Reciting Beowulf as though I know what I’m saying.

Some time ago I realized that when I read Old English (or Latin) verse out loud, I read as though I didn’t really know the meaning of what I was saying.  I knew how to sound out the words and I even could offer a translation, but I didn’t actually sound like I meant it.  I set myself the vague goal of someday really getting to know the first twelve lines of Beowulf so that I could say them with real understanding, conversational, the way I would read a passage from Shakespeare, or Yeats, or even Chaucer, not the largely bombastic declamation that often afflicts renditions of Beowulf. Remember: Beowulf is known to us not because rough, mead-swilling warriors enjoyed it, but because Medieval Catholic monks thought the poem was worth preserving.

I suppose the seed was planted back when a mutual acquaintance got me together with David Ley for a brief bit of tutoring for his role as Hrothgar in Blake William Turner’s Beowulf the King.  But I have to thank writer and fellow erstwhile Old English scholar Angie Abdou for really spurring me to get down to brass tacks and conduct the experiment.

So, here it is — Beowulf 1-12 as though I know what I’m saying:

And here is the text, punctuated as I think it should be:

Hwæt. We Gardena,         in geardagum
þeodcyninga,         þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas         ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing         sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum,         meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.         Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden,         he þæs frofre gebad:
weox under wolcnum,         weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc         þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade         hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan.         þæt wæs god cyning!

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A Shout Out to the Planetary Society

It’s been about half a year now since I started throwing my thoughts out from Behind the Hedge (someday I may explain the blog title) and apart from a few hints and passing references, something fundamental has been missing:  Science.

When I was just tiny, a few years before watching Neil Armstrong smudge his way down that shadowy ladder with the really big step at the bottom, I poured over my father’s National Geographic Magazines, enthralled by two things:  the explorations of the sea, mostly by Jacques Cousteau, and the planned exploration of space, mostly by NASA.  When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I did, remembering the excitement of my childhood, was to get my own subscription to National Geographic Magazine.  Sometime later, my father handed over all his back issues stretching back to the mid-1950s.  Now I have almost sixty years of the things and I remain subscribed, although the sense of adventure has faded quite a bit.  Over and over I say to each month’s issue “You climbed a whole mountain!  Wow!  Did you know there’s a bunch of old men over there who WALKED ON THE MOON before you were born?!  And they got there in what amounts to little more than a  Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of big bombs strapped to the back of it!!”

Shortly after the moon landing, I took Charles Coombs’ Project Apollo out of the school library and then made my father order me my own copy from some bookstore in downtown Sudbury, Ontario.  I still have that book.  I spent my days making.  I made sharks out of plasticene and (strangly square) Saturn V rockets — complete with lunar module concealed in the top of the third stage — out of Lego.  And I craftily built the lunar module upside down so that it could dock with the command module.

Guess how I was turned onto the poetry of Yeats when I was in junior high school.

An epigram to a chapter in Intelligent Life in the Universe by Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii was a bit from Yeats’ “Song of the Wandering Aengus”:

Though I am old with wandering
through hollow lands and hilly lands
I’ll find out where she has gone
and kiss her lips and take her hands
and walk among long dappled grass
and pluck till time and times are done
the silver apples of the moon
the golden apples of the sun

And wither the threads from that poem through my life?

I reverently lifted one line for one of my few published (very obscurely published) bits of verse:

. . . on broken roads which lead nowhere
I search for unknown goals
through hollow lands and hilly lands
sun burning on my back . . .

I suspect that Yeats, together with a well timed visit to the banks of the River Wye, lead me to Wordsworth who was so obviously a pleasant uncle (but not a “funny uncle”, despite Ken Russell’s Clouds of Glory which quite probably led me to Tom Stoppard, charmingly guided by Felicity Kendall) to the child who was the father of the man I am.

And what about art?  I suspect that a strange meeting in my adolescent mind between Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and David Hardy’s The Challenge of the Stars put me on that road.

As a barely-past-tween, when I privately decided that painting was to be one of my lives, my first purchase was a big tube of Mars Black, because all I was going to paint was David Hardyesque space scenes.  Now I buy huge jars of titanium white and very, very rarely buy a small tube of some very traditional earth pigment, and hardly ever use black.  On the surface, my painting owes more to pre-modern traditions than to the Space Age  But, when I honestly consider things, scientific exploration — which I consider art- and literary-criticism to be — is the only thing that makes me passionate. High School acquaintances told me later in life that they thought I’d follow a science path.  Nope.  Anglo-Saxon poetry for me.

