As I Roved Out: a folk musician and geopoetics, a talk by David Francis
This talk is in nine short sections and my hope is that each will illuminate the other in some way and that together they might give an indication of how geopoetics might link with my artistic practice as a musician, songwriter and advocate of what have come to be known as the traditional arts.
I’ve always loved this from Paolo Freire, the great Brazilian philosopher of education, who championed the cause of critical pedagogy and education as the practice of freedom, of de-colonisation of the mind as a first stage to liberation of the individual. Freire was the inspiration and guiding light of the Adult Learning Project here in Edinburgh. Freire said ‘It is the ontological vocation of humankind to become more fully human.’
A key feature of human existence is the connection, desired and actual, to something outside and beyond our own individual, corporeal existence. ‘We are the cosmos made conscious,’ as Brian Cox put it recently (and on prime time telly too). For me, human consciousness is part of a continuum with a wider reality – the human extends into nature, is in relationship with it and is not separate from it.
The desire for connection has a corollary, the desire for unity. Scientist David Bohm expresses it well when he says we wish ‘to find in the reality in which [we live] a certain oneness and totality, or wholeness, constituting a kind of harmony that is felt to be beautiful’; as does Kenneth White (2001) with his concept of the Beautiful Thing: ‘contact between subject and object in a context of non-separation. What emerges from that contact is the Beautiful Thing’, the interpenetration of the body-mind and the cosmos, and not just the starry void at that, but a universal field transcending the seeming division between matter, psyche and spirit, what John MacMurray called ‘the infinite ground of all finite phenomena.’
What do we mean by Geo-poetics? Kenneth White, paraphrase 1.
Just as each human culture has had a principal motif and a poetics at its centre – be it myth, religion, metaphysics or history – the context today calls for a central motif and a new poetics for a new world-culture, a deep-going, out-looking movement leading to an open and freely evolving world.
That motif, that radiant centre which can reach out in an infinite number of ways to things related or dependent, is the Earth on which we try to live. The new poetics is concerned with a relationship to the Earth, presence in the world and the cosmos, and the opening of a new world.
Poetics – the nous poetikos – applies not only to poetry as a literary form, but also to art and music, and can be extended into science and social practice. Art needs that poetic intelligence, that active intellect, to form a new discourse, a logos, behind art.
Geopoetics is the means to break into a larger space, and to illuminate that penetration. This, for me, is the telling phrase.
Culture, in the individual context, implies a conception of the human being. It is the way human beings conceive of, work at, and direct themselves.
The geopoetic conception is ‘poetic inhabitant of the Earth’.
Culture (cultivation) implies work and a work-field. The root of all culture is the relationship between the human mind and the Earth.
We are poetic inhabitants of the Earth, our immediate, grounded connection to the cosmos. Norman McCaig once described the senses as ‘the five ports of knowledge, into which come many cargoes’ – and, he said, ‘we should unship the lot.’
Not long ago I was flying over Baffin Island, and looking out the window this is what I wrote:
A few minutes ago there were mountain tops, hollows filled with the whitest snow. The sky is deep blue, small clouds suspended below us. In one of the hollows was a crescent of water, a perfect crescent, the water turquoise. Snow spirals across the land like the Crab Nebula, dense clouds of stars in space. No two shapes the same, order and chaos at one and the same time. The thought rises – cosmic events, the elements of the cosmos replicated at every level, stars, snow on the tundra, snow-flakes, atoms. They say quantum events are uncaused. Maybe the universe itself is a quantum event, random, uncaused, beautiful, chaotic, deeply ordered. Earlier we passed over the Davis Strait, ice floes and water reflecting a golden sun. Not a hint of symmetry, but a glimpse of… something.
Standing at the corner of Linlithgow Palace looking out and over, a meditation, my mind moving across time.
On the ridge in the distance a phone-mast.
On the loch two fishermen in a fibre-glass boat.
The parkland round the loch, recently laid out, mowed, planted with young trees. Over there a Victorian lodge in its grounds.
The farmland shaped in the last three hundred years or so, corn, mature trees.
The 500 year old palace. The loch, probably formed as the ice melted.
Rooks and gulls.
I was meditating on all of these when a blast of wind came up from the loch and, like a Zen master striking a questioning novice, hit me full on the face. The wind – what could be more ancient? Bringing me right back to the here and now!
For all I think of myself as a folk musician, I take pleasure in the Great American Song Book, and not just for the tunes, the chords, the often witty lyrics, or the opportunity it offers for improvisation and thus some of the 20th century’s greatest music. It’s also that I can occasionally find what seems to be a critique of the way we live, that I can project on to the otherwise oblivious lyricist’s work a concern or a preoccupation of my own. There will be a line or an image that hints at something beyond the stock-in-trade of love relationships, something going beyond sentiment to, let’s call it sensation.
One example would be Rodgers and Hart’s Little girl blue, where Nina Simone sings with ineffable sadness ‘All that you can ever count on are the rain drops’ – a banality at first sight. Sure, the song itself is sentimental. How many times in these old show tunes have ‘rain drops’ been a component of slush? With its ironic Christmas carol counterpoint, and its crowd-pleasing pay-off line (‘why won’t somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer up little girl blue’), the song is redeemed by a beautiful melody, and in Simone’s version by the sympathy in her voice, and an edge glinting through the smoky softness, a determination not to be defeated.
