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Short Prose/Essays

Performance Poetry and the Techniques of Ecstasy
Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a Performance Poet

(Paper delivered at University of Bath Performance Poetry Conference, 2003)


no matter how broken
the ground will transport me
through lashings of colour to light that consumes me
holes in my body and all of them gaping
to haul in the bleeding / to heave out the blocking
the rocking is starting / i’m shaking and spitting
my head is split sideways too rough for my sleeping
a roar from my chest and the singing removes me
eyes thinning out and my soul staring down me
the prince of my bedfoot is streaming around me
he’s waited through days for the chance to embrace me
we’re rushing through spirals of picture and sounding
and feelings too free for a flesh understanding
through flurries / through battles
through love-making / haggles / hassles
hauling / bleeding / screaming / smoking thatch
the withering / cloud / crowds
thinning eyes
i rise

(First poem in Tenant, my narrative poetry sequence set during the Irish famine of 1845-49.)

’Throughout most of archaic Greek thought, the creation of art is associated with ritual, religion, and substance-induced ecstasis.’ (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics)

A poetry slam. A tall figure comes striding onto the stage. He’s dressed in a purple robe that is trimmed with gold and silver and laced with bird feathers. A lackey holds a golden branch over his head. The contestant throws back his hood and his forehead is bright enough to blind. He puts his hands on his hips, exposing a hefty scabbard. He's given a subject on which to extemporize and instantly sticks his thumb in his mouth, drawing uproarious laughter from the audience. A few minutes later, he has flabbergasted everyone with the most astounding piece of spontaneous composition they have ever heard. The poem has a complex rhyming structure and several perfectly uniform stanzas. It is prophetic.

This is Fionn Mac Cumhail, the seer, poet and warrior of Irish mythology. He is an avatar of the archetypal Find, the shamanistic poet-seer who incarnates over and over in the ancient texts. This paper will consider the poem and its delivery as a ’tropographical’ map. With reference to one or more of the stories concerning Fionn from Agallamh na Senórach, I would like to explore the potential for transformation of performance poetry. I will be referring to Shamanistic practices, to theories of the power of the word in form and speech, and to my own particular approach, which is rooted in what I like to call ’Bodytalk’, the verbal expression of body rhythms.

The poem as I see it, is a musical thing. Thats what it was in the beginning, and I think it’s still that way in most people’s hearts. Why else would rhyme be the first thing to enter the average person’s mind when they think of writing a poem? But music is a physical experience. How far do we want to get involved in the music of our own thoughts, in the music of our own experience? How far are we prepared to go in communicating that music to others? Is that what we’re trying to do as performance poets? It’s certainly something I try to do, both in the structure and delivery of the poem. The disembodied voice just doesn’t seem adequate at all.

In the Irish language, someone could be asked to sing a poem and say a song. The phrases used are, Can dán, and abair amhrán. The crossover between the two is where I think performance poetry belongs. And the crossover between everyday reality and the imagination is where inspiration comes from. Which leads me to shamanism - often called the techniques of ecstasy - and how learning a little bit about it has helped me to understand what I’m doing myself.

I’ve subtitled this talk: ’Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a performance poet’. I want to tell you about my favourite Irish mythological character, who was a poet, a hunter, a warrior, a seer, and a shaman. I’m justifying my choice of a mythological character as a model by pointing out that the perceptions of a nation are often enshrined in their mythology, and that legends reflect the main concerns and desires of the society of their time. More material has been written about Fionn than about any other Irish mythological hero, and he is easily the most popular figure in our folklore and legend, even up to the present time. He represents an ancient principal embodied in various characters from antiquity and expressed in his name, which means ’bright’, ’shining’, ’inspired’, and is associated with cognates for ’wisdom’, ’insight’ and ’discovery’. He was the archetypal Irish poet, expressing wisdom through the language of poetry.

If Fionn Mac Cumhaill were here today, he’d probably be something of an Eminem. Maybe Eminem is imbued with the Fionn principle, because one of the first signs of a true poet in ancient Ireland was the ability to compose off the top of his head. There was a phrase for this: díchetal di chennaibh, which translates as chanting from heads. In the case of the Celts, this was literal, because they were head-hunters and were constantly lopping off heads, which then tended to lie around complaining and prophesying (so the myths go), depending on their mood. The original ’talking heads’, you could say.

Symbolically, the heads were the ancestors, and interpreting their speech, or speaking off the top of your own head, meant you were departing from everyday reality and taking a vantage point on the border between life and death, the point of knowledge. In ancient Ireland, poets were expected to have knowledge of the past, present and future, and the only way you can see all of these planes is by stepping outside of time altogether. That’s a tall order when applied to present day poets, but it’s something we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about and aim at.

Fionn’s most famous method of spontaneous composition was unique to him. If any of you enjoy self-mutilation you can try this at home: ’Fionn put his thumb under his tooth of knowledge and chewed it from the skin to the flesh, from the flesh to the bone, from the bone to the marrow, and from the marrow to the juice, and then he understood.’

