Thursday, December 13, 2007

In silent darkness

Some of my visitors may be wondering what imbas is, and why I'm looking for it.

Ni ansa, "not hard," the early Irish would have replied. That usually tends to precede a complex and lengthy explanation for something very difficult to understand. In a way, imbas isn't hard. Looked at from other angles, it's potentially impossible to explain and it can certainly be difficult to come by. 

In different sources, the word is translated as "poetic frenzy," "poetic ecstasy," "poetic wisdom," "inspiration," a "fire in the head," light that arises from incubation in darkness and silence. To me, it's the lightning feeling of words and ideas moving nearly too fast to speak; it's a sense of sudden understanding after seeking answers in study and meditation.

Imbas is traditionally the result of being born into a lineage of poets, but it is equally traditionally a thing that can be taught and learned, a thing that can be pursued, a thing that can come upon someone accidentally, as wisdom came upon Fionn mac Cumhaill when he burnt his thumb on the salmon of wisdom and put it in his mouth to still the pain. It is the flash of lightning that illuminates, leaving images in stark relief against the night landscape. It is the heat within that pushes a poet to create. It is the driving force that wakens the writer in the deeps of night with bright, transparent words that must be put down before they're gone.
It is also the result of the discipline of sitting down in front of the computer or the notebook every day, faithfully, just working through the topic on your mind. It is the resonance of carefully-crafted words that sing when spoken. It is the power of language to move and incite, to stir and to calm. Imbas is the magic in poetry and the binding power of words spoken with intent. Not the words themselves, mind you -- imbas is too subtle and slippery to be mere verbiage. Instead it's the silver flash of power that is found in the way words meet when brought together with skill and intent. It's the spark behind the words that rises like fire from the spring, filling them with meaning beyond their surface. Imbas is the power within the words, like the soul within a body, subtle but strong.
When it hits, it's like breathless dizziness. Patterns fall into place. The body heats up and can't be still. Words must come out, spoken or sung. Ideas leap and spark like stars or gems or the drops that fly from waterfalls, gleaming in the light. Things take on a significance beyond their outward appearance. Spirits speak and if we're careful and quick -- and lucky -- we can catch those words and weave them into something profound.
The search for imbas is the preparation that lays the tinder so the spark can blaze.


  1. Good luck with the new blig Eryn.

    Thank you very much for the Amergin translation. I've run out of research now, two years down the line. It took me a million words to tease out the research of six years and i can now condense my poetic philosophy into 500 words. It was after making the connection between Fin Eces meaning bright wisdom and finnegas the druid in the McCool myth, in a moment of imbhas, as i wrote, that the final I was dotted and T crossed.

    The root of it all, knowledge worth seeking and the doing of actively encouraged, a reverse of the garden of eden myth. No guilty connotation, the penal concept absent, and it would not have been possible if i hadn't have read the holy grail ground zero text.


  2. You're very welcome. I'd be most interested in seeing those 500 words of yours.