By Heart: Curriculum for a Bardic School

     I am a bard. There, I’ve said it. Embarrassing, like wearing a sign saying "HUMBLE," or announcing you’re a secret agent. Still, I have to come clean. Living in this country is too trying. In Ireland it was fine. You could recite the length of your arm and not be bothered. I once heard a woman in a Donegal pub do the entire Molly Bloom soliloquy impromptu, right down to her knickers, and the bogmen in the snug never unclenched their pipes. And Africa, teaching in the then province of Katanga in the then nation of Zaire, what with no books anyway and fidgety lightbulbs, reciting poems was just passing on the news, as well as a way to warn off snakes on the walk home. But in the US, we leave singing to the pros; and though I’ve lived most of my life here, when I toss my head back and take flight, I’m seen as a ham, or an autist who might be useful counting cards, or a Lothario, or a compulsive. And then there are the gobshites exclaiming, "How do you remember all that?" And last week a guy in a suit slipped me a a buck.

      I never intended to become a bard, even if I was a fey child. "A.D.D." they’d diagnose it now. Between serving Latin mass and rocking in front of the Hi Fi absorbing the family collection of Clancy Bros. albums, I was immersed in mysterious language from the age most children take up reason. But being a bard is not the kind of vocation even a strange child aims for. There’s no counseling, no pie charts. The profession is badly marketed, completely misunderstood. Shakespeare did a terrible disservice, or more likely it wasn’t Shakespeare himself but the bards–real ones–who came after. Shakespeare was no bard. He broke the cardinal rule: he became famous.

      I’m not a bard like that with a capital letter and a prophet’s beard and a college named after. I’m from a school created before dogma or whisky. We’re mid-level poets, beneath the high Fili, who created the riddling Rosc poetry–more obscure than Pound. The Fili were ex-druids who loved sex too much to become monks, I think. Though word is the monks didn’t do badly.

      The reason I’ve decided to come forward now is that I’m tired of all the whining. Everyone’s complaining about the state of the art. There’s no money in it. No one reads poetry. Universities have cloistered the great voices. Grim-faced essays take the patient’s temperature, and there’s even a book, Can Poetry Matter? which has pronounced the situation hopeless.

      So I thought now might be the time to write down a few things I’ve heard, because when you know about bards, when you’ve heard them and recognize their place, you’ll know that the fellow stuttered when he framed his question. It’s not Can, Mr. Gioia; it’s Is. Is poetry matter? Is it like broccoli or prose--something good for you; something that, if ingested in the right quantities, will brighten your grotto, change your life?

      Bards take the matter out of poetry, take it off the page, away from the publishers and critics, out of the libraries and cafe-conglomerate bookstores, and lodge it in the human mind, in memory. And memory is not a matter of scale or popularity. Like Whitman, it contains multitudes. In memory, many voices syncopate, their rhythm unspindles thought. When one voice quickens, is released in breath, the poem is transfigured from a printed glyph to raw, sensory language; ephemeral, but tensile with the permanence of the collective memory that births it. Critics may feel differently, but what matters to a poem is not how many times it is reprinted, but how deep it penetrates into the heart.

      The proliferation of bad poetry seems to frighten critics more than the prospect of steady labor. Maybe they’re afraid that in such numbers, not all the poems written can be stamped, and a few bad ones might get through and be mistaken for good ones, and then the ivy shivers. To grease the hand-wringing, I can only think of what one bard whose name I won’t betray told us. "I’ve got some good news and some bad news," he said. "The bad news is that 90 % of the poetry you find is going to be dreck. The good news is that the 10% left over is enough to last three lifetimes." What better and more natural way to filter out the dreck than to start learning the 10% by heart?

      Learn by heart, I say. Not memorize. I am not a minstrel, not a professional performer. There’s more to being a bard than memorizing. Memorizing is an act of will, almost of penance, but learning by heart is instinctive and capricious. Minstrels memorize what they are paid to learn, so their performance, however skilled, is not a tribute to the poem, nor does it enhance the poem’s world. The heart doesn’t enter in. They’re lovely to hear, minstrels are; but they do no more than sing for their supper, which is why in the old days they were consigned to sit furthest from the fire with the mercenaries. Now, of course, they own castles.

