Tag Archives: Poetry

Bardfest ’22 – a review

Bardfest ’22 – a spoken word benefit concert organised by Kevan Manwaring

Bardfest ’22 was as an evening of creativity in celebration of community across borders. Initially due to be held at the Bridport Arts Centre, but due to the management changing their mind at the last minute (concerns about the Bridport Carnival turned out to be ill-founded), it eventually found a home at the Women’s Institute Hall on North Street. Despite this unfortunate disruption after months of planning, the evening went ahead and flowed smoothly thanks to the good will of all involved and all who came.

After the signage, soundchecks, seating, and altar setting up (in front of the stage by Susan Paramour, who performed later with her band) Bardfest was ready to go. The evening kicked off with the local Wyld Morris, who raised the spirits and blessed the hall with their lovely music, singing and dancing. After a short intermission for folk to mingle and check out the book stall, the main part of the programme got under way.

The organiser and MC, 3rd Bard of Bath and Bridport newbie Kevan Manwaring, introduced the evening with a short meditation on ‘home’ and an original poem written in the early Spring shortly after moving to the town (just as the war in Ukraine was starting in earnest): ‘The Blackbird’s Shadow is Brightness.’ Next, Estelle Phillips was welcomed to the stage who performed a couple of poems from her debut collection published by Jawbone, including ‘Reaper’, which has been translated into Ukrainian. You can watch the powerful video here. This was followed by Estelle’s publisher, Peter Roe – a poet in his own right. His poem about the Cold War was especially resonant. Continuing the run of local talent, we next had Ged Duncan, Rob Casey, Tom Rogers who entertained us with their brilliant monologues (Arthur Thwartle; Wayland the Puppet) and poems. We finished off the first half with a fantastic tale of the Crow King from the Ukraine, by Martin Maudsley. What wordsmiths of West Dorset!

After the break we had talent from further afield – starting with Stroud-based storyteller, Anthony Nanson who regaled us with another Ukrainian tale – that of ‘The Baal Shem Tov and the Flaming Tree’. Next, Tick Rowley, 22nd Bard of Bath, performed her lovely poems; followed by a great story from Kirsty Hartsiotis (also of Stroud and Fire Springs along with Anthony, her husband). Then we returned briefly to Bridport for a muscular performance from poet Dylan Ross. We finished off the evening with two musical acts: Car Dia – a pagan ‘supergroup’ from Glastonbury, Avebury, Salisbury, and the edges who enchanted us with their mighty magical songs; and then Dr Space Toad -all the way from the 7th (or possibly 77th) Dimension, whose Spanish guitar and soulful songs eased us back down to earth.

The evening raised over £200 for the UN Refugee Agency, and was a heartwarming affirmation of creative, inclusive community.

The spoken word & music scene is thriving in the West Country.

May the awen continue to flow!

‘Caught Between Stations’: Orlam by PJ Harvey – review

friends to the rooks
redstarts and hawk-moth
friends to the phantoms
caught between stations

‘Ash’, extract from Orlam by PJ Harvey

This is the 2nd collection by twice-Mercury Prize winner musician PJ Harvey, and it astonishes, disturbs, provokes, and exhilarates as much as her impressive back-catalogue. Drawing upon her own Dorset childhood, ‘especially its landscape and folklore’, this verse-novel set over a year tells the story of the 9-year old Ira-Abel Rawles and her dark miseducation amid a cast of sinister and comical grotesques, not least her own family and her monstrous father. Seeking solace in the local Gore Woods, she develops a strange relationship with a Christ-like ghost soldier called Twyman-Elvis. The work is steeped in local folklore and is written in the Dorset dialect, which offers a pungent word-hoard, e.g. ‘button-crawler’ (wood-louse); ‘chattermag’ (magpie); ‘chawly-whist’ (ashamed); ‘dungy’ (downcast, dull); ‘farterous’ (father-like); and ‘red bread’ (vagina) to give but a few examples. By adopting this approach Harvey picks up the baton left by Dorset’s unofficial laureate, the 19th Century polymath Willam Barnes, and carries it into the modern era. The ecolect is enervated by its juxtaposition to the grubby remnants of contemporaneity: abandoned cars, condoms, ‘a car battery/ a jerry-can/the electric fence’.  This is poetry of the Anthropocene by way of Radiohead’s ‘green plastic watering can.’

Yet here the fossil record is the protagonist’s own embodied memory box, unearthed and picked through. It is as though Harvey herself is showing us the mulch of her imaginarium. Although she emphasises this is a ’work of the imagination’ it is hard not to see the development of her darkly distinctive style as a songwriter, singer and musician in these (possibly) analogous experiences. How much autoethnographical material the poet draws upon, only she and her closest friends and family could say – but there is a sense of a coded confessional here.

Yet such a reading risks intentional fallacy; and the calendrical sequence can be savoured for its own literary merits. It is a heady, often disturbing brew – a deep dive into the psychogeography of Dorset, which shows how the hills and dells shaped the lives of those who live among them. Avoiding nostalgia and the pastoral, Harvey seems at pains to deconstruct any hoary notion of a rural idyll: there is abuse, bestiality, violence, madness, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll – Harvey’s own musical chops now doubt informing the latter. Pop culture references intermingle with the folkloric, the Biblical, and the literary. Everything is entangled, as though one has come a-cropper down a Dorset Holloway.

And yet the poems themselves are disciplined, without an ounce of fat upon them. Pared back, at times brutally so, the reader is left to interpret the negative space of what isn’t said. Harvey obfuscates and occludes, but this makes their magic more potent: many have the lexical energy of spells and charms (as do some of her songs), and at times they are reminiscent of the loricas and incantations of Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gaedelica.  

Yet here in the West Country is something as numinous and destabilising of consensus reality as anything from the rarefied fastness of the Highlands: a secret commonwealth of sooneres (ghosts), bedraggled angels (wet sheep) and veäries (fairies). The supernatural element is pervasive. All is watched over the titular ‘Orlam’ – the all-seeing eye of a dead lamb, Mallory-Sonny. Miscarriages, premature births, afterbirths, the still-born, and ‘ash-wraiths’ of lost children haunt the woods of Ira-Abel’s world. Along with the more-than-human, this crowded ecology evokes an animistic paradigm informed by an indigeneity perhaps stretching back, like Laurie Lee’s Slad, to the end of the Ice Age.

Certain there is a strong sense of vertiginous deep place; and yet also something atemporal and beyond the material, as in Dylan Thomas’ dream-town of Llareggub. And the way Harvey ranges between lives and voices evokes Under Milk Wood. At times Orlam‘s heteroglossia feels like a spirit-radio. Out of the crackle and hiss of white noise, the ‘noiseless noise’, emerge the lost voices of the marginalized. And this echoes the liminal status of its viewpoint character who straddles the perilous terrain between girlhood and womanhood – and at its heart Orlam is a bildungsroman about her coming-of-age. Which codes and signals should she heed, and which should she ignore? The whispers in the static – the voices of the dead, the earth – often come through the loudest; whileas the living cast become shadowy presences whose baleful influences, like a Hardyesque heroine, she struggles to escape.

The uncompromising use of dialect (counter-balanced by the translations by Don Paterson, Harvey’s poetry mentor) creates a similar effect to Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker; or the dark speech of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake. And yet this remarkable tour-de-force is 100% PJ Harvey – it shows the sui generis workings of an arrestingly original voice. It is a sequence worth delving back into again and again to find riches – echoing the biodiversity one can find in a quiet Dorset backlane where beauty and ugliness, death and the maiden, and the sacred and profane can rub shoulders on any day of the year.

Kevan Manwaring, 13 May 2022

Orlam is published by Picador

A Dorset ‘holway’ (Dorset dialect: holloway) – Kevan Manwaring 2022
PJ Harvey in the Dorset archives

Know you every tree-tear
in these woods, every place
of good and not-good,

‘tween sleep and wake
and bellyache, each path
unhealed and stumpied.

