Island Twenty-Five: Isle of Bardic Chairs and Beards of Grass

(Extract from: Muse of the Long Haul Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination)
Copyright, Dr Ian Irvine, 2013 all rights reserved. All short extracts from the texts discussed are acknowledged and used under fair usage related to ‘review’ and theoretical ‘critique’ contained in international copyright law.

Cover image: ‘Two Druids’, a 19th century drawing of a 1713 engraving by Bernard de Montfaucon (1655–1741) . This image is in the public domain internationally.

Publisher: Mercurius Press, Australia, 2013. NB: This piece is published at Scribd as part of a series drawn from the soon to be print published non-fiction book on experiential poetics entitled: Muse of the Long Haul: Thirty-One Isles of the Creative Imagination.

Island Twenty-Five – Isle of Bardic Chairs and Beards of Grass
Ferchertne [Ollave of all Ireland] Who is this poet, wrapped in a splendid robe Who shows himself before he has chanted poetry? According to what I see he is only a pupil, His beard but an arrangement of grasses. Who is this contentious poet? I have never heard any wisdom from Adne’s son! I never heard him ready with knowledge! A mistake it is, his sitting on this seat.1 ‘I dreamed that a stranger came to me, a man with a cold, harsh face that seemed to give back light from a hidden source. To me he said: “The Chair of Prydein stands empty, will you not take your place within it?’ At that I knew both great fear and great excitement, for this was a great thing indeed for anyone who served the spirit of the Wood. … The Chair was a chair both in name and in fact, but so deeply hidden within the Land that none might find it unless they were bidden there.’ 2

The ‘Colloquy of the Two Sages’ (originally known as the ‘Immacallam in da Thuarad’) is found in a 9th century Irish text known as Cormac’s Glossary (Sanas Cormaic). The text describes a remarkable exchange between two poet/druids: one, Ferchertne, a wise old man and the rightful Ollave of Ireland at the time, the other, Nede, a young upstart poet (otherwise known as an anruth, or junior poet) who has been tricked into assuming the role for a short period by Bricriu—a trickster figure not unlike Loki in the Norse tradition or Sir Kay, seneschal of King Arthur, in the Arthurian tales. Nede, who has been away in Scotland learning wisdom under Eochu Horsemouth, returns to Ireland after a dream concerning his father’s death and the anointment of Ferchertne as the new Ollave of Ireland. It is as Nede and his three brothers approach Emain Macha that Bricriu the trickster asks them to serve him. He also tells the group that Ferchertne is dead. In exchange for service he offers Nede a ‘purple tunic adorned with gold and silver’, representing the ollaveship. He also fakes a beard for young Nede by magically sticking grass to the boy’s chin. Ferchertne is not dead, however, merely temporarily absent from Emain Macha on teaching duties. Bricriu, ever the troublemaker, travels to Ferchertne saying casually ‘A young and honorable man has taken your place in Emain Macha.’ The scene is set for a dramatic exchange upon Ferchertne’s return to Emain Macha. In some sources King Conchobar mac Nessa is present at the meeting and is somewhat disturbed at the abstruseness of what follows. With Nede, complete with grass beard, seated ridiculously in the Ollave’s chair Ferchertne attempts to expose the young man’s lack of knowledge and wisdom. The exchange reveals many of the moral, psychospiritual and technical skills required of a Pre-Christian Irish ollave. What strikes the modern reader is the sense of responsibility—to self, other poets and story-tellers and to the community—that Ferchertne and Nede assume is fundamental to being an ollave. We are a very long way from modern conceptions of the poet/artist as a marginalised ‘individual’ of heightened internal sensibilities who produces an
1 2

John Matthews, Trans. ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ in The Encylopaedia of Celtic Wisdom, p.205. John Matthews, ‘In Defence of the Chair’ from The Song of Taliesin, p. 148-149. The Aquarian Press, 1991.