Where did that come from?

A long, long time ago I held a copy of  The Lord of the Rings in my hands in a Public Library in Windsor, Ontario and said to myself “This looks like a cheap rip-off of the Narnia stories.”  In hindsight, I was an idiot at that moment, but, fortunately, my mother reintroduced Tolkien to me for a third time — I had, without making the connection, spent a moment with “Smith of Wooton Major” in some elementary school classroom.  Tolkien made me learn Old English and learning Old English vastly improved my understanding of language and poetry.  After five years, two degrees, and a couple of publications, I left formal academia behind, again to the surprise of professors and colleagues.

Now, decades later, I subscribe to five publications:  The Old English Newsletter, which arrives at odd intervals; Canada’s History (formerly the Beaver) which comes bimonthly as near as I can figure; the comfortable old National Geographic; Scientific American; and the increasingly infrequent Planetary Report, which is a part of the real point of this post.  Except for the Old English Newsletter, I read every issue of these magazines from cover to cover.  In fact, I first subscribed to Scientific American after reading Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’ mention that he, too, read that magazine from cover to cover every month.  To me, all five magazines are about understanding the world and my place in it.

But, the Planetary Report is a voice from and to my childhood.  If you haven’t heard of this wonderful little publication, it is the newsletter of the Planetary Society, a think tank/lobbying organization/fanclub/cult/bunch of really varied and smart people founded by one of the smartest, Carl Sagan and two friends three decades ago with the sole and noble purpose of teaching people that space exploration is beautiful, inspiring, artistic, fascinating, gobsmackingly neat and absurdly inexpensive considering the wonders, both practical and human, it returns and, even more, considering the insane obsenities we spend obscene amounts of our labour and humanity on.

Early supporters were Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.  Bradbury, before his death intervened, was scheduled to be a part of a little Planetary Society get-together in a few days.  The Planetary Society is perhaps the ultimate geek club — “I’m making space exploration happen!!!”, but for over three decades this bunch of ordinary and extraordinary people has quietly, soberly, and doggedly pushed governments to push the boundaries of knowledge and pushed the boundaries of knowledge themselves during times when governments have been remarkably loathe to learn much of anything.

Today the Planetary Society’s CEO is Bill Nye (yeah, that Science Guy) and has a remarkable  board of directors, including Niel deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium and the coolest astrophysicist ever (“that black guy from PBS” as one friend of mine describes him.  Sometimes Canadians can be a little too blunt.)

Some of the Advisory Council of the Society are artists, writers, Star Trek actors and, yes, one of them is an old man who has WALKED ON THE MOON!! After travelling there in what amounts to a Volkswagen Kombi with a bunch of bombs strapped to the back!!

The latest issue of the Planetary Report closes with a poem and a beautiful piece of art of the sort my thirteen year old self dreamed of painting.  Inside there are stories about urban Dark Skies efforts, about the Mars Science Laboratory which should land on Mars in a few days (it’s about the size of a Volkswagen Kombi, but the technology has advanced a bit), about near-Earth asteroids and extra-Solar planets.  And there are projects for kids.

Projects for kids.  One of the finest things the Planetary Society has done over the years, finer than sending digital copies of classic Science Fiction literature and art to Mars, finer than launching member-financed space missions, finer even than sending my name (and those of thousands of other Society members) to Saturn — about the finest, noblest thing the Society has done is to encourage young people to dream, to learn, and to achieve.  The Planetary Society provides grants to young scientists, to amateur scientists around the world.  The Society has provided brilliantly creative teenagers the opportunity to conduct real scientific investigation with robots on mars — hands on!

Although U.S. based, the Planetary Society is Planetary, with members around the world and making efforts to work with space agencies of all countries.  The societies grants are available to any nationality, its student outreach is global.

And, once a year they have this thing they call “Planetfest” in Pasadena and at science centres all over the planet.   A whole huge crowd of dreamers, scientists, poets, artists, writers get together to look up at the sky and say

“Wow.  Just Wow.”

And

“Thank you, Carl.”

This year Planetfest happens in just a few days, August 4th and 5th, timed to watch the landing of The Mars Science Laboratory.

