Many thanks to David Lehman and Stacey Harwood for inviting me back as a guest-blogger this week.
I recall reading somewhere – maybe someone can help me with this – that ancient druidic rites, or perhaps they were Welsh bardic initiation rituals, included the following. You had to lie in a trough of water on a cold night, wholly submerged and breathing only through a straw, and compose in your head a long poem in a complicated meter. The next morning, you had to emerge from the water and recite your poem.
I earned my MFA in the early 1990s from a reputable institution. I am, therefore, a Master of Fine Arts. Anyone who has earned the degree should take careful note of this particular passage from The White Goddess, by Robert Graves. In my tattered edition, the passage appears on page 457:
“Who can make any claim to be a chief poet and wear the embroidered mantle of office, which the ancients called the tugen? Who can even claim to be an ollave? The ollave in ancient Ireland had to be master of one hundred and fifty Oghams, or verbal ciphers, which allowed him to converse with his fellow-poets over the heads of the unlearned bystanders; to be able to repeat at a moment’s notice any one of three hundred and fifty long traditional histories and romances, together with the incidental poems they contained, with appropriate harp accompaniment; to have memorized an immense number of other poems of different sorts; to be learned in philosophy; to be a doctor of civil law; to understand the history of modern, middle and ancient Irish with the derivations and changes of meaning of every word; to be skilled in music, augury, divination, medicine, mathematics, geography, universal history, astronomy, rhetoric and foreign languages; and to be able to extemporize poetry in fifty or more complicated meters. That anyone at all should have been able to qualify as an ollave is surprising…”
Best of all is that “appropriate harp accompaniment”! He made no mention of poetry workshops or lying in troughs of water all night.