entertaining product for the mass market in literature. At one point Nede asks the older man: ‘O sage, what are your tasks?’ Ferchertne answers To go into the mountain of rank, The communion of sciences, The lands of knowledgeable men, Into the breast of poetic vision, The estuary of bountiful wisdom, To the fair of the Great Boar, To find respect among men. To go into death’s hill Where I may find great honour. 3 The social and transpersonal dimensions are marked—who today would accept that a visit to ‘death’s hill’ is a mandatory part of being a poet/writer? This is not an isolated passage, elsewhere in responding to Nede’s question ‘O sage, What art do you practice?’ Ferchertne includes ‘hunting for the treasure of knowledge’, ‘establishing peace’, ‘celebrating Art’, knowledge of ‘structure of mind’, ‘giving strength to science through the poetic art’ amongst more familiar modern perceptions of poetic practice such as ‘arranging words in ranks,’ ‘clear arrangement of words’, being able to conjure ‘fury of inspiration’, knowledge of the ‘art of small poems’ etc. Though supposedly only an anthrun Nede never-the-less understands the responsibility and multidimensionality of the poet’s role. When asked, ‘O knowledgeable lad, whose son are you?’ he replies that he is the ‘Son of poetry’ and that poetry is son of scrutiny, and scrutiny is son of meditation, and meditation is son of Lore. The faculties of ‘inquiry’ and ‘investigation’, ‘great knowledge’, ‘great sense’, ‘understanding’ and ‘wisdom’ are mentioned, each interacting with the others as forms of inter-relational knowledge (also, faculties of the soul). Nede ends this remarkable passage by declaring ‘Wisdom’ to be ‘son of the triple gods of poetry.’ The entire text relates a young man’s initiation into the arts as understood by the ancient Irish. More specifically we are shown what might unfold during a kind of oral exam for the position of master poet or ‘ollave’. The young man actually comes off rather well—especially after he acknowledges Ferchertne’s authority by giving back the poet’s robe. Ferchertne is so impressed that he says in exchange: ‘Stay, great poet, wise youth, son of Adne! … May you be a casket of poetry …’ etc. What has impressed Ferchertne is not so much Nede’s talent, great knowledge and poetic technique—the kind of qualities we moderns are most comfortable with measuring in our poets—as the young man’s interweaving of such qualities with transpersonal/otherworldly knowledge (which in those days probably involved controlled access to altered states of consciousness/ other-worlds of the imagination, etc.) and a moral/ethical attitude that would not bring ruin upon art and literature, tribe and civilisation—poet as arranger of harmonies of the living and the dead. Poet as transpersonal community psychologist! When the novelist, children’s writer and short story writer Justin D’Ath resigned as coordinator of the writing program at BRIT around 2002 to pursue his writing career, I applied for and

John Matthews, Trans. ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ in The Encylopaedia of Celtic Wisdom, p.208.

attained the position of coordinator. I was in my late 30s when I took over and the position represented a much more public role for me in the Central Victorian writing community, since it entailed not only teaching writing subjects but also coordinating the entire program. My previous goal (post-PhD) to become a university academic had taken a serious detour. I wasn’t at a university teaching literature or history, for example, but rather at a TAFE coordinating and teaching in a writing program. Admittedly, I had years of teaching behind me, and a few years coordinating courses. I also possessed a PhD, had studied literature for many years and was coediting an international literary ezine. I nevertheless felt completely out of my depth to begin with—not unlike poor Nede tricked into a role he didn’t really feel capable of handling. I was afraid, if you like, that everyone could see that I had a ‘beard of grass’! However, many aspects of the role, e.g. teaching, course management, pastoral care and community building, came easy to me, due to my earlier coordination experiences at La Trobe and in the Koori Unit. Justin had also passed on a well-run, highly successful program (with assistance, of course, from some great teachers) so I did not begin my coordination stint facing any serious issues, rather I felt thoroughly supported by many excellent teachers (who were also established professional writers).4 As a consequence I experienced a relatively smooth transition. The only immediate area of concern for me was that I didn’t initially feel I had a high enough standing in the Poetry and Novel Writing worlds to be able to teach those units effectively. Probably no better challenge could have been set me since this gap meant that I had to leave behind the ivory tower of literary theory. Instead I had to find time and energy (and there was very little of either available at the time given Sue and I had very young children) to research and teach the subjects I loved whilst seeking publication of my own work. Unlike University positions analysing literature and culture (something I felt confident doing) the TAFE set-up demanded that I actually be practising the disciplines I was teaching, i.e. I had to be a writer or poet out in the real world. Returning to the Irish story that opened this chapter, Ferchertne was no specific person to me in the early 2000s, but rather the entire weight of community and student expectations (and judgements). In 2003 I felt I had to decide once and for all what kind of writer I was. My ‘grass beard’ needed to become a real one, and fast! In mid-2003 after a year and a half coordinating the writing program at BRIT I agreed to give a presentation about my own journey as a writer/artist to students enrolled in the ‘Writing Industry Overview’ unit. In that unit writers from various genres and disciplines address the students for two or so hours concerning their own journeys as writers, editors, publishers, etc. It proved to be a stressful, nerve-racking gig for me since I had to think more deeply about both what I’d achieved as a creative person and what writing represented to me (i.e. it forced me to think about my own ‘poetic’). I began the countdown to the class mumbling the word ‘epiphany’ over and over in my head whilst soothing my young son Caleb and watching European soccer matches at 5am in the morning. I also thought about the talk whilst kicking a football around at indoor soccer or whilst trying to prepare ‘Myths and Symbols’ classes at 2am in the morning before a 9am start … Over and over again I mumbled: Epiphany, epiphany … what has been my major creative epiphany? I’d noticed that many of the writers that had trooped through our ‘Industry Overview’ class over the years had experienced major career epiphanies (or turning points) that had assisted them to

The following teachers were associated with BRIT’s writ ing program around the time I became coordinator: Di Dempsey, Marg Flynn, Pam Harvey, John Holton, Val Lovejoy, Carol Meredith and Geoff Russell.

become professional writers. Some of the lucky buggers had experienced such epiphanies early on in their lives. We’d had journalists, poets, historians, children’s writers, short story writers, genre novelists, literary novelists and so on present, and what they all had in common was a realization, early on, that they wanted to be particular types of writers. Once the epiphany regarding the type of writer they were struck most seemed inspired to plug away for decades at their particular writing specialization/s. They became a historian or a Romance writer or a reviewer or a young adult novelist or a performance poet, or whatever. The stubborn certainty of these paragon writers frankly terrified me for a week or two before my presentation since I sensed I needed to review my entire life in order to uncover my particular creative epiphany. I began planning only days before the talk and realized instantly (and with not a little despair) that my own creative development had been, well ‘complicated’. I needed to acknowledge plural epiphanies and thus my mumble-chant changed to… Complicated epiphanies, complicated epiphanies … what have been my complicated creative epiphanies? More worryingly the class grew longer and more autobiographical. I realized I needed to summarise my journey somehow. As I watched the European Champions League final, with its penalty shoot out between Milan and Juventus, early one morning in late May 2003—Caleb gurgling away contentedly on my shoulder—I was still asking myself: What kind of writer am I? I fronted a group of writing students on a cold Thursday evening in June. The class was in the aptly named ‘Theatrette’ in P-Building—a large but intimate room that makes teachers feel as though they are at the centre of a Greek tragedy (though in my case I anticipated a role in an absurdist comedy!). I felt exposed, vulnerable and emotional. I also felt worthless—all my achievements in the writing world seemed negligible, whereas my limitations seemed massive, crippling and terminal. Given my youngest child, Caleb, loved very early mornings I was chronically sleep deprived. One morning that year I remember feeling as though I was putting my hand through the whiteboard as I tried to write something up for the students. During that entire period I would have exchanged a fifty thousand dollar book advance for two extra hours of sleep a night! I’d also been unable to attend local literary events for some time—making me feel that I wasn’t contributing to the local writing community. Worst of all, my teaching job had, by that stage, become almost all-consuming (in order to pay the bills). I had little free time to write anything new. As the class started I almost hallucinated a stern dignified High Court judge sitting in the front row of the audience. I imagined him standing up just before my presentation started—he wore black and red robes and an immaculate legal wig. After pausing regally he asked in a deep resonant voice: “What are you doing coordinating a writing program when your own writing career is clearly stalled and your celebrity status is … if I could be factual for a moment … min-i-mal? What do you have to say for yourself?’ I imagined all the students going suddenly quiet, all ears tuned to my nervous, halting response … As I began my presentation (defense?) I imagined my grass beard peeling away from my chin. I ended up talking about my ‘six creative selves’—all the time hoping I didn’t sound too weird. I told the students that from my late teens on I’d been aware of six different selves taking turns to ‘run proceedings’ on the creative front for periods of time. I told them I have a ‘Singer/ Songwriter’ self who enjoys writing and performing alternative rock songs. Emotional and somewhat populist he would probably live a fairly Dionysian life if he had his way. He is the self that helped found Goya’s Child and also wrote many of the band’s lyrics. I then told the students that I have an avant garde ‘Poet’ self who would like to live on the Italian Riverina among Oulipean writers and poets whilst teaching literature somewhere close. He enjoys sunshine, fine