I’ve never attended as I am, perhaps ironically in the context of the Planetary Society, a bit of a homebody, but if there were ever a crowd I’d have a laugh being a part of, it would be this one.  I’m not recruiting for the Society.  I’m not suggesting that anyone who might read this should run out and buy a membership (although that would be fine, if the fit is right).  What I am interested in doing is letting people know that the Planetary Society exists, what it’s for,  and what sort of person ends up as a member.

I am a working artist, a lover of theatre, a reader of poetry, and absolutely the most inspiring thing I can imagine is exactly what the Planetary Society was created to do and exactly what Art, Theatre and Poetry are for: to help us all to understand where we are in this inconceivably huge existence.

It’s a perfect fit.

Update, September 4, 2012:  A few days ago I was having a silly conversation about googling one’s self and I came across this brief blog post by Charlie Loyd in which Carl Sagan and I are associated through a fairly obscure aspect of Old English poetry.  It seems I have come full circle, in a sense: inspired to poetry  by Carl Sagan as a child and then associated with him through poetry much later in life.  It is a funny old Cosmos, isn’t it?

I read Roo Borson’s “Rain; road; an open boat” and then I read it again!

What an exhilarating experience!

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading and rereading Roo Borson’s Rain; road; an open boat, making notes as I go.  What a beautiful, challenging book it is!  The title of the book is a nesting of the titles of its three sections.  Within each section are interlaced poems in verse and prose riffing on landscape, nature, memory and everything else in imagination and out.  Many volumes and scholarly careers could be (and, I hope, will be) devoted to teasing out the structure Borson has erected.  Here I’ll just take a quick dip into the thunderous waterfall :

Rain

Of the opening poem, “Various Landscapes” I wrote in my notes:

What is going on?  is this pseudo-Haiku and commentary?  Are we seeing the various levels of a I Ching hexagram?

There is certainly a dialogue — or a call and response — between the verses and the prose poetry.

Although the atmosphere seems rural Japanese (or is this my expectation after Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida?) the mention of the sausage shop crashes us into urbanity  or at least suburbanity and European bratwurst.

Where is this house:  Where the river road meets the coast road.  One wall is all windows . . . It is Ossian’s Hall, which closes the book!

The prose poems have become visions, dreams, dream visions.  All floral, but cankered.  The fantasy guest room has become reality and reality is the vision.

But the Guest House is in China, not Japan.

§

I couldn’t help but think of my old Bollingen copy of the Wilhelm/Baynes translation of the I Ching as I red “Various Landscapes”: while an unchanging digram replaces the varied hexagrams, the three line stanzas accompanied by long prose commentaries create something oracular about the appearance of the page.  I suspect Borson intends the resemblance.

My perplexity continued with the second poem, “California Nutmeg”:

What to make of this?  The place whence her night dreams proceed and around which her mental faculties take shape is where a solitary tree grows out of place in and alien forest.

“and makes itself at home wherever it happens to issue from the earth” as does Borson, I think.

§

“Wild Violets” (the first of this title, we later find out) at first blush is a pretty study of memory and nostalgia, much like “Radish Flowers” which follows.  I thought:

So much seems at first Impressionistic, but there’s sure to be an underlying order with Borson, I think.

Hints of future and signs of past on this day on the cusp of summer

“In the world but not of it.”

§

“Durham” made me remark that “I must reread Durham in Old English”.  A thousand years or so ago, another poet wrote of Durham, a poem both similar to and different from Borson’s.  Both are careful to mention the woods and the river, the natural landscape in which Durham is situated.  I find it very intriguing that two poets so far apart in time and tradition stood in the same spot and described the same place so similarly.  The Old English (with my translation):

     Is ðeos burch breome         geond Breotenrice,
     steppa gestaðolad,         stanas ymbutan
     wundrum gewæxen.         Weor ymbeornad,
     ea yðum stronge,         and ðer inne wunað
     feola fisca kyn         on floda gemonge.
     And ðær gewexen is         wudafæstern micel;
     wuniad in ðem wycum         wilda deor monige,
     in deope dalum         deora ungerim.
     Is in ðere byri eac         bearnum gecyðed
    ðe arfesta         eadig Cudberch
     and ðes clene         cyninges heafud,
     Osuualdes, Engle leo,         and Aidan biscop,
     Eadberch and Eadfrið,         æðele geferes.
     Is ðer inne midd heom         æðelwold biscop
    and breoma bocera Beda,         and Boisil abbot,
     ðe clene Cudberte         on gecheðe
     lerde lustum,         and he his lara wel genom.
     Eardiæð æt ðem eadige         in in ðem minstre
     unarimeda         reliquia,
    ðær monia wundrum gewurðað,         ðes ðe writ seggeð,
     midd ðene drihnes wer         domes bideð.

