How to be a Bard

There is a medieval Welsh text known as Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid, which translates as “the grammars of the chief poets.” From the 14th century onwards this collection of bardic grammars has been handed down through the bardic tradition, with each generation revising and adapting it to their needs. One of the things which is included in this collection of poetic instruction is a selection of triads. In Celtic society, triads were a common mnemonic to help remember important things.

The bardic triads in Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid were used to instruct apprentice bards. This makes them incredibly valuable for poets in the contemporary Celtic Christian tradition today. In my book, Psalter of the Birds, I include the following poem outlining a series of bardic triads. It was originally a prose text, but I have adapted it into the format you see below so that it can be chanted along with the other pieces in the psalter. When the text refers to Awen it means poetic inspiration, the illusive fount of poetry hidden inside the human heart.

Three things that make a poem strong
       Depth of meaning, regularity of Welsh
       And excellence of imagination
Three things that make a poem weak
       Vulgar imagination, shallow meaning
       And a lack of Welsh

Three things a poem likes
       Clear declamation, skillful construction
       And the authority of the bard
Three things a poem does not like
       Feeble declamation, vulgar imagination
       And the dishonour of the bard

Three things that make Awen for the bard
       Genius, and practice, and art
Three things that impoverish a bard’s Awen
       Drunkenness, lustfulness, and criticism

Three essentials for a bard
       Liveliness of speech when declaiming a poem
Meditating upon poetic art to ensure it is not faulty
        And the boldness of their answer to what they are asked

Three things that make a bard consistent
       The telling of tales, contemporary poetry
       And the poetry of old

The text says that there are three things which make Awen for the bard: genius, practice, and art. Genius is the part of poetry which comes to us as a gift. It is the eternal echoing of God’s creative Word. Practice and art are the ways in which we support the natural gifts of genius. Genius, it should be said, is not something that is reserved for a special few. Every person has genius inside them, and it is never the same from one person to the next. So, to help us draw out the genius which is contained in our hearts, we turn to practice and to art.

The question must then be asked, what is this art which we are to practice? The text goes on to describe the three things that make a bard consistent: the telling of tales, contemporary poetry, and the poetry of old. These are to be the foundation of our poetic art. One of the intentions behind Psalter of the Birds is to help fill people’s hearts with the poetry of old and with tales to tell. The balance of contemporary poetry and the poetry of old is essential. If you want to explore some modern Celtic poetry, I would gladly point you towards the books of Christine Valters Paintner, which you can find HERE.

The art which we learn from these three sources must then be put into practice. Psalter of the Birds is designed to help people practice the poetry of old through the ancient practice of Christian chant. By singing the poetry of old contained within Psalter of the Birds, we train ourselves in the manner of the Celtic bards. By engaging with the poetry of our spiritual ancestors we deepen our own Awen, which is tucked away in the hidden recesses of our hearts.

And so, dear sisters and brothers, if you feel the call of the bards in your bones, then meditate regularly on these triads. At first they may seem simplistic, but there is deep wisdom there for those with ears to hear. Be sure to take in a steady diet of stories, old poetry, and new poetry and to put them into practice in your daily life. May the Awen be kind to you and may you uncover a myriad of poems waiting for you deep in your heart.

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