Band of angels
What is the job poetry is supposed to do? This may be a definition shaped by unfashionably
archaic standards, but I think it's meant to do at least four things.
It should take us into the realm of myth - that is, of the stories and symbols that lie so deep you can't work out who
are the authors of them, the stories that give points of reference for plotting your way in the inner and outer world. It's
meant to celebrate; to clothe ordinary experience with extraordinary words so that we see the radiance in the ordinary, whether
it's in landscape or in love or whatever. It's meant to satirise - to give us a sideways glance on familiar ways of talking
or of behaving or exercising power, so that we're not bewitched by what looks obvious and wants us to think it's obvious.
It's meant to lament, to give us ways of looking at our losses and our failures that save us from despair and apathy.
If you listen to the Incredible String Band's songs, you realise rapidly that they correspond with astonishing completeness
to the requirements of poetry. Plenty of songs of that period managed the celebration or the lament, few could do the myth
or the satire. Perhaps for a lot of us growing up in the late-60s and early 70s, there was a gap in the heart where this very
traditional bardic, even shamanic, sense of poetry was looking for expression; and the ISB did just that. Forget the cliches
about psychedelic and hallucinogenic vagueness: this was work of extraordinary emotional clarity and metaphorical rigour -
an unusual combination. Lyrics stick after decades, "Every cell in my body has it all writ down"; "You know all the words
and you sung all the notes, but you never quite learned the song"; "The caves where sleep the stars by day".
And the literacy you might have needed to pick up all the allusions was and is intimidating - Sufism, Celtic myth, Biblical
and Gnostic symbols. Combine this with a versatility in musical idiom worthy of Lennon and McCartney at their best, and you
have a rare phenomenon: the contrapuntal intricacies of much of Be Glad For The Song Has No Ending, the Caribbean jog of the
Hedgehog Song, the sly parodies of Bob Dylan in more than one piece.
For those of us who fell in love with the ISB, there was a feeling of breathing the air of a very expansive imagination
indeed. It was all right to be enchanted - but not bewitched (see above) by colossal and antique symbols; all right at the
same time to be thinking about the experiences of "ordinary" first loves and first betrayals; and all right to find the earnest
nonsense of real hallucinogenic maunderings funny. There was no one quite like them; we liked to think it was a very grown-up
taste, but that makes it sound too serious.
If I go back to the start, I'd have to say again that it was simply a discovery of poetry; and as such - risking the embarrassment
that so regularly goes with my particular vocation - I'd also have to say that it was a discovery of the holy; not the solemn,
not the saintly, but the holy, which makes you silent and sometimes makes you laugh and which, above all, makes the landscape
different once and for all.
Rowan Williams, from the introduction to beGLAD An Incredible String Band Compendium
The Guardian 25 September 2003