It may be that it’s the seriousness and portent of Simone’s voice and delivery that allows me to give the song, or at least that one line, more weight than it really wants to bear. Yet I fancy that it’s possible to propose that the song could be saying that, at a difficult time, when human relationships seem to have let you down, the only solace is to turn up your face to the sky and rely only on the sensation of natural things as a guide to what is real. The human world, the world of culture, is not to be relied on. Only in nature will we find truth.
Up until recently, and even now, in some powerful strands of Western thought, turning to nature, counting only on the rain drops if you like, might be seen as unwise counsel indeed. Nature is not to be trusted. It is to be subjected to human will and brought to heel. But it might be that in these times, trusting to nature is the only chance we’ve got. In fact we have to go beyond trust, and start seeing ourselves again as indivisible from nature. How to begin? By opening our senses to what nature is, to the reality of the world. And any of us who lay claim to the term ‘artist’ have an urgent duty to explore that contact and express it. We have to become naturalists, not with a safari suit, a sample jar, and a magnifying glass, but with the creative tools at our disposal, in order to encourage others to re-examine their relationship with nature.
Here’s an example of writing that’s a long way from Lorenz Hart’s world, the second stanza of Kenneth White’s Ludaig Jetty.
now here at Ludaig jetty
there is only
the wind and the light
the cry of a peewit
and the lip-lip-lipping
of grey water on white sand
Camille Pissarro, the painter, said: ‘You have to have sensations in order to have ideas.’
Kenneth White: Paraphrase 2.
A local context, for example a country like Scotland, is a microcosm, or a bio-region, which begins with a ground, a geology – the archaic ground. Contact with and consciousness of that ground – thinking-in-the-territory – is fundamental for a reconstitution of the full mind, for the renewal of culture.
The question of and obsession with local, regional, national identity arises when a field of energy, deriving from contact with a ground, is lost. There is no point in talking about roots unless you also talk about ground. However, once you have regained a significant centre, you can map out the rest, re-set the co-ordinates after wide-ranging reconnaissance has opened up new perspectives, delineated new space. By opening out we do not lose roots and identity, but extend and enlarge them, recovering scope and energies.
Geopoetics is out to speak, play, or graph the ground-tone (‘the pure music of the landscape which announces nothing’) which can be heard all over the Earth, to get on to its wavelength. Geopoetics aims at a new mental geography and a new language of communication. The geopoetician goes for direct perception moving up, via description, into graphic thought, a language of earth and sea dynamics; as writer tracks and traces, practises writing as itinerary and as cartography, out to delineate new space, thereby enlarging mental categories and increasing the sense of world. Writing is a power, a fundamental activity, and that activity is linked to the phenomena of nature. The line made by a mountain-range or a sea-tide, and a line of writing are analogous, in terms of the forces at work which have brought about these similar forms.
(Compare this from poet Robert Bringhurst: ‘Reading, like speech, is an ancient, preliterate craft. We read the tracks and scat of the animals…We read the horns of sheep, the teeth of horses. We read the weights and measures of the wind, the flight of birds, the surface of the sea, snow, fossils, broken rocks, the growth of shrubs and trees and lichens…This is a serious kind of reading, and it antedates all but the earliest, most involuntary form of writing, which is the leaving of prints and traces, the making of tracks.’)
This writing works on a threefold process of eros (energy in movement), logos (gathering together what’s there, finding adequate language) and cosmos (the composition of unities). What counts in a poet is what he gets back to, and what he goes out to. Between these poles is generated a complex field.
People in Scotland today are born into a cultural ecology in which the stories that were told, songs that were sung, music that was played and dances that were danced find contexts where they are still told, sung, danced and played. Those contexts may have altered and look different to those in which the original material was made and shared, but they still have meaning for many today, although for many more they are hidden and obscure.
You may have been fortunate enough to have been born into a family or a community where the traditional arts are valued and practised, where the benefits of sharing them in fellowship and conviviality are known; where a deep connectedness to the social life and world-view of our forebears is felt as a shared identity with the dead and the living.
You may not have been born into such a family or community, but nonetheless feel the resonances. You want to find out more. You may not have been born into such a family or community and are glad of it, seeing in those traditional arts an unwelcome reminder of a past you are trying to forget as you make your way in a globalised world of modernity and progress. You might even be a bit embarrassed by it. You may not have been born into such a family or community, know nothing of any traditional culture, and feel no resonances from it.
From Alexander Smith, ‘A summer in Skye’:
“There was a huge dresser near the small dusty window; in a dark corner stood a great cupboard in which crockery was stowed away. The walls and rafters were black with peat smoke. Dogs were continually sleeping on the floor with their heads resting on their outstretched paws. The door was almost continually open, for by the door light mainly entered.
