"Practical Bardry" is a idiom of which I took ownership early in my tenure in Ár nDraíocht Féin, A Druid Fellowship. There is a lot of “bardry” around. From songs about booze and sex, money and love, loss and anger, to poems from now and times long past about heroic deeds and fantastical tales, even to stories of laughter, frivolity, love, perseverance and any of the other emotions and character traits we value as humans, there is a plethora of available work out there. I propose the thing that will set a Bard apart from the minstrels and performers is simply practicality.
There are many synonyms for “practical,” including such words as “real” and “applied” and “concrete.” My favorite synonym is simply, “useful.” I wish someone had told me this far earlier in my bardic training! Being a performer or a writer is not about glamour or fame, not when your main venue is a religious organization and especially not when your audience includes a world full of Gods and the ears of all those who have gone before you. No, the Practical Bard is the one that is useful. The Practical Bard has a role to play, and fulfilling that role begins with an understanding of the role of the Bard.
The Neopagan Bard in the context of Ritual
Isaac Bonewits said, in “The Basic Principles of Liturgical Design” from Druid’s Progress #4, “I've learned over the last twenty years, mostly from the priestesses and bards with whom I've worked, that the artistic elements of a ritual, and most especially the musical and dramatic ones, can be the critical determiners of just how much psychic, magical and/or spiritual energy gets raised by the participants, and of how well that energy is maintained, focused and discharged.”
The role of a Bard is two-fold. A good bard is a key player in alleviating the performer v. audience problem that sometimes exists, especially in larger rites. As Isaac points out above, songs and chants require/provide a chance for the folk to participate, which in turn will aid in drawing them in—physically and emotionally—to promote group mind and overall serve to enrich the ritual experience. It is the bard’s responsibility to ensure these pieces are well-executed. Pieces in which the folk are expected to participate should be preceded by clear instructions and include clear direction during their course. For individuals new to an ADF rite, the music and prose may be a deciding factor when considering a repeat attendance. Furthermore, the poems, stories and songs are the parting gifts the bards give to the folk. By design, they are more readily recalled for later reflection—particularly chants that are short and repetitive.
A good Bard is also one who works closely with the liturgical leaders for a rite and shares the responsibilities creating and maintaining order. The Bard should follow the rite closely, making sure as the rite progresses that the liturgical leader(s) are supported and that the energy is maintained in the event of a distraction or a “hang up” (such as a participant who is missing momentarily or a ritual item needing to be retrieved). In these instances, a well-placed bardic piece, whether instrumental music, drum beat, spontaneous poetry or ritual-appropriate short story can maintain the order and group mind created at the advent of the rite while the liturgy leader(s) recover. A bard, I truly believe, is an integral part of the liturgy team.
Bards in the greater Neopagan Community
In a general setting, Bardic work that enters the greater Neopagan community carries the voice of their sect into the open. In other words, the Bards are the representatives of their respective group. These works also create a bond between groups and can provide common ground for larger, general gatherings such as festivals and conferences. For example, the songs written by a Goddess-centered woman, such as Starhawk and Annie Hill have become mainstreamed in the neopagan community at large. When these songs are incorporated into the liturgies at festivals and public rites, the collective spirit of the folk is enhanced and a sense of camaraderie develops. Also, when these types of pieces are used, more of the folk are likely to participate: people are more comfortable doing what they know.
Bardic work is important to keeping the mind open to new ideas and allowing for the expression—and understanding of differences between the neopagan divisions. Wiccans and Druids, Shamans and Earth Warriors, through the expression of poems and chants, songs and stories are drawn together as a community. Conversation and liturgies may be different, but when an individual internalizes and understands a piece of bardic work, we become one in mind and purpose.
The Role of the Bard in Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship, Inc.
Primarily, the Bard is charged with infusing the liturgy with memorable pieces that tie the folk into the greater purpose of our rites. Stories used to introduce the Deity of the Occasion will help the folk to gain a better understanding of his or her nature and even begin to build a relationship, if there is a commonality between the Deity and the individual. Since we are a public forum type of religion, repetitive chants that are easily picked up are essential. Songs or chants interspersed within the liturgy that are short and lively can brighten a rite and keep the folk engaged enough to create higher amounts of energy and focus, and a liturgical design that acts as a showcase for the products of the fertile or “Bardically inclined” grove members will yield the highest quality results for this very reason. Besides, our bardic work is fun for creators and spectators alike.
Furthermore, our cosmology is not always very easy to understand the first time a person is exposed to it. The Bardic works in a rite are a key element to helping people understand what is going on around them. As stated above, our Bards are carrying the voice of ADF to the greater Neopagan community. May their voices carry truth about who we are, and may they do honor to the Kindred.