Sunday, June 30, 2019

Casket by Andy Brown

Casket by Andy Brown. Shearsman Chapbooks, 2019. (31 pages)

I like this short collection very much.

The Casket in question is the The Frank’s Casket, a ‘whalebone’ box dating from the eighth century, covered with Runic inscriptions and almost cluttered with intricately carved and often enigmatic scenes.

For readers interested in Old English Poetry, the Casket is accidentally iconic. The cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Michael Alexander’s ‘The Earliest English poems’ (1966), which contained those ground breaking translations of Old English,  was a slightly blurred image from one of its panels. It is a pleasure to see the thing in the British Museum. And astonishing to see how small it is.
Brown’s chapbook consists of five poems, or five short sequences, one for each of the side panels, one for the lid. It’s very good.  I like the way it ghosts Old English.

Each poem begins with the relevant runic inscription and takes off from there. A note from the author explains the runic alphabet. Each rune has an equivalent letter and what Brown calls a ‘pictorial’ value… the word for Fish in runic script also contains the values for ‘wealth’ ‘ice’ ‘sun’ and ‘torch’’.  ‘To write the following poems I determined the sequence of images yielded by each runic word, and then used these images or variants of them, to write the poems’ (p.5).

As a concept, it’s interesting, but it puts conceptual intelligence into the architecture of the poems, where I think it should be. Whether or not you can map the runes directly onto the poems, and how much latitude Brown allowed himself in that ‘variants of them’, would require far more time than I’m willing to dedicate to the effort of finding out. Unlike so much 'conceptualised poetry', the poems in this collection stand as poems.

The collection is thematically linked by the last line ‘…this shared and ever constant now’. The chapbook presents ‘the place where I live’ (coyly unspecified in a book about place)  as a palimpsest: modern golfers play where Britons and Saxons fought. On the water, New Foundland cod boats set sail and pass Danish raiders and ‘Dunkirkers’ coming home, while Flemish privateers have landed to burn the town.  Glimpses of history mingle with scenes from the present, graffiti’d bridges and frozen allotments, trail bikers and fishermen.

The poetry itself is skilfully written. The first sequence, ‘Whalebone’ picks up the echo of Old English alliterative verse. The Anglo-Saxon line with its triple crash and bang doesn’t sound good if sustained in modern English, so Brown’s handling of it here is skilful, evocative of Old English, giving the poem an onward movement but without sounding heavy handed:

This unforgiving trade, when the ice
Of February frets the core and fingers
And the sun’s declining disk smoulders
Barely bright enough to light the creek. 

The nod towards Old English is also beautifully done towards the end of the fifth section. One poem, beginning ‘I sing’ blurs the distinction between the Casket, its maker and the poet, since all three are ‘singing’:  the lines evoke the epigrammatic mood of Old English. 
This leads to that most Old English of poems, ‘the thing speaking’….(’prosopopoeia’ is not a word I get to type very often.)

Snatched from the creature’s warmth
And brought into the sun
I’ve made this voyage to artful box 

This sounds like the beginning of one of the Exeter book riddles. But ‘For month’s I knew the workman’s hands’ leads into the bone’s description of how it became a casket and we’ve moved from riddle to something more affecting. My candidate for ‘the best piece in the book’.
The last fourteen lines in the chapbook seem to offer some kind of conclusion, but I think they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. The tendency of OE to epigrammatic, generalising is captured in

We have the measure of our lives all wrong
it’s not this time of flesh and blood alone,
but the slow millennia of dissolution,
when skin and bone return to whence they came

But the sudden shift from the previously specific ‘I’ to the vague ‘we’ and the equally generalised statement which slides off the fact the Casket has, after at least a thousand years, most definitely not returned to whence it came, might be the only flaw in the collection.. 

My only reservation may be irrelevant and whether you see it as criticism or observation depends on what you want from the poems you read.

As a reader of poems, and buyer of poetry, there are thousands of books to choose from. But increasingly I feel it doesn’t really matter. There are varying degrees of technical competence but at the end of some collections I wonder if life would have been any worse for not reading them. 