cheeses, wine and experimental poetry. He’s written, performed and published many poems and has been published in some major anthologies. I told them I also have a ‘Novelist’ self who has existentialist and Western Marxist sensibilities. He wrote Dream-Dust Parasites and enjoys the complexities and endurance required of writers of longer narratives. He is also somewhat Bohemian but relatively egoless—preferring to live quietly in the country. I then told the students that I have a ‘Non-Fiction Writer-come-Teacher’ self interested in teaching and writing in areas like Transpersonal Psychology, Sociology, Mythology and History. He possesses a PhD after researching and writing The Angel of Luxury and Sadness (my book on ennui in Western literature) and is writing Hermes (Unheralded) God of the Postmodern Transition. He has also taught for 20 years. I also talked about two other selves, one of which is creative—i.e. my ‘Editor/Publisher self’ that co-edited The Animist and enjoys polishing the work of others—and one that doesn’t give a damn about literature, the Humanities, etc. This sixth self is a father and perhaps a sportsman. He’s a ‘bit of a lad’ (probably he’s a Yorkshire farmhand). He’s very uncool (‘subaltern’ is the academic term) from the perspective of the cultural intelligentsia but fun to be around due to his possessing a good sense of humor. I also told the students that there were careers in the writing world that held no interest to me whatsoever and also that I felt I existed as a writer somewhere between academia and the world of contemporary literature—a fragile, in-between place (a zone or interstitium) that permits me to be both a ‘creative artist’ free from the constraints of hyper-capitalism and a ‘creative thinker’ free from the excessive theorising associated with academia. Indeed for a time the term ‘creative thinker’ became my self-defining catch-word. I have no idea what the students made of the presentation (nor my imaginary judge!). However, most of the questions at the end seemed to be about my career in the early 1980s as a cricketer: ‘So … did you, like … play against Steve Waugh?’ Regardless, I felt I’d crossed some sort of threshold. I felt I could continue coordinating and teaching since I finally knew more about the multiple ‘creative selves’ swarming inside of me! As a result of the presentation I also came to understand more thoroughly the need of creative people to actively give of themselves to an arts community. Delivering the talk also permitted me to consciously see my role as different to that of the dominant modern role given writers and poets i.e. as an extremely talented (NeoDarwinian) individual who ‘receives’ things from others (fame, money, immortality, awards, etc.) due to his or her genius, celebrity standing, personal sacrifices or misanthropic adventures. Having identified all my ‘creative selves’ the task became to honor each of them and in some sense to integrate them more fully.
Author Bio (as at June 2013) Dr. Ian Irvine (Hobson) is an Australian-based poet/lyricist, writer and non-fiction writer. His work has featured in publications as diverse as Humanitas (USA), The Antigonish Review (Canada), Tears in the Fence (UK), Linq (Australia) and Takahe (NZ), as well as in a number of Australian national poetry anthologies: Best Australian Poems 2005 (Black Ink Books) and Agenda: ‘Australian Edition’, 2005. He is the author of three books and co-editor of three journals and currently teaches in the Professional Writing and Editing program at BRIT (Bendigo, Australia) as well as the same program at Victoria University, St. Albans, Melbourne. He has also taught history and social theory at La Trobe University (Bendigo, Australia) and holds a PhD for his work on creative, normative and dysfunctional forms of alienation and morbid ennui.

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