Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 9
Beard Pullers by June Sheridan
Although the commonly accepted definition of the doctoral rite-of-passage, the ‘Viva Voce’, is an ‘oral examination’, the one that appeals most to me is ‘by the living voice’. As soon as I came across this I suddenly felt a quantum of reassurance – for I have made a lifetime’s study of the performance of bardic skills and development of the bardic tradition (2004; 2006; 2008; 2010; 2012; 2013; 2016; 2018). The Viva is conducted not within the oral tradition but within an extremely rigorous academic frame, of course, and it is important to understand that it is ‘a new form of high-level communication, [one for which] you need to gain some advanced rhetorical and performance skills’ (Murray, 2015: 2). Nevertheless, there are some interesting overlaps (eg variants of the ‘skills’ Murray mentions), and considering the Viva in this way, reframing it as a bardic endeavour, means I am not sticking my neck out, but drawing upon years of informed creative-practice and research.
Forms of oral examination have been around for a long time, most famously in the Socratic Method of question-and-answer. Here the questioner hopes to catch the recipient out, sometimes by performing a disingenuous ignorance: Socratic Irony. My preference is for the less hierarchical and mutually empowering colloquy one comes across in the Celtic tradition. The finest example of this is known as ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ in which the young budding bard, Nede, is challenged by a senior bard, Fercheirtne, whose chair he wishes to claim (as the descendent of the previous incumbent, his father). Through an intense series of ritualised questioning, Nede (wearing a mock beard of grass) has to defend his claim to the chair. His examiner ‘pulls his beard’, that is tests his knowledge and the authenticity of his claim. Critically, the questioner’s role here is not necessarily antagonistic. Fercheirtne is questioned in return by Nede and his answers seek to ‘outbard’ the challenger, like some Iron Age rap battle. But in the process, both ‘combatants’ display their skill and their answers encode great wisdom and poetry power for future bards to learn from and even perform (as Williamson memorably does in an epic feat of bardic skill). The outcome of this is for the young bard to become, eventually, an ollamh, a Doctor of Verse – so in it we can see a direct analogy to the Viva. A translation of it by no less than Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band; Honorary Bard of OBOD, etc) graces the end-pages of my Bardic Handbook. Here is a taster:
The Colloquy of the Two Sages (extract)
A question, o young man of learning, what art do you practise?
to which Nede replied:
not hard to answer
I bring blush to face
and spirit to flesh
I practise fear’s erasure
and tumescence of impudence
and wisdom’s wooing
I shape beauty to human mouths
Give wings to insight
I make naked the word
In small space I have foregathered
The cattle of cognizance
The stream of science
The totality of teaching
The captivation of kings
And the legacy of legends.
And you my elder, what are do you practise?
to which Fercheirtne replied:
not hard to answer
sifting of streams for gold of wisdom
lulling of hearts from the fires of anger
captaincy of words
excellency of skill
putting feathers in kings’ pillows
I have acquired a thirst that would drain the Boyne
I am a maker of shields and wounds
a slicer of pure air
an architect of thought
I can say much with few words
I can sing the long miles of great heroes’ lives
I am a jeweller of the heart.
(From Irish tradition, translation by Robin Williamson, The Bardic Handbook, 2006).
Apart from the sheer beauty of the poetry, the colloquy teaches us to hone our own powers of communication to their highest level, to love language and debate, and to (hopefully) savour the experience of discussing one’s major research project with highly-skilled and experienced academics. To have such a level of critical attention should be seen as not a painful, compulsory final hurdle but as a privilege. After all, it is what you have worked towards for so long. It is your ‘opening night’, academically. First night nerves are inevitable, but rehearsal and classic performance techniques can help mitigate those nerves.
In performance the more relaxed one becomes in front of an audience, the easier it gets – certainly, the more likely it is for the ‘awen’, (Welsh, f. noun: inspiration) to flow. Nothing can replicate ‘live experience’. In the folk world it is a truism that you need to ‘fail’ in front of a real audience with new song, then ‘fail better’ next time.
The aim is, through practice, to become habituated to the rarefied climate of high academic discourse, to a sustained critical debate:
‘Students have to understand the components of communicative strategies, customize them for their own examinations and practise them well in advance, to the point where the strategies have become part of their rhetorical repertoire.’ (Murray, 2015: 90)
And so … practise, practise, practise!
Works by Kevan Manwaring on the bardic tradition:
Fire in the Head: creative process in the Celtic diaspora, Awen 2004
The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Gothic Image, 2006
The Book of the Bardic Chair, RJ Stewart Books 2008
The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books, 2010
Oxfordshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2012
Northamptonshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2013
Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (ed.), The History Press, 2016
Silver Branch: bardic poems and letters to a young bard, Awen 2018
Other works cited
Murray, R. (2015) How to Survive a Viva: defending a thesis in an oral examination, Open University Press