Tag Archives: poetry


I have dug out my Oxford Book Of Narrative Verse again. I do this every once in a while when I remember that I intend to learn and perform “The Keeping of The Bridge” by Lord Macaulay one day. It’s quite a task since it goes on for 11 and a half pages featuring 410 lines. It’s a stirring piece of writing! The alternating lines of tetrameter (8 syllables) and trimeter (6) are flexed and altered to great effect causing it to surge here and lean back there but always return to it’s energetic forward motion. The action, in which three soldiers, led by bold Horatius, hold an attacking army of thousands back while the bridge behind them is destroyed to stop Lars Porsena and the Etruscans* from sacking Rome, is thrilling stuff. It’s long. It is classic. It is heroic. You might even call it “Epic”, you would be wrong, but I think most people would let you get away with it.

This morning the postie delivered me a copy of the Mahabharata**. Now the Mahabharata is epic. 640 pages of epic, weighing in at half a kilogram in paperback! Originally composed in Sanskrit and forming a foundational text for the Hindu religion, it is the oldest and longest poem ever written with over 200,000 lines of verse and some chunks of prose as well. Size however is not the governing factor.

To be epic, a poem must have specific content and form. It must range across a swathe of time as well as paper, it must include gods. Aristotle maintains the poet must request the blessing of a Muse or other handy demi-deity of artistic inspiration before the action kicks off. Spiritual grovelling out of the way, the tale should begin in the middle and must have flashbacks.

For all his bravery, Horatius’s bridge defending fails on all three of these counts: The events all happen, not just in one day, but within a few hours; the temples of the gods are mentioned but the gods themselves are MIA and take no part in the proceedings; and the action, as if to make the King of Hearts proud, begins at the beginning and goes on till it comes to the end; then stops.

India has it’s own set of conditions for an epic to meet including descriptions of cities, seas, mountains, moonrise and sunrise, and a list of life events to include such as drinking bouts, love-making, a wedding, the birth of a child, a battle, the victory of a hero, and curiously, merrymaking in gardens and bathing parties. Despite Aristotle not having been born at the time the Mahabharata was completed, it still manages to meet all of his requirements as well as the local ones, making it not only longer than the Greek classics but more epic than the people who invented the word.

By this point you may have realised that “epic” is generally as misapplied as when someone calls their mate a legend for coming back from the bar with the drink they asked for… but I have another level to ad to your discombobulation. The origin of the term is the Greek “epos” which means “a word”, though also “a story”. This in turn is believed to derive from the Proto Indo/European root “wekw” meaning “to speak”. Such a simple beginning for a word, whose journey over time to its current meaning, could almost be described as itself: Epic.

* Not an eighties New Romantic pop group.
** I had actually ordered it, the Royal Mail don’t just randomly send me mythological source books from around the world.


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Goblins Get Groove.

A hundred gruesome goblins came grooving down the hill,
their teeth were long and pointy, their appearance ugly still
but their fingers snapped and tapped and clapped,
their stinky feet on the hard stone slapped
and a goofy grin in their faces cracked
as their leader started his beat box act

The Dwarves at first were most nonplussed
as with their axes and armour they fussed,
but soon the rhythm got in to their feet
and they swayed and stamped to the goblin beat

The elves can never resist a song
so within a few minutes they all sang along,
harmony and counterpoint filled the air
soothing the hearts of the warriors there
washing away all the trouble and care
as the goblins danced on the rocky stair

A troll added scat bass that boomed round the vale,
A farmer cracked open a barrel of ale,
a wizard made orbs of light spin through the air
and dryads made flowers sprout in their hair

War was forgotten as they all gathered round
and the weapons were heaped in a great big mound,
armour was stripped off and thrown on the ground
while every race got down and moved to the sound
of the infectious groove that the goblins had found

Later that evening they all made a pact
to treat each other with kindness and tact
and to help, and to succour if anyone lacked.
They signed it in blood as a legal act
and on the bottom of that solemn tract
so all would remember, a note was tacked
it reads: “Goblins are groovy and that’s a fact!”

Copyright Cliff Eastabrook 2010


Filed under Goblins, Poetry

Inside A Storyteller

English is a cruel mistress, a temptress dressed in rich robes, with ruffles and rubies, elegant in smooth silks and satins.  I love her lines of Anglo-Saxon alliteration, as she dances forward in double stresses, stepping and stamping with pride and passion.  I love her softer side, scented prose, seducing with the smooth susurration of sweet assonance.  Her slyly smiling similes and magical metaphors beguile and entrance.  I love the very bones of her, words made of a calcium recycled long ago from some far off land, rugged enough for rigourous use yet still flexible enough to take on a new meaning in the mouths of our successive generations.

