All poetry begins in the dark. In the cave of memory, the new poet lies awake, wrapped in the simple, loose-fitting shift of a sleeper, listening to the echoes of her own breathing and the whine of her own blood in her ears, the only sounds. The close stone walls are damp with her exhalations, sighs of longing or uncertainty, muffled sobs or murmured joys. She can see nothing in the darkness, not even the low ceiling above, but in that senseless obscurity her memory moves, conjuring up fleeting images of apricots, water spigots and firelight, half-heard sounds of bare running feet or the rubbing of tree branches against brick. Sometimes the dank, unmoving air of the cave seems to bring her scents of autumn leaves rotting in the riverbed, or tangled woolen yarn, or muddy earth turned over and mixed with the smell of blossoms. These memories are in her, and they are the beginning of her art. She must seek out the language—its rhythms and articulations, the shapes of its vowels, the teeth and tongue of its consonant stops—seek out the words that evoke and mirror sensation.
In the unlit recesses of the cave, her mind works as her body lies still, remembering. The small round stone rests heavy on her belly—she can feel its weight through the soft fabric and the way it rocks gently as each breath lifts it and lets it drop again. Her mind travels the stumbling, sometimes frantic pathways of the past, aflame with inspiration; she brings it back again, turns it over and over to the weight and solidity of the stone. Fire in the head, anchored in the earth. When the night is over, the waking world will come for her. She must find a way to bring poetry into being, to carry it forward, to bring it from the empty depths of the cave into the morning sunlight. To carry it like the stone: concrete, real, substantive in her hands. Light moves behind her eyes, and the stone wobbles on her solar plexus. All poetry begins this way: an image in the mind, a feeling in the gut, a moment in the dark.
Bardic Practice, Then & Now
Those walking the path of Druidry today can learn a great deal from the practice of poetry, both ancient and modern. The two central aspects of poetic (and indeed all artistic) work, imagination and creativity, hold a significance far deeper than they are usually attributed by our contemporary society concerned primarily with the zero-sum equations of producing and consuming. Far from the mere fanciful cleverness of a child or the amusing eccentricity of a starving artist, they have a potency and power that moves deeply through every person and can unlock our sacred relationship to the larger world. Creativity and imagination—often mistaken as one and the same, but each with its own unique role to play—are the means by which we engage with and shape our world. As a spiritual tradition grounded in the sacredness of nature, the physicality of its movements and moods, Druidry locates a sense of the poetic at the very heart of its worldview. We learn this poetic sense partly from the study of ancient bardic tradition, but just as importantly from our endeavors to create meaningful work of our own.
In poetry, value is both more substantial, and more elusive, than the kind of material wealth we are taught to cultivate by modern Western society. It cannot be counted up and traded away, and yet it springs again and again from the most mundane spaces and experiences. This is an expression of the inherent creativity of life, the continuous coming-into-being that is always occurring around us and can always be rediscovered at any moment. Part of our own creative capacity is the ability to experience the present moment fully and freely, giving ourselves permission to feel passion, fury, fear and joy like tides of energy washing through us, but also allowing ourselves the silence and space we need to listen, to notice the small details hidden within the larger picture. When we engage deeply with the world, the world responds with new diversity and variation, and we in turn cultivate new ways of experiencing the world in a creative, engaged exchange. Both intense feeling and quiet observation find a place in the well-crafted verse, held together in a tension that lifts the piece beyond the literalness of prose and creates ever-new meanings for itself as a poetic work.
Because of this tension between intimacy and distance, between intensity and calm, William Wordsworth once said that poetry was “the outcome of emotions recollected in tranquility.” The ancient bards of Celtic tradition may have had a similar insight. Records of shamanic-like “caves of initiation” preserve the memory of a time when poets and storytellers learned their arts through long hours of intense study, followed by a retreat into silence and darkness. For these students, learning and memorizing the familiar lore of the tribe provided countless opportunities for creativity, as each retelling and recollection reverberated and evolved into ever more meaningful understanding. Some of these verses held within their lines unique insights into the interconnection of life and spirit; others recorded and passed on the knowledge of bloodlines, or the praise or mockery of those in power. In the dark and silent caves, students had to learn how to engage with their art creatively, allowing these meanings to develop and flow into new forms.
