What Is Folklore For?

For #WorldPoetryDay I tweeted a snippet from Canto I, which is probably my favourite framing for any long work of poetry:

There is a something in the epic tradition where the poet sets their stall at the start, often by invoking the gods or similar. In Canto I we can see Pound providing us the context for the rest of the poem — Odysseus setting forth on his way home. This poem is the one that frames the rest of the gigantic work as a voyage, one which is about returning home — but fraught with the kind of tricks played by Circe, who plays the host but turns Odysseus’s crew into swine.

It reflects one of his earlier poems, which he translated from the Anglo-Saon, The Seafarer, and part of what he considered the tradition of the English — to be outgoing seaward folk. While the poem itself is a walk in the deep — discussing the hardships of the seafarer himself, there is a kind of expression that his life has purity for his hardship, whereas the rich men on the land make promises on their deathbeds.

Both the framing of Canto I and The Seafarer use the powerful connective tissue of folklore and myth to bind the work to a greater whole. And this is what I have always thought the future of folklore should look like — it’s the reference hooks with which we all build our art, artefacts and therefore understanding of the world, on.

Which brings me to #FolkloreThursday hashtag (and @FolkloreThurs). Every Thursday you can pop on to the hastag and not only find thousands of wonderful people talking about folklore and myth, but also the poetry, stories and art which form it’s basis. You can learn that cats’ eyes dilate and contract with the tides, that there is such thing as a Witch Bridle — presumed to stifle screams on their way to the stake, and that Jikininki are spirits of selfish humans who have been doomed to an afterlife as an eternally hungry corpse-eating beast. Amongst other things.

The common thread with all folklore is that it teaches, it tells us about humanity, and much of the time, it is a work of art — a story — which has lost all of its edges, so that only the central seed of the story remains.
So, how can we use it? If you’re Neil Gaimen you write American Gods, a story of what happens when our old myths start to lose their power, and new ones take hold of culture. If you’re Pound or Eliot or HD, you use it to frame your work, the Fisher King, Odysseus either as the structure of your work, or the reason for its fragmentation.

Tradition and ritual build folklore, and the only way to keep any of it alive is to retell it and to make it part of your life and your work.

February is known as the mud month (I know it’s March), and has so much attached to it in terms of the kind of folklore, stories and rituals which all run together to say: “the end of winter, the start of spring, small thing crawl from the ground after frost and people let sunlight hit their bare skin.” Here’s a poem I had published in The City Quill (which you can buy here):

Spotted this lovely snip of Roy Fisher, who sadly died this week.

Today’s song:

The National — This Is The Last Time

Despite what you might hope, this will not be the last time you receive Etch To Their Own (unless you unsubscribe (please don’t)). I am very sorry if I didn’t tell you what Folklore is for exactly, I’ll try again another time, probably when I mean to write about something else – as seems to be the way. Etch To Their Own was written in the traditional sense by @CJEggett and proofread by no one. Please send this to a friend and ask them to sign up here, or read old issues here. (I recently tarted the archive up, so maybe you should have a look too!). Sorry this one is a bit late, the world is wild and full of beef brine and mortgage advisors.

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