On August 28, 2021, at Ostrov Manor, Leninsky district of the Moscow region, as part of the Music under the Sky festival, Scottish bard Thomas Beavitt will perform a selection of Lermontov’s poems set to original Celtic-inspired music and accompanied by the Novaya Skazka orchestra.
Mikhail Lermontov is the descendant of a Scottish soldier of fortune, George Learmonth, whose restless spirit brought him to Russia at the beginning of the 17th century.
George’s probable ancestor was Thomas “the Rhymer” Learmonth, a 13th-century nobleman from Erceldoune whose genes and artistic oeuvre combined Anglo-Norman and Gaelic cultures. His rhyming prophecies were preserved in the form of oral traditions and several Middle-English manuscripts dating to the fifteenth century.
During the first part of the concert at the Ostrov Manor, audiences will hear the musical version of Thomas the Rhymer’s mythical meeting with the Queen of the Faeries in Mikhail Fegyin‘s poetic Russian translation.
Thus, it was that, following their implantation in Russian soil, these Scottish roots produced the flower of Russian poetry – Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov.
Thomas Beavitt performed for the first time in front of a Russian audience in 2009 at the festival organised by Ivan Dontsov’s “Veresk” Foundation. This was followed by a concert at Moscow’s House of Music in honour of the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns, which brought together a full hall of new fans.
The subtle interweaving of Russian and Scottish cultures resulted in a joint international project “Lermontov”, leading to the installation of a bronze bust in the Scottish village of Earlston to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the poet. According to the centuries-old manuscripts, this was the place where Thomas “The Rhymer” Learmonth made his home.
“I wanted to come to Russia because I felt its culture pulling me by the sleeve!”, recounts the modern bard Thomas Beavitt.
His first poetic translations were based on the work of Vladimir Vysotsky, whose birthday fell on January 25 – coincidentally, the same birth date as that of the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns. This coincidence inspired Thomas to conduct several musical performances in Russia with musical reflections on the work of the two poets from different eras.
“By 2009, although my Russian language was still rather basic, I had already started translating Russian songs and poems into English. The first song I translated into English was ‘Liricheskaya’ by Vladimir Vysotsky”, said Thomas Beavitt.
Thomas has been living in Russia since 2013 – first in Moscow, then for 7 years in Yekaterinburg, and now recently moved with his wife to Crimea. Now, as well as a bard and poet, he works as a professional translator of scientific articles and books.
Konstantin Uvarov, artistic director of the Novaya Skazka project, said:
The same Ivan Dontsov who produced the Novaya Skazka project introduced us to Thomas’ work. And we just fell in love with Thomas and his music! We hope that this concert is just the beginning of our collaborative work with Thomas – we plan to create a great musical fairy tale together.
At the Music under the Sky concert, Thomas Beavitt will perform songs based on poems by Mikhail Lermontov set to music of his own composition, highly appreciated by professional musicians. The sound of Celtic motifs played on classical instruments will leave a special impression on the listeners of the second part of the performance by Thomas Beavitt and the Novaya Skazka Orchestra at the Music Under the Sky festival on August 28, 2021. The story of the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov, as told through his own poetic voice, will be performed in Russian for a Russian audience.
Rhyming Thomas & the Faery Queen: performance (in Russian) of the modern version of the 13th-century Romance of Thomas of Erceldoune by Thomas Beavitt. Russian translation by Mikhail Feygin. Video shot by Regis Tremblay at Livadia Palace, Yalta, Republic of Crimea on 21st May, 2021
Thomas Beavitt. “The Blood of the Bard: Prophecy and Succession in Russia and Scotland”, Livadia Palace Conference Presentation, Yalta, Republic of Crimea, 21st May, 2021 (in Russian)
I wrote this translation of Vysotsky’s Еще не вечер in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. In the original Russian version, Vysotsky has in mind the veteran theatre director Yury Lyubimov, under whose inspired Brechtian leadership the Taganka Theatre departed from the Stanislavskian method-acting approach of the state financed Moscow Art Theatre. Here, the pirate ship serves as a metaphor for the Taganka, facing the might of the “navy” but never quite succumbing to its attacks. In my translation, the pirate captain is Alex Salmond – while the ship is, of course, Scotland.
