Susan Watson's beautiful 'The Time of the Angels' is now available from
Friday, June 25, 2021
Tuesday, June 15, 2021
You can read the review, and much more by clicking on the link. Otherwise scroll down.
Eþandun Epic Poem. William. G. Carpenter. Beaver’s Pond press. 2021. 252pp
Eþandun is a narrative poem which tells the story of King Alfred’s actions between the Danish raid on Chippenham in midwinter 878 AD and his victory at the battle of Edington about six months later. It advertises itself on its cover as ‘Epic Poem’.
The orthodox version of literary history is that since the 19th century there has been a ‘lyricization’ of poetry in English. At the beginning of that century poetry was still the main vehicle for narrative, but it was gradually supplanted by the prose novel, until fictional narrative in prose became so common that ‘prose novel’ sounds tautological and ‘lyric’ became the default mode for poetry.
Edgar Allan Poe wrote ‘I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.’ People who may not have read his argument and might have gagged on some of his examples of ‘true poetry’ accepted his claims. At the beginning of the twentieth century the most influential poets wrote long poems but avoided narrative. Despite the continuing popularity of narrative fiction in print and digital media, critics of the stature of Hugh Kenner and Marjorie Perloff were happy to announce that plot is obsolete (Kenner) and narrative is undesirable (Perloff). Post modernists, stuck up their theorised cul de sacs, invented ‘weak narrativity’ which stripped of its verbiage seems to mean telling a story by deliberately not telling a story. The idea that poetry is just another form of entertainment became a heresy.
There’s an element of truth in this potted narrative; it couldn’t be a critical orthodoxy if there weren’t, but poets have gone on writing book length narrative poems in blank verse, strict stanza forms, free verse, or sequences of diverse poems, and in doing so they have moved across most of the existing fictional genres.
One consequence of this historical development is that modern publishers often seem clueless when it comes to promoting a book-length, narrative poem. Eþandun is a good example. It’s an historical novel. The writer has done his research. He knows the period and he has invented a story full of incident and drama that fits within a fixed, historically accurate time frame. We might dispute the credibility of the story, but that’s part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction.
It seems highly unlikely that Alfred hid in Guthrum’s camp disguised as a Welsh bard, even less likely that he became his unofficial adviser, staged a fake séance and debated religion with him. Carpenter’s battle at Edington is a miraculous victory for a vastly outnumbered English army. It was not regarded as miraculous by contemporaries. Anglo-Saxon armies had been trashing Danish armies for decades, the men of Devon destroyed one that same winter and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our major source for the battle, simply records both the raid on Chippenham and the victory at Edington. The personal combat between Alfred and Guthrum seems a definite mistake, historically implausible and anti-climactic, even if the end of Virgil’s epic is ghosting in the background.
But a reader could dispute those parts of the story while enjoying them, with the added pleasure of encountering incidents he or she wouldn’t have imagined. This is fiction, not history and fiction requires incident and drama. Carpenter’s story is full of both.
What percentage of the vast audience for Game of Thrones, Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Lord of the Rings etc. care about the quality of the prose they’re reading? Would they be put off if the lines didn’t go all the way to the right-hand margin? They could enjoy Eþandun and learn about the history of the period while they were doing it without worrying about the quality of the verse. There’s a vast audience out there, but the publisher sticks ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and that means the book will be shunted into the poetry section, if there is one, where its natural readership will not find it. Put ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and the book is reviewed by poetry editors instead of fiction reviewers.
The dust jacket reflects the publisher’s confusion. What does it tell a prospective reader about the book?
The title, Ethandun, spelt Eþandun seems needlessly pedantic. It’s not a famous battle like Hastings. Since most potential readers haven’t heard of it, aren’t going to know the sound value of the thorn (þ) and are going to be confused by the similarity between the a and d in the chosen font, it also seems needlessly uninformative.
If you don’t know what an Eþandun is the cover picture doesn’t help. It shows a generic ‘couple in the past’. If this is supposed to be Alfred and his wife, the latter is missing for most of the book, and when they do reunite, in the last chapter, Alfred’s loss of an eye has been stressed so often that the fact that he has two in the picture seems incongruous.
Still seeking enlightenment, one reads the quotes on the back of the dust jacket. Typically, for a narrative poem, there is a failure to give an overview of the story. The only information states:
‘It is 878 AD. In the struggle between Christian Saxon and pagan Dane, whose endurance, loyalty, and strategy-whose God or gods-will prevail?’
878 is not a well-known date. If you, reading this, know its significance, you belong to a very very small group. If on the other hand you know the date, then you know Alfred won. Suggesting there’s any doubt seems counter-productive. Hidden away on the front flap of the dust jacket is a succinct summary of the book. It ends, however, with a piece of strange and highly inaccurate hyperbole: ‘Eþandun paints Western Christendom in its darkest hour.’
As so often, the choice of approving quotations is also strange. There are two.
‘Eþandun is a work of genius, of true poetry, and also a staggering piece of historical scholarship. It is utterly original in concept and execution’.
This tells a potential reader nothing about the poem. As a statement it relies on the reader’s unwillingness to stop and consider it. It’s hard enough to define ‘poetry’ but what is ‘true poetry’? Certainly not the same ‘true poetry’ Poe was promoting. The phrase turns up on a baffling variety of poetry books and should be banned unless the user is willing to explain exactly what it is supposed to mean. Nor is this a ‘Staggering piece of historical scholarship’. I can’t imagine many historians being staggered by a three page bibliography.
The second quote is even more strange:
‘Carpenter’s Alfred is a wannabe medievalist’s delight. We don’t know much about the king who united Britain, but through Carpenter’s eyes, we imagine him.”
If this is ‘a wannabe medievalist’s delight’ should the genuine variety steer clear?
‘We don’t know much about the King who united Britain.’ This is very true. Surprisingly little is known about Athelstan who did ‘unite’ Britain, but he was Alfred’s grandson and this book is not about him but about Alfred, who didn’t even unite England. We also know more about Alfred than about any other Anglo-Saxon king.
Carpenter knows most of what is known. One of the most striking aspects of this book is that Carpenter achieves that very rare thing: a story set in the ninth century, where the characters’ frame of reference is ninth century. It’s very impressive. It has nothing to do with ‘wannabe medievalists’. But the book’s main strength is also its major weakness. The research hasn’t been integrated into the fabric of the poem. It sits on top of it, calling attention to itself.
On the run from the Danes, Alfred and his retainers are watching them ransack a religious institution, spitting babies on spears and molesting the religious. Alfred’s companion, Octa wants to leap to the defence of the weak and persecuted.
‘Can I behold such wickedness’ he murmured
as Athelred’s successor gripped his wrist.
‘You can behold’ said Alfred, ‘and you will.’ (p.51)
Alfred’s response is terse and dramatic and suits the situation. It’s also believable. But then Alfred, who is also Athelred’s successor, launches into a forty-one-line speech, referring Octa to a list of historical situations that may have been much worse than the one they are in. This is not an isolated example. It’s a major stylistic characteristic of the text. Carpenter’s Alfred, like his narrator, has the irritating habit of launching into an historical disquisition at every possible opportunity. The story stops. Alfred speaks. At length. He sounds like a boring pedant. His retainers could have been forgiven for shanking him just so they could eat their meals in peace.
Before the climactic battle, Alfred makes a speech to his gathered troops. In Carpenter’s version of events this is a desperate moment. He only has 318 fighting men. The model for such speeches in English poetry is Shakespeare’s Henry V. As a piece of ruthless, self-serving rhetorical manipulation Henry’s speech before Agincourt is perfect. But not one of Henry’s imaginary bowmen would have failed to understand everything he said.
Carpenter’s Alfred says all he needs to say in 16 lines and then launches into a history lesson, piling up the examples which include King Ahab’s levies, Matathias’ son, Oswy, Abraham, the council at Nicea, a piece of erudite Greek symbolism courtesy of the Venerable Bede, and some typological exegesis surrounding Melchizedek, with the Spartan Leonidas thrown in at the end for good measure. We don’t know much about the men who made up the Wessex levies at Edington, but they would have been baffled rather than inspired.
The ghost of G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse haunts any poet who attempts the story of King Alfred. Chesterton didn’t claim his story was historically accurate, and he used various ballad-like forms to give his poem an incantatory, dream-like quality. Carpenter opts for Blank Verse and his handling of this is deft, providing him with an unobtrusive, sometimes elegant vehicle for his narrative. Unfortunately, he breaks this with heavily alliterating lines that sound like fake medieval verse. Perhaps this delights ‘wannabe medievalists’ who have never encountered the real version. It’s difficult to imagine any Anglo-Saxon composing the clumsy equivalent of:
Begged to buy his butchered boardmate’s blood. (p. 46)
Old and Middle English alliterative verse was a flexible and sophisticated way of organising a line and offered subtle possibilities in rhythm and emphasis. It’s very difficult to do in modern English for a variety of reasons. Carpenter has wisely decided not to use it. He opts instead for general alliteration, using it heavily at certain parts of the narrative. Imposed on Blank Verse this can be disastrous. The drummer is tapping ten or eleven beats and lightly stressing every second one, suddenly the bass player has decided to stress any random combination of beats. The lines begin to sound ominously like tongue twisters.
