Monday, January 21, 2019

James Harpur's 'Kells', rewriting the middle ages, 'Gerald of Wales'. 3/3a

The third poem in 'Kells' is ‘Gerald of Wales’.
Leaving aside the quality of Harpur’s poetry, which I’ve already praised, ‘Gerald of Wales’ rephrases the problem of using a dead character to represent or personify attitudes or beliefs. Unlike the situation with the anonymous ‘Scribe B’, a great deal is known about Gerald, mostly from his own writing. Almost twenty individual works survive, including two that are close to modern ideas of an autobiography. H.E. Butler combined these, with some other additions, to produce ‘The Autobiography of Gerald of Wales’. Even for people like me, who cannot read Latin, there’s a lot of Gerald’s work available in English. 
Anyone who reads Gerald’s non-autobiographical work will quickly realise that he had a very high opinion of himself; he came from a powerful Marcher family, he was highly educated by the standards of his time, having lectured in the schools of Paris. He had an apparently insatiable love of stories, the weirder or more miraculous the better, and sometimes it’s difficult to know why he has inserted a story beyond the fact he found it interesting. He was brave, physically resilient, he did the journey to Rome four times, he was a fine horseman, and he saw nothing incongruous about lecturing Kings and Popes, even when it was obvious they weren’t listening to him. 
He must have been a master at the art of alienating people.   
Here are three modern writers describing Gerald. The first two are his translators, the third an Archbishop of Wales, a title Gerald thought should have been his.
‘The reader will […] see the single-minded vanity of an ambitious flatterer, the haughty contempt of one who came with his family to reform and invade …(John O’Meara p17)
'He was strongly convinced of his own ability and importance, and prepared to argue his case, in public and in private, in person or by letter with any tiresome adversary from the Pope and the King of England down. His tongue could be very sharp and the ink in which he dipped his quill-pen was often dipped in gall. …he was self-regarding and self-admiring; and the faults and weaknesses of other men were only too apparent to him.'  (Lewis Thorpe p23).
'Yet, one can never get away from the impression that everything Gerald did, and said, was ultimately for the greater glory of Gerald …'
Dr. Barry Morgan. Gerald of Wales was no great patriot-Archbishop   https://www.churchinwales.org.uk/news/2012/08/5449/
So my reading of ‘Gerald of Wales’ came crashing to a half when I read:
from childhood, when on the shore
I’d build churches out of sand.
To this end; a life of careful tact
Selective showings of humility… (p62)