‘A Noiseless Noise’, extract from Orlam by PJ Harvey

Tree Rings

Image by Daniel Griffin

Behind each truth another,

concentricities of awareness.

The deeper you look,

the more you will perceive.

In each moment one has a choice –

to accept things as they are and 

act and converse in accordance 

with the tacit expectations and rules

of the encounter, or to delve,

pursuing the situation or subject

into infinitesimal granularity.

Or, alternatively, soar

keen-eyed, above it – observing each

frame, each assumption. Acknowledging

and elevating, acknowledging and elevating

beyond every atmospheric envelope of lore.

Shifting magnification, we penetrate

to a deeper or higher reality, until

beyond the purely intellectual

a greater awakening awaits.

Copyright Kevan Manwaring

3 May 2021

The Great Sky Speaks

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Dunnet Head – the most northerly point in Britain. Photo by Kevan Manwaring, 2020

A house cannot be big enough
to contain all this light,
except for perhaps
the house of creation —
a sky greater than my
field of vision,
an horizon more than my
parallax can assimilate.

Beyond, rags and scraps
of land – full of ancient
mysteries and rich-tongued
people. Selkies and fisherfolk.
Seas that have seen Vikings and
grey-hulled Germans in war-time,
explorers and dreamers.

From here, there is only south,
for landlubbers like me anyway.
My two wheels have only got me
this far, but now the road
wends to sunset – from
the east’s oil-smooth, beast-flattened coast
to the west’s soft-tongued, yearning shore.

It is a place of possibility,
of beginnings and endings.
Here, I could start a movement
that could sweep the land
like a wave,
or peter out against the rocks
of indifference.

Yet there is hope here.
This is not the place
for denial. It is one
of immanence. Spirit
speaks in the susurration
of surf and wind.
An edge to contemplate the
centre,
an emptiness to consider the
fullness

the way deity
has found its way into every miniscule
corner, with an attention to detail,
a loving awareness and diligence,
which is endless.

Here, even amid the campervans and
motorbikes, daytrippers and tourers,
the Great Sky speaks.

Image
Dunnet Head – home to a thriving colony of sea-birds, including puffin, gannet, fulmar, & shag. Photo by Kevan Manwaring, 2020

Written at Dunnet Head, Wednesday, 2nd September, 2020

Copyright (c) Kevan Manwaring 2020

The Green Fuse

THE GOLDEN ROOM EPISODE #10 – THE GREEN FUSE

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‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower…’ Dylan Thomas. Photo by Kevan Manwaring, March 2020

This is a special ‘emergency’ episode of The Golden Room to offer some solace during the COVID-19 global crisis, and to celebrate the coming of Spring. However challenging the current circumstances life continues – and is tangible in every hedgerow, every bird-song, every new bud. This medley comprises my selection of classic poems about the season, along with new work by myself, Ella Bloomfield, and the late Jay Ramsay. Music is provided by Chantelle Smith, Rosemary Duxbury, La Zag, Rick Ward, and Beggard Velvet. May you find this selection soothing. Please pass on to any who you feel will benefit from it.

LISTEN TO THE GREEN FUSE HERE

Track Listings:

THE GOLDEN ROOM EPISODE #10 THE GREEN FUSE
  1. Introduction by Kevan Manwaring/Reverie by Rosemary Duxbury
  2. Lines Written in Early Spring: William Wordsworth
  3. Sumer is icumen in: Anon, 13th anon./voice & harp by Chantelle Smith, 2020
  4. The Trees: Philip Larkin
  5. S.L.: La Zag (from ‘Hic Sunt Leones’)
  6. The Names of the Hare: Translation from the Middle English by Seamus Heaney
  7. Didgeridoo: Sam Bloomfield (from ‘Phoenix’ sampler)
  8. Viriditas*: Hildegard von Bingen
  9. Bright Blue Rose: Marko Gallaidhe (trad.)
  10. Heather’s Spring: Kevan Manwaring
  11. Rosemary Duxbury (from ‘Thread of Gold’)
  12. ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’: Dylan Thomas
  13. Oak, Ash, and Thorn: Beggars Velvet (trad. From ‘Lady of Autumn’)
  14. 14.  When green buds hang in the elm: A.E. Housman
  15. My Bonny Cuckoo: Chantelle Smith (trad., recorded 2020)
  16. Cotswold Love: John Drinkwater
  17. Banjo: Rick Ward (from ‘Keeping the Tradition’)
  18. Spring: Edna St. Vincent Millay
  19. Song Birds: Ella Bloomfield (from ‘Phoenix’)
  20. Lullaby: Jay Ramsay (from ‘Phoenix’)

