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.