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High Speech

Earlier this year my friend Dave Luke – who lived at Cae Mabon for six months in 2016 with his wife, author Anna Hope, and their baby Bridget – asked me to talk at the Breaking Convention conference he co-organises. It’s about altered states of consciousness and ways of getting there. I chose to talk about ‘high speech’, ways of talking – poetry, prayer, prophecy, incantation, spells, blessings, preaching, story – which can, in the right context, have the effect of lifting the state of mind of the listener.

In the opening section of my talk I said:

‘High Speech ranges from Pitjantjatjara elders sitting cross-legged on the sand, rattling their boomerangs and singing ancient songs from the Dreaming in a cascading song-chant melody, to Kate Tempest rousing the crowd at Glastonbury just last weekend. It’s not what is spoken in a state of being ‘high’, although it could be. Rather it’s about the kinds of speech that can in some way elevate the minds and beings of the listeners. Usually the language itself is not ordinary. It may use unusual or even archaic forms. It may not even be comprehensible. But the context, often a ritualised performance, gives it power. It can lift the listener into a state of wonder or rapture. It can invoke supernatural presence and great beauty. Certain words spoken at the right time and place to receptive people can evoke sublime feelings and bring about a transcendent state of mind. Inspired utterance can, in short, bring listeners into communion with the sacred.’

I went on to give examples mostly from Cymric (Welsh) mythology: vivid descriptions, rhetorical runs and incantatory passages from ‘Culhwch and Olwen’; my version of Merlin’s Prophecy, including lines pinched from the Egyptian Book of the Dead; Taliesin’s first inspired poem.

Despite it being the first time I’d given this talk it went down well enough. Dennis McKenna (brother of the famous Terence), who came on after me, was complimentary. But the best response was from Sam Ross, a contemporary poet in the inspired Taliesin tradition. His ‘review’ was priceless. He said:

Eric Maddern brought us ‘High Speech’ – not just the stuff you say when you’re high but words that make the soul soar – via the tale of Taliesin, the prophecy of Merlin and more. There is something profoundly moving in how long these stories, in one form or another, have been told - in how vividly Eric brings them to life and how deeply he embodies the language. I would go so far as to say that if you’re not “animystically” inclined Eric is probably the closest you will come to watching a tree or a stone talk! I’ve rarely laughed so hard as the night I saw him, full of little elves, telling the tale of Culhwch and Olwen around a fire in the Roundhouse at Cae Mabon. This ancient story was just so fucking funny on so many levels, from the absurd yet eminently sensible plot to the eye-glinting embellishments upon embellishments, to the fact that we were all so-called “modern people” rolling around on the floor of a reanimated roundhouse, enjoying some of the same kind of fun that most likely entertained our ancestors, and all this in a self-evident yet somehow unbelievable new context.’

Alas I’m not always so funny. But I’m working on it!

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