* Viriditas (Latin, literally “greenness,” formerly translated as “viridity”) is a word meaning vitality, fecundity, lushness, verdure, or growth. It is particularly associated with abbess Hildegard von Bingen, who used it to refer to or symbolize spiritual and physical health, often as a reflection of the divine word or as an aspect of the divine nature.

 

Selection by Kevan Manwaring 20th March 2018

Breaking Light: part three

autumn sunrise

iii

 

It is late. It is early.

 

Lady Autumn

teaches us

the art of letting go,

as she performs her annual yard sale,

de-cluttering with a tut, a smile,

a shake of the head,

tidying away the toys of summer.

 

She sings as she sweeps –

her long skirts

layered with a patchwork of leaves,

gathering up all that we don’t need

in her wake.

 

Busily she insists

we put our house in order

before the harsher times ahead.

Her winter sister is not so sentimental

when she brings her black bag,

as bottomless as a December night.

 

Despite all we have done,

the gifts we have squandered,

her treasures plundered,

still the Earth

is beautiful.

 

Still the Earth

will forgive us.

Her compassion is endless,

and we will weep at her feet

before this is played out.

 

But first, a favourite vinyl crackles

to the centre.

The needle gathers dust.

With a melancholy pang

Lady Autumn revisits her old haunts,

her maiden places,

savouring the memory one last time

before letting it fade.

 

She presses the best

into the palimpsest of the past,

a bonfire for the rest.

Smoke curlews from the piles of leaves,

gathered into golden dragon hoards,

to be kicked –

and, for a moment,

we are as rich as bank robbers,

the folding gold falling around us.

 

Copyright ©Kevan Manwaring 2010

Continued tomorrow

First published in Soul of the Earth (Awen 2010) and soon to be featured in the forthcoming Silver Branch: bardic poems by Kevan Manwaring (Awen 2017).

https://www.awenpublications.co.uk/

Soul of the Earth Awen 2010

Shaking the Silver Branch

 

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The foliate mouth, Kevan Manwaring 2016

 

Twenty five years ago I published my first collection of poetry, Remembrance Days, which celebrated the wheel of the year. It was crudely produced, typed up in upper case (why? Was the shift key on my typewriter stuck?), photocopied and stapled together, and yet three of the poems within it – The Bride of Spring, One with the Land and Summer’s Wake – I still perform today. I had worked late into the night high in the ‘art block’ of Coventry Polytechnic typing it out … one finger at a time (no wonder it took so long!). By the time I was finished I found myself locked in. Everyone else had gone home and I had spend the sleeping under my desk to be awoken in the morning by the cleaner’s vacuum cleaner humming near my head. An auspicious start! My first print run was modest – I printed 20 copies off to force upon friends and family as Yule presents; and have been inflicting similarly ever since, albeit with better production values. Over the following two and half decades I have put together around a dozen such collections – from chapbooks to professionally published volumes. To celebrate this anniversary I have decided to gather together all of my bardic poems together in one volume, entitled Silver Branch, it is to be published by Awen next year. I discovered very early on that few people are willing to read poems from an unknown poet, so the best way to ensure an audience is to perform them – which I started to do at ‘open mics’. I quickly realized that learning them by heart is far more effective than merely reading them out – there is no barrier between you and the audience, and there is a level of kudos about committing work to memory. Folk appreciate the effort. So, the essential criteria for this next collection – what defines them, in my mind, as bardic poems – is the fact they have been performed in public, from memory, at some point. And many were written with that in mind – thus I embedded within them the kind of mnemonic devices that have served bards, scops, skalds, mimesingers, etc, for centuries: alliteration, assonance, consonance, end-rhyme, anaphora, refrains, imagery, and other kinds of oral/aural patterning. Some have been commissioned (e.g. Dragon Dance), some have been composed as part of a book (e.g. The Taliesin Soliloquies, for The Way of Awen), or for a larger collaborative performance (e.g. material for the Fire Springs shows ‘Arthur’s Dream’, ‘Robin of the Wildwood’, and ‘Return to Arcadia’). One sequence won me the Bardic Chair of Caer Badon (Bath) in 1998: Spring Fall – the story of Sulis and Bladud of Bath. They have been written for protest (e.g. ‘The Child of Everything’, performed from memory spontaneously in front of thousands of people at an anti-GMO rally, on a podium by Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square); for celebration (e.g. ‘The Wheel of the Rose’, for a friends wedding in a castle in Scotland); for healing (‘Heather’s Spring, for a friend dying of cancer and used several times since); and for ceremony (‘Last Rites for John Barleycorn’, and several others in my previous ‘bardic’ collection, Green Fire). Common themes running through all of the poems include an evocation and honouring of the sacred as manifest in all living things; a celebration of numinous places and remarkable people; the passionate defence of the fragile web of life and the precious glory of this planet we call home; and a mythic sense of negotiating reality.

