One of my happiest memories from student days (those that I remember, at least) is reading Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival (yes, in the original – I was a smart lad back then, even though I could hardly put a “guten Tag” together nowadays). The poem must be about 800 years old now, but as fresh as ever, and I think deals with the democratisation of an esoteric/spiritual tradition, as symbolised in the Holy Grail (resonances of magic pots in Celtic tales, not to mention the Cauldron in the I Ching) – it was this democratisation that led to the Knights Templar and modern Freemasonry & other such stuff that “sure was a good idea, till greed got in the way”. Anyway, I’ve always had a soft spot for young Parzival/Parsifal, the ultimate Grail Knight, and in fact do think about him now and again – the archetypal “young fool” (the story kicks off when his mother tells him he should become a knight by winning a ring from a fair lady’s hand, so what does he do? he creeps into bed beside some random fair lady and hauls off her wedding ring before she even realises what’s going on, making off with it in dubious triumph). Actually the older I get the more young fools I see around me, and I like to remind myself that any one of them could turn out to be a Parsifal.
A recent re-surge of interest was sparked by a Frank Turner song (no, I wasn’t listening – not intentionally – “this music crept by me on the waters”) about him playing on a broken old piano “on the banks of the muddy Thames”, and then another one about the Fisher King which confirmed for me, aye-aye Frank had an education, for all he likes to put himself across as a proper Essex boy – so it all added up to T S Eliot and The Waste Land, which getting on for a hundred years ago represented a great updating of the Grail legend and later (I’m not a hundred yet) became one of my biggest influences when a young fool in my own right. So then I walked into Waterstones, St.Andrews and there was a copy of The Waste Land right on the front table (beside Robert Crawford’s new book about Eliot) and luckily people in Waterstones are just looking at the books or wondering if there’s any coffee to be had so I didn’t make too much of a spectacle of myself reading it with tears pouring down my cheeks. Ha, should auld acquaintance be forgot…..
That’s a rather long introduction for a considerably midget-ish poem, compared with the Man’s mighty work, but it’s my submission for the current New Moon:
The Question to the Fisher King
Just ask the question, Parsifal,
just ask the bloody question.
Your mother must have brought you up
to a commendable condition of primness:
we don’t pry, we don’t push,
don’t look up ladies’ skirts
and we don’t open boxes –
and what are you, universally
approved of? Such nice manners
such a get-along-with-everyone
easygoing, laughing, young
well, dolt – what can we say
just ask the bloody question.
Are you too polite to
see how the crops are withering
too restrained to notice
how the birds are starving in the trees
too much everyone’s pal
to hear the coughing of the rodents
in their lost corners
I suppose when the grey stretches
through the soil, and air
you’ll get some nice bright paint
to counteract it, when the wells
dry up you’ll come along with
the merry chink of bottles.
Of course, you’ll be averse
to all forms of psychotherapy
and I don’t blame you
which of them would say the obvious
piss on the land, youngster and
bring its life back? But when
will you have enough care in your heart
to stop, to say no, not
your answers, not your happy faces
when will you stop and
search out the place no-one can search for
go the path that can’t be chosen?
See, life is bright
and we can eat anything we want to
go anywhere, do anything
you can shut that old king
up in a box, store him in the cellar.
No-one will make you go down his highway
and self-questioning’s a trim little
wren that chucks in a tree: hello sweetie
you say before it flies and never think
of its meaning. And he’s blood-streaked,
unrequited, he’s in none of the places
you like to look, among the dancers and
the drinkers, with their flushed distracted faces.