The thumb-chewing theme is found in deities of some other cultures, and seems to signify intuitive awareness, as in the innate gifts of a new-born baby. This type of unlearned learning was the most highly regarded by the Celts. It was known as imbas forosna (encompassing knowledge). When that knowledge was applied to produce a poem, it was called teinm laéda, which meant ’chant of fire’, a phrase which implied also ’the shining of intellect’.

We have then the three major poetic attributes required of a poet in ancient Ireland: ’encompassing knowledge’; ’the chant of fire’; and ’chanting from the heads or points’. Two of these were disallowed by St Patrick, that is, ’encompasssing knowledge’ and the ’chant of fire’, which goes to show that the method of reaching poetic enlightenment was as dangerous to Christianity as the poem itself.

A Christian glossator wrote that the nature of poetic knowledge called imbas forosna was this:
’It discovers whatever thing the poet wishes and desires to enlighten. This is how it is done. The poet chews a morsel of the red meat of a pig, or a dog, or a cat, and puts it then on a flagstone behind the door. He chants an incantation over it, and offers it to idol gods, and calls them to him, and does not abandon them on the morrow. He chants over his two palms, and calls again idol gods to him lest his sleep be disturbed. He puts his two palms on his two cheeks and sleeps. And he is watched lest he turn over or lest he be disturbed by anybody. Then is revealed to him that for which he is seeking.’ (The meat is probably a reference to Fionn’s thumb, according to Dr Dáithí Óhógáin)

Another requirement of the Irish poet was a melodious voice, and in Fionn’s case this manifested itself in his spontaneous chanting after he had sucked his thumb and gained perspective on the three temporal dimensions. It was also said that his poetry would mollify those who were most troubled or difficult. The chant which emanated spontaneously from him after sucking his thumb was described as poetic rhetoric. Considering that poetry at the time was an exact craft, with poets undergoing rigorous training for as long as twelve years to qualify for the name and enviable position, we can only assume that poetic rhetoric was perfectly constructed poetry. In other words, whenever Fionn looked for encompassing knowledge, it always expressed itself as formal poetry.

As a child, like every other Irish child, I knew about Fionn’s practice of sucking his thumb for wisdom. What I didn’t know was the significance of the sucking and the fact that the result of it was an inspired poetic chant. When I discovered that, everything changed. Fionn’s childish habit then became not just a path to knowledge, but a means of creating poetic form. I like to think that his spontaneous outpouring had significant form, that the tone of his voice, the metre and verse structure, all mirrored the source and nature of the thought. This, of course, is pure conjecture, but it seems to me that the metrical structures we have in poetry already do this. We know that the traditional metres have specific uses and effects, and that we depart from them when they’re not adequate to express what we want to say. Very few contemporary poets would construct a verse like Tennyson’s in The Lady of Shalott, for example. It simply wouldn’t sound right. So we can assume that the metre attributed to Fionn would have been appropriate, as well, to the society of seventh-century Ireland.

Ancient Irish poetry involved much mystery and often riddles. Dorchacht, or ’darkness’ was a name given to poetic speech. The poet himself composed in darkness, and often stood face to the wall to recite. (It was usually a man. At least, the women poets didn’t achieve a place at the right hand of the king.) Sometimes the poet sat in darkness while a bard recited his poem to music. Either way, the sacred and profound nature of the poem was carefully preserved.

But where does shamanism come in? Well, apart from the inspired chanting, Fionn was also a hunter. In fact, His band of warriors, called the Fianna, represented a particular type of social grouping in early Irish society. They were one of many bands of roving warriors, who had got together for the purpose of making war on their own account. Their mode of warfare was considered honourable and lawful. The fiana were often composed of men expelled from their clan (éclaind) or landless men (díthir), sons of kings who had quarrelled with their fathers, men proclaimed, or men who used this means to avenge some private wrong.

The deeds of the fiana were celebrated in song and story, and their existence was considered essential to the welfare of the community. There is a cycle of stories and poems which celebrates this sylvan warrior existence. Fionn and the Fianna came to embody a free but dangerous way of life, full of hunting, fighting, various adventures and misadventures. As we know, shamanism is common to most early societies in one form or another, and is particularly appropriate to the hunting ethos. But there are other indications of Fionn’s shamanic status. The most important of these is his relationship with the spirit world.

In story after story, the Fianna are lured into otherworld dwellings where they are féted and feasted, take lovers, take sides in battle, or find hostile opponents. Ireland is dotted with small mounds that are considered sacred to the fairy people, properly called the Sí. In early Ireland, these sites were very numerous. The mounds themselves were also called , and the Sí people were, in fact, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, the mythical inhabitants of Ireland before the Milesians came along. The Tuatha Dé Danann were magicians, and the agreement was that they could inhabit the inside of the mounds while the ordinary humans inhabited the land outside. The Sí had powers over and beyond those of humans, but we find in the stories that Fionn was their equal in combat, and often outwitted and overpowered them. In one story, Donn, son of Midhir, Fionn and the Fianna are asked to help one of the Tuatha Dé Danann against a rival group, and their help, over a period of a year, resulted in victory.