Both bled, both blew, hearts hammered in both breasts
As cupbearers brought them bread and beer. (p.210)
When the alliteration is linked to Carpenter’s habitual circumlocution and used to describe combat, the result is confused.
and Wulf went in forthwith. Poor Wulf was fined
a foot, but soon the Somersetan swung
south of Sigewulf’s stroke, which, Sherbourne’s shield,
discerning, drove his troll wife down the troll road
cleared by the killer’s ward as careful Alfred
aimed his edge and nicked the bristled neck. Wulf
lobbed his limb at the snout, Sigewulf struck
brawn, and the bitch chomped the carl’s calf. (p. 13)
It’s true that heroic poems from Y Gododdin to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ detail the deaths and deeds of individuals in combat. But the original audiences probably knew the participants, or had heard of them, and were familiar enough with combat to be fascinated by the blow by blow accounts. The descriptions are rarely, if ever, confusing. In the 21st century those conditions don’t apply. ‘Poor Wulf was fined a foot’ sounds needlessly precious and unnecessarily vague: ‘lobbed his limb at the snout’ bordering on parodic. I do not know what ‘discerning drove his troll wife down the troll road’ means.
Is Eþandun Epic Poem an Epic poem?
The answer depends on your definition of Epic and defining Epic is an entertaining critical game, if you enjoy such things. The arguments have produced a small library, like the larger one attempting to define Lyric. The standard critical manoeuvre is to survey contending definitions of Epic from Aristotle onwards, and then pick whichever one allows the critic or writer to do whatever they were always going to do. Like the attempts to define Lyric, the game has little pragmatic value.
Eþandun is certainly a long poem that wants to be taken seriously but it raises the more interesting question of whether or not it is possible, in the 21st century, to write, ‘A war epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil’ which is the claim on the inside of the dust jacket.
David Jones was probably the last person to achieve this, with In Parenthesis. He was describing a war his readers had fought in. Christopher’s Logue’s War Music is the positive answer to the ‘war poetry’ part of that question. But Logue wasn’t trying to out Homer Homer. Then is not now, and he built this into his poem, using all the techniques available to a modern English poet.
Virgil’s audience were trained in the use of weapons, and accepted combat as a natural part of their lives. Martial skill was admirable. No one living today has fought in a dark age battle. That might be the crucial difference between a Roman Aristocrat who has fought in the Empire’s wars listening to the final combat in the Aeneid, and a modern audience reading that passage or Carpenter’s imaginary combats.
For the original audiences of Homer and Virgil, the past was a very different place: gods interacted with humans while larger than life heroes stalked about the earth. In the 21st century we split History, which is (hopefully) evidence based and factual, from a thing called Fiction which is a culturally sanctioned form of lying. The split is very recent, certainly post-medieval. Today we dispute the ‘historicity’ of the Trojan war. If it happened, then it didn’t happen the way it does in the Iliad. We look for evidence it might have happened, framing its possible causes in terms of economics and expansionist politics.
Virgil and Homer were creating poems that sprung from a shared belief in the truth of their stories, built on a shared knowledge of the past. It’s almost impossible for a modern reader not to read the Aeneid as a form of historical fiction; a high-class Roman Marvel Comic with suited superheroes and bickering gods. The suspension of disbelief we’ve learnt from reading and watching fiction automatically takes over. For the original audience this was the foundation story of Rome.
A poem written in the tradition of Virgil would have to negotiate the fact that most people no longer believe gods walk on the earth.; or that victory in battle proves that God prefers your cause to your defeated enemy’s; or that sword swinging killers are sufficient role models for the problems of the world adults live in. Heroes of the superhuman stature of Aeneas or Achilles belong now in the world of fiction and are diminished by this. There was a King Alfred, and he was bound by all the contingent forces of his place and time and essential humanity. He was extra-ordinary. But if we admire Alfred as an historical figure, it’s not because he won a battle, but because of his reforms after Edington. They are hardly material for a dramatic war poem in the style of Virgil.
Carpenter’s Alfred is not the historical man. Nor is he a believable representation of that historical man. However, fiction has requirements history will not provide. Eþandun is historical fiction: entertaining and thought provoking even when it’s at its most implausible.
Virgil was not writing fiction.
 The title with modernised spelling would be Ethandun. The place of the battle is usually given as Edington.
 ‘Eþandun Epic poem’ on both dust jacket, copyright and title page. Eþandun on the book’s spine and cover.
 Poe, E.A. (1846) briefly in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’. http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/philcomp.htm and in more detail in (1850) ‘The Poetic Principle’. http://www.eapoe.org/works/essays/poetprnd.htm. Poe’s attempt to define ‘True Poetry’ comes in the penultimate paragraph of this latter essay.