“When Peter came in with his violin the kitchen was cleared after nightfall; the forms were taken away, candles stuck into the battered tin sconces, the dogs unceremoniously kicked out and a somewhat ample ballroom was the result. Then in came the girls, with black shoes and white stockings, newly-washed faces and nicely smoothed hair; and with them came the shepherds and men-servants, more carefully attired than usual. Peter took his seat near the fire; McIan gave the signal by clapping his hands; up went the the inspiring notes of the fiddle and away went the dancers, man and maid facing each other, the girl’s feet twinkling beneath her petticoat, not like two mice but rather like a dozen; her kilted partner pounding the flag floor unmercifully; then man and maid changed step, and followed each other through loops and chains; then they faced each other again, the man whooping, the girl’s hair coming down with her exertions, and with a cry the dancers rushed at each other, each pair getting linked arm in arm, and away the whole floor dashed into the whirlwind of the reel of Hullichan. It was dancing with a will – lyrical, impassioned; the strength of a dozen fiddlers dwelt in Peter’s elbow; McIan clapped his hands and shouted, and the stranger was forced to mount the dresser to get out of the way of whirling kilt and tempestuous petticoat.”
Contact with the earth, conviviality, an erotic charge – it’s all there!
The Lewis bard, Murdo MacFarlane:
It wasn’t the snow and frost from the north,
it wasn’t the sharp withering cold from the east,
it wasn’t the rain and the storms from the west
but the disease from the south that blighted
the blossoms, foliage, trunk and roots
of the language of my people…
What links geopoetics and the folk arts is the figure of the bard. Timothy Neat, the film maker, writer and biographer of Hamish Henderson, has made a particular study of the bard in Scottish culture: ‘The childhood familiarity of the bards…- with wild nature, with chosen words, with traditional song and story, with religious values – has obviously been crucial to their lives and their development as poets, as has the relative poverty, the work, and the elemental grandeur of the environments within which they grew up.’
The bard articulates the concerns of the community, crystallises its aspirations and hopes, expresses its feelings, re-affirms its identity.
And then there’s The Bard…
The pairtrick loes the fruitful fells,
the plover loes the mountains
The woodcock haunts the lanely dells
The soarin hern the fountains.
Thro lofty groves, the cushat roves,
the path o man to shun it
The hazel bush oerhangs the thrush
the spreading thorn the linnet.
From the bard we’re not so far from the shaman, breaking through to another realm in order to bring back knowledge, but always returning to reconnect with the earth beneath his or her feet.
Hamish Henderson said: Artists must try to reach completeness again – though, in our age, they are unlikely to achieve it…Gradually the poet and the community must be threaded together again – and we must start here, where we stand – we can do no other.
So here is a kind of personal manifesto, guiding my practice.
We live on Earth. We stand on the ground, our place, our Locus.
Begin with that ground – its morphology and its surface detail, its distinctiveness. Map it out, write it, sound it.
This is an individual project, but humans are also social beings, dependent on each other for the fulfilment of our existential needs. Moreover art needs perceivers who can share in the possibilities it offers.
The artist works with the community to open a new world.
The artist: the describer, the pointer towards truth, the shaper, the maker of myths, the opener of space, the cartographer.
The artist who feels allied to a community has a role not unlike the bard, or shaman.
Members of the community: the individual with a stake in their place, a stake in communal relations; the store of memory; perhaps the migrant who needs to establish a relationship with a place.
The teacher introduces the relevant skills, explores possibilities, brings out potentialities for expression.
Explore idea of living well, recognise the dialectic between individual and collective aims and desires in the community. The dialectic between artist and community would be part of this discourse.
Make community by making art in, with and for the community
Focusing communal energy towards relationship with the Earth, sustainability, harmony, justice. (A kind of politics)
Challenge alienation and a sense of meaninglessness.
Map the community by going to the store of memory (re-investigating the past), bringing out the layering of place (natural and cultural) (recovering resources), and by expressing it creatively (deploying energies)
engage with indigenous energy, the folk tradition, as part of the exploration of that layering – some current, some latent – as expressed in music, dance, story, food, custom.
foster, sustain and renew aspects of that indigenous energy as part of that engagement.
I’d like to finish with a line or two from one of my own songs ‘There is a Light’, which maybe sums up what I’m aiming for.
Play the river’s sound
speak the falcon’s cry
write the touch of moss and bark and stone.
Hear the skylark’s song
falling through the air
touching the earth, its home.
Bohm, David. (2004). On creativity. Abingdon: Routledge.
Bringhurst, Robert (1999). A Story as Sharp as a Knife: the classical Haida Myth tellers and their World. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Freire, Paolo (1972). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
McNeill, Marjory (1996). Norman MacCaig: a study of his life and work. Edinburgh: Mercat Press
MacMurray, John (1965/ 1995). The search for reality in religion. London: Quaker Home Service.
Neat, Timothy, with John MacInnes. (1999). The voice of the bard: living poets and ancient tradition in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Neat, Timothy (2007). Hamish Henderson: a biography. Vol 1: The making of the poet. Edinburgh: Polygon.
Smith, Alexander (1865/ 1998). A summer in Skye. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
The Cast (2007). There is a light. From Greengold. Culburnie Records.
Simone, Nina (1958). Little girl blue from Little girl blue. Bethlehem Records.