More on this to follow.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

James Harpur 'Kells', Scribe B and rewriting the middle ages 2/3

Part two
In ‘Scribe B’ , the second section of 'Kells' in The White Silhouette, James Harpur invents a character for someone who is known by nothing more than a change in handwriting in a manuscript. The poem unavoidably raises the question: what might it have been like to be a monk on Iona during the Viking Age? 
The real answer is nobody knows. It’s worth keeping that in mind. 
Harpur begins by creating Scribe B’s general context. 
The trails of faceless scribes
unknown except in whispers
scrawled in vellum margins
across Europe, lonely voices
beside the marching legions
of vulgate uncials. (48)
Harpur then quotes some of the anonymous marginalia of monks (48), as though Scribe B himself were emerging from the margins. The poems adapted here are well known (amongst medievalists?) and they establish the speaker as a generically reliable ‘early medieval Irish scribe’. The history is shaded in: Viking raids, dead monks, the flight from Iona to Kells, the work of the scribe. 
The background is convincing, but to lift Scribe B out of the generic scribe of the historical details, there has to be an attempt at imaginative reconstruction. 
And that’s where the interest lies.
No one knows what an early medieval Irish scribe thought or believed. We can admire their skill and reconstruct their technique. We can marvel at the patience or dedication their persistence required. We can enjoy their marginal comments. But go beyond that and you are stepping off the map. 
Even the statement ‘they were Christian’ begs the question; what did it mean to ‘be a Christian’ in this period. We can study the theology, but the distance between theology and practised faith can be vast. 
We don’t know what Irish monks believed. Nor what they thought, (even if someone else’s thought is ever truly knowable). The stories that survive from the monastic life at this time are stories of extremes, of Saints like Columba, told by writers who wanted to extol the virtues of their heroes. Columba is no more a representative of the majority of Irish monks than Beowulf is of English military elites.  
Once the facts have been marshalled, there seems to be two orientations. In the first, the writer conscripts a name and uses it as a clothes horse for his or her own beliefs and values. The alternative is to embrace the genuine alterity of the past and try to recreate the original in all its awkward difference. 
The danger of the first is obvious. It denies the real differences. But it’s easy to do, ubiquitous and popular. The danger of the second is that it can ignore the similarities, often doesn’t have much to support it and can appear unbelievable. 
I prefer the second option and admire writers who attempt it. 
Harpur gives Scribe B four attributes, two squarely human and credible, one that looks medieval, and the fourth like a grain of sand in an oyster shell.
The human ones are homesickness for Iona and fear of the Vikings.
The one that looks medieval is his fear of the sin of pride.
My heart burns for praise
If God wants witnesses
For his creation, why such a sin
to want the same for mine (53)
It’s credible, though it assumes modern artistic pride in anonymous medieval craft. 
People alive now, in the English-speaking world, grew up in a society which lead them to expect reward and recognition for excellence. The training starts in school, with its competition for results, positions and prizes, and continues throughout a working life, with its promotions, reputations and bonuses. It’s an expectation reinforced none too subtly by what and who the media value. 
We know that any institution, any work place, has its rivalries, jealousies, tensions. We take a certain amount of friction as natural. We see anonymity as a form of failure. If we’re honest, we do feel cheated when our efforts and achievements go unremarked.
Can those conditions and assumptions be transposed wholesale to an Irish monastery at the beginning of the 9thcentury?
If they can, then Scribe B becomes not an anonymous monk who sees his work as a form of prayer, part of his discipline, but as an artist who sees himself as the point of origin of a work only he could produce. I suspect that the post-Romantic ideal of the artist is read backwards, because today we see The Book of Kells as a work of art, and the men who illuminated it and wrote it out as artists.
Is Harpur’s presentation of Scribe B’s guilty desire for applause coloured by those modern assumptions about the self-conscious artist and equally modern assumptions that such skill should be acknowledged if not rewarded. 
In our culture, it’s difficult to imagine someone who was that skilled who didn’t want his or her skills to be admired and acknowledged. In a culture of anonymous labor dedicated to the glory of God, where humility and self-effacement were aggressive features of the culture, I’m not sure he would have thought like this. 
However, it’s not impossible. Perhaps humility and self-effacement were hard won and the desire for applause had to be constantly repressed. It’s not far from that thought to the suggestion that perhaps humility was only assumed because it was expected and there is something innately hypocritical about monastic culture? 
Or is just a familiar failure to believe that people in the past may have viewed the world in very different ways? 
The odd one of the four is Scribe B’s statement:
Live life as if death
Were just a tide away.  
Having admitted I don’t know what a Christian thought, it feels odd to ask ‘Is that a Christian monk’s thought?’ Would a monk have put his trust in his God and accepted that whatever happened was God’s plan. Or was that the ideal and this is the scared human reality of the situation?
I don’t think those questions can be answered emphatically. And that’s what makes the poem so interesting as an example of historical recreation. Because the map itself is reliable, stepping off it opens the dialogue between the poem and history, each illuminating and challenging the other.
This has been over long, but in the next and final post, the issues raised by Harpur when he conscripts Gerald of Wales to represent an argument: Gerald being anything but anonymous or humble. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

