|By Heart: Curriculum for a Bardic School
I am a bard.
There, Ive said it. Embarrassing, like wearing a sign saying
"HUMBLE," or announcing youre 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 Ive lived most of my
life here, when I toss my head back and take flight, Im 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." theyd 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. Theres no counseling, no pie charts. The profession
is badly marketed, completely misunderstood. Shakespeare did a terrible
disservice, or more likely it wasnt Shakespeare himself but
the bardsreal oneswho came after. Shakespeare was no bard.
He broke the cardinal rule: he became famous.
Im not a bard like that with
a capital letter and a prophets beard and a college named after.
Im from a school created before dogma or whisky. Were
mid-level poets, beneath the high Fili, who created the riddling Rosc
poetrymore obscure than Pound. The Fili were ex-druids who loved
sex too much to become monks, I think. Though word is the monks didnt
The reason Ive decided to
come forward now is that Im tired of all the whining. Everyones
complaining about the state of the art. Theres no money in it.
No one reads poetry. Universities have cloistered the great voices.
Grim-faced essays take the patients temperature, and theres
even a book, Can Poetry Matter? which has pronounced the situation
So I thought now might be the time
to write down a few things Ive heard, because when you know
about bards, when youve heard them and recognize their place,
youll know that the fellow stuttered when he framed his question.
Its not Can, Mr. Gioia; its 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
theyre 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 wont betray told
us. "Ive 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. Theres 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 poems
world. The heart doesnt enter in. Theyre 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 didnt
know it. Hearing James Wright recite Thomas MacDonoughs translation
of Cathal Buidhe MacGilla Gunnas 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 its not the same. I havent the heart
for it on the page.
You might ask why I drop Wrights
name when I shielded the other and chided Shakespeare. Thats
part of the tradition: when identities mingle, as Wrights and
MacDonoughs and Cathal Buis 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 Blys 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 dont believe such
a thing could happen to them. They think theyd have to do a
St. Paul to learn a poem by heart after one hearing. But its
not a conversion experience. In bars and classrooms Ive 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 its anonymous.
Its called "The Man of Double-Deed" and if youd
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 doesnt 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. Theres another
kind of pleasure, akin to mature love, in learning by heart a poem
youve never heard spoken. You can create the music of the poem
as if for the first time in your own voice. Even if you dont
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, cant flutter. But this is all bard room quarreling.
Even on the page, youll recognize the poems your memory yearns
Lift the poem off the page carefully,
and dont strain to hold it aloft too long. I once visited the
workroom of a bard in Wales; I wont betray his name but his
initials are Dylan Thomas. (Cant 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 poemsnot his own, but Yeats, Herrick,
Pope. I didnt 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 youre 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. Wordswhole linestease,
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.
Its a strange experience. For one thing, if youre used
to reading, your heads tilted differently. It takes some getting
used toseeing the sky, the trees, fieldsthe very fabric
of the poemwhile immersed in a word-hoard. Dont 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 havent before touched,
redrawing memorys 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 youll 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, thats it. Youre a bard. Theres no degree,
no laurels. If there were a school for bards, though, Id 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
- 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
- Learn a poem by each of your friends, even
the friends who spoke theirs by accident.
- Learn poems by people you dont 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
- 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 youll ever read.
- Never finish a book of poems without committing
to learn a poem by heart. If the book doesnt have a poem
to learn, dont finish it.
- Beware applause. Ask yourself, Who are they
clapping for, ace? If theyre clapping for you, theyve
missed the poem. If theyre clapping for the poet thats
a bit like clapping in a movie theatre, or when your plane lands
- 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. Dont read to
audiences bigger than fifty. Why fifty? Because Yeats says fifty.
- Dont 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, its 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 mindthese
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 Ive read
and not remember a single poem, though it may be a fine book indeed.
The play of the mind, the yearning
toward what cant be said, these extend beyond what even the
bardic memory can hold. They were always the Filis 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 youre thinking
of becoming a bard, to try your heart in another, deeper way: see
if perhaps youre 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.