Fully known is this town
throughout the British realm
Steeply established, stones round about
grown up wondrously
A river strongly runs past weirs
in waves, and therein dwell
many fishes in the flood
and there is growing near
a woody fastness great.  There live
full many wild beasts
in that dwelling, in deep dales
beasts innumerable.
In that town, too, known to men
they’ll find, most full of grace
the Saint Cuthbert and the head
of the chaste King Oswald
England’s lion; Bishop Aidan;
noble travel partners
Eadberh and Eadfrith.
Bishop Æthelwold
is there with them and the well known
Bede the scholarly
and Abbot Boisil gladly taught
in youth the chaste Cuthbert:
and well he took his learning up.
Unnumbered relics lie
beside the saint inside the minster
there many wonders come,
as books make known, the while that man
of God for judgment waits.

Borson mentions the blackbird’s song and relates it to an old song of a blackbird.  What is this old song?  Is it the Beatles song or is it something other?

“A Place in the Woods” is a brief prose poem describing disappointed hopes made manifest, but hints that the manifestation will be swallowed by the silent past.

“Wild Violets” (2) brings Rain to a close with a recasting of the first “Wild Violets” and the clear indication that interlace is going to be a primary structural principle of the book.

Of particular note in the recasting:  after fifty years old papers dog-eared have replaced the wild violets.

Rain; road

“Late Sunshine” begins the second section with a quite lengthy return to the pseudo-haiku and prose response.  In my notes I recast the poem, quoting the brief verse bits and reducing the prose paragraphs to bullet points:

A riff on Borson’s “Late Sunshine”

1.

“Thin sun
Thin rain
the blossoming oats –”

The turtle and his eye
Entries on dead people on the internet
The fish laid out side by side.

2.

“The world in old photos
or the world in spring —
which is younger?”

The millipede
The masks and the borrowed instruments
Smells and things
Gifts and judgement thereof
False named plants
Reputation’s growth
Dead honey eater’s eye
The cats in the tree
Time
The shock of the familiar
Dream Mart
Three questions as we die
The moth on the sidewalk after rain
The arrival of the future
The dazzling become familiar
The Kingfisher necklace
Remembering birth and death.

3.

“The delicate scent of bottle-gourd blossoms
the wisteria beans long and glat
the repetative songs of the birds of early summer”

do memories return to us or we to them?
embroidered on a pillow
restoring significance
the name game
the other name game

4.

“Standing on the right foot
lifting pine seeds with the left —
cockatoo etiquette”

indispensible stereotypes
a third name game
envy
narrow minds and broad

5.

“A magpie lark
standing guard over the waterfall
water gliding past its feet –”

the inverse law of death and intentions
buildings
pigeons in the train station in prose and verse
the face in the mirror
buildings and art
illusion
the stranger
Goldenrod
White Duck Narrows

In “Blowing Clouds” Borson shows she loves to juggle words and syntax and punctuation.  This is a virtuoso juggle!

(with prose commentary.)

My notes on the last poems of Rain; road;:

“Dictionary”

preservation.

“Black Point

Verse then prose

Memory of time with friends long later when one friend has died.

“Road”

prose and then verse
echoes of all that’s gone before.

“Roads in the Berkeley Hills”

verse then prose

the thing, which no longer exists except in memory, exists still in you, in us (in we?).