Poetry has been there from the start of my journey as a writer and it has informed everything I do. First and foremost it is an act of perception – a way of seeing and being in the world. I find it effective at capturing the little epiphanies of existence, moments of heightened awareness, of beauty and truth. It has enriched my prose, my performances and my life.

I look forward to sharing my awen with you. May it inspire your own.

SILVER BRANCH: bardic poetry by Kevan Manwaring forthcoming from Awen Publications 2017

www.awenpublications.co.uk

Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood

(Written while Writer-in-Residence, Hawthornden Castle, Nov-Dec 2015)

 

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After the snow, Hawthornden, K. Manwaring, 2015

 

The news is given casually over dinner.

Not the bombing, but:

‘It is snowing.’ The first

Of the winter. I venture out.

A white and black world

A game of draughts.

The chill exchange of one mass

For another. Boots sink into

Two, three inches. The castle

Is illumined in fairy tale

Perfection. I hold my

Breath, not wanting to

Break the spell.

The forest beckons.

It is night, but the path

Is lit up by itself – silence

Is dislodged, a thousand

Muffled falls, as though

The undergrowth teams

With wildlife. It is the stuff

That panic is made of.

Risk perverse, I stray

beyond the pale.

The forest revels in its own beauty,

Every lineament delineated by

Kohl and crystal. A deadly

Glamour. This femme

Is fatal. An ice-bound cailleach.

The snow falls unconscionably,

White fists of rage,

A furious silence

Demanding to be shattered.

I slip and stumble

On the chancy footing,

Inches from the tumbling

Black Esk precipitously

Below. A splintering crack

Shatters the night –

Wooden lightning, a tree

Toppled by the weight of the

White nothing.

A cave mouth screams,

Empty eye sockets stare

As I pass. My impertinence

Goes unpunished.

The picturesque provides

a pleasant distraction

As bombs begin to fall

In Syria. There, snow

is ash, buildings, homes,

Skin and bone, up in smoke.

Lives vaporized by a passing tornado.

Whitehall shadow falling

In negative, an optioned winter,

Radicalising the earth.

 

Featured in Lost Borders, Chrysalis, 2015

 

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After the walk, Hawthornden, Dec 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bard and the Bardic Tradition

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

As we celebrated the 400th anniversary of the Swan of Avon, William Shakespeare, who died on his 52nd birthday, April 23rd, 1616, it is timely to consider his other epithet: The Bard. For many people this is probably their only association with the term. It originally denoted one of a tripartite caste in ‘Celtic’ Iron Age Britain: the druid (priest/ess; philosopher; lawmaker); ovate (Seer; healer); and bard. The latter became associated with the Welsh oral and literary tradition (and as Fili, in the Irish) where they lived on, preserving many of their original functions: genealogist/historian; storyteller; poet; wisdom-bearer; magician of words; and remembrancer. I would like to consider these in detail here and see if Shakespeare and his ‘complete works’ (chiefly the 37 plays penned by him in brief, astonishingly creative life) fulfill any of these.

