Nighttime on Still Waters

When blackbirds learn to sing

March 19, 2023 Richard Goode Episode 118
Nighttime on Still Waters
When blackbirds learn to sing
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After a blustery week of wild, mad, March weather, why not join us tonight as we enjoy a sunny moment beside the canal and contemplate on the powerful word-play of some very old Celtic bards. 

Journal entry:

 17th March, Friday

“The sun is warm
 To the west the clouds are Prussian blue
 Like mountains of the imagination.
 A woodpecker laughs
 From somewhere across the fields
 Which fill with lambs
 And the sound of young
 Calling to old.
 A branch hangs whose scars are unhidden.”

Episode Information:

In this episode I read extracts from the following poems:

Amergin Glúingel: ‘The song of Armergin’

Taliesin: ‘An Unwelcome crowd.’

In also briefly refer to the following:

Miles Hadfield’s (1950) An English Almanac published by JM Dent and Sons.
Alexandra Harris’ (2015) Weatherland published by Thames and Hudson. 
Hana Videen’s (2022)  The Wordhord: Daily Life in Old English published by Princeton University Press.  

With special thanks to our lock-wheelersfor supporting this podcast.

Mary Keane.
 Arabella Holzapfel.
 Rory and MJ.
 Narrowboat Precious Jet.
Linda Reynolds Burkins.
Richard Noble.
Carol Ferguson.
Tracie Thomas
Mike and Tricia Stowe
Madeleine Smith

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at nos

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Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message by clicking on the microphone icon.

For more information about Nighttime on Still Waters

You can find more information and photographs about the podcasts and life aboard the Erica on our website at noswpod.com.

JOURNAL ENTRY

 17th March, Friday

“The sun is warm
 To the west the clouds are Prussian blue
 Like mountains of the imagination.
 A woodpecker laughs
 From somewhere across the fields
 Which fill with lambs
 And the sound of young
 Calling to old.
 A branch hangs whose scars are unhidden.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

This is the NB Erica narrowcasting into a mad March night to you wherever you are. It's calm now after a wild and windy week, but the clouds are heavy and thick, and there is no moon or stars. 

I am so pleased that you came, I was really hoping you'd be here. Come inside, the cabin is cosy and the kettle is on. Make yourself comfortable and welcome aboard.  

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

It has been another of those weeks in which we seem to have had all seasons rolled into one! I was reading earlier the treasure trove that is Miles Hadfield’s An English Almanac and in it he quotes one unnamed scientist who described March as comprising, “a hasty panorama of all seasons.” That has certainly been the case this week. On Wednesday I couldn’t get into my car because the doors were so solidly frozen. Today, outside, it has been t-shirt weather. I suppose the last few days can be best characterised as wet and windy. The wind has been backing and veering so frequently and rapidly that I am sure the poor weathercock, spinning away on the village church steeple must be quite dizzy. The wind itself on some days is playful and mild and others its savage and raw. The barometer has rarely been so busy sweeping the dial clockwise and anticlockwise.

It’s all to do with the Sudden Stratospheric Warming which occurred a couple of weeks ago. This creates the conditions for very stable high-pressure systems. The problem is, is that there are a lot of Atlantic driven lows that are constantly battling against the high. We are sitting right under that battle of warm and cold fronts. 

Alexandra Harris in her fascinating book Weatherland observes that equating the different air systems with warfare served as the inspiration for the terms used within meteorology. She notes that:

[READING]  

Although I am a little critical of the tendency to frame everything in terms of conflict and aggression, these last few weeks, I think, the terminology of clashing fronts is an apt one. ‘March’ as Miles Hadfield points out is, after all, named after Martius or Mars, the god of war.

Before that, the Anglo Saxons called it Hlydmonath – the loud month. Hana Videen notes that:

“March continued to be called ‘Lide’, a variant of hlyde, as recently as the seventseenth century” and that, “according to the Menologium, March arrives ‘adorned with rime, passing through middle-earth with hail-showers.’ It is both rēðe (fierce) and hēa-līc (proud).

With the blustering of the wind rushing and beating around the boat and the drum and wash of rain on the cabin roof and sides, it has certainly lived up to its older name. And there has certainly been something heroic about its rēðe and hēa-līc qualities.

Ruth Binney mentions a further name used in Anglo Saxon literature relating to the month of March and that is Lenctenmonath. The month of Spring. Actually, lencten is ‘to lengthen’. Lenctenmonath the month of the lengthening. It is where our term ‘lent’ owes its origin. A period that occurs during the time of year when the days are lengthening, associated within the Christian calendar with not just the lead into Easter, but the conception of the Christ child, the incarnation of God. Again, these themes of light coming to darkness runs through Christian and pre-Christian thought.

