January 3, 2012

"LISTEN!:" When Poetry Mattered

Presented for your consideration, a two minute slice of what listening to poets who meant what they said and said what they meant must have been like over 1,000 years ago.

These are the opening lines of the oldest English epic poem*, Beowulf, declaimed in the style popular at the time of their origins. Beowulf, written in England, but set in Scandinavia has variously been dated to between the 8th and the early 11th centuries. Take two minutes to listen to this vanished art brought back to fitful life.

The clip begins in an intentionally disarming fashion which, I think, helps us to make a leap of imagination from the present day to the night gatherings around bonfires and flickering torches in which these tales of love and death were told. Attending what can only be a recreation of these arcane styles of declamation seems an effete ritual these days. I'd submit it seems so only because we have grown so used to "all-entertainment all-the-time everywhere," we cannot imagine the impact of these original entertainments when they were the rarest thing in a human life bounded by works and days.

Part story, part panegyric, part worship, the reciting of an epic was an event that could span days, even weeks. How the earliest bards held all of the poem in memory is still somewhat of a mystery, but the rhetorical structure of the poem, known set-pieces played much as jazz would be played centuries later, and various methods of loci, or "Memory Palaces" probably all played a role. No matter how it was done, the fact that it could be done with Beowulf, which runs to nearly 3,200 lines remains impressive. Other epics loom larger than that.

And it wasn't enough to declaim the epic, you had to provide a few musical bridges, many voices, and a lot of acting. For this reason, as well as their rarity, Bards were held in high esteem. Later poets would try, on paper at least, to recapture this sort of esteem but, except for a period in Soviet Russia, poets and poetry have fallen on hard times in recent centuries, becoming an art esteemed slightly above slip mold ceramics.

"I don't get no respect" is a common plaint of our contemporary "poetic" poets attached to their various academic sinecures like stunted embryos on withering umbilicals. About once every twenty years, you'll hear the barbaric yawps of spoken word poets try to cut their way through the petrified forests of the groves of academe, but most are quickly subsumed back into the dusty compost of poetasters and poet poseurs.

The Beats had a run at it in the 1950s, but slumped back into their own comfy berths in the spiritual opium dens of what used to be the "counter-culture." Now the well-codified hipster poet is content with his underwritten "job for life." The Beats went on the road with a Howl but have ended in the cul-de-sac of Maya Angelou.

The "singer-songwriter" poets of the late 1960s / early 1970s had their run powered by the advent of Bob Dylan, who still can impress when he comes to work. But money changes everything and most of them soon vanished into Hotel California.

Currently, there's a craze for Poetry Slams that manages to produce some arresting, if forgettable, work in an environment more conducive to what was once "a battle of the bands." At this time, Slams are touted as "bigger than ever," a sure sign this phenomenon, famous for having fewer formal rules than Rap, has passed its peak.

Ah, but then there is Rap, you say. And in a sense you'd be right since Rap certainly fulfills the aspect of declamation and can even gesture towards length. It is also energetic in terms of its heavy reliance of percussion and a vocal range from shouting to shrill. Rap also benefits from scenting itself with Eau de Hood and delivers a simulacrum of the real. But Rap has been heavily ossified for well over a decade and may soon find itself with more than its share of petrified forests and post-mortum effects. It's hard to imagine people in more than a thousand years gathering to hear some android with an attitude running the changes of Wu-Tang Clan's Forever.

You'd think -- with the advent of the Internet and the much heralded (Global) (Hive) Mind -- it would be easy to jump start epic poetry again as a major art form, but you'd be wrong. One element is missing from the mix of low barriers to entry, cheap recording and distribution, and an audience in the millions for any sort of dreck that manages to be cranked out from the star-making machinery. Poetry today has everything it needs for an epic to bloom except the ability to declaim in the affirmative voice.

Poetry today is, for the most part, deeply embedded in the secular culture, and there is no affirmative available to that culture, since the affirmative depends on a belief in something other than, larger than, the self. Today's denial of the spirit and celebration of the now and the now alone blocks any ability to sound the affirmative, to strike the strings that soul sing, and higher sing. It's the solution that Wallace Stephens sought but could never attain, as he notes in The Man with the Blue Guitar

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

Poetry can't matter as it once mattered because the base ground of being has been yanked out from under the culture, leaving it stranded in mid-air, unable to ascend, having only the fall before it.

