One custom that seems almost incredible to anyone from a prosaic culture like ours is poetic improvisation. However, cultures that valued poetry more highly than ours does have often cherished the ability to compose extemporaneous verse, sometimes considering it the defining mark of civilization.
What is a “bard”? To be extremely specific, a bard is a type of poet found in Celtic-speaking cultures since the most ancient times, mentioned as characteristic of the Celtic peoples by the Romans and the Greeks. A bard is seen as the voice of the community, the voice of tradition, and his words carry tremendous moral weight. In the past, it was believed that if a bard wrote a satire about you, you could literally die from the black magic power of it. People don't believe that anymore, but real bards still exist in the Gaelic-speaking areas of Ireland and Scotland and in the Welsh-speaking parts of Wales.
“I saw that I was in the process of making a choice that would end in defeat. By choosing those qualities that were so alien to my own time, I had to give up at the same time the art on which the art of our time rests. I had to paint in defiance of my own era without the protection of the era's superstructure. Briefly put I would paint myself into isolation.”
These are the words of Odd Nerdrum, a modern artist completely out of step with the modern world. I'm writing about him in a blog devoted to poetry because I consider him to be a kindred spirit, and find myself to be deeply in sympathy with his controversial artistic stances.
“Goddess, Cybele, great goddess, lady of Dindymus, let all thy fury
be far from where I am, O my queen.
Let it be others you drive into frenzy, others you drive into
So says the Roman poet Catullus in his long poem “Attis,” supposedly inspired by a nightmare he had after listening to the eerie chanting of the priesthood of the Phyrgian goddess Cybele in his neighborhood in ancient Rome.
Is this bad poetry, or good poetry? Most people now would probably say it was very bad poetry indeed, but most people when it was first published went absolutely wild over it. It was considered one of the most important literary works of the era. It inspired paintings and operas- and a great deal of controversy.