Friday, 23 April 2010

Post Two

Thanks Amanda, it’s good to have a first comment from a writer. You gave a talk in Oxford over a year ago about your sense of being compelled in writing a novel, and your wonder at how the novel, even if not about your own life, could sometimes predict events. I suppose in any compelled prose there is something in common with a poem, and an unconscious element which is somehow 'outside time' and breaks its rules. And it’s not enough simply to want to write: ‘something else’ has to take over. Pasternak said something to the effect that good poetry aspires to be prose, which seems puzzling, but I think he meant that poetry must at the very least be as clear as good prose. Coleridge said something similar about poetry having a body of good sense.

If elected P of P I’d like to talk about the ‘something else’ in terms of inspiration and the neuropsychology of poetry. I wrote a booklet on ‘What Poetry Is’ in 1970 but I still don’t fully know what it is. I know what it isn't. One of the many reasons I have never wanted to be a career poet (meaning to use poetry as a major source of income) is that the external pressure to write poems whether they come or not risks the forcing of non-poems – which have no internal pressure. (My friend David Cameron – not the politician, a Scottish poet living in Ireland – shakes his head over many published ‘poems’ and says ‘Where’s the pressure?’)

The internal pressure of a poem seems to take over the pulsation of the writer’s body. The beat of a 4 or 5 stress line, though variable, is synchronous with the heart-beat, and the line itself is often synchronous with the breath. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ has 5 stresses and a rising emphasis on the second syllable of ‘compare’ which is synchronous with the usual in-breath and slightly longer (ratio 2 to 3) out-breath. I have no idea why (did the Italian inventors of the sonnet work this out?), but a sonnet contains 14 lines (breaths), each of 5 stresses which equals 70 beats a minute. The average adult human breathes 12 to 15 times a minute with a pulse of 68-72 a minute… A sonnet is a minute! And by the way, since early renaissance hour-glasses could not measure seconds, Galileo timed his experiments with falling objects by counting his own pulse beats. Paradoxically poems create time (although they predate clocks), while they can seem ‘out of time’

Back to Robert Graves. He used to say, ‘There is no time’. The theoretical physicist Julian Barbour (‘The End of Time’) would agree. Yes, I’d like to say more eventually about my first meeting with Graves because it included a brief but dense discussion of poetry which has influenced me ever since. (I don’t like ‘influence’ talk about poems, and I doubt if my poems have been influenced much by Graves’s, but I mean influence on the way I think.) As I say in my candidacy statement, Graves made himself available to students. Actually, two others among my nominators who were contemporaries with me at Oxford, quite independently got to know Graves. I only saw him a few times there, and exchanged a few letters later. There was a sort of cult around him at the time and I didn’t want to join it, so I didn’t go, as some did, to Mallorca. Some people at Oxford were horrified by him. ‘He can’t mean it!’ I recall one offended Leavisite saying scornfully. But he did.

I find myself jumping focus here, more than I would in a formal piece, but I hope that is OK in a Blog. I’m still feeling my way.


At 8 May 2010 at 07:03 , Blogger Coirí Filíochta said...

Good luck in the election Séan.

I have always been fascinated by Graves; especially his analyses on Taliesin's parting of the trees, Amergin's Birth of Song and all the Ogham he resisted until middle-age, because it was his father's area of expert knoweldge.

It's a pity he wasn't around to analyse, what I call, Amergin's (titleless) 'prose-poem' - in Trinity's Book of Ballymote Legal codex H.3.18; the one first translated in only 1979 by Celtic scholar P.L.Henry, who first brought it into English in an article: "The Cauldron of Poesy," Studia Celtica #14/15, 1979/1980, pp. 114-128; and two years later Liam Breatnach's translation and analysis: "The Cauldron of Poesy," Ériu #32, 1981, pp. 45-93; followed by Matthews, Caitlin and John, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: A Celtic Shaman's Sourcebook , (Rockport, MA: Element Books, 1994).

The Canadian lexicologist and druid-dictionary compiler, Sean O'Tuathail; published a translation in "Cainteanna na Luise," a privately published Canadian Druidic periodical, issues #7 (1985), #17 (1988), and #26 (1990).

Have you read it?

I first stumbled across the scrupulously scholastic translation by Oregan/Washington Ogham researcher, Eryn Rowan Laurie; who I am very grateful allowed one to access what clearly is, a most important text from the bard hoard. One a traine file must have been introduced to early in the winter semester; a day one foclo starting out with this one, of only the three Amergin texts; would be on a wholly unique course, methinks.

It explains; from the point of view of a 7C bard, the essential poetic of an ex-druidic bunch - Graves reckoned British poets should study first, before getting carried away with Hesiod and Homer and losing sight of the earliest dán.


This would go down well in Oxford, because it claims to answer the age old conundrum. What is Poetry?

The other thing I wanted to say, first, before I got carried away; is that there's a fascinating 2004 film called What the Bleep Do We Know!?, that 'combines documentary-style interviews, computer-animated graphics, and a narrative that posits a spiritual connection between quantum physics and consciousness'; in which neuroscientist Candace Pert; who discovered the cellular bonding site for endorphins in the brain, and wrote the 1977 book Molecules of Emotion - in the extended 2006 DVD version, on youtube, in 14 parts; has some very interesting things to say on how our brains work.

If you go here and ignore everything up to 1 min 11 seconds; you'll hear something you will already know; but which I didn't and found fascinating. Watching this made me realise how poetry is transparent compared to the exciting Knowledge coming out of Michio Kaku's String Theory, and all the theoretical advances one can contextualize; that seem to have overtaken poetry, but not the study of dán; especially now there's this, relatively new 7C prose-poem by Amergin to whet ourselves on.

grá agus síocháin

Desmond Swords.

At 12 May 2010 at 07:27 , Anonymous Sean said...

A Choiri a chara,

Thanks for these points and the references - lots to follow up. Graves wrote an essay called Harp, Anvil, Oar, about the possible origins of English metre in Irish. He regretted not knowing Irish. My own knowledge of it is patchy: as a boy I took lessons after school hours from a priest who taught at St Malachy's in Belfast and I had to roll up my coat collar and hide my school uniform ('Inst') for fear of being recognised and beaten up. My teacher was steeped in Donegal Irish and I find I have an affinity for Scots Gaelic which is in some ways close to it. The Gaelic poet I have read most intensely in is Sorley MacLean, from Skye.
Candace Pert's book is a key to recent neuropsychology of the emotions. I'll obviously have to write (or lecture if given the chance!) on the neuropsychology of poetry... I have too many ideas on it for this space.

Le meas -



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