Genealogist/Historian: The Iron Age Bard would relate the genealogies of the tribe – the ancestral bloodlines, stretching back through the generations, validating the claims of chieftainship, of a tribe’s association with the land it lives on. Shakespeare continued this aspect of the bard, drawing upon the pseudo-lineage created by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 13th Century History of the Kings of Britain, for lives of the Romano-British Cymbeline and the mythical King Lear (the son of King Bladud of Bath, who is also mention by Geoffrey, but is not honoured with the Shakespeare treatment). Throughout his plays he raids the ‘myth-kitty’ for magical, folkloric elements (Herne the Hunter; Robin Goodfellow; Puck; Ariel; Caliban; the 3 witches; spells, prophecies, curses and customs) – the smoke and mirrors of theatre offering a sympathetic magic for depictions and deconstructions of enchantment. Yet much of Shakespeare’s uncanny shenanigans are framed by ostensibly historical settings, giving them verisimilitude. The uncanny and the actual jostle on stage as we are spell-bound by bloody history.

Through his History Plays[1], Shakespeare is, for many, their first introduction to the infinite complexity of English history. In his dramas, relating the rise and fall of the Kings and Queens of England and Scotland, we see recurring themes of hubris, madness, revenge, fateful misunderstanding, fatal flaw, nobility and infamy. The good, the bad and the ugly. He engages our hearts and minds more than any history book could – bringing alive other centuries in an immersive, full-bloodied way. Before hit TV shows and movies, before historical novels, this was the only way to time travel in Elizabethan England: The Globe was Shakespeare’s TARDIS. We visit it not for historical accuracy, but for emotional accuracy, for escapism, a ‘mirror to our times’ and a visceral experience.

Storyteller: Shakespeare is a consummate storyteller in both his plotting and characterisation. We would not remember his histories if not for the storytelling. For the way he brings these dusty figures from the past alive, gives them immortal lines that will live on in the English language long after we have forgotten who spoke them. Through his comedies[2] and tragedies[3] (some of which slip between the two) he reveals all the foibles of the human condition: the cruelty and kindness, pettiness and greatness, hilarity and horror – the whole gamut of emotion. He tells, through the particular, archetypal stories which have been adapted into virtually every medium and translated into almost every major living language – for they express something universal.  As though he plays the three strains of the harp – the bard’s classic instrument – Shakespeare can make us weep (Goltai), laugh (Geantrai) or soothe us into a peaceful sleep (Suantrai). So well-crafted are Shakespeare’s plots that they have been cannibalised by countless writers and directors either directly (e.g. the legion of adaptations of the plays in ballet, opera, TV, film, computer game, prose fiction or manga form) or indirectly (e.g. West Side Story; Kiss Me Kate; Kurosawa’s Ran or Throne of Blood; Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books). Even just a quote from a Shakespeare play can provide a drama or novel with imported gravitas and thematic coherence. Shakespeare oeuvre has become the DNA of drama, its coding interlacing with the genetic material of the author’s own imagination, creating endless mutant variations. The ‘Swan of Avon’ virus has permeated every aspect of culture.

Poet: Every line of his plays fizzes and crackles with poetry, to the point that it is almost pointless to select any examples. One simply has to read a page at random from his Complete Works. Metaphor. Simile. Alliteration. Assonance. Consonance. Metre. Shakespeare’s English shows what can be done with the language – it is multi-layered and exquisite to the ear. It takes a moment to attune to but when we do, we realize what a watered down version of our mother tongue we get these days. To drink deep from Shakespeare is to drink from the source.