James Harpur, 'Kells' and rewriting the middle ages. 1/3

James’ Harpur’s ‘Kells’ is a sequence of 4 poems in his book ‘The White Silhouette’ (Carcanet 2018). Harpur rewrites the middle ages in ways I admire so I want to consider his practice in some details.
Three posts: This one admiration for Harpur’s skill as a poet; the second consideration of the way he gives the appearance of life to a man known only as “scribe B’ and the third some questions about the practice of using a known historical character as a mouthpiece for values/attitudes/beliefs. And then I’ll tidy the three posts and post them as one on the website.
Part one.
In which he admires the poet’s skill.
The easiest was to do this is to compare Harpur to his source where he’s following it closely. ‘Gerald of Wales’ (56-64), the third piece in ‘Kells’, begins with a quotation from ‘The History and Typography of Ireland’ Harpur merely notes ‘Gerald of Wales 1185’. Good luck tracking that one. Anyway…. On pages 59 to 60 Harpur retells a miracle story from the same source. 
(In what follows the prose is taken from John O’Meara’s translation of Gerald’s ‘The History and Typography of Ireland’, and page references are to the readily available Penguin Classics edition. Page references for Harpur are to ‘The White Silhouette’.)   
Compare:
Gerald:
On the night before the day on which the scribe was to begin the book, an angel stood beside him in his sleep and showed him a drawing made on a tablet which he carried in in his hand…. (85)

Harpur
The night before a certain monk
was due to paint a page
he dreamt an angel proffered him
a tablet etched with silver circles
enclosing threads of gold.
Between circles, lines crossed
like swallows skimming fields;
their ends split up and curved
away, entwined again, were spun
towards the firmament
by figures of saints and animals
In gold and dragonfly viridian. (59-60)
[The monk admits the task is beyond him. The angel tells the monk to pray to Brigid and returns the next night.]
Gerald
‘…on the following night the angel came again and held before him the same and many other drawings.’ (85)
Harpur.
Next night the angel came again
With other tablets filigreed
As if with webs picked off the grass (60)
In both examples Harpur’s skill as a poet Is evident. He’s following Gerald closely but turning the prose into poetry and making it his own. Some of the exuberance of the book is captured in his language. 
But both similes, ‘like swallows skimming fields and ‘As if with webs picked off the grass’ are not only effective in isolation as images but have a structural purpose so that taken together they contribute to the movement of the story. 
Before his spiritual eyes have been opened the lines look like ‘Swallows skimming the grass’…a blur of random movement, swift and graceful, but hard to follow and confused. If you don’t pay attention and glance at the Book of Kells or one of the carpet pages in the Lindisfarne gospel, that’s what you see. 
When his ‘bodily and mental eyes’ (Gerald 85) have been opened, he sees the delicate patterns as ‘webs picked off the grass’.  
 Whet he now sees, rather than the chaotic movement of birds, is the delicate organized patterns of a spider’s web. Paying attention, he sees patterns rather than chaos. The difference in the images mark the development of his understanding. 
But what he draws, no matter how well he draws it, is heavier, thicker, less delicate. Whatever the intricacy of Kells reminds you of, it’s unlikely to be spider webs picked off the grass on a dewy autumn morning, unless you’ve read this first. 
The image suggests the way that things imagined are often diminished when made real and the way spiritual experience is inevitably transformed when it’s expressed in any human sign system. 
Good similes are hard to make. Similes that are not only good as images but structural components of a development in narrative and argument are priceless. 
In the next post. ‘Scribe B’ and the creation of a character.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Three new poems in The High Window



'Three stories from Gerald of Wales'  taken from his prose 'Journey through Wales'.  I've known the first one for a long time. It would make a fine grim TV episode....with a bit of scrolling you can read them here:

https://thehighwindowpress.com/category/translation/

All three are taken from the forthcoming 'A Presentment of Englishry' which will be published by Shearsman in the UK in March 2019.

https://www.shearsman.com/store/-p121791246

The range of translations in this issue of The High Window, ably curated by Jo Balmer, is worth a visit, especially if, like me, you don't know much about classical poetry. The selection includes Lesley Saunders 'Praise song for a pair of earings' which I enthused about earlier on this blog. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Poetry Voice-The Pleasure of poetry




















One of the great pleasures of poetry is to read it aloud. So for no other reason than that, I'm recording poems on a regular basis, choosing them at random from Old English to the present.

