As the Gallipoli centenary commemorations get under way today (24 April) it is a poignant time to remember the passing of English poet, Rupert Brooke, who died on the way to the conflict aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Aegean on 23rd April, 1915. He contracted septicaemia during a stopover in Egypt. Weakened by this, a mosquito tipped the balance and he died aboard, aged only 27. Unusually he was buried on the southern island of Skyros in an olive grave, where later a memorial was erected by his mother and friends. Brooke, born in Tahiti, educated at Rugby and Cambridge, moved in the elite literary circle of the Bloomsbury Set, but also was one of the Dymock Poets (a coterie of poetic friends who ensconced themselves in a village in rural Gloucestershire: they comprised Lascelles Abercrombie, Wilfrid Gibson, John Drinkwater, Edward Thomas, and Robert Frost. Together they went on long walks, drank cider, wrote poetry, reviews, and criticism, and produced New Numbers, which although it only ran to 4 issues published the iconic poem of Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ for the first time).
However tragic Brooke’s death – and of course he was only one of many who lost their lives in the Great War, the timing of his passing could not be more iconic. April 23rd, St George’s day (patron Saint of England, curiously enough born in Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey), plus Shakespeare’s birth and death-day. This all fed into the legend. His death attained an almost mythic quality – the death of ‘the most handsomest man in England’, with the looks of an Adonis, on a Greek isle, on the way to fight for his country, as though he was some kind of James Frazer-ish solar hero who must perish for the vitality of the land (The Golden Bough and all that). In a similar way to Saint George, martyred in the Middle East, who was adopted by the Crusaders as a Christian icon, and later promoted to patron saint of England in 1222, Brooke’s Mediterranean demise was taken up as a symbol of patriotic sacrifice for King and Country, a PR boost to a dubious war – as the gungho Bosch-bashing of the early days gave way to the grim realities and heavy toll of industrialised warfare.
Brooke’s funeral was almost a state occasion – buried in St Paul’s with an eulogy by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many of the great and the good in attendance, his passing was marked by a letter to The Times (April 26, 1915) by Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, sounded a note that was to swell over the months and years that followed:
The thoughts to which he gave expression in the very few incomparable war sonnets which he has left behind will be shared by many thousands of young men moving resolutely and blithely forward into this, the hardest, cruellest, and the least-rewarded of all the wars that men have fought. They are a whole history and revelation of Rupert Brooke himself. Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.
His dashing photographic portraits helped to secure his place in the heart of the nation – the bloom of England cruelly cut down. Published by friend Edward Marsh (who wrote a memoir of the poet’s life in the months following his death), his Selected Poems sold in the thousands, and Brooke became the ‘poetry idol’ of his day. ‘The Soldier’ was co-opted as a patriotic cri-de-coeur, used in countless funerals ever since. Brooke was a mercurial, almost quixotic figure – as many of his earlier poems attest (eg ‘Heaven’) — a young brilliant mind who had ambivalent feelings about the War. Flippant remarks such as ‘Come and die, it’ll be great fun’, need to be read with awareness of the whimsical irony with which he laced much of his writing. Typical of a young mind, he played with ideas, with voices, with ‘attitudes’ – never to mature into a consistent authentic voice. What he would have made of his post-humous recruitment as the War Office’s poster-boy, we can only imagine. And yet, his death bequeathed him a kind of Valhalla-like status, and his legend lives on to this day.