Yeats quotes one of Fionn’s messengers as saying that ’There is not a king’s son or a prince, or a leader of the Fianna of Ireland, without having a wife or a mother or a foster-mother or a sweetheart of the Tuatha Dé Danaan.’ At the end of Donn, Son of Midhir, Lady Gregory’s translation says: ’And from that time out the Fianna of Ireland had not more dealings with the people living in houses than they had with the People of the Gods of Dana.’
Is there any other way of interpreting such intercourse than to see it as a code for journeying into the world of spirits?

Fionn had two kinds of otherworld venue: the bright, festive one, called simply the Sí, and the grotesque, terrifying one, called the fortress, or bruíon. One story tells how Fionn was horse racing at Clochar in Co. Limerick. He got a black horse from Fiacha, a prince of Munster, and rode back from the strand of Berramhain, near Tralee, to Bairneach, a hillock south of Killarney. He and his companions stayed in a house in the glen with a churl for a host. In the house were a three headed hag and a headless man with one eye protruding from his breast. The churl called for music, whereupon nine bodies came from one side and nine heads from the other. These joined with the hag and other beings in terrible shrieks. The churl killed the horses of Fionn and his companions and offered their raw flesh as a meal. Fionn refused and a fight started. They fought till morning, when the sun rose and the house disappeared, together with all the wounds. Fionn put his thumb under his tooth of knowledge and realised that they had met ’the three phantoms of lubharghlenn’, who had been seeking revenge for the death of their sister Cuilleann of the Wide Maw, at the hands of the Fianna.
(Revue Celtique 7, 290-305)

Here we have the otherworld journey giving rise to prophetic vision and a poem, because that’s how Fionn’s inspiration was communicated. Shamans are known to journey into the spirit world to snare and kill troublesome spirits or to bring back the soul of a sick person. It seems that Fionn’s journeys into the nether realm were a kind of personal and national cleansing. It happens so often in the stories that it must have been one of his major functions. And it’s intrinsically connected with the hunter/warrior ethos of the soldier band. In fact all the stories about all the Fianna have been melded together in this one series about Fionn and his men. While Dáithí Ó hÓgáin says that the later medieval Fenian stories were primarily focused on drama, it’s evident to me that the hunting life is the same life we all lead, one way or another. There’s always the desire, the goal and the food, whether comestible, intellectual or emotional, we need for survival. Then there are the obstacles we meet along the way. Fionn is an embodiment of that journey.

While neo-shamanism tends to eschew violence, there was no incompatibility between hunting, fighting and shamanism in the early societies. This sort of physical involvement isn’t something we associate with poets either, but it should give us some encouragement as performance poets, who like to involve ourselves physically with our words, and try to imbue our poems with the rhythms of activity.
I’ve already said that Fionn had several otherwordly lovers. It’s a common practice among shamans to have spirit lovers. The female Sora shamans of India marry spirit men, who represent their brothers. They are also the spirit sons of their predecessors. Each shaman then has a spirit son, who in turn marries the woman she chooses as her successor. We know that Odin, also a shamanic figure, liked to dress up in women’s clothes, and that the most highly respected shamans in the Navaho and Mohave tribes of North America are male transvestites.

Just as we work with contradictory realities in poetry, with mystery and riddle, so the society of the Fianna was riddled with incongruities. There was a blind man who was a great spear-thrower, a woman dead at night and alive by day (an inverted vampire) and a spear that wounded with its handle, not with its point.
If we take Fionn as a good model for performance poetry, we could see the poem as a kind of tropographical map. The Fionn stories played a large part in explaining the names of certain locations in Ireland and the features asociated with them. The shaman draws a map of the mental state, and often this reflects the landscape. It’s intrinsic to shamanism to be aware of the ground you walk on because of its profound effect on your body and mind. In the same way, the poem is the map of the experience that inspired it, except when you open it up, it should take you there.

Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a performance poet. When I started to write poetry seriously and thought about form, I decided to try as far as possible to represent each experience from the inside out. I wanted to get under the skin of the thing, be it, and take the form from that. When you take that approach, it becomes the most natural thing in the world to perform, because your body has been so involved in the process that you can’t leave it out when you’re presenting your poem to an audience. When you have an organic structure, the poem might ask to be sung, it might ask for movement, it usually begs to be delivered with certain stresses and intonations. All of this mirrors the practices of shamans who, in ecstasy or trance, trip into the other world and return with messages delivered with such power that they can change your life.


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  • Ellis, Peter Beresford (1992). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, London: Constable.
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  • Meyer, Kuno (1910). Fianaigecht, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, Todd Lecture Series.
  • Mindell, Arnold (1994). The Shaman’s Body, HarperSanFrancisco.
  • Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (1988). Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Images of the Gaelic Hero, Dublin: Gill & MacMillan.
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