I’ve been ill for much of this week, so I devoted an even greater portion of it than usual to lying in bed reading poems. Illness seems to have brought me back to the motherland, which in my case is 1000 Years of Irish Poetry (1947), edited by Kathleen Hoagland (NY: Welcome Rain, 2000), wherein I found the following:

The File or Ollambh required twelve years of instruction in poetic elements, the bard seven years. The Book of Ballymote describes the file’s ordination: when he received the degree of Ollambh he also received the right to wear the mantle of crimson bird feathers, the right to carry the golden musical branch or wand of office, and to fill the highest post in the kingdom next to the king. (xxxv)

Picture the student loans on that! Twelve years—7 if you went to Bard—but understand that being a pre-druidic file also meant being a wizard/soothsayer and lawyer/legislator so those years weren’t simply spent workshopping poems. You needed a certain breadth to be a poet back then.

I’m not saying I regret this subsequent specialization. What I am saying is that to be a poet is to pursue one of the most ancient activities on the earth. I was going to say “artistic” activities but clearly it was more than artistic for the fili and it’s more than artistic for many poets on this blog. Why spend the month meta-fretting? It’s like a meeting of the Plumbing & Heating Wholesalers blindly consuming Winifred Holmes’s typography in Kathleen Rooney’s found poem post.

The earliest Irish poem according to 1000 Years is reputedly twice as old as the book’s title and is attributed to Amergin, though the written source is the 11th century Book of Invasions in Douglas Hyde’s translation:

The Mystery

I am the wind which breathes upon the sea,
I am the wave of the ocean,
I am the murmur of the billows,
I am the ox of the seven combats,
I am the vulture upon the rocks,
I am a beam of the sun,
I am the fairest of plants,
I am a wild boar in valour,
I am a salmon in the water,
I am a lake in the plain,
I am a word of science,
I am the point of the lance of battle,
I am the God who created in the head the fire.
Who is it who throws light into the meeting on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who teaches the place where couches the sun? (3)

Originally Published: April 13th, 2012

Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...