So many of Shakespeare’s lines have entered the English language and imagination to the point that they have become as familiar and loved to our linguistic landscape as daffodils, chalk figures, Stonehenge, the village green, and ruinous castles by winding rivers have become icons of this ‘sceptred isle’. Here are only a smattering of examples:

“Can one desire too much of a good thing?” (As You Like It, Act IV, Scene I).

“Off with his head!” – (King Richard III, Act III, Scene IV).

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. – (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II).

“But love is blind, and lovers cannot see”. (The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 6).

“Why, then the world ‘s mine oyster” – (The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene II).

“What ‘s done is done”.- (Macbeth, Act III, Scene II).

“‘T’is neither here nor there.” – (Othello, Act IV, Scene III).

“I have not slept one wink.”. – (Cymbeline, Act III, Scene III).

We spout Shakespeare in our daily conversation but do not realize it, and we turn to Shakespeare – to his plays, to his sonnets – to help us fathom and articulate every permutation of the human heart, of which he is our most eloquent ambassador.

Wisdom-bearer: What distinguishes a bard from a mere minstrel is the deeper understanding of the symbols and meaning behind the words, the stories. Bards do not simply repeat ‘classics’, like a pub singer doing hoary covers. They have connected to the living reality of the story or song or poem, inhabited it, lived and breathed it, and embodied it in their daily lives. They are able to impart the underlying wisdom behind reality and offer an insight into the human condition. This is what separates them from the average wordsmith – the hack journalist, potboiler novelist, copywriter, political speech-writer – who push words around their screens like so many fridge-magnets, never going beneath the surface, the veneer they are creating. The bard conveys wisdom, not simply knowledge – a hard-won wisdom tested by life’s ‘slings and arrows’, by solitude and deep journeying. Shakespeare, whose life was struck by hardship and tragedy (e.g. the loss of his son Hamnet, aged eleven) does this time and time again. His plays dredge the depths of humanity and reaches to its heights. Even in the darkest scenes of his plays there is a sense of majesty – that is, in the sheer creative effort of learning lines, acting, choreography, set design, lighting, costume, music, directing, and active listening, one is glimpsing what humans are capable of when we transcend our differences and collaborate.

Magician of words: The classic bard channelled the awen (Welsh, f. noun, ‘inspiration’) the creative force behind existence, through their words and music. Shakespeare in his plays, in his poetry, provides evidence of this gramarye. He re-enchants language, gives it a spell-binding, incantatory, talismanic quality – one that could conjure worlds, draw tears and laughter from the audience, make us look into the recesses of our own souls and the fabric of our lives. In Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, we have, in the character of Prospero, an alter-ego for the playwright himself, adept at conjuring and dispelling worlds with his words:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot 2055
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice 2060
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder 2065
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ’em forth 2070
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff, 2075
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.   (The Tempest, Act V, Scene 1)

Remembrancer 

Finally, I would add to the list of Shakespeare’s bardic credentials that of Remembrancer. Traditionally, bards had to learn an impressive repertoire of 350 tales, as well as grammar, glosses, oghams, orations and poems, over a 12 year training period. Before literacy was commonplace bards were the walking libraries of the tribe. They had stories for every occasion: wooings and weddings, births, battles and funerals. Shakespeare, as an actor, had to line a large and adaptable repertoire. His own company, The King Chamberlain’s Men, had to master many of his plays, his long poems, and other popular pieces of the time. As Polonius says, such as they are:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-
comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or
poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor
Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the
liberty, these are the only men.

And, finally, with his incredible legacy, Shakespeare has inspired countless actors – from schoolchildren to veterans of the stage – to memorize and master his exquisite words. Whenever Shakespeare is performed live we experience the power of memory combined with the beauty of language. In this regard, the Shakespearean tradition is in effect a bardic one, a global bardic college which specializes in the development and dissemination of the bardic arts: word, memory and wisdom.