It was a big pleasure to be interviewed by this fine gentleman Regis Tremblay for his show Global Conversations. I talk about my long and seemingly inevitable journey from Scotland to Russia, my childhood background and my Global Village Bard collaboration programme.
People have been fascinated by the rhythm of language since the earliest times. The formal name for this study, prosody, is derived from the Greek word προσῳδία (prosōidía), which refers both to a song performed to musical accompaniment and to the particular tone or accent given to an individual syllable. Clearly, in terms of their effect, how we perceive words and phrases uttered against the background of time is at least as important as their “actual” semantic meaning. What’s more, the devices used to pattern rhythmic language – especially rhyme in its various forms – are key to the preservation of lasting impressions received by our consciousness, i.e. memory. Little wonder then that the study of rhetoric – the art of persuasive or effective language – has always included prosody among its key elements.
These days, although most people have a vague idea what iambic pentameter is (te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum, te-tum), only prosody bores are likely to be able explain concepts like trochaic substitution, let alone confidently use more obscure terms like catalexis or analyse syllables in terms of onset, nucleus and coda. There’s a general feeling that people who flaunt their knowledge of such arcania are… well, just a teeny weeny bit elitist.
No wonder, then, that poetry (at least, its written form) has become increasingly inclined towards so-called “free-verse”, which proudly resists prosodic analysis and categorisation. However, I can’t help but feel that, in giving the elitists a much-deserved kicking, the free-versers may risk throwing out the mnemonic baby with the prosodic bathwater.
Happily, a prosodist by the name of Derek Attridge has come up with a much less intimidating way of describing the rhythm of language. Attridge’s concept of “beat prosody” is based on the insight that rhythm in (English) poetry is realised by the “alternation of beats and offbeats”. When taking this approach to the scansion of rhythmic verse, a simple system of symbols is used to indicate the coincidence of stressed syllables with beats and unstressed syllables with offbeats. For the most regular verse, this alternation requires two symbols only – an uppercase letter ‘B’ to show the presence of a beat, and a lowercase letter ‘o’ to denote the offbeat. For example,
o B o B o B
The grand old Duke of York
o B o B o B
He had ten thou-sand men
However, Attridge’s system is also capable of capturing finer nuances of rhythmic expression, e.g. when an offbeat syllable nevertheless carries a certain degree of emphasis or a syllable that is not ordinarily emphasised happens to coincide with a beat.
In addition to its anti-elitism, Attridge’s beat prosodic approach addresses other deficiencies in the use of classical prosody to analyse modern English verse. In a 1990 article, Attridge uses the example of the poem Disobedience by A.A. Milne to demonstrate how “four-beat” verse can not only be analysed in terms of alternation between beats and offbeats, but also that its basic rhythmic structure readily lends itself to dipodic division and multiplication, i.e. 1-2-4-8-16.
Discussing the temporal tradition in prosody, in which metrical units are quantised in terms of their duration, Attridge considers the tendency of the stressed syllables of certain languages to fall at perceptually equal time intervals in terms of isochrony, showing that an increase in the number of unstressed syllables per word uttered within the same time frame preserves the natural rhythms of the language at least until the number of nonstresses demands the introduction of a secondary accent”.
However, Attridge’s significant attempts to use a beat-prosodic approach to analyse iambic pentameter do not fully address the question of isochrony extensively discussed in earlier scholarship and developed in a functional context e.g. by Ravignani & Madison. In his review of Attridge’s 1982 book ‘The Rhythms of English Poetry’, Bruce Hayes notes that, when discussing iambic pentameter, Attridge “applies the idea of an ‘escape from binarity’ […] with varying degrees of success”, Hayes accurately presents Attridge’s position as follows:
Poets favour pentameter precisely because it is unnatural: in art verse, the poet is striving for more subtle rhythmic effects, and to achieve them must escape the powerful rhythm of the natural binary hierarchy. Pentameter escapes binarity because five is indivisible, and because (unlike three and seven, the other candidates) it won’t match a power of two if a silent beat is added.