The problem facing writers and readers of contemporary poetry is that lurking, ‘Nice.. but so what? ‘

Bunting wrote ‘Then is now’ and produced Briggflatts . Eliot spun whorls with time past and time present being simultaneously present in time future. David Jones started with the idea of a past permanently present in the language and built In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. The idea of ‘a shared and ever constant now’ has been the starting point of some major poetic writing.

If you read Casket, you’ll never look at the Frank’s casket the same way again. Which is a good thing, though looking at the Frank’s Casket is not something most of get the chance to do very often.

If you live in Britain and don’t realise you are living in a place with a deep and varied history, some of it still visible around you, the collection might wake you up to that fact.

But if the last fourteen lines offer a conclusion, they are perhaps the least convincing piece/s of the collection. For all the verbal skill, there’s a step not taken, and ‘so what?’ is doing a passable impersonation of Grendel, lurking on the edges of the reading. Whether you let him or not depends on you. If you let him in, the effect is disastrous.

I don’t know if this is an observation or a criticism.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

C.S.Lewis on Obscurity in Poetry

Reading David Jones, the complicated question of obscurity: what it is, how you deal with it, what effect it has on reading and value, is never far away.

Here’s C.S.Lewis, discussing the Arthurian poetry of Charles Williams and teasing out different categories of ‘obscurity’.  He describes four types, admitting that the boundaries between them can be blurred.  Endearingly, he wrote: ‘the extreme indulgence towards obscurity which characterizes the taste of modern readers is not very likely to last’. He was writing in 1948. 

1)    Obscurity may come from slovenliness of syntax. Poets, as well as prose writers, may construct sentences which are difficult to construe. Lewis calls this kind of Obscurity a vice. His example from Williams is ‘‘‘who fly the porphyry stair’ is intended to mean ‘who fly up the porphyry stair’. But by the nature of the English language it cannot do so. This is a bad fault.’
2)    Obscurity may be deliberate. No poetry worth the name can be perfectly translated into prose. But the poet may choose to write poetry which makes not perfect translation but any translation impossible. This is legitimate. 
3)    Privatism. This occurs when the reader, however sensitive and generally cultivated he or she may be, could not possibly understand the poem unless the poet chose to tell something more than he has done in the poem. Lewis’ example is that he has been told he is wasting his time trying to puzzle out lines in a poem because the explanation lay not in the poem but in events which had occurred in his informant’s house. ‘In so far as the poem was addressed to a circle of friends such privatism is a not a literary fault at all; in so far as the poem was exposed without warning for sale in the shops it seems to me to be simply a way of ‘obtaining money under false pretences’. He goes on to state that ‘if I do not desire a law against this form of cheating, that is only because such a law would be too difficult either to frame or administer. The thing involves such a blend of dishonesty, puerility, and discourtesy, such a denial of ‘co-inherence’ such a reckless undermining of the very conditions in which literature can flourish, that no punishment such criticism can inflict would be sufficiently severe.’ 
4)    Unshared background. Lewis’ uses the Waste Land as his example. If you have never read Dante or Shakespeare certain things in that poem will be obscure to you. ‘But then, frankly, we ought to have read Dante or Shakespeare, or at least the poet has the right to address only those who have’.  Williams assumes you know the Bible, Malory and Wordsworth pretty well, and have at least some knowledge of Milton, Dante, Gibbon, the Mabinogion and church history. Lewis sees this as legitimate. But when Williams assumes that you know ‘Heraclitus as quoted by W.B Yeats’ or Eliot assumes you know ‘From Ritual to Romance’ the difficulties are becoming less obviously legitimate. However, as he points out, the things referred to are accessible. You could read RtoR. This is not the same as selling a poem which only works for those who know ‘the colour of your nurse’s hair, the jokes of your preparatory school, or the favourite sayings of your aunt.’ ‘Yet is it obvious that there will come a point at which you use in your poetry scraps of your own reading so intrinsically unimportant and so very unlikely to be shared by the best readers [if any] that you have become guilty of privatism’.