      There are stages in learning a poem by heart. The first is finding it. The easiest and the best way to find a poem is to hear it in the voice of another bard. The experience can be so powerful that you learn the poem almost immediately; it brands itself into memory and you can hardly remember a time you didn’t know it. Hearing James Wright recite Thomas MacDonough’s translation of Cathal Buidhe MacGilla Gunna’s poem "An Bannan Bui," was like that for me. I can hardly resist it now: "The Yellow Bittern that never broke out in a drinking bout might has well as drunk..." But it’s not the same. I haven’t the heart for it on the page.

      You might ask why I drop Wright’s name when I shielded the other and chided Shakespeare. That’s part of the tradition: when identities mingle, as Wright’s and MacDonough’s and Cathal Bui’s do, names blend in a minor chord, and the poem is protected from an individual ego. You might feel this harmony when you hear a poem and find that in the one hearing it has become yours: as if you wrote it, as if it emanated from your own memory. Your identity and that of the poet blur, and become, finally, irrelevant. I think of Robert Bly’s translation of Kabir: "this is what love is like: suppose you had to cut your head off/ and give it to someone else,/ what difference would that make?"

      Most people don’t believe such a thing could happen to them. They think they’d have to do a St. Paul to learn a poem by heart after one hearing. But it’s not a conversion experience. In bars and classrooms I’ve shown drunks and third graders how to do it. The poem I use most often to give people the experience of learning a poem in one hearing is a well-worn renaissance piece, so finely tuned that it’s anonymous. It’s called "The Man of Double-Deed" and if you’d like to try your heart at learning, give this book to someone right now and have them read the poem aloud, once.

     There was a man of double deed,
     who sowed his garden full of seed.
     When the seed began to grow,
     twas like a garden full of snow.
     When the snow began to fall,
     like birds it was upon the wall.
     When the birds began to fly,
     twas like a shipwreck in the sky.
     When the sky began to crack,
     twas like a stick upon my back.
     When my back began to smart,
     twas like a penknife in my heart.
     And when my heart began to bleed,
     then I was dead and dead indeed.


      Sometimes a poem doesn’t take your breath away on a first hearing, or you never hear the poem in the first place. Instead, you find it on the page. There’s another kind of pleasure, akin to mature love, in learning by heart a poem you’ve never heard spoken. You can create the music of the poem as if for the first time in your own voice. Even if you don’t have the excitement of a first hearing to encourage you, you begin to feel after a while which poems need to be heard and remembered. Whitman still soars, as does Williams and a surprising amount of Pound. Eliot, poor soul, can’t flutter. But this is all bard room quarreling. Even on the page, you’ll recognize the poems your memory yearns for.

      Lift the poem off the page carefully, and don’t strain to hold it aloft too long. I once visited the workroom of a bard in Wales; I won’t betray his name but his initials are Dylan Thomas. (Can’t shield a bard that big). Tourists filed past the small shack on the banks of the Larne where Thomas worked, preserved just as it was before the White Horse. On the table was a tablet of handwritten poems–not his own, but Yeats, Herrick, Pope. I didn’t have to be be told what he was up to. He was lifting the poems off the pages of books and placing them down again, in his own hand, and in the process, leaving a diaphanous imprint on memory. Do it a few times, till your thumb aches. Then you’re ready for the next stage, which is to take the poem walking.

      While learning a poem after one hearing feels like inspiration, learning a poem line by line while walking in its rhythms is as close as a bard gets to the miracle reserved for the Fili, the miracle of composition. Words–whole lines–tease, vanish, then reappear from nowhere. Paroled from the page, a poem might even reveal its source, out in the open air on a long walk. It’s a strange experience. For one thing, if you’re used to reading, your head’s tilted differently. It takes some getting used to–seeing the sky, the trees, fields–the very fabric of the poem–while immersed in a word-hoard. Don’t trip.

