Last time, I blogged about what is being discussed as the apparently near-universal hatred of poetry, as described in Ben Lerner’s recent booklet of that name. I recently read another book, part of Christopher Tolkien’s ongoing quest to release all of his father’s uncompleted work, or even notes toward any work, or apparently scribbles or half-thoughts about any work.
The work in question is a half-, or three-quarters-, or, or whatever-finished poem in the Beowulf meter called The Fall of Arthur. I’m a sucker for the Arthurian corpus, but never mind that. I’m also a sucker for the Beowulf meter, and maybe we’ll get back to that another time.
The coolest thing about the book is not even the poem itself or what it supposedly contributes to the story of Arthur (not much, since JRRT is making more stuff up), but some of the discussions of Old English poetic traditions that occur in the Afterwords. This was JRRT’s day job, in case you didn’t happen to know—he was a brilliant translator of Anglo-Saxon poetry known for his rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and also for giving us Beowulf itself as a work of poetry and not just of fantasy.
What upset Ben Lerner and his forerunner Allen Grossman was that poetry could never really get at the thing it was trying to express, and they both suspected that this was the reason everyone, writers of poetry included, hated poetry.
One of the things that fascinated JRRT (and others; see the linked article, above) about Old English poetry, though, was that it was full of kennings. This term, kennings, comes from the Icelandic, and technically it’s supposed to mean “descriptions,” but it’s much richer than that. Think of Scotty on Star Trek going “d’ye ken?” Well, do ye?
Do you grok it? And if you don’t know what grok means, well. You need to go and read Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, not that it’s a great work of literature or anything. But it’s a prerequisite to understanding poetry. Or quantum mechanics. Or your partner. Or kids. Or cats.
Here I am, a poet, assigning a science fiction book so you can understand poetry. Go read it if you haven’t. Also, Ursula Le Guin, who is a much better writer, directly uses the concept of kennings often enough in her work. It’s about your ability to intuitively grasp, to deeply, but quickly, see into the core of something.
Christopher Tolkien, bless him, actually includes part of one of his father’s lectures on kennings, which I’ll go ahead and quote for a while:
A poet may say bán-hús ‘bone-house’ and mean ‘body’; but mean you also (though with almost lightning swiftness) to think of a house being built with its wooden frame and beams and between them the clay packed and shaped in the old style, and then see the parallelism between that and skeleton and flesh. He may say beado-léoma ‘flame of battle’ and mean ‘sword’ – a bright blade drawn in the sun with a sudden flash; and similarly merehengest ‘sea-stallion’ for ‘ship’; ganotes bæð ‘the gannet’s bathing-place’ for ‘sea’. The Old English poet liked pictures, but valued them the more sudden, hard and compact they were. He did not unroll similes. You had to be attentive and quick-witted to catch all that he meant and saw.
CT scan of the human body; what’s up with that left lung?
Anglo-Saxon village, West Stow Archaeological Site/Museum, England
I have said for a long time that reading is a contact sport. So is listening to words and phrases that are read or performed aloud. It involves the active participation of the reader or listener. You have to offer your own interpretations and be willing to meet the writer half-way at least.
When I saw Spike Lee’s movie The Inside Man in the theatre, I came out disturbed by several imperfections in the story’s rendering, but one of the great things about the movie was that people, strangers to one another, were clustered in the lobby afterwards, arguing about who the inside man was. I think “the inside man” was the conscience of the main character. But we all had to ponder it, didn’t we? That was the point! Awesome! Audience participation. Contact sport.
But JRRT goes on:
In the Chronicle poem of the Battle of Brunanburh the poet speaks of wlance wígsmiþas overthrowing the Welsh – literally ‘splendid war-smiths’. You can say if you like that ‘war-smith’ is ‘just a kenning in verse’ for ‘warrior’: so it is in mere logic and syntax. But it was coined and used to mean ‘warrior’ and at the same time to give a sound-picture and an eye-picture of battle. We miss it, because none of us have seen or heard a battle of steel or iron weapons hand-wielded, and few now have seen an old-fashioned smith hammering iron on an anvil. The clang of such a battle could be heard a long way off: like a lot of men hammering on metal bars and hacking at iron-cooped barrels, or – very much like, for those who have heard it (as everyone had in those days), a smith beating out a plough-share, or forging chain-links: not one smith, though, but hundreds all in competition. And seen closer too, the rise and fall of swords and axes would remind men of smiths swinging hammers.
Late 19th-Century painting, Albert Brument
The Fall of Stiklestad, (a CE 1030 battle in Norway, but same diff), Peter Nicolai Arbo
Here we see not just the drama of the imagery but the fact that the poet/bard is making dramatic comparisons to people’s daily lives. Contemporary poets sometimes do this, and sometimes do not. It’s all right, I think, to make allusions to a body of literature that’s gone before, and to ask readers to be informed, to be well educated, to have read more, and/or to go out and read more. But it wouldn’t hurt us to riddle a little more about reference points that concern readers more directly.
Of course, I am far from the first person to say this.
To love poetry, you have to love the game of it. To love matching wits poet to reader and reader to poet, chop-chop, to see, eye to heart to belly, yes, we are bound to bone and flesh, easily pierced with the blade, ready to burn.