The point where 3 becomes 4 is obviously harder to define than problems of syntax. But I wonder. How many readers do you need to share your background before you're free of the charge of  'privatism'? And i wonder how many poets, with established reputations, have been guilty of privatism, and got away with it because no one was willing to admit they couldn't understand the poems but were too intimidated by reputation to admit their own educated incomprehension? 


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Charles Williams on the difference between Wace and Layamon.

'The style of the two poets was very different. Wace carried on the culture and medieval splendour of Geoffrey. Layamon wrote under the poetic influence of the older poets, of the Anglo-Saxons. Wace is busy with courts and progress; Layamon with heroes and fighting. There is in Layamon something not unlike dialogue and exclamations: where Wace gives silk and the polish of steel, Layamon gives cloth and the weight of steel.'
(Charles Williams. Arthurian Torso. p223)

If the modern jury is out on Laȝamon's debt to Old English, the balance of that last sentence, and the aptness of the judgement, are both impressive.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Post modernism is just Medievalism rebranded?

What are the differences between Early Medieval and Modern Writers part 2

What follows is part two of a working hypothesis. It’s a work in very slow progress. And since this is a blog post and not an essay, I’ll skip to the conclusion. The full-length version might appear on the website at some stage. I also want to follow up the last post and consider what happens when one tries to imagine turning the story of Rowena into a film but that’s for another post.


In the previous post I noted that Geoffrey, Wace and Laȝamon all seem to make the same mistake in allowing Auerelius or Ambrosius to accuse Vortigern of having murdered A’s father.
If you have an obvious contradiction in a story, then the writer might have overlooked something, was doing something very clever, or was simply inept. When you have three writers ‘making the same mistake’ something different is happening.

So backtrack a bit and begin with 2 well-known examples.

What our three early medieval writers didn't do.

At the beginning of Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago and Roderigo move onto the stage. They are in the middle of an argument.

It’s a simple, effective trick to make us imagine that the conversation started before the play did. And that illusion is an essential part of modern, post-Shakespearian, assumptions about how fiction works.

This illusion, that characters are more than just words on a page and can be known as real people, reached it critical apogee when A.C. Bradley asked ‘How Old is Macbeth’ or ‘Did Lady Macbeth really faint?’  This, and similar questions, have been the subject of subsequent critical derision: epitomised by L. C. Knight’s famous ‘How many children has Lady Macbeth?’ but they are a testament to the power of the illusion that Lady Macbeth is a ‘real’ person.  

If they are no longer considered ‘credible’ critical questions, both New Criticism and Post Modernism having rendered them suspect, they are exactly the kind of ‘character background’ modern writers are encouraged to develop while writing their novels. 

Pace the critics, we remember Lady Macbeth because she does seem real. Literary conventions and learnt reading practices combine to lead us to wonder why she does what does and why she is the way she is. The illusion is that something happens between the Banquet scene and the sleepwalking scene, to bring about such a radical change in her state of mind.  She has a life off stage which we can somehow access and discuss. Or argue about.

As I’m rewriting the story of Vortigern and Rowena, I feel obliged to treat her as a coherent character, with a biography that stretches back before the story starts, and comes to some kind of conclusion in her death. Childhood? Upbringing? Hengist pitches her at Vortigern but how did she feel about that? What does she even think of Vortigern? What did they talk about on their wedding night? How did they talk, given that they don’t speak each other’s language? What is her relationship with her father? Does she have any kind of relationship with Vortigern beyond the contractual sex of their marriage?  And if she does, how is it affected by her murder of Vortimer?

What our Writers Did.

None of these questions seems to have interested Wace or Laȝamon as they revised Geoffrey. And I think that suggests something different about their attitude towards the story.

Rowena is not a ‘fully rounded literary character’ in the modern sense, whose biography we might expect to follow to its conclusion as though she were a biological entity. She is a proper noun accumulating verbs and nouns, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions. All that is important is what she does, relevant to the downfall of Britain.

She has no life off-stage. She only exists in the words that describe her speech and actions. Bright shards of incident and dialogue. This is strictly true of modern fictional characters, but the illusion of modern fiction is that these are just the visible parts of the life and a reader can fill in the gaps. Modern writers work at making that illusion.