Still, we can hear the echoes of what that more heroic and poetic age must have been like, at least at festival time, in the brief two minutes in the clip above. In a way, it's a good thing that it is only two minutes. Most can spare that but would find themselves at sea if anything much longer would be required of them.

As the poet says, "Humankind cannot bear / very much reality."

(HT: Myth & True Myth @ Belmont Club)
*Oldest in the sense of an epic poem, not a collection of songs as in The Book of Taliesin.

Republished from May 2009 because "All the news just repeats itself / Like some forgotten dream that we've both seen"

Posted by Vanderleun at January 3, 2012 4:50 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

It just occurred to me, those epic poems of old were never recited as 'memorized', but improvised based on basic lines the poet expanded upon. Each performance was tailored for the audience. What we see on the printed page is just one particular version, and may even be a mash-up of different versions.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at May 14, 2009 4:23 AM

It seems that we have no idea what we have lost in reducing the scope of language to the quantification of the world. It's like an entirely different species: Homo numericus.

Posted by: Gagdad Bob at May 14, 2009 6:06 AM

A very good point. All the arts died in the 20th Century, every one, drama ballet, opera, symphony, painting, sculpture, the novel, ... Not one of them is alive today. Not even ceramics.

This may have something to do with womens' suffrage and the ongoing feminization of our culture. Women don't do art (or science), they do feelings.

The last bastion of virility in our culture is the Catholic priesthood.

Posted by: Bob Sykes at May 14, 2009 7:03 AM

It is equality that levels and homogenizes. Throughout history all cultural, economic, and artistic endeavors were driven by the desire for inequality, to have or be something differnet. Equality frustrates men of talent, dulls them, and reduces the mass of men equally in proportion.

Elizabethan England contained only three million souls, and most of them were illiterate. What will Copenhagen, or Boston, be rememebered for in a thousand years?

There falls no shadow where there shines no sun--

Posted by: james wilson at May 14, 2009 8:22 AM

Interesting point regarding poetry as affirmation of something larger than self. This explains why I love the old poems so much more than the new.

Incidentally, the fact that the bards held so much in memory would be no mystery had you been educated a century ago when memorization was part of the process.

It is a scientific fact that one's ability to memorize is developed at a young age. My wife's mother taught her to memorize poetry and stories very young and she remembers them all. We've applied this same strategy toward our own homeschooled children with great success.

Our one daughter loves poetry, so we encourage her memorization of it. Among many short poems already memorized, she is well on her way to memorizing all of Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha (the full version).

So, you see, it can still be done ... but it takes effort and it isn't going to happen in our educational system.

Posted by: Eman at May 14, 2009 8:36 AM

Oh c'mon, people.

We've lost something by "reducing the scope of language to the quantification of the world"?

What does that even mean?

The last bastion of virility is the Catholic Priesthood?

Do you know how silly that sounds? Say it out loud, I dare you.

What will Copenhagen, or Boston be remembered for in a 1000 years? Right. What do you remember of anything (besides Beowulf here) from 1009? And I bet nobody here (except possibly Gerard, but he studied poetry) has actually read Beowulf all the way through, much less wants to hear it in Old English.

And we would not even know about Beowulf if various oddball antiquarians had not kept the manuscript around, and other academic guys like Tolkien hadn't got interested in the thing in the last half of the 19th century, and then somebody else decided to actually figure out how to speak Old English, and figure out what the dramatics of the piece ought to be. REMEMBER, you're watching somebody's best guess.

And now our civilization possesses the technology and to not only recreate, but to record and disseminate the thing for anyone to see.

And something has been "lost" here? What? What? Please tell me.

If you are trying to say that some how the common availablity and accessibility of the stuff makes it somehow less valuable or pretty or whatever, I don't know what to say to you.

Go ahead, get your kid to memorize Hiawatha if you want, but what does that mean in the end, if all you're doing is repeating something commonly available? Can she write something original?

Posted by: Eric Blair at May 14, 2009 10:40 AM

Thanks for the video! I just re-read Beowulf last summer, but it's important to remember it was intended to be experienced, not read.

If you have the time I highly recommend the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. It shares some Northern themes with Beowulf, but creates a unique mythology and worldview. While warriors were strong, the far more powerful characters were the bards themselves who could create objects, beasts and lands through song.

Being Finnish myself, the Kalevala provided great insight into my grandparents' paradoxical mix of fatalism and great humor.