(Hayes & Attridge, 1984, p. 916)
Nevertheless, Attridge’s strong claim that pentameter avoids binarity (i.e. dipody) is fatally weakened by his reluctance to temporally quantise the pauses at the end of each poetic line. Over his three major books, he only acknowledges this aspect once in passing when discussing a “metrical walking” approach to feeling poetic rhythm:
Some “metrical walkers” like to feel that every beat in five-beat lines will come consistently on the right foot (or the left). These people are happier when they add an “end of the line” step before moving on to the next line.
(Carper & Attridge, 2003, p. 15)
When writing or translating a poem, I consider the process to be complete only after I have entirely committed the text to memory and am capable of reciting or singing it from start to finish in any social setting – sober or drunk! The best way I have found to memorise a poetic text is to go for a long walk and learn it line by line. It is certainly the case that, when doing this “metrical walking” memorising work, I add an “end of the line step”. I am convinced it is the isochrony revealed by this process that transforms what would otherwise be mere decorative prose into memorable poetry – or, more accurately, song.
Attridge, D. (1982). The Rhythms of English Poetry. Longman.
Attridge, D. (1990). Rhythm in English Poetry. New Literary History, 21(4), 1015–1037. https://doi.org/10.2307/469197
Attridge, D. (1995). Poetic rhythm: an introduction. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
Carper, T., & Attridge, D. (2003). Meter and Meaning: An Introduction to Rhythm in Poetry (1 edition). New York: Routledge.
Hayes, B., & Attridge, D. (1984). The Rhythms of English Poetry. Language, 60(4), 914. https://doi.org/10.2307/413802
Ravignani, A., & Madison, G. (2017). The Paradox of Isochrony in the Evolution of Human Rhythm. Frontiers in Psychology, 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01820
I think everyone will agree that 2020 has been a bit of a difficult year for human beings on planet Earth. Now that it is coming to an end, it becomes possible to think about what it means.
There is a phrase in British English “lovely jubbly”. I always thought it referred to the (originally Biblical) concept of jubilee, a half-century “sabbath of sabbaths” during which human relationships get reset, but it turns out that the term was first used as a 1950s advertising jingle for an ice lolly called a “jubbly”. Then, in the 1970s, it got recycled as a catchphrase used by Dellboy in the TV serial ‘Only Fools and Horses’. It has a slightly different connotation in Scots English, where “jubblies” is a slang term for female breasts.
So, this is Thomas Riffmatch’s take on 2020. I think a lot of people have been yearning for some kind of jubilee. Perhaps the events of 2020 weren’t exactly what we had in mind, but there it is. We will have to make the most of it!
You shall make this year holy, Proclaim pandemic liberty; All must bow down and worship me! Who can disagree? Each vagabond and refugee Returning to his family To occupy his property And ponder jubilee. Slaves and prisoners set free, All debts erased from memory, Each grace-and-favour tenancy Disposed without a fee. From each, to his ability, Residing in this colony; The trend repeated globally – This lovely jubilee. Then, lacking the propensity To live in close community, The working class and bourgeoisie Dispute the price of tea. All coming under scrutiny, We’re drowning in hypocrisy, Increasing in intensity, In spite of jubilee. Then leaders, ruling by decree, Who were not able to foresee The scope of herd immunity, Provide a guarantee. With striking ingenuity And nuanced ambiguity, Financialise society To gild the jubilee. But everyone turned out to be, As usual, much too cowardly To reach potentiality And turn the master key. Norms of herd morality Applying, all too humanly, The principle of me, me, me… And that’s no jubilee! Breakthroughs in technology And crowd-control psychology With eyeball-tracking constantly To see what we can see. The subsequent economy Is based on the commodity Of focused attentivity In aid of jubilee. Not quantity, but quality – The strains of sacred melody Combine in perfect harmony To form the base of “we”. But imprecative blasphemy From Gomorrah and Sodomy Rang out in animosity To taint the jubilee. Stunted in our sov’reignty, Like Hamlet’s sad soliloquy, We’re doomed to be or not to be – I’m counting: one, two, three… But there’s no sense of urgency; We live in modest luxury To face the bare contingency Of holy jubilee. Those born in the last century Are buried in the cemet’ry Or ashes from the crematory Scattered out at sea. Redemptive contiguity Assures the lasting legacy Of long-conjoined humanity In lovely jubilee.
