from a family

of Mag Mell people without old age or death.
I love Connla and am summoning him home

to the Plain of Delights; without sorrow or grief
since Bóadag the everlasting was crowned king.

Come with me, handsome sun-kissed
speckled-cheeked Connla; nut-skin pink-faced,

golden-haired, kingly-hued prince.
Come with me to where beauty and youth does

not perish until druidic judgement day."

All, without seeing her, hear the faery woman.


Conn tells his poet:

'O Corann of great druidic art and song
an otherworldly demand has been voiced that is

beyond my capacity to resist. Unprecedented,
a contest in otherworldly forms has now begun.

One that seeks to deceive and seize the mind
of my first born son, and carry off the child

from my kingly land by some Sith's witchcraft.'

Corann chanted a geisa that in everyone's ear
and in Connla's, silenced the woman’s voice,

and from his eyes she disappeared out of form.

As she left she threw to Connla an apple,
and thereafter the prince fell silent. Left

with only a longing to meet again the eternal
ever-living She his ear and eye had briefly

apprehended; dreaming alone of her, he nourishes
solely on the apple; and the very act of eating

it, keeps the otherworldly apple whole.

For a month without food or drink, and fed only
on Her magic fruit, his longing for this once

seen woman of the Sídhe deepens with every bite.


On the morning a month after; Connla is at his

father’s side in the plain of Arcommin,
when She appears, approaches, stops and & speaks:

"Grandly Connla again you sit surrounded
by the short-lived, hopelessly awaiting death.

The ever-living folk want you with us, earthly
mortal champion of the beings who behold you

daily in assemblies on your father's island.
You amidst family and friends. Me your beloved."

As Conn Cétchathach hears the woman’s voice
he tells a retinue of twelve druidic courtiers:

'Get the poet to me. The silence his spell set,
the geisa, has been today cast off from her.'

Whereupon She said:

"O Conn of the Hundred Battles, do not love
druidry. Presently the wise Queen’s fair noble

and righteous one with many wondrous followers
will reach Her judgements. Our law soon will

come to you. It will destroy all the base-taught
spells of bards without learning facing the dark

bewitching Devil softly whispering spoken song." 

Conn is perturbed that Connla will only speak
when the spirit woman from Mag Mell is present.

'Have the words of this Sidhe woman gone under
your mind, O Connla?' the king asks his son, who replies:

'Not easy is it for me here. I love our people
yet a madman's whisp of desire for this woman

has seized and now consumes me.'

She says:

"Come Connla encounter and fulfill your longing
away from here, towards the sea. Sail a crystal

boat and find the peace of Bóadag with me
on another isle, not the nearest one to reach.

Look the sun is setting, and though far, Mag
Mell, the land of eternal beauty joy and youth,

we shall by nightfall be where the mind of all
whom the island encompasses, it gladdens.

No race but beautiful women and maidens there.”

Thereupon Connla leaps from this earthly realm
and into a pure crystal coracle and ships his mind

and body off to an eternity of joy, watched
by mournful eyes as far as their vision could

follow the flight of Connla's imramm-voyage over
the sea, to where they are not seen thereafter.

Conn then said on seeing Art: 'Art is alone
today, because here he has no more a brother.'

'What you have said is an utterance of substance.'
Said Corann.'

“The name upon him forever is Art the Solitary.”

Thus it was how this name was struck and stuck
to him hereafter and forevermore.


Echtra Condla. The Adventures of Connla the Fair. Lebor na hUidre. Book of the Dun Cow. With thanks to Kim McCone's, and all the other translations, consulted when working up this poem.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Does poetry transcend its alphabet?

The text below is a spontaneous response to the above question, posed---and replied to by the All Ireland Poetry Slam account---on her Facebook, by Carrie Etter, an Illinois, Normal poet, and English professor at Bath University.


The very first subject introduced to a Foclo, the first grade of trainee Fili poet in the old Gaelic literary order that turned out forty generations of poets from 5-17C; was the Ogham alphabet, and the very specific tho highly convoluted tale of how it came to be invented by its creator, Fénius Farsaid. 

We learn the tale in the Medieval poet-training manual, Auraicept na n-Éces, Scholars Primer, a 12C compilation of four books: 

... unique among medieval grammatical works in that it represents the earliest vernacular tradition in Europe. Its earliest ('canonical') parts date as far back as the 7th century. In its present form, it contains much ancient material relating to the Latin and Ogham alphabets, the nature of Old Irish and Latin gender, comparison, and declension.

The first of them, The Book of Fénius Farsaid, tells the foundation myth of the Irish language, and goes into great detail about Ogham.

His and the other Auraicept na n-Éces texts were decanted from the Book of Lecan, Book of Ballymote, and the text of the Trefhocul from the Book of Leinster, into English in 1917 by George Calder, under the title The Scholars Primer.'

Calder labelled it Handbook of the Learned, but a more literal translation of Auraicept na n-Éces - I was told by a senior Irish speaker at a Poetry Ireland / Éigse Éireann event in Dublin -
would be something along the lines of 'the system/working methods of poetry/knowledge'.

The word Éces being one of the most ancient Gaelic words for Knowledge/Poetry. Root of the name of Finn Eces/Finnegas ('bright knowledge') , the druid who taught a young Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Forty generations of Gaelic poets began their seven-grade trek to becoming an Ollamh 'poetry professor' ---and contender for the Ollamh Érenn 'poetry professor of Ireland' top spot occupied by such learned (and forgotten) figures as Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, poet to Maurice FitzGerald, 1st Earl of Desmond--- learning that Fenius created the Gaelic language on the plain of Shinar in Babylon (modern day Iraq), three decades after Babel's collapse, when the 72 dialects of humanity's shared languages were scattered, until being retrieved by seventy-two (named) scholars, under the co-ordination of Fenius, who spent a decade retrieving them.

From which he then created, experimentally deciphered or back-engineered Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and, finally, perfected all language into the Ogham form, and the earliest recorded alphabet that the Gaelic language and its subsequent 1200 year literate Fili tradition found itself on.

We are told by the 7C author of the Book of Fenius in the Auraicept na n-Éces, that the seventy-two named scholars who'd done the donkey work collecting the scattered languages from which he created Hebrew, Greek and Latin, asked that Fenius, 'select for them out of the many languages, a language that no-one else should have but which might belong to them alone. Wherefore on that account was invented for them the (Gaelic) Selected Language (bérla tóbaide) with its (five) superadditions.'

1 - Bearla na Feine, the language or dialect of fenechas law. A high level language of the educated that the system of entirely civil law was preserved in and used by Brehon lawyers and Filidh poets for official business like law, ritual and ceremony. Also the language in which Auraicept na n-Éces is written, as well as Táin Bó Cúailnge.

2 - Iarmberla - Glossed as 'the additional language' by Calder, but commonly called the Iron Language.

3 - Bearla an Eaderscartha, the separative language or dialect; The Language Parted among the trees. This is the famous Ogham, a language used for encryption and memory lists. There are numerous Ogham tables in the Book of Ballymote, all with different names and uses.

4 - Béarla Filidh - 'language of the poets'. The Secret Language of the Poets, the 7C text states 'sometimes known as the 'Dark Speech' because it obscures meaning through the use of kennings and metaphors. 'The Poets used this language to converse among themselves, in tests and initiations, in producing chants, invocations and satires, especially when they wanted to reserve their meanings to the learned only.'

5 - Gnaithbhearla, the customary colloquial language and dialect of the illiterate majority. The common language that serves everyone and what became Old and Middle Irish, and eventually Modern Irish.

Obviously of interest to the poets is Béarla Filidh, which a 13C Brehon lawyer explains to his pupils:

'The literary language whose thrust is not self-evident or superficial
and the noble reading aloud—for ardent judges and bards, they
are the keys which release locks.'

It was a cipher language in which a skilled poet could communicate with other poetry professors and poet-lawyers above the heads of everyone but themselves. Where every letter was measured and elegant as sun-polished blackthorn blossom, their text communicating a multiplicity of meanings, the truest of which could be hidden in plain sight in words carefully selected and wrought to form the abstruse stream of Béarla Filidh, where every connection ---as John Minahane points out, quoting from a Latin Grammarian, in his groundbreaking work of scholarship and innovation: The Christian Druids: On the Filid Or Philosopher-poets of Ireland--- reveals 'knowledge of a thing (that) will die unless you know its name.'

Kevn Desmond

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Three Requirements of a Poet

When I was first in Ireland, 2004-10 was spent banging my head on all the mythology, and the site of the stone idol of Crom Cruach got mentioned in an unfinished/abandoned poem on the final O'Neill Mór, and second earl, Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone.

Magh Slécht, the 'plain of prostrations', is in Cavan. Named after the act of lying prostrate in front of the stone idol of Crom Cruach, and where there was human sacrifice going on until Patrick put a stop to it.

his tribe in tatters on a Plain of Prostrations
facing the presence of the Lord, he surrendered

in one short celestial act of ineffable burlesque
tragic slap-stick on a stone floor, where he found

his island wholly ghost, mimed his submission
at history’s pointed tip.

Patrick is also reputed in various texts to have condemned the spontaneous druidic compositional practice of Imbas forosnai, 'inspired illumination', and one of its two sub-strands, Tenm láida, 'illumination of song'. In Whitley Stokes translation of the Life, Patrick declares 'that no one who shall do that shall belong to heaven or earth, for it is a denial of baptism.'

Two of the three highest compositional poetic forms similar to the Frostean notion of a poem 'beginning in delight and ending in wisdom'. Not knowing what is going to happen on the page until - at its best - the poem is spontaneously written; and with the author merely a stenographer of the spirit in letters and Ogma's plaything.

The other sub-strand "Dichetal do chennaib, extempore incantation, however, that was left, in right of art, for it is science that causes it, and no offering to devils is necessary, but a declaration from the ends of his bones at once."

All three were introduced in a technical capacity to the Filidh poets on the eighth year of their twelve year poet-training curriculum, that in the English translation of Rudolf Thurneysen's German translation of an 8C monastic classic, “Mittelirische Verslehren.” In Irische Texte, are cited by Joseph Nagy, in his 1986 Overview of Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative, as "the “wisdom-tokens” of the Fili:

... that is, the elements of language, the clethchor choem (“fair palisade,” a type of poem and/or meter), the reicne roscadach (“poetic rhapsody,” another metrical genre), and laíde (a third type); that is, the teinm laída (“chewing of the pith”), imbas forosnai (“great wisdom that enlightens”), and díchetal do chennaib na tuaithe (“incantation from heads of the tribe”)".

John Carey makes an absorbing case for Patrick not having banned the apical practice of Imbas Forosnai and its Tenm láida sub-strand, in a (by Irish poetry standards) recent Ériu article, The Three Things Required of a Poet, vol. 48 (1997), pp. 41-58, that in Irish poetry are traditionally cited as being Imbas forosnai, tenm láida, and
dichetal do chennaib.

Citing Pádraig Breatnach's 'discussion of Macgnímartha Find as whole', and using as theoretical footings the original wording in the 8C Uraicecht Becc, 'Small Primer' legal tract defining the many strictly divided grades of social class and the associated lóg n-enech - honour-price - of each grade of person in the civil law - literally 'face-price' - the price damages were calculated in suits when you 'lost face' in the legal process; Carey builds a compelling case that the Patrician banning of the highest form of druidic practice and one of its sub-strands, were a later interpolation by early Medieval clerics seeking to make everything pious, holy and sacred. The David Ickes of their day.

Which I would agree with; should a discussion on the pointless and all but forgotten pages, places and purposes of the earliest native poetic order of these brilliant British and Oiwish oyls ootbwake or awise, ye 'unna.

And one of the joys of writing to learn is the unexpected results, finding new contributions in the discussion. The Nemed, Uraicecht Becc and early Irish Governance, Sydney University 2013. Julianna Grigg.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Theo van Doesburg, Still Life: The Table

As an Edge Hill University Writing Studies and Drama undergraduate beginning in my home town of Ormskirk the Modern Drama module at the start of the second semester of the second year in January 2003, we in the class were told by our tutor to bring in anything at all, an image, text, or something else, that summed up for us the word 'modern'. Modo, of the moment.

For the Poetry & Poetics components of the three year course the entire theoretical contents were drawn wholly from American modernism, beginning in year one with Pound's A Few Don'ts and terminating at the end of year three with Charles Bernstein's seminal essay; I Don't Take Voice Mail: The Object of Art in the Age of Electronic Technology.

The poems themselves came from the first two Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg edited door-stoppers, poems for the millennium anthologies one and two: Postmodern Poetry. Volume One: From Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude, and, Volume Two: From Postwar to Millennium.

The night before the Modern Drama class, I was trying to find something to bring in that summed up the word 'modernism', and was flicking through volume one of the Joris and Rothenberg anthology, which, for those unfamiliar with it, contains a lot of extremely crazee stuff, far more bonkers than what we have today, most of which is merely derivative of the original stuff.

Only a handful of poems from the entire 1000 pages leapt out at me. One was a late poem from 1930 called Screaming My Head Off, written by the poet of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, just before he committed suicide, and whose mad but coherent and forcefully poetic voice stood out from all the typographical experiments devoid of any real meaning like a light in the dark.

The other poem that made worthwhile my late night trawling through the textual lunacy that had not aged well, and that I brought into and read at the first Modern Drama class, as an example of the one thing that encapsulated what I thought the word 'modernism' meant, was a self-aware timeless-present voice narrating this list poem by the Dutch visual artist and writer, Theo van Doesburg; who made me laugh out loud on first reading it.


All muddled up
A glass of tea
Some cups
Some pots
And get a fresh look
at what’s lying there –
This is the shadow
of the shadow of
a candlestick!
A piece of paper
& a can in blue
white &
An ash tray with
a pipe stem
& a very heavy book
in blue & yellow
with something that looks brown
inside a black can

And the candle there!
The light! The light!

And a mist around them
& their glow
Some spoons
Something that’s gleaming
on the gold rim of the
And there’s another piece of paper
on which lies: a red match
a couple of blue pamphlets
a little piece of string atop
a small red box
And then the cloth!
Half a chair
there in the mist
a little further back
And how the yellow cloth becomes
& that much softer
And then here
                          and here
here on the paper’s
garish white
are two black nails
one that looks real & one a silhouette
my hand
my hand
a hill with murky caves
in which a rafter lies
between two clumps of clay
wedged tight

Translation from the Dutch by Jerome Rothenberg