To do this, however, they also had to develop the strength and flexibility of their imaginative faculty. Laying quietly as they rehearsed the stories and songs they had been taught, they strived to provoke the sensations and emotions of these events and relationships, learning the patterns and limits of language and how these can be worked to stir the senses and invoke the sacred. Eventually, they would compose their own poetry in that noiseless night, working with their memories of the world, of nature and of the past (and sometimes their premonitions of the future as well). In a non-literate culture that prized oral performance and passed down tales of heroism and records of lineage through song and story, bards carried the knowledge and history of their tribes forward for future generations in a great corpus of learned verse. But a truly skilled bard was also expected to possess a mastery of language and a sharpened mind that enabled him to compose and recite new pieces without setting the sacred work to writing. Sometimes the bard retreated to the dark cave of initiation and memory to compose these. On other occasions, he would try his skills in contests against other poets, improvising as he drew spontaneously on both his experience with composition and the energies of the gathered audience and the present moment.
When we delve deeply into story and song ourselves, we too discover their vital meaingfulness: they communicate, carried across the borders between past and present, between the poet and the reader or listener, without being diminished or lost. This is part of poetry’s imaginative quality, too. An effective poem gives itself as freely as the scent of apple blossoms or the sight of a sunset to anyone willing to listen. In poetry, we capture the fleeting abstraction of thought and ideas in the concrete forms of imagery and sensory details, things that the imagination can grasp with strength and to which it responds with enthusiasm and mutual emotion. A poet who understands the nature of her own mind, the rhythms and weather of her own inner landscape, can work with this knowledge to fire the imagination of others, sharing a sensual experience through language that augments the awareness of the listener and the bond that forms between them. The meaning of poetry expands and evolves as it is shared.
Poetics of Spiritual Living
On the Druid path, we find echoes of poetry in every aspect of our spiritual lives. Imagination and creativity work together to lend vitality and relevance to our work as we seek the meaningful and sacred in everyday experiences as well as those precious moments of ritual and meditation.
When we understand the power of poetry to connect us to the universal, the realm of ideas and ideals through small particular details and carefully chosen words, we also begin to understand the role that imagination plays in our grasp of sacred Spirit dwelling within the physical, natural world. Our imagination allows us to remember and relive the experiences of our senses: the blessed fragrance of fresh cider being poured, or the color of light glinting off old grass as it bends in a wind we too can feel pressing and slipping around our bodies, or the sound of a screech owl in a dark wood. These memories are always available to us, and so we use our imaginations not only to evoke such experiences within meditation and during ritual—as we might recall them within the lines of a poem to paint a scene or provoke a certain feeling—but also to remind ourselves to watch and listen, to value our physical senses as a way of connecting to numinous spirit. Through imagination, and poetry, we learn to always anchor ourselves deeply in the present moment.
Creativity must also play a role in our spiritual lives, however, for the Druid path is not merely one of passive appreciation. In Druidry, it is not enough simply to sit quietly and lose ourselves in our own reveries. Like the poet in the cave of memory and initiation, we must find a way to bring our understanding and reverence from the darkness of dream and desire into the light of conscious day where it can be fully realized, made manifest and shared with others. We recognize this creative process occurring everywhere in the natural world, where the life-energy of the three elements expresses itself in diverse ways. We can’t help but long to participate ourselves in the active process of creativity, moving and shaping our world guided by our imaginations and our gratitude. We write poems, sing stories to each other, play our hands and breath over musical instruments, or take up the paintbrush, the knitting needle or the cook’s measuring cups and paring knives.
Sometimes we spend time in meditation, attending to the patterns of creativity and destruction in the world around us, and these teach us new ways of understanding the universe. When we struggle to express our knowledge through words or evoke a sense of sacred presence through spoken or written language, this too is an act of creativity and not one of restriction or disrespect. We do not damage or restrict the reality of Spirit when we try to speak of it through poetry and story, even if we feel we have only touched one small part of an ineffable whole. All forms of creativity are inherently limited because they require a medium, a material for their expression; yet when creativity is paired with imagination, these limits become the very means of expressing and experiencing the sacredness inherent in nature.
Just as a single shaft of sunlight may be an experience of deity, our poetry and music, our art and ritual, and our lives themselves are unique particulars, beautiful and evocative in their limits, which hold within them the expression and experience of the numinous divine. Druidry recognizes and celebrates the individual, and the unique ways each of us experiences the world and responds creatively to bring life and meaning to our imaginings. No two love poems will ever be exactly alike, and no two Druids will choose to engage in the life of spirit in exactly the same way. Practicing poetry as part of our spiritual journey encourages us to explore our individuality, to value the uniqueness in ourselves and others, to seek out ways we can participate freely and fully in the world—in short, to listen closely to our own soul-song and discover how we might sing it with a voice that is sweet and true.