When, at long last, I decided to stop reading and meditating on the Chivalric Code and to begin the work of the creative process, I felt so passionately about it that I decided to find a complex poetry form from Europe, and from the time period in history when Chivalry was being codified, to lend greater authenticity to the work. A subject so weighty as the Christian warrior ethos, surely merited the effort.
After researching I decided on the “Dán Díreach” or “Direct Verse” of the Gaelic culture, which was the premier or higher poetry form from the 1100’s to the 1600’s AD. Since so much of knightly chivalry was influenced by Celtic spirituality and the lore of Britannia, and since it is the greatest part of my personal ancestral heritage, I felt it altogether fitting.
Dán Díreach proved to be a very rigid and difficult form of poetry at first, but came more easily to me with every new poem. My goal, of course, was to keep to the heart of this complex poetic form, whilst also creating, in English, poetry that flows as beautifully as if Id had no restraints at all. I succeeded in this aim in some verses better than in others.
Why I write structured poetry rather than free verse.
Let me take a moment and deal with the broader subject of why I predominantly write metered and structured poetry, when it is considered “old school” or antiquated by the contemporary movement toward free verse.
I recently had a dear and lifelong friend send multiple videos of slam poetry to me.
Each of the videos were of young white upper middle class women throwing tantrums about first world problems. They were talented in their art and the performances were exceptional. But my friend followed up the links with a comment that only a lifelong friend would feel comfortable saying to someone that writes structured poetry;
“Anyone can string lines together and give them rhyme. But… this to me is poetry”
She unwittingly walked into a whirlwind of strong feelings that I have on this topic.
I kept beginning replies to her, and then I’d stop myself saying, “You need to write on this anyway, so just save it.” So here it is:
We live in an age that “throws off restraint.” We don’t like rules. We don’t like government. We don’t like structure. We care little for the “old landmarks.”
Art imitates life, imitates art.
Our poetry is as unstructured as an Apple office space that’s done away with rooms and partitions. Abstract expressionist art of paint flung on canvases hangs on the walls of those that take pride in having no structure to their lives or relationships. Some of our music too has evolved to a place of little discernibility, just as our faith has cast of “religion for relationship.”
I am not writing here to say that an artist throwing paint on a canvas is not art. Nor am I writing here to say that free verse is not poetry. On the contrary, I’ve dabbled in free verse and even have some examples of it in my book of poetry. It is, to me, akin to taking my sleddog team off their leads and letting them run freely. It is a joy to watch.
But allow me to expand on this analogy. When my sled dogs are hitched to the sled, in tandem, each in their designated places, they accomplish something different. Something that could not be accomplished otherwise. Their running becomes directed, toward a goal. Rather than running in circles with no real purpose other than to amuse, we accomplish a mission together in our structure. They travel further. Not only do they get themselves to a destination they would not have otherwise, but they contribute to the delivery of heavy cargo that none of them would have been able to budge on their own.
So why do I write structured and metered poetry? I know it is considered old fashioned.
Why, do I further isolate myself from any hope of a readership by seeking greater and more complicated structures to create in, than to follow the mainstream?
Because I believe in structure.
I believe that structure in life, in art, in faith, is a good thing. I believe in structure for the same reason I held to pure martial art forms when all my comrades abandoned the singular for mixed martial arts.
Because I am an artist.
I would like for my art to get the readership needed to make an impact, but that is not why I make it. I make it because my soul compels me to. I do not follow the popular abstract expressionist art in both visual and written forms, because I am not a product of the society. The poet’s soul is to be a prophet’s soul. A seer’s soul. And the prophet, the seer, the poet, is set apart from the masses, and cares nothing for social norms.
Anyone who thinks that “Anyone can string lines together and give them rhyme” has obviously never tried to write a poem using the structure of the Persian Masnavi or the Gaelic Dan Direach. And, of course, within that complex structure, I must find my way to write something that, not only flows and makes sense, but that conveys a deep and meaningful truth.
Which is art?
Does it take less skill for a poet to write a poem that beautifully conveys the purposeful message he or she has set out to deliver within these artistic parameters than it does for a creator of free verse to say what they want to say with no restrictions whatsoever?
Or course the answer is no.
It is as my dean of music used to say back when I was in college,
“You should not go breaking the (musical) rules, until you know what they are, and have a good reason for breaking them.”
The same can be said of the musical rules of poetry. Master the structure before you offer us your free verse, else it will appear you are making excuses for your inability to do so rather than taking creative license from them.
Some people would throw stones into a heap, or wood into a pile, and say, “Here is art!”
I do not disagree.
But for me, I’d rather look to the artistic marvels of castles, and cathedrals, pyramids, synagogues and mosques and say, “Here is art!”
I would hate to have to walk onto a slam poetry stage, unprepared, and deliver their art. I would not do well.
But I would suggest, that those who think “anyone can write structured poetry” try their hand at an ancient structured form before casting judgement.
