Sunday, January 11, 2009

Composing in the dark

(I've just come across a little anthology called Prayers at 3 A.M., collected by Phil Cousineau, which contains an excerpt from my Honey From Stone. At the risk of boring those of you who have read the book, I'll post the excerpt here. The references to luminous owls and the speed of our falling toward the star Vega are only clear in the context of the book. It is night. I am sitting on a hillside in the west of Ireland.)

This is the world I love best -- the world lit by starlight. There are a few dozen electric lights burning in the parish below me, and I can make out another dozen or so lights on the Iveragh Peninsula across Dingle Bay, including the resolute beacon of the Valentia Harbor lighthouse. My immediate environment -- the grassy bank, the hedge of honeysuckle and fuchsia, the wild irises and foxgloves massed in the ditch -- is illuminated solely by the light of stars. Vega, at the zenith, is a thousand times less bright than the full moon, fifty million times less bright than the sun. But multiply Vega's faint light by the 10,000 stars of the summer Milky Way and it is illumination enough.

In the bardic schools of ancient Ireland, the young poets-in-training, having been set in the evening a theme for composition, retired each one to his private cell, a cell furnished with nothing more than a bed and perhaps a peg on which to hang a cloak, and -- most importantly -- without windows, there to compose the requisite rhymes, taking care to observe the designated rules as to syllables, quartans, concord, correspondence, termination, and union, in total darkness, throughout the remainder of the night and all the next day, undistracted by the least ray of the sun, until the following evening at the appointed time when a light was brought in and the poem written down. An eighteenth-century account of the bardic schools by the Marquis of Claricarde asserts that the discipline of darkness was imposed so that the young poets might avoid the "Distractions which Light and the variety of Objects represented thereby commonly occasions," and in darkness "more fully focus the Faculties of the Soul" upon the subject at hand. From the Marquis' language one might suppose that the soul has a light of its own, that it glows with a self-luminosity, like the owls of the Blackwater Valley, and that the soul's crepuscular light is drowned out by the light of day. Certainly poets, like mystics, have traditionally been creatures of the night. The world of daylight is a world of impenetrable surfaces, resplendent, metallic, adamantine. In starlight, surfaces are transparent, like the flesh of a hand held to a bright light, and the soul sees into objects and beyond. But there is a danger that the soul will leak away like water into loose soil, or be dispersed like breath in wind. Could that be why the poets of the bardic schools shut themselves up in total darkness to compose their verses, without the light of a single star? The light of one star is enough to prick night's dark skin, and the enclosing sphere of the sky goes pop like a balloon, and we fall out of ourselves, upward toward Vega, at twelve miles per second, into Infinity.

(And now it is winter, in warm Exuma, and Vega is down there somewhere, on the other side of the world, and instead of falling upwards, we are plummeting downwards, spinning with the whirling Earth, racing around the sun, the whole kit and caboodle hurtling at twelve miles per second -- towards that point in the deep sky where Vega shines in the summer Milky Way.)