Arms and the poet (cont’d)

For the first part of this chain of quotes, see here.

The Eskimo song duel is famous for its disputative function in a cultural context where normally the airing of grievances was forbidden….

The song duel owes much of its effectiveness to the ambiguity created by the fact that the single event can at all times be interpreted in two ways: it is at once an artistic festive event and an airing of grievances. An opponent can at any time be said to be doing two things: composing humorous songs and hurling accusations and insults. It should be emphasized that the singer is in fact doing both things at once; it is not a case of pretending to have artistic fun while making veiled attacks. Both aspects of the performance are important, real and inter-connected. The ambiguity of the event itself is compounded by the humorous key: participants are constrained at all times to behave as if all statements in the duel are ironic. At the most essential level, the duality of the event allows the community to continue to function after the duel, since the loser of the duel (if there is one) has not been publicly declared guilty of any serious transgressions. The loser is guilty simply of having performed less well than his opponent in a song contest, and any accusations leveled against him were only ironic.

Songs were of great importance to the Eskimo, and the duelling song was just one of a wide genre. Orpingalik, a Netsilik shaman, expressed the significance of song as an integral part of his culture in a reply to [Knud] Rasmussen’s question regarding the number of songs he had composed:

How many songs I have I cannot tell you. I keep no count of such things. There are so many occasions in one’s life when a sorrow is felt in such a way that the desire comes to sing; and so I know that I have many songs. All my being is song, and I sing as I draw breath.

Good dueling songs – and in fact entire duels – were immortalized. While Rasmussen gathered some of his songs first hand, many of them were sung to him by people who had learned them from their elders. These immortalized songs were occasionally sung in other contexts, providing entertainment and amused reminiscence on informal occasion. A performance in a song duel, therefore, was a contribution to an important and extensive art form.

– Penelope Eckert and Russell Newmark, “Central Eskimo Song Duels: A Contextual Analysis of Ritual Ambiguity,” Ethnology vol. xix, no. 2

By far the most important social context in which zamil poetry is composed [by Yemenis] is in the dispute mediation. When a serious conflict breaks out between two or more villages or tribes or two different tribal sections – a conflict that might involve a dispute over land (private property or tribal boundaries), women (abductions, runaways, adulteries), or water rights – warfare among the contending parties often results…. The fighting at first is often a kind of symbolic violence in which the offended party tries to restore its honor by a show of force, and almost immediately after the first shots have rung out, intermediaries arrive to try and persuade the parties to agree to a truce…

The intermediaries may arrive chanting a zamil poem…announcing their intention of mediating the dispute and offering up cows or sheep for sacrifice in token of their sincerity and good faith. If…the plaintiff…agrees to a truce, it sets the conditions in numbers of cows, sheep, guns, and, in the most serious conflicts, even hostages… These demands are put forward by the intermediaries in the form of zamil poetry….

It is practically impossible to delimit a class of occasions on which someone might use zamil poetry for his own personal ends…. Once I was riding a bus on which more boarding tickets had been sold than there were seats available for passengers, with the result that a luckless passenger who happened to be an old tribesman had to sit on the floor of the vehicle. Resenting the injustice of not having been given a seat like everyone else when he had paid for one, he composed a zamil on the spot voicing his complaint. It had its intended effect: everyone on the bus started to laugh when they heard the poem and taunted the ticket seller, who in turn relinquished his seat to the now greatly mollified old man.

– Stephen C. Caton, “Peaks of Yemen I Summon”: Poetry as Cultural Practice in a North Yemeni Tribe

Egil Skallagrimson received word that there was a new king in Norway and that Arinbjorn had returned to his lands there and was held in high esteem. The Egil composed a poem in Arinbjorn’s praise and sent it to him in Norway, and this is the beginning of it:

I am quick to sing
a noble man’s praises,
but stumble for words
about misers;
freely I speak
of a king’s deeds,
but stay silent
about the people’s lies.

Replete with taunts
for the bearer of lies,
I sing the favours
of my friends;
I have visited many
seats of mild kings,
with the ingenuous
intent of a poet.

Once I had
incurred the wrath
of a mighty king
of Yngling’s line;
I drew a bold hat
over my black hair,
paid a visit
to the war-lord

where that mighty
maker of men
ruled the land from beneath
his helmet of terror.
In York
the king reigned,
rigid of mind,
over rainy shores.

The shining glare
from Eirik’s brow
was not safe to behold
nor free from terror;
when the moons
of that tyrant’s face
shone, serpent-like,
with their awesome glow.

Yet I ventured
my poem to the king,
the bed-prize that Odin
had slithered to claim,
his frothing horn
passed around
to quench
all men’s ears.

No one praised
the beauty of the prize
my poetry earned
in that lavish house
when I accepted from the king
in reward for my verse
my own sable head
to stand my hat on.

My head I won
and with it the two
dark jewels
of my beetling brows,
and the mouth
that had delivered
my head’s ransom
at the king’s knee.

A field of teeth
and my tongue I took back,
and my flapping ears
endowed with sound;
such a gift
was prized higher
than earning gold
from a famous king.

By my side, better
than every other
spreader of treasure,
stood my loyal friend
whom I truly trusted,
growing in stature
with his every deed.

paragon of men . . .

– Bernard Scudder, trans., Egil’s Saga, attributed to Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241)

For more on Inuit poetics, see Qarrtsiluni and Building Dwelling Eating. For more on Egil Skallagrimson and Norse poetics – including a description of the origin myth of poetry, alluded to in Egil’s sixth stanza above – see Poetry or vomit?

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