The Courtesy of the Tongue

Oct 24, 2013

by

That most heroic bard, and exemplar non pareille of all he advocated, Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill, late of Cambridge, Mass., was a man steeped in the wild comedy rising always from being a true human, alive, in a time unfriendly to grace and to a deepened mind.

Which means that he was storyteller of the fundamental kind. If you had the vast good fortune of hearing him cast his stories as nets in the tempests of our time, trolling for a real, lived humanity, you were blessed for life.

He was, because of all that, inevitably a master of tragedy, mirth’s proper, faithful and unwavering twin. I do not mean by this that he was above tragedy, or in control of it, or free from it. I mean that he allowed tragedy it’s full rein and presence in all he saw and did. He was a master practitioner of tragedy, and as a black man living in America through most of the twentieth century also it’s faithful son and witness. He was a wizard, and a star, and a purveyor and guardian of the deepest stories entrusted to humans to live by.

As a young man I entered into an unannounced, never discussed and stout sort of apprenticeship to this marvel. I was in a nominal and unaccomplished  way his band for some years, and I performed with him often during that time. I nominated myself protector of sorts for he and his wife Ruth, though I know now who was doing the protecting. Mostly, along with everyone else attending his revivals, I listened, and marveled. Later, when I set about making my Orphan Wisdom School, I committed us all to the practice of forced eloquence, an homage to him.

He had two degrees of performing: hot, and much hotter. He was a fierce one, but his ferocity was tethered to a life of service, and he had a great, demanding hope for his corner of the world.

Most times he would remove his shoes and socks before teaching, preaching, imploring and tirading. Sometimes he explained it, but every time he practiced it: All ground was holy ground, he would say.  He would carry on for hours, barefoot. It was one of his many courtesies. His was an elegant, articulate veneration, and his example made you want to go out and find a life of devotion. If your luck held out you could live out your days in the ennobling glow of his example. That man set me on a rocky path that has delivered me to a life indentured to courtesy.

The bard is the one willing to learn, the one especially willing to learn unwelcome things about what the rest of us know. It is a burdensome, weighty proposition, one guaranteed to oblige the bard to run headlong into the blast of his or her time.  In a song called ‘Going Home’ Leonard Cohen has God talking about Leonard Cohen in this way:
‘He does just what I tell him, even though it isn’t welcome.
He just doesn’t have the freedom to refuse.’
And that is as it has always been for the deep storytellers. They pay a debt to life unsuspected by the rest of us. Part holy fool and court jester, part spiritual lawyer for the human encounter with the divine, the bard is the great rememberer, the librarian of all refused stories.

Bards are first and always story hearers, and story seers. The capacity for story lives in their eyes and ears, as well as on their tongue.

Here is some gorgeous etymology: our word ‘to see’ is found historically across all the northern European languages, where it has meant ‘to perceive with the eye’. But when the word arcs further south towards its older Indo-European root it has also meant ‘to point out, to say’. Even there, in the simplest description of the bard’s skill and service, you find the old kinship between seeing and saying.

That is the bard’s real, enduring, unquenchable skill, that he or she carries unbidden the ability to recognize the old stories, to know again the old knowns. Their eyes and their tongues are storied things, thrumming like tuning forks to their peoples’ beginnings. They are merchants of courtesy, and it’s keepers.

Alas, things done ‘as a courtesy’ are not held in particular esteem in our time. The phrase has become a synonym for ‘gesture’, ‘symbol’, even ‘affectation’, and there isn’t a lot of sincerity. But we have forgotten much that lies waiting to be recalled in our language, and ‘courtesy’ is waiting to teach us. The word has kin in such far flung places as ‘curtsy’, ‘courage’ and ‘courtesan’. And though the standard dictionaries don’t agree, there are spiritual kin in ‘courtyard’ and ‘courtliness’, too.

The root of them all is ‘heart’. Things done courteously are the heart’s most engaged achievements. Consider this: a slab of wood, with the heart wood still there, will with enough humidity, heat and time bend back towards the shape of the tree it was taken from.  In this way the slab has memory, clearly, of its beginnings. In the same way words are fruit on the raggedly lived vine of a culture’s way of being itself, each of them trailing memory, each waiting like a seed to be breathed upon by a devotee of eloquence and speech. The bard breaks the dormancy of words by being a faithful witness to the memories curled around them, and then by giving his or her breath to those memories by telling their stories, while they are still able.

Bards, you could say, are those who run off at the heart. To them are owed all kindnesses, graces, subsidies, courtesies. Whole libraries burn to the ground when they die, especially when they haven’t had apprentices alongside them to learn the courtesies.

As many of you now know by now, the great Irish poet Seamus Heaney has recently died. I have been teaching Beowulf in my school for a few years using his bilingual translation, and there are students in the school who have begun memorizing long stanzas from the Old English, deeply inspired by Heaney’s work on behalf of the story. Many people have sought Irish citizenship, I am sure, from reading his poetry. They say that when the moment of his death was upon him he resorted to sending a text message to his wife who was sadly elsewhere, wherein he whispered to her a gift for all her life: ‘Be not afraid’, he wrote. In Latin.

In an early poem called Singing School Seamus Heaney is walking near his Wicklow home in December, mooding about and considering his particular bardic affliction. He wrote of the moment this way:

A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?

Yes Seamus, and yes Hugh. Always for the ear. This is the storyteller’s vocation. And always for the people. This is the storyteller’s courtesy. The gift of the bard among us is just this: A slingstone, whirled for the desperate. And the cost to the bard of bearing the gift?: To wonder, often, How did I end up like this?

After life and international boundaries had separated Dr. Hugh Morgan Hill and I for some years I received an invitation to contribute to a book celebrating his life and achievements. It was published a decade ago. By chance I looked through it last night. And there, twenty four pages before my own, I found a contribution by – this had completely escaped my attention until then – the very Seamus Heaney. They knew each other. And Seamus quoted a sequence from his Beowulf translation, in praise of – what else? – the bard. Sometimes you are just awash in the courtesy of life itself.

I remember those few times when I phoned Hugh and he answered, how we would play out our courtesy. I would say, “How are you doing?” And he would say, “Man, I am the luckiest man in the world.” And I would say, “Why is that?” And he would say. “I found what I was born to do.” And he truly had done so, and knew it. I miss him, every day.

May this same birthright yet become the blessing our lives seek.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW