Bee-bread for the Poetry Lug

In St Augustine’s Confessions there’s a famous description of one of the key figures in the early Church, St Ambrose, the bishop of Milan: ‘When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.’

This is normally taken as symbolic of a then-new cultural phenomenon, silent reading. As with the Earl of Sandwich, it is generally understood that, just as someone presumably spread some honey or put a piece of cheese between two slices of bread before the early eighteenth century, so too someone else had probably mastered the art of not mumbling as he or she read. But, as with Socrates’ denunciation of writing in Phaedrus eight hundred years earlier (‘an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence’), a more subtle paradigm shift is actually under discussion.

Among the swathes of words memorised in Socrates’ time, one of the more dominant mediums was of course poetry, which was formally designed to be memorised, while the principle type of text Ambrose was studying and indeed composing in was prose, which encouraged and was encouraged by the developing technology of the book. Put very sweepingly, the memorability of poetry was related to its articulation, while the ever-increasing volume of prose contributed to its being silently and speedily read.

Fast forward to a recent online discussion I had with Andrew Phillip and Jen Hamilton-Emery about whether you need to read Scots poetry out loud to understand it fully. In part this issue is raised by the fact that very few English speakers have much experience of reading Scots on the page. That of course includes Scots who have a high level of aural and oral fluency – who in fact use Scots all the time, they just don’t see it written down, and have received very little in the way of education about how they could handle this.

There are two ways of looking at this: one is to see this unfamiliarity as an insuperable barrier, symbolic of the absurd pointlessness of ever engaging with written Scots. Pausing only to note that familiarity, as with getting children to eat their greens as opposed to their carbs and sugars, is only a matter of persistence and repetition, let’s look at the alternative. This is nothing more than the acknowledgement that, in this matter of articulation, as in much else, poetry in Scots can be a testing ground for more general issues about poetry.

Essentially, the page can be a terrible prison for a poem precisely because it encourages silent reading, lulling the reader into treating it as they treat most prose. But any poem needs at the very least to be sub-vocalised to be understood. Put simply and unsynaesthetically, the eye isn’t very good at hearing rhythm – it’s an eye, what did you expect? So to read a poem silently can gradually atrophy the sense of rhythm – certainly it downgrades the impulse to test the rhythm. But even just subvocalising a poem restores the body’s engagement: experienced by the senses, by the mouth and in the ear, it’s not just Scots poetry that comes to life.

By the way, hagiography has it that when Ambrose was a baby, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. The story goes this was read as symbolic of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue, and this is why bees and beehives often appear in his symbology. Except of course his name already carries associations with bees: the pollen and honey mixture bees feed their young is known as ‘bee-bread’ – or ambrosia. So this is a piece of circular reinforcement based on word-play and metaphor: a very poetic cast of thought. Certainly one of the other innovations he’s associated with, Ambrosian chant, is the eloquent opposite of silent reading.

So it may look like you’re pretty dumb, it may make you sound like a stumbling oaf, but if any saints burst in on you while you’re mumbling verse, just tell them it’s all Scots poetry’s fault. We can take it.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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