      Something happens when a line is being learned, being lifted for the last time from the sheet in your hand to its new and ancient home in memory. Repeated over and over, you feel the rhythm linking synapses that haven’t before touched, redrawing memory’s map, changing you as it becomes yours. Afterwards, a tinge of that first walking might linger with the poem; years later you might glimpse a maple tree or a cloud sheering sunlight or a ’69 Impala and you’ll be set off, "Vowels plowed into other, open ground." or "I cannot think of anything today that I would rather do," or "Two evils, absent, either one apart." No earthly reason at all.

      When you have a sheaf of poems by heart, that’s it. You’re a bard. There’s no degree, no laurels. If there were a school for bards, though, I’d offer this curriculum. Courses can be repeated over and over and over.

      Curriculum for a Bardic School
  • Learn by heart at least five poems for any important occasion.
  • Learn by heart poems for all occasions, including eating oysters, walking in the autumn leaves, dancing naked in the house; but more importantly, have the grace to know when reciting will augment these occasions. Know when to keep silent.
  • Sing with passion and without guile.
  • Learn by heart poems too long or strange to tell others: poems you recite to yourself going to sleep, or on long car and plane trips.
  • Never say you know a poem till you know it by heart.
  • Learn a poem by each of your friends, even the friends who spoke theirs by accident.
  • Learn poems by people you don’t like, as a reminder the muse is no priest.
  • Partake in the flow and river of language, taking almost as much pleasure from finding a poem as making one.
  • Never borrow or lend books of poetry; always buy and give them away. To buy is to commit to learn by heart. To give away is to affirm you have.
  • Spend more money on books than any other commodity without a motor or roof.
  • Spend more time learning poems than reading them.
  • Find one book which you treat the way the ancients treated the Bible, the Uphanishads, the Tain Bo Cualnge, the Nibelungenlied, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Koran. Read it as if it were the only book you’ll ever read.
  • Never finish a book of poems without committing to learn a poem by heart. If the book doesn’t have a poem to learn, don’t finish it.
  • Beware applause. Ask yourself, Who are they clapping for, ace? If they’re clapping for you, they’ve missed the poem. If they’re clapping for the poet– that’s a bit like clapping in a movie theatre, or when your plane lands without crashing.
  • Beware microphones. Spoken poetry must be felt by the bard as well as by his listeners, and each listener uses up some part of the necessary feeling. Don’t read to audiences bigger than fifty. Why fifty? Because Yeats says fifty.
  • Don’t use poems as parlor tricks.
  • Never let someone else choose the poems you learn by heart. Accept no penance.

      As much as I might like to christen a bardic school with all the trappings, it needs to be said too that memory should never be held like a bludgeon over the page-bound. The oral tradition has its limits and its tyrannies. For one thing, consciously or subconsciously, it’s hard not to choose to learn by heart poems which have a dramatic quality, poems which seem to have been written with an audience in mind. The heart yearns for completion, and naturally chooses poems which are complete and have an air of satisfaction and wholeness that can be felt in the air as they are spoken. Poems of fragments, of doubt, of many states of mind–these are less memorable, but equally valuable. It is important not to rely completely on the dramatic poems, those which affirm our identity as they reveal an echo of some other.

      It is important to remember that poetry is not only, as somebody (I forget who) said, "memorable speech;" it is also the most forgettable speech. Unmoored by plot or character, its lack of reference can make for difficult remembering indeed. This is especially true in this century when the mnemonic devices have become passé. Some poetry seems to be written expressly to prevent remembering. I defy his own mother to recite a hundred lines of Zukovsky, for instance, though A remains unparalleled, if unread. Sometimes I can open a book I’ve read and not remember a single poem, though it may be a fine book indeed.

      The play of the mind, the yearning toward what can’t be said, these extend beyond what even the bardic memory can hold. They were always the Fili’s gifts and they still are. Perhaps being a bard is no longer a healthy full-time occupation. Perhaps, in this post-modern world, we need to forget as well as remember. So it can be useful, if you’re thinking of becoming a bard, to try your heart in another, deeper way: see if perhaps you’re not a Fili as well as a bard. Experience failing at something grand is never wasted. Who knows? You might find your words sung by some great bard, some Homer. Now there was a bard. Pity they put a name on him.