©Lyrics written and performed by Thomas Riffmatch to a backing track composed by Nikita Nikitin, recorded and produced in Ekaterinburg by Andrey Bokovikov.
So, why do I think that rap is the new home of contemporary poetry? The famous 20th-century poet Wystan Hugh Auden memorably defined poetry as “memorable speech”. I think that is a good definition for a number of reasons. Firstly, the tendency towards so-called “free verse” (lines on a page that have neither metre nor rhyme) means that there is no longer a hard and fast distinction between poetry and prose other than that the latter appears in the form of sentences and paragraphs, while the former appears in the form of lines and stanzas that may or may not also conform to a sentence or paragraph structure. But what if the poetry is not written down? What if it is primarily experienced in its spoken – or declaimed – form? Aren’t the best (most memorable) political speeches, for example, more akin to poetry than prose?
Let’s take the spoken (oral) form of poetry as primary and worry about how to represent it in written form later. I think that this is the right way to think of it. I don’t find much “free verse” to be particularly memorable. Perhaps it looks good on a page. But turn the page and, unless you have a photographic memory, you will most likely have already forgotten what you just read. If you try to reproduce it from memory after a significant passage of time, you may find that you can recall the gist of what was said, but that the words themselves, their organisation into phrases and the exact order in which they appear, elude you. Well, that’s how my mind works anyway.
To me, that’s the essential nature of prose. You don’t expect to be able to recall it word-for-word, but you will be able to paraphrase your impression of the author’s story or argument. And here’s the catch. Your impression of the story or argument is just that: anything that the author may have wished to keep intact has been lost. In order to go back to it, you will have to turn to the appropriate page (or click on the URL). Human memory is like that. It is essentially frail.
Let’s imagine that we want to be able to establish something in human linguistic memory that won’t be paraphrased, but that will form a lasting impression that has a fixed relationship to its original utterance, like the Mona Lisa’s face on da Vinci’s canvas or David’s form revealed by Michelangelo’s chisel. For this, we will need to turn to the timeless craft of poetry in which two formal elements are combined: rhythm and rhyme.
Since you probably know me as a singer-songwriter / translator and this Global Village Bard blog as a song and poetry translation site, I thought I’d try to explain the new direction taken by my alter ego Thomas Riffmatch and his merry crew.
Like many, I’ve been exposed to rap (hip hop) music for a few decades now. I suppose my first realisation that this was a major form came with the brilliantly shocking 1988 N.W.A. album ‘Straight outta Compton’. After that, it lay dormant in my consciousness for a while. A while ago, I had an idea to investigate the link between rap and calypso, another genre that was born out of the idea of lyrical “battles”, but it never came to anything.
While always intrigued by the form, I tended to be put off by the themes of hip hop: talk of bitches and niggas, gang violence and glorified drug-dealing, while interesting as a form of escapism, somehow didn’t seem to include my own experienced reality. Call me a privileged white man…
A few years ago, my son Max introduced me to the music of Watsky, a young white rapper from San Francisco. We so loved the whimsical self-deprecating humour of his second studio album ‘Cardboard Castles’ that we went to his concert at Glasgow’s King Tuts. But after a while, I have to say, Watsky’s whimsicality started to seem a tad smug and none of his subsequent albums ever quite reached the understated genius of ‘Cardboard Castles’.
Much more so than Eminem, Watsky helped me to realise that the rap genre doesn’t need to exclude (middle-class) white people like me. Maybe this is because, while Eminem seems to have a chip on his shoulder about being white, falling over himself to show that he is down with his black homeys in terms of social deprivation, Watsky never tries to portray himself other than a goofy overprivileged Californian white boy.
Although I did eventually get tired of Watsky’s schtick, I had caught the hip hop bug. Somehow songs didn’t sound so authentic any more. Why sing when you can rap? I started listening to a very wide range of rap music from the 1990s to the present day, mainly in the form of playlists and compilation albums. Whenever something caught my ear, I stopped and made a note of the artist. Although I no longer felt excluded by the genre, I was looking for something that was not ALL about niggas and bitches, but that also sought to express bigger ideas about what it means to be a human being.
In short, I was trying to find out what had happened to poetry.
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