Celtic Junction Arts Review

Contemporary Irish Poetry and Its Bardic Echoes

Lynette Reini-Grandell

If I were the spreading tide sheets I would overwhelm your insteps 
I would fetch up round your ankles with the sunbleached wrath of storms
-from “Spray” by Biddie Jenkinson (pseudonym for Máire Ní Aodh)
You will be a child again, out on the strand 
at Magheraroary, your body 
abandoned altogether 
to the lift of the Atlantic. 
But before you went the whole way then away 
into nothingness, you would touch the bottom. 
And this will be what happens to you here. . .
-from “The Clay Pipes” by Cathal O Searcaigh
Biddy Jenkinson, Irish poet
Biddy Jenkinson By ga:User:Éóg1916, CC BY 3.0, Link

Jenkinson and O Searcaigh are two contemporary Irish poets whose writing is animated with an almost mythic sense of place, incantatory and infused with the Irish landscape. Both poets also write primarily in Irish, letting others translate their works into English. Through poets like Jenkinson and O Searcaigh, a sense of the bardic tradition remains in contemporary Irish poetry.

Although we often associate the concept of bard with the image of blind Homer and his cohorts singing epic poetry such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, or more recently, Shakespeare, the term is Celtic in origin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a bard is a poet-singer whose “primary function appears to have been to compose and sing (usually to the harp) verses celebrating the achievements of chiefs and warriors, who committed to verse historical and traditional facts, religious precepts, laws, genealogies, etc.” Interestingly, there seems to have been some feeling on the part of the English that bardic poetry was distinctly different than what they were doing. The OED quotes a 1596 comment by Edmund Spenser, “There is amongst the Irish a kind of people called bards, which are to them instead of poets: whose profession is to set forth the praises or dispraises of men in their poems or rhime.” It is possible that the word “instead” in this comment means that the Irish use the word “bard” instead of the word “poet,” but it is interesting that Spenser—the author of an epic poem praising Queen Elizabeth—emphasizes difference rather than congruity.

Cathal O Searcaigh, Irish Poet
Cathal O Searcaigh by Dmhball. Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

This perception of difference, founded probably more on political differences than artistic ones, no doubt leads to the OED’s definition #2: “in 16th c., a term of contempt.” One example from Sir J. Balfour’s Practicks reads, “All vagabundis, fulis, bardis, scudlaris, and siclike idill pepill, shall be brint on the cheek.” Yet more often the term has positive connotations, and the recent Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms added an additional value of responsibility to the term: a bard is “charged with the duty of celebrating the laws and heroic achievements of his people.”

How does this help construct a contemporary definition of the term “bard”? The term often describes a voice that is incantatory (poet as singer), even mesmerizing. It also suggests a type of poetry that speaks to larger issues, embracing yet moving beyond lyric poetry’s emphasis on individual experience. This is not typical of most contemporary poetry.  The bardic tradition can come across as trying too hard, claiming more than it can deliver, self-important, even bombastic. Bardic poetry often involves some level of emotional spilling over. Odysseus cries with remarkable frequency in The Odyssey.

Paula Meehan. CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The bardic elements of singing and emotional closeness seem to be recognized by other poets as a sign of their tradition. In an interview, Irish poet Paula Meehan puts it beautifully: “I think if breath is at the heart of poetry, and I believe it is, then the manipulation of breath, the changing of breath, the regularizing of breath, the disruption of regular breathing, all of these are technical impulses in poetry. The religious orders know it through chant, the shamans know it, the holotropic healers know it.” It is a shamanic chant that links the individual with something larger than him or herself, something not necessarily safe or comfortable. It could be called the numinous.

These characteristics appear in the famous “Song of Amergin,” reputed to be the first Irish poem. This excerpt is translated by Robert Graves:

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke? 

The caesuras mark the measured breaths of the poet-singer, and the imagery of animals and nature celebrates the Irish landscape. Yet there is also danger in the shamanistic immersion and giving over one’s self to this other-worldly territory.  The image of the cool head set aflame speaks to the effect and emotional involvement of inspiration—literally a breathing in of the outside elements and internalizing them.

We can see this also in two late 20th – 21st century giants of Irish poetry, John Montague and Seamas Heaney.  They exemplify two trends which could be called bardic.

John Montague
John Montague

Montague’s poetry is quite musical.  It has noticeable rhythm and echoing sounds.  His poem “Like Dolmens around My Childhood, the Old People” corresponds to the function of bard as a keeper of the community’s history, reluctant to remember the dead and acknowledge his connection to them, but recognizing the necessity of it: “For years they trespassed on my dreams, / Until once, in a standing circle of stones, / I felt their shadows pass / Into that dark permanence of ancient forms.”

Seamas Heaney’s poetry has a similar focus on the local people and the landscape, but his poetry has a very different sound than Montague’s.  It is quieter and subtler yet similarly saturated with history. In “Bogland” he writes, “We have no prairies / to slice a big sun at evening– / Everywhere the eye concedes to / Encroaching horizon, / Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye / Of a tarn. Our unfenced country / Is bog that keeps crusting / Between the sights of the sun.”

Seamus Heaney, 1996
Seamus Heaney, 1996 Image bh002449, Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archives, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The bardic tradition is an old one, and new writers have a habit of developing their own voices in contrast to the old.  Yet the old can also become new again, as seen in the example of poets who write in Irish and allow others translate their work into English.  I heard Cathal O’Searcaigh read his poems at a poetry conference in Galway in 1999.  I remember him reading a poem about how inspiring the Beat poets were to him, and he pronounced Nebraska and Iowa as “NAH-brah-SKAH” and “EE-oh-AH.”  What he found in the Beat poets was a sense of breath in the line and an embrace of something larger than themselves—a sense of America.

The bardic voice also suggests a kind of numinous immersion.  Biddy Jenkinson writes in “Spray,” “If I were the tugging backwash I would titter you and tease you / send wave of gooseflesh up your legs in squames.”  In “The Chinese Mother’s Lullaby,” a poem about the Chinese tradition of foot-binding, she begins,

Pull in your feet, little darling,   
so I can kiss your wee trotters   
while I fold under a toe   
and another one underneath.   
I bend a little piggie.   
I bend another little piggie   

But the poem is not just about Chinese foot-binding, as can be seen by the language used in the beginning of the poem and the names for the girls given in this excerpt from the end:

Poor Cliodhna has flat feet.   
Maire has huge ones.   
Peggy’s are like spades   
and Niamh’s like two rakes.   
Just hold still, my dearie,   
while I tighten your bindings.   
I’m only your mammy   
doing my very best for your sake.

In this poem, a chilling practice thought to be far away in time and geography is suddenly made disturbingly local.

The poet-singer’s function is to remind the listener or reader of the past and present, linking the individual to the larger world, to the nature of existence, which includes beauty, confusion, pain, and even death.  Its sense of oral rhythm creates a chant and through the breath and subject matter seeks to create a numinous experience in the poet and audience.  The “Song of Amergin” concludes, “I am a breaker: threatening doom, / I am a tide: that drags to death, / . . . . / I am the shield: for every head, / I am the tomb: of every hope.” This is not a comfortable ending.  Yet in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes, “Tragedy is the shattering of the forms and of our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible.” In this way, bardic poetry is transformative, breaking apart human experience, and letting us re-encounter and reconstruct who we are as humans.