Posted by: Exurban Jon at May 14, 2009 1:36 PM

"And now our civilization possesses the technology and to not only recreate, but to record and disseminate the thing for anyone to see. And something has been "lost" here? What? What? Please tell me."

All the difference between being served a cheeseburger cooked on a charcoal grill in a backyard whilst amongst friends, and being thrown a sack of them from a McDonalds drive-through at rush-hour.

Posted by: Pappy at May 14, 2009 6:06 PM

Indeed, she does write original works of poetry, Mr. Eric Blair. True to the cliche, she is prolific. After many a long day I am rewarded with her works on my bedstand (the one with weapon that I cling to).

As a father, I love her poetry. As a philistine, I don't care if anyone else does. I'd share in this comment, but I'm not about to cast one of those pearls before the swine.

Posted by: Eman at May 14, 2009 7:49 PM

I'll make it simpler for Eric Blair, who is no friend of George Orwell. Without the existence of the tiny and incorrect civilization of Elizabethan England four centuries ago, the world today would be unrecognizable and very much the worse. Yet in four centuries, or forty, no one will single out Copenhagen or Boston even in all their advantage.

The question implied was how could exponentially greater numbers of people and opportunities result in reduced genius. Tocqueville foresaw that socialist democracies would thirst for equality at the cost of freedom, that commonly held opinions would devolve into a sort of religion with the majority acting as prophet, and that in these democratic republics authority would not be exercised in the old violent despotism of Princes but rather would be one as intellectual as the human will it intended to restrict. Mission accomplished.

I have not the slightest doubt Orwell would agree with Tocqueville.
Rousseau, Marx, and Obama, however, certainly would not, Mr. Blair. Perhaps you could consider for an identity the other Mr. Blair.

Posted by: james wilson at May 14, 2009 8:02 PM


You need to get out into the wider culture. Pete Townsend, Justin Hayward, Eric Clapton all good musicians and good composers. Or Joe Abercrombie's The First Law trilogy, a story of power and depth.

And no decent painting? Is your world limited. Artists such as Michael Whelan and Tony di'Terlezzi have been committing acts of painting for years, and doing them well. I don't know what you see in this work, but I see a well done work of a hunter come home with meal for his children.

"But that's an illo!" I can hear you bitch. So damn what? Other than small minded bigotry there is nothing that says illustration can not be fine art. There is nothing that says popular songs can't be fine music, that chick books can't be literature, that porn can't be cinema. You mistake subject for quality, and think only the proper presentation qualifies a work for the name of "art".

There's a world out there. The sad part is, you're the one who installed the door closing you off from it.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at May 14, 2009 11:27 PM

Still, we can hear the echoes of what that more heroic and poetic age must have been like, at least at festival time, in the brief two minutes in the clip above. In a way, it's a good thing that it is only two minutes. Most can spare that but would find themselves at sea if anything much longer would be required of them.

Busted! It's late and past my bedtime, and this was going to be the last site I visited before shutting down my computer. So I checked the time on the video before clicking on it. 1:55? OK, I can do that.

Posted by: rickl at May 15, 2009 12:06 AM


In Sykes' defense, my family has collected ceramic & porcelain for years. I dare you to find anything crafted today nearly as fine as the Meissen porcelain from past centuries. The stuff from Dresden wasn't too bad either. Too bad we firebombed those non-strategic cultural cities with the express purpose of demoralizing the populous.

Oh, wait, I shouldn't have said "we" ... I seem to recall there was a democrat in office when that senseless atrocity happened. We never hear much about that in the MSM, though, do we?

Posted by: Eman at May 15, 2009 4:09 AM

"Poetry today has everything it needs for an epic to bloom except the ability to declaim in the affirmative voice."

Amen, Gerard, Amen. I am so weary of the dystopic world view perpetuated by 'the arts' today.

Posted by: Boudicae at May 15, 2009 6:43 AM

@Pappy: WTF? We're not talking about ground meat; we're talking about the accessibility of performance art. And that actually brings up another thing. Who was the audience for Beowulf anyway? Some King and his Comitatus. It wasn't really for the common folk. So get back to your backyard. This is not for likes of you.

@James Wilson: 1)Who said that Elizabethan England was 'tiny and incorrect'? And what does that mean? 2)You obviously haven't read any Orwell if you think he wasn't a Socialist himself. 3) I just realized what was bothering me about your comparison. a) You're comparing an entire country to two cities. There's no comparison to be had. It does not make sense. b)How can you know that without Elizabethan England the world would be a worse place today? That's one huge counterfactual.