In the ‘Brut’ there are no ‘gaps’ for the audience to fill. Asking ‘Why is Vortigern evil, what motivated his career before he is first mentioned’ is an irrelevant question. He is his reported actions and nothing more.

It follows from this that there is no character development and no sense that characters are able to learn from their ‘experiences’.   

Laȝamon's imagination sees Rowena in focus in the scenes where she is important, but that’s all. She has no opinions, no feelings, and no attitudes that can be explored.  She is a noun, the subject, object, even indirect object of sentences.  It’s not that her death happens ‘off stage’. 

There is no ‘off-stage’. She doesn’t die. She never lived. She is simply no longer part of the linguistic event.

And this, to return to the previous post, explains the ‘inconsistency’. It’s not inconsistent because the process doesn’t acknowledge let alone aspire to consistency. Constantine’s story exists only in the words and phrases used about him at a particular stage of the text: not in the past of the story. Not five pages back. There is no coherent ‘biography’ to disrupt. The rhetorical and emotional possibilities of Aurelius’ anger take precedent.

Which is very strange. And very different. And has multiple implications for the way a story works.

 A presentment of Englishry, stories from the Brut and about its writer,  a necessary lead up to the story of Vortigern and Rowena, is now available from the Book Depository, Amazon, and the Shearsman website. Signed copies are available from ,

Thursday, June 13, 2019

What are the differences between early Medieval poets and Modern ones? Part 1

My working theory is that I can learn about Laȝamon and his process by rewriting his text. The process is steadily illuminating aspects of his work that I would not notice if I were approaching it from a literary critical/historical/academic perspective. 

One of the major differences between Laȝamon as a writer and his modern descendants can be seen in the way he retells the story of Rowena. What he did, and what I feel obliged to do, are very different. 

But first an important general point. 

Medieval authors often appear inconsistent. Sometimes this might be the result of inaccurate copying. Sometimes, however, I think it points towards a much more interesting difference in their practice. 

In Geoffrey of Monmouth, Ambrosius launches into a diatribe about the sins Vortigern has committed. It’s excessive in length. It’s also inaccurate. What he says doesn’t match up with the story we’ve just read. Ambrosius accuses Vortigern of betraying both Constantine and Constans, the father and brother of Ambrosius and Uther. 

The second charge is indisputably true. But nowhere in Geoffrey’s text, describing the brief career and death of Constantine the father, is there any mention of Vortigern. Constantine is knifed by a Pict.  

If this diatribe had been written by Robert Browning we might see this as a subtle way of suggesting hatred has unhinged Ambrosius. But inconsistency seems not to have bothered Geoffrey or his subsequent translators.

Wace, following Geoffrey, has Constantine stabbed by a Pict, who had been in his service but had begun to hate the King: ‘I do not know why’. But when he comes to Vortigern’s death, Wace repeats the accusation that Vortigern has slain both father and brother. He refers to it twice. Once ‘in text’ and once in words that he gives to Ambrosius. Had he flicked back a few pages, he could have checked and seen that this is wrong.  

Laȝamon does the same. He expands and dramatizes the initial treachery, giving the Pict a name and lines to speak. He describes the assassination. Wace’s ten lines became 21 long lines (or 42 short lines in Madden’s edition). 

The scene obviously caught his imagination. He makes no mention of Vortigern. 

When he gets to Vortigern’s death, Laȝamon leaves out the long speech. No Robert Browning effect here. Instead, Ambrosius makes a grim joke about keeping warm. Then Laȝamon follows Geoffrey and Wace in repeating the accusation that Vortigern killed both father and brother. 

Either they couldn’t check what they’d read, which is unlikely; they had forgotten what they had written, which in Laȝamon’s case seems improbable, or it wasn’t important. 

Considering why it wasn't important, points towards an essential difference between Medieval and Modern writing which will be the subject of the next post.

But you can discover it for yourself by considering how you would film the scene where Rowena  murders Vortimer?  

A Presentment of Englishry is published by Shearsman UK and is available from The Book Depository and Amazon. Signed copies are available from