Yet her most sinuous moves seem always saved for the caress of another’s pen, her most delicate curves reserved for the brush of other lips.  With me her favourite game is hide and seek.  Here, at the computer I can draw and redraw her elusive beauty, tame her with tools, trap her with a thesaurus.  She teases me as I do so: “Too clumsy” she admonishes, “Too clever” she sighs, “Too much altogether!” she giggles and then hides.  Again.

But I am a spoken word artist.  I stand before you and invite language to dance on my tongue.  It’s live, real time action adventure, no tea breaks to ponder the next paragraph.  The matter in hand (or in mouth) is folk tale and, thankfully, the the choreography rarely requires the complexity of it’s more literary cousins: vernacular steps for vernacular material.  I release my love from the demands of convoluted contortions and ask only that she keeps going, a continuous forward motion.  Now, in peasants clothes and dirty, bare feet she kicks up her heels and she’s away, leaping and twirling, occasionally rewarding my generosity with a back flip and triple salco.  She still teases, hiding a word I need behind her back until the very last second or spinning, heart-stopingly, down a blind alley only to leap lightly on to fire escape that wasn’t there a moment ago.

Obviously keeping her in motion takes up a great deal of my attention but I am busy with other things too.  My internal director is barking orders: “Remember to make eye contact with the children in the front row.  There’s a princess coming up, find a woman to flatter with the description of her beauty.  Good work! Now back off – her husbands looking antsy.  Take it down, slowly now, almost a whisper, lets make this surprise really work, pause… and GO!  Now the king’s on in a moment, can you give him a bit more of an accent this time?”

For all our years of working together though, we are not in charge.  Above us all there is a higher power: the story itself.  I have chewed it over but, like a virus or a bacteria, it is not broken down by my digestive juices.  It has encysted inside me living a life of it’s own.  A strong story may even cannibalise some of it’s brothers, incorporating their best bits in to itself.  My internal team and I are only midwives assisting in the story’s re-entry to the world.  Older than the trees, it is used to waiting but it wants to be told, to burst forth and plant it’s seed in fresh ears.

As the story opens up before me I feed the pictures to Dame English and she dances on, step-step-jump-turn, and the Director does his best to keep the performance on track as it accelerates towards it’s climax.  This is the most dangerous moment, if we lose our footing now then all the work we have done is wasted.  My leading lady carefully sets herself up for the last dash while the director nudges me to centre stage and makes me do a quick sweep around the whole audience, meeting eyes, gathering you in.

But the story is a big boy now, asserting it’s reality on top of mine.  I can’t complain, I have encouraged it, but it is strange standing there in front of you, knowing you are listening while my eyes see another place and time entirely.  Under dragon attack for instance, my team flees screaming in to the distance.  As dust whirls and huge claws crash to the ground this side and that, I look down at the parched desert floor, scrabble for words to chuck out to you and catch only gravel, It spills from my mouth skidding beneath the hooves of the hero’s horse.  I duck and dive, weave this way and that as the scythe like claws whistle through the air just inches from my face.  Heart pounding, I babble a breathless commentary, my arms flailing wildly, hands reaching out for words half obscured amidst airborne sand and smoke, trying to pluck power and purpose from the hot unfocused air.

Deep, deep within, a small voice intones a constant prayer to the one eyed god of poetry: “Don’t let me die. Don’t let me die”.  I mean it both as the theatrical metaphor, and literally, as the dragon fixes me with it’s vast black eyes and raises his deadly claw to strike.  The story is running the show now – and it has an agenda.  Our stories tell us who we are, as individuals and as a nation.  This story reminds us we are heroes, that we can face our fears and overcome our monsters:  it has no intention of letting the claw come down.  Through the fog of combat it suddenly presents me with the hero’s magic sword and gratefully grasping the leather wrapped hilt, I-he-you-we are carried forward by our steadfast steed, between the dragon’s very legs and swiftly strike upward delivering shining steel death to our ancient enemy.

My team have returned, the director exhorting cheers from the audience and Lady Language tap dancing lightly to “happily ever after”.  The Manager takes over, smoothly handling the PR, “Thank you, thank you, I’ve been The Travelling Talesman, you’ve been a wonderful audience, see you next time!”.  People come up to me asking “Where do you get your stories from?” and “How do you remember it all?”.  The manager trots out professional platitudes, giving them something they can take away with them.  I do not mention the deep, dark well of the unconscious mind or the chaos that goes on backstage.  Oh, I can tell them all sorts of ways to learn a story but would they understand if I said that, in the white heat of telling, it’s often the story that remembers me? …And even I don’t know how my leading lady stays on that narrow, narrative tightrope… maybe she returns my love after all.


Filed under Dragon, Folk Tale, Otherworld, stories, Storytelling