Robin Williamson at Poetry on the Border
The Drill Hall, Chepstow, Saturday 18 April
Robin Williamson, legendary multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, former member of The Incredible String Band, and honorary Bard of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, has been a major inspiration to me on my bardic path. He’s been performing longer than I’ve been alive – appearing with his band at Woodstock in ’69; when they split in the early 70s he formed his own Merrie Band; then turned towards Celtic myths and legends and the harp. He honed his skills as a storyteller and a poet (see The Craneskin Bag; Selected Writings), and developed a truly bardic style over the years – blending consummate instrumentalism (harp; guitar; whistle; and many others), song, hilarious storytelling, exquisite poetry, and a way of working the crowd which has everyone singing along or repeating his lines of tale, following his actions and making fools of themselves while having a good craic. I first saw him perform at the Sunnyside Inn, in Northampton, back in the early 90s and was blown away. It was that performance that inspired me to become a bard – something that I never realised still existed in modern day Britain until I saw Robin in action, the awen flowing from him like waves of light. And last night, seeing him perform to a packed Drill Hall, I felt that magic again – and magic is hard to come by in this threadbare age. At one point Robin said, apologising for his flights of fancy, that he ‘took the main route through the Sixties’, being part of the Counter Culture with the String Band, who exuded a Tolkienesque aesthetic, a fellowship of musical hobbits and elves spinning their skeins of enchantment at venues like Gandalf’s Garden. He also reflected poignantly that he knew more people dead than alive – as many of his friends and contemporaries had passed on (most recently John Renbourn whom he made a Grammy-nominated album with, Wheels of Fortune – the title track of which he performed with feeling). A invocation to bring good luck, it seems to be a personal cri-de-coeur. At times, it must feel for Robin – an outlier of the Sixties, and of other centuries and worlds – as though he is Oisin himself, returned from Tir nan Og to find all that he has known and loved turned to dust 300 years past, a lonely traveller in a prosaic age. And yet he managed to summon the magic tonight in an enthralling set which had me rivetted from beginning to end. After being introduced by William Ayot, director of the Centre for the Oral Tradition, who host spoken word events ‘on the borders’ in Chepstow, Robin began with some exquisite harp and one of his masterful poems, ‘Northern Shores’ about the mythscape of his Glaswegian childhood. Then he skilfully segued into one of his classic, ever poignant songs, ‘Political Lies’ – even more resonant now than when he wrote it in the 80s. Then he left the Ordinary World behind, having propitiated it, taking us into the chancy world of Celtic wonder tales, with ‘Blind Rafferty the Poet and the Jealous Hero’ – a hilarious multi-layered story. He ended his first set with the title track of his new album, ‘Trusting in the Rising Light’, which wove mature reflections with bardic utterances. After the break we were treated to his version of Tristan and Isolde, based upon an early Welsh variant. He followed this with a masterful telling of ‘The Bonny Green Bird’ – an epic Scottish wonder tale. Then he ended with, unusually, a Jerry Lee Lewis song, ‘I’ve tried everything except you’, which left us with a spiritual message. Yet Robin is no proselytizer, despite his Christian beliefs – he seeks to entertain, and he really pulled out the stops tonight. I’ve seen him perform many times, but never see him get up and tell stories in such animated fashion, using his whole body. He can be hysterically funny at times, using anachronisms creatively, such as comparing the ‘tune-twig’ in the Bonny Green Bird to an mp3 player and so forth. He manages to straddle the worlds – the mundane and the magical – in this way. He left me brimming with awen, my cauldron refilled. Once again, he has reminded me what a Bard is all about. Once again, he has inspired me to continue on my path.
Robin Williamson site:
Poetry on the Border:
What is a Bard?
Bard, n 1. A poet, traditionally one reciting epics; 2. the winner of a prize for Welsh verse at an Eisteddfod. (O.E.D.)
The classic image of the Bard based upon Thomas Gray’s poem, by John Martin, 1817
The above definition, however limited and unsatisfactory, at least suggests two things about a Bard relevant to our present purposes, a. A Bard was skilled in poetic language; b. A Bard won prizes with her skill, through a public ceremony or competition. Both of these notions are ancient but hold true. For the Twenty First Century I think we need to both look back and forward for a suitable definition. In the Celtic Tradition, the Bard was recognised as a combination of the following:
*Remembrancer (chronicler of their community/lorekeeper, e.g. genealogies)
*Voice of the tribe/the people/the land/the ancestors
I think all of these are applicable to the present, yet some imaginative interpretation may be required, indeed essential. A Bard has no need to be archaic in his methods or material. We are not trying to recreate an idealised notion of the past here, but expressing what always needs to be expressed: the eternal truth, the voice of the land, the wisdom of our ancestors, and the soul of the people. The Bard’s existence should be justified by their relevance to their community. A Bard should never rest on his or her laurels.
In the modern era, what should a Bard be able to do? The following suggestions are by no means intended to be prescriptive or exhaustive. Each Bard interprets their role in accordance with their awen:
Remember and recite.
Tell stories of old and create new ones.
Compose and perform poems.
Research and disseminate Bardic lore.
Use an instrument of some kind &/or their voice as an instrument (in song).
Use the magic of words for healing & inspiring, in a responsible way.
Teach, either directly (through workshops) or indirectly (through performance).
Raise the Awen.
Have a working understanding of the Ogham, Runes or other magical lexicons.
Be able to speak one of the Celtic languages/the endangered tongue of their culture. If not, at least have a fascination with the mysteries of language, word origins, etc.
Have ‘mythic literacy’ – be steeped in myths, legends, folk tales, fairy stories; recognise the different characters, common motifs and so on.