And the days are certainly lengthening, we have gained just a few minutes under half an hour of light just this past week, and with them more of the hedgerows are bursting with blossom. The early whites of cherry and damson are now beginning to flow into blackthorn. Most of the blossom, around the boat at least, is still tightly furled in tiny green globes, but it will only take a week or two before the towpaths will be transformed into drifts of snow blossom. Even now, on the edge of perception a haze of green – thin and mist-like – is colouring the browns of winter. The willow, always one of the first to leaf, are getting quite green. Others are clothed in just a gossamer hint of green. But winter’s back is broken.    

[MUSIC]

TUESDAY MORNING, 5.30AM

There’s a feeling that I sometimes get when I sit down on a bank of grass. One of those strange, almost indefinable feelings that I am not sure if it is sensory or purely mental. It is more the former, I think.

I had it just now. It was the first time this year. A sudden, vertiginous, somatic rush. A giddying whirl of the senses. A disorientation that is neither violent or disturbing, but welcoming, comforting. That always takes me back to those places I have never really been; that exist somewhere, but not here, not in the flicker-book moments of my past. Although it links me to fleeting memories – vague, as ephemeral as rings spreading outward on water from a skipped stone.

The canal glints in the warm sunshine. Sparks of light glancing of the water’s surface. And there is that feeling again. I’m here, but not here. I’m lost in a world that makes little sense and yet, here, I feel home – or at least, I am reminded of home. That there IS a home. A home that smells of damp grass, and rustles with dead reeds, that smells hay sweet and is warm as the horses’ breath. The un-silent quietness filled with the myriad movements of life.

Perhaps it just reminds me of all the other half-remembered times that I have sat back among the tall grasses. 

The warmth in this sheltered spot is sleepy and hypnotic. I know I should move on soon. There are jobs waiting for me to do. This is grabbed time. But it’s hard. Hard to resist the beguiling lassitude of sunshine on my shoulders and the gentle stirrings of wind – although, a little further up the hill, the wind is anything but gentle – and it rushes the treetops with exuberant hurrahs!

In fact, I could easily forget that I am sitting by a small reed bed, in a boggy, waterlogged edge of a field in mid-March! The ground glistens and squelches each time I move my feet. But it could be summers past, sweet with the sharp tang of crushed grass and damp soil. Of lying in tall grass, under blue skies, cut feathery with contrails and the slicing sweep of swallows. When time seemed to stand still and I would lose myself in the little patch of earth inches from my nose and be constantly amazed by the wealth of life that small area contained. 

I can hear the tapping of a woodpecker in the copse of trees on the other side of the canal. And the sound of lambs. And always, always, the stabbing curt monosyllables of the jackdaw and the rattling laughter of magpies.

Whatever this feeling is, it is as if a major part of my mind falls silent, shuts down. Something closes down. It is all still there. But I cannot reach it and, for a while at least, I am grateful.

All I am left with is right now. This moment on the bankside of a canal that glitters in the sunshine. Just me. Aware of my physical presence here, incapable of thinking of anything else, but being.

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

When Blackbirds Learn to Sing

“I am the sea blast
 I am the tidal wave
 I am the thunderous surf
 I am the stag of the seven tines
 I am the cliff hawk
 I am the sunlit dewdrop
 I am the fairest of flowers
 I am the rampaging boar
 I am the swift-swimming salmon
 I am the placid lake
 I am the summit of art
 I am the vale echoing voices
 I am the battle-hardened spearhead
 I am the God who inflames desire
 Who gives you fire
 Who spreads light in the gathering on the hills?
 Who can tell the ages of the moon?
 Who can tell the place where the sun rests?”

‘The Song of Amergin’. Powerfully resonant words. Possibly one of the oldest surviving poems from the British Isles, composed or at least attributed to the Irish poet-bard Amergin. It still has power to touch deeply. It does what good poetry does. It helps us to see. It helps us to understand and make sense of us and our lived worlds. It comes from a time when poets and the bardic system were located at the heart of governance – operating as trickster and foil, speaking truth to power and calling remembrance to older wisdoms and knowledge.

It’s that time of year when I am asked to be one of the judges for the poetry competition that is open to all our students and staff. It is a task I dread and look forward to in equal measure. It is one I feel hopelessly unqualified to do. I am not a poet and certainly do not see myself as one – or even see myself as I writer. I love words – their power, their magic. But that is all. I couldn’t identify a ‘good poem’ if one hit me in the face. I often come across poems or pieces of writing that might strike a chord with me (and even share them here), but I can give no consideration or judgement about whether, as poems or pieces of writing, they are good or not – and, more importantly, why.

This all sounds like a classic case of imposter syndrome. However, there is one major difference. It is real. I am – and I am fully aware of it – an imposter. I shouldn’t be there. I am the taxi driver who finds themselves being interviewed on Newsnight about some weighty governmental policy because my name has been confused with the expert that they have actually booked. 

