In a recent blog post titled “This Flight from Failure“, John Michael Greer reported on the problem of failure in abstract art:
Let’s take a moment to unpack what’s being said here. Every artist in every medium has had the experience of having an artwork fail to measure up to the creative vision that inspired it. In that sense, sure, abstract art can fail. Every artist in every medium has also had the experience of having an artwork fail to communicate its creative vision to its audience. In that sense, too, abstract art can fail, and in fact does so far more often than not, though museumgoers are by and large too polite to point this out.
He goes on to point out that in Druidry, at least, the skill of the beginner is to be lauded and praised… but there’s a point at which you try to avoid urging the old hand to move beyond the beginner’s mind, and develop some technical skills which move the beginner out of basic practice and into the long, hard slog toward mastery — a road which really has no ending, and may not arrive in the place that anyone might wish: to be a technically-proficient and accomplished poet or musician, but completely lacking in fame, fortune or notice.
But I AM the result of the kind of specific training in form and meter, largely self-taught, that John Michael Greer talks about in his column. As a poet, I taught myself to write sonnets and sestinas, villanelles, terza rima and bob-and-wheel, haiku and senryu, even the fiendish Welsh form the Cwydd llosgrynog. I’m well aware that my poetry has not always landed well (you can read the free stuff here and here; and you can read the paid stuff by purchasing it here, here and here [Ahem. Can’t blame a guy for trying]). I’ve sold dozens of copies of my work! DOZENS, you hear!?
The wider occult community has numerous methods for training up witches and shamans, mages and magicians, ovates and bards and druids, sorcerers and episcopes vagrantes, and vast numbers of potential future “elders of the Craft”, whose training by and large consists of much the same thing over and over and over again — different traditions, perhaps, different words, but similar skill-sets of focus and self-management. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the complicated ways that some of these terms (like Shaman) overlap with traditional wisdom from various indigenous cultures. Let’s also recognize that, at some level, we assume that roles and titles like Novice or Neophyte lead, in the due course of time, to fancier titles like Adept and Magister Templi and so on. While my own training in Druidry in the Bardic grade involved a lot of heavy lifting and serious work, very little of it was directed at the core of what the word “Bard” has come to mean, which is to be a professional poet of some skill and training.
And so, with this post, I offer the first lessons in what teachers call a “scope and sequence”: a process of graduated learning in becoming a poet of a certain style and skill. OR… what occultists might call an initiatory tradition: that is, a training process by which a nominally-ordinary person might develop the gifts and skills necessary to be a poet of a particular school of Bards.
Let’s be clear. If you begin this training, there’s no guarantee that you’ll become a Druid. This zero-th rank, the novice degree if you will, makes you an Entrant. It does not mean that you will ever become a great poet of fame and fortune, or even a minor poet whose words get them laid a lot, or that your name will live in immortality. It means that you will have made a beginning to the study of poetry. Even if you advance to the next level, as a Rhymer, or to the next as a Poet, or even all the way to Bard, the capstone achievement of this school… you will not become an Ovate or a Druid. This is not a system of operative magic, at least as I currently understand it.
But the results of this training are in fact magical, or they were for me.
And so, let us begin.
The Entrant Grade
To become an entrant to this Bardic School, you must first understand this: Bardic Schools existed in ancient times. We know virtually nothing about them. Some of them survived into the early modern period, the 1600s and 1700s, in remote parts of Ireland and Scotland. There, the would-be poet would wrap themselves in a sheepskin rug or a long piece of wool cloth (a plaid, a tartan or a great kilt, perhaps), and then the school-master would give the student two things: a theme or story to compose a poem, and a form or poetic style in which they must write. The poet would then compose orally, while wrapped in a blanket, a poem on the chosen subject and in the chosen style.
And so this is the level of skill we aim for: to be able to compose poems orally in a particular style and on a particular theme. It’s not that much different, really, to a kind of poet called a diviner or fortune-teller, who puts a Tarot card spread on a table or lays out some runes, and then reports on the future with some mystical guidance. But it does take a different kind of practice.
To become an Entrant, you must:
- Declare yourself publicly to be endeavoring to become an Entrant;
- Go for a walk outdoors on each of seven consecutive days, for at least fifteen minutes. Write a haiku at the end of each walk about something you saw or heard on that walk
- Write two sonnets in your own native language, one in the Petrarchan form, and one in the Shakespearean or Elizabethan form, conforming in rhyme scheme and syllable-count of 10 syllables to the line. (They do not have to be good sonnets, they only have to be sonnets.)
- Memorize four sonnets, one by each of these writers, either in the original language or in a highly-regarded translation into your native language: William Shakespeare, one and only one of the ‘Johns’ [John Milton or John Keats or John Donne], Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Christina Rosetti. (if you want to memorize one by me, I’ll be flattered… but it doesn’t count). [I will modify this requirement if provided with the names of four sonneteers in foreign languages I don’t speak].
- Memorize any twenty-five lines of Beowulf, either in the original Old English or the Seamus Heaney translation. If you become aware of another Entrant within easy traveling distance of you who has memorized a section, you should endeavor to memorize the section immediately before, or immediately after, their selection — so that someday, you can perform it together.
- Recite aloud, at least three times, all the poems you wrote in 2., and 3., above. Make changes in language as seems appropriate after all three readings are complete, but only such changes as you can make in 20 minutes or less [use a timer & obey it!]).
- Purchase (or dedicate for the purposes of this course) a Tarot deck (preferably a Smith-Rider-Waite deck or one descended from that tradition, but it’s not an exclusive requirement); pictures rather than pips are recommended for the Minor Arcana.
- Declare to a group of witnesses that you have completed these requirements and are now an Entrant to the school; if challenged, you must answer with a poem you have memorized.
Let us take a look at what you are being asked to do here. First, you’re being asked to speak aloud an intention to become at least an Entrant to the world of formalized poetry. Second, you’re being asked to learn how to write three kinds of poetry, two of them closely related to one another, and to begin to self-edit that work. Third, you’re being asked to get out of the house and into the wider world. Fourth, you’re being asked to mentally acquire a body of poetry that you did not write, by some of the great English writers. Fifth, you’re going to acquire some knowledge of a divination tool, and sixth, you’re going to work on developing an audience and a performance style with work that is not your own.
In the due course of time, I’ll post the First Degree, that of Rhymer, and its requirements. For now, I’ll wait until I’m aware that there are ten students who have completed the requirements for Entrant, or until certain other signs and portents have been received.
In the meantime, I hope that you will endeavor to enter this school of bards, and begin to discover the wonders therein.