@Eman: You really mean to say that the porcelain that the Miessen company is still producing today is in no way comparable in quality to what was produced in the 18th century? Really? Really? Gee, at least I could buy some today, instead of it all being squirreled away in Count Bruhl's cabinets. The slap at Allied bombing tactics in WWII is gratutious and worthy of Code Pink. Did you have any ancestors in the service in WWII? I wonder what their take on it would be.

Posted by: Eric Blair at May 15, 2009 4:25 PM

@Pappy: WTF? We're not talking about ground meat; we're talking about the accessibility of performance art. And that actually brings up another thing. Who was the audience for Beowulf anyway? Some King and his Comitatus. It wasn't really for the common folk. So get back to your backyard. This is not for likes of you.

I figured you'd be too obtuse to grasp it. As well as anything else.

Posted by: Pappy at May 15, 2009 7:38 PM

Yes, Mr. Blair, the late 19th century Meissen is more delicately crafted than the new. Any Meissen collector will affirm that period is better than the new.

Another example of art that is dead is Rookwood art pottery (circa late 1800's). There is Rookwood pottery glaze and art that has never been reproduced. I encourage you to check out the Cincinnati Art Museum's online collection of Rookwood art pottery vases. These pieces were painted with raw glaze (which looks nothing like paint) and then fired to something around 1700 degrees F. The glaze must reach those temperatures to become a viscuous. A little too much heat, though, and it will run like water. Not an easy task on a plain piece of potter, let alone a painted one. NO ONE today comes anywhere close to Rookwood art pottery of that period.

I am an engineer who spent a lot of time in the semiconductor industry and military R&D complex. I know high tech and I know that it has limits. Show me the technology that can produce (not reproduce) a completely custom piece of art pottery. It does not exist.

This, I believe, goes to the heart of this blog post to which we are commenting. Many old analog capabilities may very well be lost for good, whether it be poetry or ceramics or whatever.

As for the firebombing of Dresden. It was wrong. Dresden was a cultural city serving no strategic purpose. Imagine if Al-Queda firebombed New York City. You think 9/11 was ugly, imagine how we would feel in our gut seeing innocent civilians all around us in the streets while the flesh cooks off their bodies trying to end their own pain and the pain of their loved ones. My God, the screams. Mothers in agony as they watch their innocent children burned alive. Yes, Mr. Blair, we did that and it was wrong. I love America, but America did it and it was wrong.

The only way it could be justified is if God sanctioned it and we were just unwitting tools. Could it have been His judgement for the senseless slaughter of His people? Possibly. If we believe scripture, God has been known to judge and punish the collective. We tend to ignore this fact in our day. The scriptures tell us that if God takes a life in judgement, He takes no joy in it. Neither should we.

To kill in war may be necessary. Sometimes the innocent are accidentally killed. And when that happens we mourn because we are just. We should never adopt a strategy that sanctions the destruction of the innocent in war or peace. How can one be against abortion, but for killing innocent civilians. If we believe all men are created equal by God, we can't pick and choose Americans vs. Germans vs. the born vs. the unborn. Can we?

Posted by: Eman at May 15, 2009 8:41 PM

Oh btw, Mr. Blair, my ancestors have fought in every war this country has fought since they arrived in 1768. My grandfather fought in WWII, along with others in my family. Does his service in a paricular war require me to change my principles? The fact that my government may send someone I love into a conflict does not mean I must agree with the way the conflict is waged simply because a loved on is engaged in the conflict.

Posted by: Eman at May 15, 2009 8:56 PM

Eman: Did you mean to say late 19th century? I thought you were talking about 18th century Meissen. In anycase, I have to wonder whether the collectors are being honest, since if the stuff being made now is as good as the stuff made back then, where would their collecting value be?

That isn't to dismiss your point, entirely, but still. Production processes change over time, as people's tastes change over time. Is that wrong?

You state that no one is making ceramics like that Rockwood stuff anymore, but why is that? If one could make it in the same way, and I'm going to assume that the style of the piece is somehow intergral, would anybody buy it now?

The point of Gerard's post however isn't that analog skills are being lost; rather it's this:
Poetry today is, for the most part, deeply embedded in the secular culture, and there is no affirmative available to that culture, since the affirmative depends on a belief in something other than, larger than, the self.

