I and Pangur my cat… “Tis a like task we are at… Hunting mice is his delight … Hunting words I sit all night. ~ Excerpt from a stanza scribbled into a ninth century Latin manuscript by an Irish scribe.
In March everything is turning green and seems to revolve around St. Patrick’s Day. The March issue of the Museletter, the local newsletter I co-edit, is printed on green paper and the front page ad for this month’s Spoken Word Open Mic (Saturday, March 18, 7-9 at the Café Del Sol) reads: In the tradition of the troubadours and the ancient Celtic bards, come out and share your ballad poetry, limericks, and even your blarney.
Because their ancient Celtic culture was based on an oral tradition, and because Ireland was isolated from outside influences by the Atlantic Ocean for so many centuries, the Irish came late to literacy; but they more than made up for lost time when they did. Thomas Cahill writes in his 1995 bestseller book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act.
Although writing language down can be likened to trying to possess a butterfly, the Irish, steeped in the oral tradition of their poets, bards, and druids, embraced what was opened up to them by doing so. To the Irish, who were said to have invented rhyme, language was a living entity and the alphabet was magical. Soon after their introduction to the written word, they learned Greek and Latin, devised Irish grammars, copied out the whole of their native oral literature, and even began making up languages.
Cahill writes: The Irish thought that all language was a game – and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it…they found the shapes of letters magical. Why, they asked themselves, did a B look the way it did? Could it look some other way? Was there an essential B-ness?
Irish curiosity and playfulness led to their invention of the codex, the descendent of scrolls and predecessor of books as we know them today. By way of the codex, Ireland began to produce the most spectacular magical books the world has ever seen, as evidenced by The Book of Kells.
Reading Cahill’s book helped me to understand my heritage and the tradition I write from. I especially related to the passages in his book where he describes how the Irish country folk, hired by monks to hand copy the classics, would write little ditties and poems inside the margins of their work. He writes of one example: in the margins of an impenetrable Greek commentary on scripture – we find the bored scribblings of the Irish scribes, who kept themselves awake by writing out a verse or two of a beloved Irish lyric – and so, by accumulation, left for our enjoyment a whole literature that would be otherwise unknown.
Although, I do write longer poems, I have a strong inclination, like my Irish ancestors who copied the classics, to condense language into scribbled-out small ditties, as the following excerpt from a press release introducing my first collection of poetry describes: The Irish side of my family is rich with storytellers; some poems and a song have been published, and there are a few unpublished novels still floating around. I think the Irish influence in my poetry manifests as humor, my love of wordplay, and my inclinations towards short poems, about limerick in size.
Photo: Self-potrait of feet taken by my son Josh.
~ Originally posted in looseleafnotes.com on March 14, 2006.