The Wanderer by Jane Holland

This, according to the blurb, is a ‘controversial reworking’ of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name*. ‘Controversial’ and ‘famous’ are both relative terms here, of course.

Flying in the same direction

I assume the controversy mainly arose because the poem is given a female narrator. To quote the introduction:

I also transformed the male ‘Wanderer’ of the poem’s title into a female figure and focused on that narrator alone, even though the original poem seems occasionally to suggest two distinct speakers. (A point on which some academics disagree.) This rather drastic change was made for two reasons. Firstly, the traditional male-male relationship of the lord and his faithful retainer takes on a strongly homoerotic charge when read with a modern sensibility and, writing as a female poet, this posited relationship lacked authenticity in my early drafts. Secondly, I originally undertook this translation to provide a centrepiece to my third poetry collection, Camper Van Blues, which is itself themed around the concept of a lone female traveller.

I think the change works well. The themes of exile and loss take on a slightly different flavour but work just as well with a female narrator. It makes it a different poem, but it’s not as radical a change as you might imagine.

There are two other notable tweaks to the poem. The first is to strip out the Christian imagery. Holland reads The Wanderer as an essentially secular poem with ‘artificially imposed religious overtones’, which is certainly an entirely plausible reading; others have found it to be deeply infused with a Christian sensibility.

The third change, which I thought was perhaps more striking than either of those, was the inclusion of a few modern references. Not that many of them, but for example in the description of men lost in battle, she writes [every other line is supposed to be indented]:

Some fell there in the line of duty,
caught off-guard in the crossfire; others
were blasted to bits at the roadside
or picked off by snipers

The Wanderer deals with that essential Anglo-Saxon theme of a world in decline, and living among the evidence former glory. Taking that idea and setting it in a modern world gives the poem a remarkable post-apocalyptic feel. I’d never made that connection before, between Anglo-Saxon poetry and, say, Mad Max; but actually it’s surprisingly apt.

Anyway, I’m generally in favour of people doing interesting reinterpretations of the classics, and I think this is completely successful. It does bring something new, but it also captures the gloomy beauty of the original.

* My awful pedantic soul (it’s a terrible affliction) requires me to point out: I’m pretty sure the title is a modern addition, like all the titles we give Anglo-Saxon poems.

» The photo is Flying in the same direction, © Susanne Nilsson and used under a CC by-sa licence.


Oxford commas and other peevery

You may have noticed there was a bit of kerfuffle around th’internet [400 comments on Metafilter, for example] about the news that Oxford University Press were dropping their support for the Oxford comma (which they aren’t).

I’m always intrigued by the passion that people bring to this stuff. My feeling about the Oxford comma goes something like this: if a publisher as respectable as the OUP uses it, it’s probably acceptable. And since other equally respectable institutions like the Cambridge University Press prefer not to use it, that must also be acceptable. And since these two competing schools of thought have managed to co-exist for at least a century without doing any apparent damage to literature, journalism or anything else… well, it clearly doesn’t matter very much.

So where does all the anger come from? Why the fierce sense that, if there are two possible variants, one of them must be right, and, even more importantly, the other one must be terribly, terribly wrong?

» Comma (Polygonia c-album) is © Eco Heathen and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.


Speaking as a dumbed-down chav…

I am endlessly fascinated by the people who are, by their own account, in a constant state of simmering rage at having to overhear other people’s uncouth language. This comment was in response to an article in the Sunday Times:*

Dave Russell wrote:

Couldn’t agree more abouyt the dumbing down of the nation. Just listen to a conversation between a group of people under the age of 25. It seems to be cool to speak like a complete thicko these days, no longer something to be ashamed of. The one thing that really grates on my nerves is to hear people using the child-like term ‘train station’ instead of ‘railway station’- the mark of the true dumbed-down chav. The other thing is how some apparently intelligent people think its cool to continually use swear words in public-in bars, buses and trains etc-even at the ‘Train Station!’ Most of the this dumbed down class wouldn’t understabnd a single Monty Python sketch-they simple don’t have the educational background.

OK, this is the usual stuff: the suffering of psychic violence when exposed to casual speech, the fear of the demotic. But the idea that the mark of a ‘true dumbed-down chav’ is that they say ‘train station’? That’s genius.

*admittedly, it’s a Jeremy Clarkson article, but even so.


Verbal ticks and burrs

Peter has an amusing post over at slow reads about a particular linguistic bugbear:

For my entire five-year teaching career, most students have addressed me as “Wait,” as in “Wait, do we need to write this in our sketchbooks?”

These little verbal tics just don’t bother me, and I offer sincere thanks to whichever deity is responsible for the fact. Because it could so easily have happened; I care about language and have copious supplies of pedantry. I should be a natural candidate for writing snippy letters to the Times about young people who say, like, whatever, and supermarket signs which mention ‘eight items or less’, but no, I just don’t care. Even the greengrocer’s apostrophe: meh.

And if perfectly innocuous colloquial language used by well-meaning people sets your teeth on edge, I can only assume you must walk around in a constant state of seething irritation. It must be like having someone following you around, standing just behind you and scraping their fingernails on a block of polystyrene. And we should save all that useful anger for something important, like stupid font choices.

My easy-going approach to language isn’t limitless. One thing that really, really winds me up is when people take it on themselves to correct what they perceive as my errors. The all-time winner being someone who, in apparent seriousness, told me that the ‘correct’ plural for octopus is octopodes. ‘Because it’s from Greek, not Latin’.

» apparently, if you do suffer from verbal ticks, there are special tools you can buy. Including a lasso.


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.

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