And so I would conclude that William Shakespeare, a priest in the Chapel of Memory. does indeed live up to the epithet of ‘The Bard’. And I do not think the definite article here is too presumptuous – for as an actor and a writer who skilfully straddled the worlds of the stage and the page Shakespeare showed he could ‘walk his talk’, and his incredible legacy – both prolific and of the highest calibre – qualifies him in my and many people’s eyes as the greatest bard that ever lived and wrote in the English language. And if his epithet makes the curious look closer at the origins of the word, and the tradition it denotes, then that is a many-splendoured thing too.

Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 25 April 2016

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

 

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Kevan Manwaring, Gothic Image 2006.

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, Kevan Manwaring, O Books, 2010

 

[1] Henry IV, Part I; Henry IV, Part II; Henry V; Henry VI, Part I; Henry VI, Part II; Henry VI, Part III; Henry VIII; King John; Pericles; Richard II; Richard III

[2] All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It; Comedy of Errors; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Measure for Measure; Merchant of Venice; Merry Wives of Windsor; Midsummer Night’s Dream; Much Ado about Nothing; Taming of the Shrew; The Tempest
Twelfth Night; Two Gentlemen of Verona; The Winter’s Tale.

[3] Antony and Cleopatra; Coriolanus; Cymbeline; Hamlet; Julius Caesar; King Lear; Macbeth; Othello; Romeo and Juliet; Timon of Athens; Titus Andronicus;Troilus and Cressida.

Souls of the Earth

Soul of the Earth launch Waterstones, Bath, Spring 2011

When I published Soul of the Earth in 2010, it felt like the culmination of the small press I started in 2003. Awen’s first book, Writing the Land: an anthology of natural words, was the outcome of a course I ran on ‘creative writing and the environment’ at Envolve, Bath’s environment centre. It was a group effort: I encouraged the students to contribute not only their words, but also to the editorial, design, and marketing process. Our modest vessel was joined by a number of other, more established writers, and I am pleased that familiar names from back then reappear in this later anthology. When Soul of the Earth was launched at a splendid event in Waterstones, I felt conscious of how far we, as a press, had come (in our craft; in our thinking) and how far we, as a species, still had to go (in our collective effort to live in more sustainable, harmonious ways).

As I write this the world looks in even worse shape than it did then. Not only are rapacious ideologies and practices continuing which damage this precious Earth (so much so that this epoch may be designated the ‘Anthropocene’ because of the lasting legacy we will leave in the Earth’s fossil record due to our massive impact upon the biosphere), but humanity seems intent on tearing itself apart. Conflict in the Middle East, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere continues to create human suffering on a massive scale. The war in Syria has resulted in the largest migration since the partition of India. The European project is fracturing. Right-wing extremism is on the march once again. Campaigners lobby for the closure of borders, for breaking away from the EU, for increasing parochialism. With such a bunker mentality, with selfishness, fear and loathing, and a perpetual heightened state of terror becoming the ‘new normal’, it is perhaps more poignant than ever to think of ourselves as ‘souls of the earth’.

The title I came up with for this collection, finely curated by Jay Ramsay, seems increasingly resonant. Perhaps we need to have the perspective of British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station and remember what unites us: the sheer unlikeliness and precariousness of our existence on this fragile blue jewel. To remember our common humanity. If I may paraphrase the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott: the only nation is the imagination. We can choose hope or despair. In the Anthropocene epoch, perhaps, rather than allowing ourselves to be paralysed by the magnitude of what we face, we should reframe it as a ‘call to adventure’. Rather than leaving a legacy of environmental denudation, of ecological catastrophe, of mass extinction, why not a fossil record of artistic activity? We need to live here and now, of course. And ensure the planet is left in a better condition. But it is also wise to take the long view and hope that what will survive of us will be the love we lived by: for each other, the planet, and all that lives upon it.

With that wish we cast this message in a bottle into the ocean. May this new edition find sympathetic shores.

And we do hope you spread the word. If you believe in our vision, please spend a few minutes to share your reviews, comments, and thoughts through whatever medium you revel in. Words matter and, combined with meaningful deeds, can help to make a difference.

Kevan Manwaring

PS Happy Birthday, Jay 20 April!

Available thru Awen: http://www.awenpublications.co.uk/soul_of_the_earth.html