It is a role that I sort of fell into and subsequently have found huge difficulty in attempting to disentangle myself from. It is not that generally I have a difficulty with saying ‘no’ (although it is true, I do), I am not totally convinced that I want to say no. Poetry, writing it as well as reading it, can be powerful. We need poets in this world more than ever. People trained to think deeply and think creatively. To express the inexpressible things that can tame the wild and empower the tamed. To look deeply within as well as to look deeply at the big and large questions we face. I want to be part of something that encourages that growth. That creates the opportunity for someone to pick up a pen or open their laptop and begin to write from somewhere deep inside them.

Okay, so some are a bit rough and awkward. Wrestling with rhymes and the tyranny of scansion. But that is to be expected. The blackbird’s song takes many seasons to mature into the liquid river of song we admire. Many of these are young voices yet to find themselves. The main thing, the most important thing, is that they are given a chance to lift them into the sky and to hear themselves sing. That is a scary, frightening thing. I want to encourage them in that.

Reading through this year’s entries, I have been surprised by how many articulate such a sense of loneliness, of alienation, and disconnection. Sure, these are themes well explored in the stereo-typical tropes of the adolescent poet. Most of the poems try to end on a positive note, but often the note is rather dulled and unconvincing. For the entries from last year and the one before mental health was an often-repeated theme. That was to be expected. The shadow of the pandemic and its after-effects still loomed large. In a world of the digitally connected, a sense of isolation and loneliness seems to be endemic.

I am uneasy about judging these poems. They’re so raw, so intensely confessional and personal. They come from some deep, private, place within the writer. I would certainly be really worried if some of these were to be chosen to be winners where the writer reads them out to the public. I am even, at times, a little uncomfortable about reading them myself. But then again, that is exactly what poetry should do. Disarm us (the readers). Make us think, take our breath away. Open our eyes to something hidden. Writing poetry tends to always first take us to the deepest parts of ourselves. Reflective to the point of discomfort. Articulating those hidden feelings we normally leave unexplored. It’s how we learn to find ways to express what is ultimately inexpressible; the ineffable aspects of our lives. Shadow-boxing our demons until we can lay them low with a neat phrase or win them over as our allies.

It is then that the work of the poet begins. Looking outward. Seeing the world with different eyes. Helping us (the reader and hearers) to make connections that were once lost. We see with new eyes and we see through the eyes of others. The poet makes shamans out of all of us.

[READING]

There are echoes of the song of Amergin in the words of another ancient poet – Taliesin, the sixth century bard from the Old North and then associated with the Welsh bardic tradition.

Taliesin, like Amergin, helps us to inhabit the skins of others – to see the world through different eyes. In one of his poems, he tells the story of a grain as it is made into beer. Part alchemic, part shamanic, part educational, part entertainment.

It is this quality within his writings that has caused some to view Taliesin with shape-shifting or composing within the orbits of shamanism. I don’t know enough about the subject or the literature, but I do know that his words ring a bell that resonates deeply within me. A call to recognise the connectedness of everything – animate and inanimate. 

[READING]

Perhaps this is why that is why I find these poems much more powerful than those of classical English tradition. As beautiful as I am told Caedmon’s hymn is – often framed as the birth of English poetry – it does not touch me as deeply and as powerfully as the words of Amergin and Taliesin and the others from the bardic tradition.  
  

At the turn of this century a group of environmental and climate scientists met together with those within the creative sectors asking for their help. ‘How can you speak to a people/culture about the issues we face when they do not respond to reason or evidence?’ ‘We have said it all.’ ‘We have run out of arguments.’ ‘They may not listen to us they may listen to you.’

Amergin and Taliesin’s voices are once more being listened to. We also need to hear others. Those, like this little groups through whose tentative forays into poetry I am going through. Those who are finding the courage to lift up their voice and be heard – no matter how vulnerable and exposed it makes them. Perhaps, you too. Finding ways to recreate those old lost connections; to see the world in the ways we need to see it; to help us to see through ‘the other’s eyes’; to help us create I-Thou relationships from those we have always viewed as ‘I-It.’

[READING]

SIGNING OFF

This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very warm, peaceful, and restful, night. Good night.

WEATHER LOG



Introduction
Journal entry
Welcome to NB Erica
News from the moorings
Miles Hadfield on March
Alexandra Harris 'Weatherland'
Hana Videen on 'Wordhoard'
Tuesday Morning, 5.30am
Cabin chat
When blackbirds learn to sing
'The Song of Amergin'
Taliesin 'An Unfriendly Crowd' (Extract)
Taliesin 'An Unfriendly Crowd (2nd extract)
Signing off
Weather Log