It's really about people, not the technology.

As to your fixation on the firebombing of Dresden, I'm not willing to second-guess those that made the decisions back then. I suggest you read Paul Fussell's essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb" as a useful corrective for what smacks of sanctimonious posturing. "My God, the screams." My God, they started the fucking war. Total war is not a pretty thing, and if we're lucky we'll never see it again.

Posted by: Eric Blair at May 15, 2009 10:43 PM

Mr. Blair, the innocent German civilians of Dresden Germany had no more say in WWII than you or I did in that war or any in our time. They had no more say in Hitler going into Poland, etc. than the citizens of Memphis, Tennessee had in Bush going into Iraq.

Agreed, war is hell ... and total war is a particularly ugly brand of hell.

Thanks for the lively discussion.

Posted by: Eman at May 16, 2009 5:35 AM

It's really about people, not the technology.

Ah, so you have grasped it.

All the verbiage, then, was just pedantic posturing.

Posted by: Pappy at May 16, 2009 6:43 AM

@Pappy: Dude, "The last bastion of virility is the Catholic Priesthood" or "reducing the language to the quantification of the world" is pendantic posturing. C'mon.

@Eman: One last thing to think about: Because we voted (you did vote didn't you?) Bush into the Presidency, we do share some responsibility for it all. Hell, even the people who voted against Bush have some responsibility just because they participated in the process.

Posted by: Eric Blair at May 16, 2009 8:56 AM

totally overthetop hammy for my taste.

i'd like to see a comical reading that takes itself less seriously.

some of the lines in this clip could have been delivered with far more humor and warmth. and more softly, too.

if i was casting for this i would say "NEXT! don'tcalluswe'llcallyou!"

and another thing:

if the point of this kind of stuff is to entertain and inform, then why mius6t we put down what entertains and informs so well now!?!?!

i think that more people of the 8th-11th Centuries would love the LOTR movies (and other movies like star wars and the searchers and throne of blood and kagemusha and so on) than a READING of beowulf.

Posted by: reliapundit at July 31, 2010 5:13 PM

Interesting discussion. I respect all of you for your thoughts and your presentation of them. However (there is always a but or however isn't there), I will have to take special exception to one idea expressed here. It is a common concept, accepted everywhere, but it is quite untrue. It was expressed above thusly: "imagine how we would feel in our gut seeing innocent civilians all around us in the streets while the flesh cooks off their bodies..."

In war the concept of an "innocent" civilian population is unsupportable. Ask yourself, if your country is at war, even if you oppose the war and hope the enemy will win a la Jane Fonda, how can you claim you are innocent? You are not, no no no. If you stand by while three men beat your brother, friend, father, or simple aquaintence and do not intervene at the cost of your own well being, you certainly are not innocent simply by virtue of being alive and looking out for yourself. And since you are not innocent those men may just begin to beat you anyway. Why shouldn't they beat a percieved weak coward and a witness, but one who just might at any moment attack them, who knows.?

Cities were bombed in WWII by both sides in order to kill civilians who were supporting in some way or other, even if just by doing nothing to stop that government, the government making war. In WWII in the US even children in elementary schools were helping the war effort by selling US Savings Stamps and Bonds and saving tinfoil wrappers from the cigarette packs of adults and turning them in to collection stations. Innocent? Innocent of what? Mothers and fathers put service flags in their windows to proudly show that their sons and daughters were out there making war by bombing Dresden and other enemy cities. Yes, war is hell. But don't bet on the false idea of your innocence in wartime.

Making war isn't the same as making a war movie. Other than babies there are virtually no innocent civilians in a waring country.

Some WWI English Soldier Poets, or, if you will, poet soldiers:
Siegfried Sassoon -- 1893 to 1967
Wilfred Owen -- 1893 tp 1918
Herbert Read -- 1893 to 1968
Google "English World War One Poets to see their major poems.

Posted by: Fred Beloit at August 1, 2010 8:04 AM

Great comment, Fred. Thanks.

Posted by: vanderleun at August 1, 2010 10:22 AM

Before NetFlix, before HBO, before the Velveetization of the West

Nightfall. A fire. A cup. A story

Primal. Bagby is a steward of that

Posted by: OhioDude at August 2, 2010 10:52 AM

Hello in there, Gerard.

Posted by: JD at January 4, 2012 10:12 AM