The Dán Díreach
Rhyming in poetry is not in classical literature. There is very good reason to believe that rhyme in poetry has its origins in Celtic society and spread throughout medieval Europe by way of literate Irish Celtic Christian Monks that founded their literary schools across Europe. And the Dán Díreach was the most complex evolution of poetry in the Celtic world.
These masterful poems were written by the “Fildh” or the “Seer.” The seer did not himself perform the poem but directed the entire production as a conductor would an orchestra. . The aim was to mesmerize the hearers with the vocal versatility, wisdom, and spiritual depth.
The reciter of the poem was called the “Marcach Duain” or the “Poem Rider.”
The poem itself was not intended to be read, but was chanted rhythmically with the accompaniment of music- typically with a harp and occasionally a Bodhran (Celtic drum). This musical type was more akin to modern Rap than to spoken word poetry.
In fact, some scholars suggest that African American forms of music were highly influenced by the Gaelic spoken poetic forms in the Caribbean and American south during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is surmised by some that Caribbean, and blues and modern rap, are the descendants of the Gaelic Dán Díreach.
The Fildh, or Seers (the authors and conductors of the poems) were the rock stars of their day, being paid lavishly by the wealthy patrons- about whom the poems were written- with apparel, gold rings, horses and land.
What makes the Dán Díreach such a complex poetic style?
Let us unpack the architectural parameters within which the Seers had to create such beautiful works.
The Dán Díreach poem consists of quatrains (four line verses) called “Rann.”
Each four line Rann is divided into couplets called “Leathran.”
The single lines of the Leathrans couplets are called “ceathramhain.”
Whatever sound, syllable or line the poem began with, it must also end with. This is called “Dunabh” or “closing.”
The rhyming of words- which again we must note was newly introduced to Europe by the Celts, was called “Comhardadh.” Their rhyming was not sorigid as ours is today, however, as various types of “same vowel sounds within the word” were used as well as word ending sounds.
Alliteration was often woven into lines as well. This was called “Uaim.” A less rigid form of alliteration where only the first letter of the words is the same was most often employed. This was called, “Uaim Sul.”
There are seven types of meters used in Dán Díreach poetry, but I have chosen to use a variation of “An Rannaiacht Mhor” for this work- which requires seven syllables per line.
In 1845, in the book “A Grammar of the Irish Language” John O’Donovan sets out seven requisites of Dán Díreach, which I have focused on for the purpose of this book.
1. A certain number of syllables per line. As I have noted before I have taken a seven syllable line as inspired by the “An Rannaiacht Mhor” meter.
2. Each four line quatrain, or verse- called “Rann”- must make a complete thought by itself as a standalone statement.
3. There should be Alliteration, or “Uaim” employed in the poem.
4. The poem must rhyme- but not as rigidly as modern English rhyming poems. This in Gaelic is called “Comharda.”
5. In the meter I am employing, the termination, or “Rinn” of the second line of the line couplets, called Leathrans, must have one more syllable than the last word of the first line (this whilst maintaining the seven syllable per line meter).
6. Union, or ‘Uaithne” meaning nearly the same as Correspondence, which is another near rhyming tool employed.
7. In the “Seadna” forms, the second line of each coupling must end in one syllable word. But I chose rather to go with the more difficult tradition of Rinn termination described above, where the number syllables in every line are the same, while requiring that the second line always end with a word that is one syllable longer than the first line.
Please consider the hand drawn illustration below for reference.
Later collection of Dán Díreach poems into a book- like the one you hold in your hand- was called a “Duanaire.”
There are other engineering restrictions, which were deliberately applied, like hard and soft consonant use, perfect and broken rhymes, rhyme within lines rather than at the terminus, etc. I could fill another page with terms and poetic tools used by the Seers, when creating a Dán Díreach. But I will leave off from this now and only say that these other poetic tools too, were considered, and often employed herein.
In conclusion then…
The structure you will find in the Dán Díreach poems of this book is based on the application of various Gaelic poetic tools from this genre of poetry.
-Each poem will have four line quatrains.
-Each quatrain is a standalone statement.
-Every line of each poem will be exactly 7 syllables.
-The last word of every second line of the couplets will have one more syllable than the last word of the first line of the couplet.
-Alliteration and other near rhyming tools will be applied.
-The poems will end with the same line they began with.
In addition to these poetic tools given me by the tradition of the form, I have also imposed some further structure of my own.
-Each poem has an opening quatrain that introduces the Chivalric Virtue of the poem.
-Each poem has a quatrain dedicated to applying the virtue to Martial Chivalry.
-Each poem has a quatrain dedicated to applying the virtue to Romantic or Courtly Chivalry.
-Each poem has a quatrain dedicated to applying the virtue to Religious Chivalry.
-Each poem has a closing quatrain that concludes the Chivalric Virtue of the poem.