Pulp Beowulf

A link from C. Dale Young sent me to this article which is rather unflattering about a scheme to promote poetry in Seattle. What got me going, though, was this, from someone defending the scheme in the comments:

On comprehending poetry: you say “Poetry, by its very definition, is a difficult thing to write and to comprehend.” Certainly you can’t mean this, or perhaps you are simply uninformed. Since Mallarmé and especially since TS Eliot, perhaps, poetry’s hallmark is to be difficult, but again this is recent history given the history of bards: the Odyssey was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick, ditto Beowulf and the Eddas. The Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses. Shakespeare was not looking to mystify the objects of his love sonnets, nor is the work of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Ntozake Shange, Sharon Olds, Saul Williams, Li-Young Lee or in fact most poets worth their salt supposed to be incomprehensible or even that difficult.

Now I agree with the basic point that difficulty is not an essential quality of poetry. But as someone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon poetry, I notice references in the media, so I have encountered this idea before, that Beowulf ‘was the equivalent of a pulp fiction bestseller or action-adventure flick’.

It is a fucking ridiculous comparison.

One version of it is based, as far as I can tell, simply on the kind of story it is: Beowulf is about a buff warrior-hero type who goes out and fights monsters, so it must be the Dark Ages version of Die Hard or Independence Day.  Now I happen to believe this is a profound misreading of the poem, at least until someone makes a version of Die Hard which concerns itself deeply with the fragility, briefness and futility of human existence, or a version of Independence Day where the aliens win at the end.

But to properly try to refute that argument would be a difficult exercise, hedged around with qualifiers and uncertainty, because anyone who claims to know why Beowulf was written, who it was written for, how it was received or what kind of place it had in the culture is talking out of their arse.

Do you know how many surviving copies there are of long narrative Anglo-Saxon poems on non-Christian mythological themes? One. Beowulf. We assume that it is the only survivor from a rich oral culture of similar poems that were either never written down or have been lost — but we don’t know. And we certainly don’t know if Beowulf is a typical example, or how much it was changed when it was written down… or anything much at all, really.

And as for the statement that ‘the Canterbury Tales, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost were intended to be blockbusters, not PhD theses’: Jesus wept.

I mean Chaucer, maybe sorta kinda; Dante I don’t know much about, although even in C14th Florence there must have been more populist options available than the theological epic; but Milton? Seriously? He’s your example of poetry not having to be difficult? There aren’t many poems in English more self-consciously literary, less populist and more stubbornly unwilling to make life easy for the reader than Paradise Lost.

I think what annoys me so much isn’t the inaccuracy of these comparisons: it’s the fact that anyone wants to make them at all. I understand the wish to resist the ghettoisation of poetry as an recondite and überliterary artform. And it’s true that there is a long and valuable tradition of popular, accessible poetry, much of it ephemeral but some of real merit. But to compare Homer and Beowulf to action movies, or call the Divine Comedy a blockbuster, and think you’re doing them a favour… I just don’t get it.

7 Comments

  1. 4 December 2008 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    If the film is as ridiculous as the poster, I’m glad I didn’t go near it. But then I’m old.

  2. 4 December 2008 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    So you don’t interpret Die Hard With a Vengence as intending, with no middle flight to soar and justify the ways of God to man?

    Well said. I’d also like to point out that I haven’t heard anyone say “Jesus wept” in this manner since I was very young.

    Thanks.

  3. Harry
    5 December 2008 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    If the film is as ridiculous as the poster

    Well, I haven’t actually seen it, but I believe it has a love interest between Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) and Beowulf, so I think it probably is.

    Although at university I did go to a lecture that gave a feminist interpretation of the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother which, among other things, linked the melting of his sword when he stabbed her to a detumescing penis, so…

    I don’t actually have problem with that kind of Hollywood silliness, although it would be nice if the filmmakers cheerfully admitted they were taking huge liberties with the source, instead of somehow pretending they are helping modern audiences to connect with the original work as an act of high-minded cultural generosity.

    And I don’t dislike blockbuster movies in general or Bruce Willis in particular, I just think the blockbuster movie/epic poem comparison is so inapt as to be actually misleading.

  4. poppysmatus
    5 December 2008 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    There is far too much ironic reserve in _The Canterbury Tales_ for an uninformed audience to appreciate. Chaucer wrote–and performed–for the elite of his era. I believe Terry Jones’ study of the Knight is pretty close to the truth of the matter–just that Chaucer was not quite so cynical about him. But ALL of the characters are just that little bit too much over the edge into caricature and absurdity to be pop entertainment. Much of delight is in seeing all their rhetorical tricks to win you over to their viewpoints. In grad school I tried to trace a 16th C. “plagiarized” pamphlet of the “Man of Law’s Tale/ Faithful Custance” through dozens of sources and had to give up. It was a redaction and simplification, obviously intended for a much wider audience than Chaucer’s.

  5. Harry
    5 December 2008 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Of course there are examples of something like pulp fiction that survive from the middle ages — the kinds of romances that Chaucer parodies in the Tale of Sir Thopas. And clearly Chaucer was doing something much more sophisticated and subtle and nuanced than that. I think he’s clearly a highly literary writer, what he would call a bookish man, although the bookishness varies somewhat from tale to tale.

    Part of the problem with the comparison is that the whole concept of mass-market literature tends to fall down when you’re dealing with a society where books are hugely expensive and relatively few people are literate. So I don’t think ‘blockbuster’ would be a very good comparison anyway. But I said ‘maybe kinda sorta’ because I don’t know if he would have been regarded as a difficult writer by his original readership, and I don’t quite know what audience he had in mind. I suppose a comparison might be Dickens: clearly a sophisticated writer with a lot going on in his novels, but he was hugely popular in his own time.

    I still think it’s basically a silly thing to say, mind you.

  6. 8 December 2008 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    The blockbuster/epic comparison is one I heard used in pretty much every Lit class I ever had. Along with all the points you make about how dumb it is, I think it ends up screwing with the kids in class who’ve read a Stephen King or Tom Clancy book and are suddenly being encouraged to view Chaucer from the same perspective. So if the intended audience isn’t lit nerds who know better, and it isn’t the “I hate to read” crowd, it’s just another misguided attempt at making the US less frightened of the arts. Good luck.
    There continues to be a fuss in Seattle over that story you linked to. I think this is the latest.

  7. Harry
    8 December 2008 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    it’s just another misguided attempt at making the US less frightened of the arts

    To be fair, I don’t think this is specifically USian thing; I’ve certainly seen at least one British journalist make much the same comparison.

    I agree though, anyone who does pick up Beowulf or the Odyssey or Canterbury Tales in the hope of finding blockbustery entertainment is only going to be disappointed anyway. Or confused.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Sherry Chandler on 9 December 2008 at 12:07 pm

    […] But back to the point: we not only lose magazines, we also lose the language and the culture from which the poetry was generated, as Harry has pointed out in his recent discussion of Beowulf. […]

  2. By Heraclitean Fire » Probably not one for purists on 16 December 2008 at 1:53 pm

    […] my recent rant about what epic poetry isn’t, I feel I ought to share the fact that Dante’s Inferno is […]

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