Explain Bardic Chairs. Enter and judge Eisteddfodau when asked.
Promote peace, reconciliation, understanding and healing.
Such a list is asking to be challenged and subverted – and I would not expect anything less from a modern Bard worth their salt – but you have to start somewhere. Being a twenty first century Bard is to be in a role constantly redefining itself to the needs of the present, and to the idiosyncracies of the individual.
Extract from the forthcoming ‘The Bardic Chair: inspiration, invention, innovation’ published by Skylight Press early 2016
Check out this awesome apocalyptic video-poem from my friend Helen Moore, Frome-based eco-poet whose new collection, Eco-zoic, has just been published.
‘Kali Exorcism’ is a collaboration between poet Helen Moore and film-maker Howard Vause.
Inspired by the tradition of exorcism in Beat poetry, this video-poem deploys text, sound and imagery to invoke the purgative energies of Kali so as to cleanse the world of the military-industrial complex and the state of perpetual warfare that the system requires.
The poem ‘Kali Exorcism’ features in a new collection, ECOZOA, by Helen Moore published by Permanent Publications (2015). This book offers intimations of a possible future ‘Ecozoic Era’, where we live in harmony “with the Earth as our community”, in stark contrast to the current period of planetary ecosystems ravaged by industrial civilization and war.
Poem: Helen Moore
AV production and animation: Howard Vause
Poem performed by Helen Moore and Howard Vause
Music: Howard Vause feat. PJ Leonard, Emma Harris, Patricia Fewer
Hand dance performed by Karine Butchart
The culmination of a significant multi-media project (Affective Digital Histories: exploring de-industrialised landscapes from the 1970s to the present), Tuesday, 31 March saw the launch of an anthology of the commissioned pieces, Hidden Stories, at the fabulous Phoenix arts centre, in Leicester’s Cultural Quarter – the focus of much of the new writing. I visited it about a year ago to begin my research – and now I was returning as one as the published writers. I felt honoured to have been included in such an excellent collection (which first manifested as the very cool App), to be rubbing shoulders with eight distinctive and accomplished writers. Gathering at the Phoenix on the final day of the project was Divya Ghelani, Carol Leeming, David Devanny, myself, Pete Kalu and Fereshteh Mozaffari, and Mark Goodwin and it was in that order that we performed to a full auditorium of over a 100 people. The evening was introduced by Dr Corinne Fowler, who has led this project alongside Dr Ming Lim – both from the University of Leicester. It has been a team effort from beginning to end, and many talented people have been involved – from my supervisor, Harry Whitehead (who suggested the commissions should be in different forms), special collections librarian Simon Dixon, designers Gino and Matteus, who between them crafted the app and the anthology, Sarah Vallance at the Phoenix, who co-ordinated the launch, and of course all the writers. To hear extracts of six of the commissions reinforced their diversity and excellence. These are really high quality pieces – each flourishing within its own format, whether its flash fiction (Divya’s glittering ‘An Imperial Typewriter’), choreopoem (Carol Leeming’s compassionate soul-song for St George’s (‘Love the Life you Live, Live the Life you Love’), play (Pete Kalu and Fereshteh Mozaffari’s ‘5 Glossop Cats’), or poetry (David Devanny’s ‘Crow Steps in the Quarter’; and Mark Goodwin’s ‘Mist’s Rave’) – the latter crafting it into an immersive soundscape and impressive short film which ended the performances in spectacular fashion. Afterwards there was a chance to schmooze, chat to Radio Leicester, pose for photos, slap backs, sign books, but most of all to celebrate our collective achievement. In a quote for the Leicester Mercury I summed up my feelings: ‘I feel delighted to have been part of such a fantastic project – it has been a real cross-fertilization of art forms and disciplines, with talent from near and far. Such a polyphonic expression of voices sends out a strong message of creative excellence through diversity – more important than ever in these troubled times! Thank you to Corinne, Ming, the staff of the Phoenix, and all involved.’
It is healthful for a community to hear its stories being told, being celebrated. The narratives of the Cultural Quarter and Glossop show the fascinating, life-affirming weaving of multi-cultural and transparadigmic threads which offers a strong message in these challenging times. Britain is what it is because of its rich rainbow heritage, a blending of many voices, many cultures, many colours, faiths and traditions. Our project, offers in its modestly localized (but non-provincial) way, a microcosm of how bold vision, decent funding, inspiration, ingenuity and skill, can create fruitful collaboration. Bravo!
Now Available from http://www.phoenix.org.uk/hidden-stories-book/