I'm not convinced my pronunciation of Old and Middle English is authentic, but I'm not going to let that stop me reading some of my favourite pieces.

You can hear the readings at
http://www.liamguilar.com/the-poetry-voice/

or if you'd prefer,  you'll find it as a podcast on itunes.

https://itunes.apple.com/au/podcast/the-poetry-voice/id1445622835?mt=2

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Presentment of Englishry....



To be published by Shearsman in 2019. The working title was 'Stories from Laȝamon's Brut'.


A Presentment of Englishry in the 11th century was the offering of proof that a slain person was English (therefore unimportant), in order to escape the fine levied upon hundred or township for the murder of a ‘Frenchman’ or ‘Norman’. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Alan Garner and Mark Edmonds: The Beauty Things.

The Beauty Things

Take it in your hands, look, pay attention, turn it over and repeat the process. 

If you’ve read ‘The Voice that Thunders’ you’ll know about ‘The Beauty Things’, and if you haven’t, it’s easily explained. They are objects, things, which have significance for their owners and are valued for reasons that have no relation to their economic value.

So this book, which it must be said is a beautiful object, is a celebration of things.  It claims to be an extension of conversations between Alan Garner and Mark Edmonds, who is an archaeologist.  It consists of photographs and short texts: brief extracts from Garner’s books and unattributed words in quotation marks.

The book celebrates the beauty and functionality of things made in stone, wood and metal, from the earliest stone hand tool to the Jodrell Bank Telescope…it invites you to stop and consider the complex miracle that is homer faber and the vertigo inducing length of time we’ve been around…without sentimentalising or romanticising the human maker, from that first deviant ape who thought sharpening a bit of stone might lead somewhere to radio telescopes scanning the universe and looking at light that had left its source an unimaginable number of years before that ape started chipping.

The Beauty Things  invites the reader to pay attention to specific examples of this making habit. It offers provocative suggestions, it raises questions. Feel the weight, look, imagine, consider, then turn it over and repeat the process. It reminds me of a Colin Simms poetry collection: that fascinated, absorbed willingness to keep looking at the same object without ever exhausting the need to keep looking. It’s a very non-fashionable view of the world, one that celebrates the careful craftsman, the slow acquisition of ability and knowledge. It celebrates both the idea that questions are often better than answers and the pleasure of paying attention.

There are questions. About the way we portray objects from the past. The way the museum case makes static what was always a work in progress, something to be used, improved, perhaps discarded. But also, more troubling, about what these tools have to say about aesthetics.
The stone axe is beautiful. But was beauty an aim of the maker, or simply an accident of design. Is the recognition of beauty simply an aesthetic response to a shape, or is beauty, in this case, a profound, possibly pre verbal, in built recognition of achieved functionality. If the latter, did the aesthetic impulse have an evolutionary function? 

For readers of Garner’s novels there is the echo of familiarity: artefacts which turn up in his books appear in the photographs. And I won’t be the only person who has always wondered what a stone book looks like…the spine is smooth, like a piece of well tooled leather, and I want one. Nor will I be the only person to be surprised that “The” Stone Book was not made by one of Garner’s family…..but as he says here, he had to make things up.

There is one thing missing from The Beauty Things: a book. Not a stone book, a paper book.
There should be a word for this, where the thing that is missing from an object is supplied by the object itself###, but the book ‘The Beauty Things’ is a beauty thing itself, a carrier of stories and questions, something to hold and contemplate. It has its history, from rock scratching to clay tablets, rolls of papyrus, velum, paper: we are, after all, living in a civilisation that could not exist without writing. Books are as much a part of our history and our making as the axe and the horseshoe.
You can buy a copy here:


### IF there is a real word for this I would love to know it.