The final section Rain: road; an open boat begins with “New Rain” another extended verse/prose call and response.  Again my notes are bullet point paraphrase:

prose then verse and so on

something white in the Japanese rain

Camellia buds
minnows
statues
deer
the rain pavilion

Something strange on the mountainside
fox-bear
the wind

the bus to a temple and the driver identifies the animal
dragonflies
statues and castle
the tanuki
the tooth-regrowing temple
heron
the tour guide
Hakuin’s sermon (this stanza, describing Hakuin’s untranslated ten word sermon, is ten words long)

Journeying to Japan
sweet peas
tend days of rain and snow

Kyoto and Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion
Pagoda verse
to the
Golden Pavilion

Colour and cold noodles
cool
cucumbers

Tended obscurities
snails painting
with moonlight

Subtracting the self
the person I’ve never met
whose ghost is this
lost morning
old pond
longing to be like others

The Gardens of Kyoto
the lost hat

The crow calls out to the friend with his recovered hat.
Osaka Bay
tonight’s moon
among the pines.

My notes on the last four poems:

“Baxter’s Grave”

The road to locally ignored grave of a poet

The prose is explanation.

I find myself wondering at this point whether the prose explanation is advantagious or detrimental to the poetry.

“A Chaise for Sharon”

patience.

“To go to Huangshan”

Prose about Huangshan

Rain
Pine
dragonfly

the identical tourist raincoats at first are (intentionally) absurd but by the end are jewels of perseverance.

“Cathedral”

The blackbird in a filigree of images high on Bucks Hill

“and the robin
small beneath the hedge”

“all the tropes spent”

This is Durham again.

§

I have a suspicion Borson has not spent all her tropes.

The book closes with an “Afterword and a Note” concerning the eighteenth century Scottish folly called “Ossian’s Hall” and then a poem, “Ossian’s Folly, Black Linn Falls” about Borson’s visit to that place.  Here we are returned to the guest house of “Various Landscapes” with it’s wall of windows and the river outside.

Rain; road; an open boat is a densely structured beautiful interlacing of images across all the poems, a seductive mesh drawing us to it over and over again, a braided woodland waterfall, calling to us with voices of memory and hopes and dreams.

Enter it said the river’s falling
enter it and entered instead its thunderous names.”

Idle Thoughts on “Thureth”

The other night I sat down for a moment and picked up my old copy of Volume Six of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records — The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems — letting it fall open where I had stuck a slip of paper years ago and my eyes fell on the little poem from Cotton Claudius A.iii. known modernly as “Thureth”.

What a charming little gem it is!

    Ic eom halgungboc;         healde hine dryhten
    þe me fægere þus         frætewum belegde.
    þureð to þance         þus het me wyrcean,
    to loue and to wurðe,         þam þe leoht gesceop.
    Gemyndi is he         mihta gehwylcre
    þæs þe he on foldan         gefremian mæg,
    and him geþancie         þeoda waldend
    þæs þe he on gemynde         madma manega
    wyle gemearcian         metode to lace;
    and he sceal æce lean         ealle findan
    þæs þe he on foldan         fremaþ to ryhte.

Eleven lines in the voice of a book.  The book begins with the simple statement that it is a Benedictional, a book of blessings — a “hallowing book” in Old English. Then the book tells of his Lord,Thureth (healde hine dryhten) (or does the book say “the Lord held Thureth”?  Or is there a touch of both meanings?), the man who ordered the decorations adorning the book.  One has a sense of the book primping just a little, but not more than modesty allows — “look at these decorations Thureth put on me! May the Lord keep him who dressed me up like this — to the greater glory of God, of course!”  Then the book goes on to mention that Thureth has also set aside many other worldly treasures as an offering to God and that all may know of his righteous life.

There is a tension, so common in Old English poetry, between humble devotion to God and the eternity to come on the one hand, and the irresistible enjoyment of earthly pleasures of treasure and ornament.  The book alternates from line to line between what may be partaken of on earth (on foldan gefremian mæg) and thoughts of the Lord, between having many treasures in mind (on gemynde madma manega) and offerings to the lord.  And the working of the book’s adornments are placed parallel to the Lord’s creation of light, just as the God’s miracle-working power parallels Thureth’s good works.  There is an embracing of the material, an elevation of the use of wealth for good works and of art itself to something just a little lower than the work that God himself does.

The poem ends with what is a standard statement the all shall have an eternal reward who live righteously on earth but one can’t help but think that the book is itself thinking of it’s own eternal reward, the adornments Thureth ordered for it and which it so proudly mentions in line 2.

Far from being the rejection of the worldly that has sometimes been fashionable for critics to find in Medieval literature, “Thureth” is a celebration of the worldly as a pathway to the Eternal.

And “Thureth” is also a tasty little bonbon of poetic personification.