 Kenner, H. (1951) The poetry of Ezra Pound. (p. 262).
 Perloff, M. (1985) The dance of the intellect: studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition (p.161).
 See for example Brain McHale’s (2004) The obligation toward the difficult whole. and the same writer’s contribution to the RoutledgeEncyclopedia of Narrative Theory.in the entry for ‘Narrative in Poetry’.
 Like the story of the burnt cakes, the story of Alfred visiting the Danish camp as a harper first appears in the 12th century.
 In Old English, Byrhtnoth’s speeches to the Viking messenger in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is a less well known, but historically more appropriate example of direct, effective, dramatic speech.
 Essentially a line with four stresses. Three of the beats are stitched together with alliteration. The last beat rarely carries alliteration.
 I counted ten ways in which Alfred is named in the poem before I stopped counting.
Monday, June 14, 2021
I was sent a series of questions out of the blue, and against my better judgement answered them.
You can read the answers below or at https://www.nfreads.com/
If you follow the link you'll also find a library of authors answering the same questions. I wish i were still formally studying creativity as this would be an invaluable resource.
# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
In a desperate attempt to appear windswept and interesting I used to claim to be the only lute playing kayaking medievalist to have been ‘smuggled’ over the Kazak border in the back of an apple truck before being given twenty-four hours to leave Samarkand.
My name is Liam Guilar, I rarely use the Dr. I was born in England but I have lived and worked in Australia for nearly forty years. I’ve had six collections of poetry published. I am the poetry editor for The Brazen Head (https://brazen-head.org) and a reader for DragonSmoke Press (https://dragonsmokepress.com). I also run a blog, Lady Godiva and Me (https://ladygodivaandme.blogspot.com), and a website (www.liamguilar.com).
My earliest publications were articles written about travels to remote parts of the world in search of white-water rivers and technical material for kayaking and canoeing courses, as well as for my day job as an English teacher.
My first collection of poems, The Poet’s Confession was an accident. I was sending out enquiry letters for a book I’d written about a journey through what was then Soviet Central Asia, I had two prepaid envelopes left over. I did everything it’s possible to do wrong as far as a submission goes but the publisher was unconcerned and offered to publish the manuscript. I was so shocked I think I wrote back and asked, ‘What do you mean, I would like to publish your poems’.
The second collection, I’ll Howl Before You Bury Me was entered into a competition which it won. The prize was publication. At this point I thought I’d better start taking writing much more seriously. Cringing when you read your own work in print is unpleasant. So I backtracked and went the usual submission route, submitting individual poems to increasingly prestigious journals while collecting enough rejection slips to paper the wall. The idea of writing short poems soon lost its appeal, so after Rough Spun to Close Weave was published I turned to using poems to tell stories.
I’m a medievalist by training and inclination. Lady Godiva and Me was an early attempt to combine poetry and research. It tells the story of the historical Lady Godiva, the legendary one, and what it was like growing up in Coventry in the 60s and 70s.
My most recent book, A Presentment of Englishry (Shearsman 2019) is the first of three planned instalments in an attempt to rewrite parts of a long 12th century poem. I’m trying to use the writing process to learn about the original 12th century writer.
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
The pleasure of writing. The enjoyment that comes with moving words around until the box snaps shut and they can’t be moved anymore. It’s the best game in town. Even when the writing isn’t going well, I’d rather be doing it than anything else. I enjoy editing my own work as much as I do writing, even if a day’s work is less than ten lines.
I first encountered Laȝamon’s Brut in the late 1970s. It’s a late 12th century poem of some 16,000 lines. I did an Honours thesis, then a Masters (by research) on the poet and the poem, and realised that the traditional academic route simply can’t answer a lot of very interesting questions. I wanted to peer over his shoulder and understand him as a writer. To do this I started to rewrite three of his stories.
The differences between a medieval writer and a modern one fascinate me. Modern advice for fiction writers, the kind you get in creative writing classes, workshops or ‘How to books’ would be meaningless. Consistency, back stories, character development, the idea that things can happen “off stage’ are all missing. The differences open up different ways of thinking about how a story works or could work.
And I enjoy research because it turns writing into a never ending learning process. I spend far too much time reading, looking at old maps, and comparing medieval versions of the stories I’m writing. I enjoy going down the rabbit hole offered by a question like ‘What would a rich woman wear to show off her wealth in sixth century England?’ or ‘Why does Locrin hide Aestrild in an earth house with ivory doors?’
# How do you deal with creative block?
I used to be terrorised by finished poems. I’d worry that I’d never start another one. Now I have a long-term project it’s not such a problem. I’m still daunted by finishing a book, so I make sure the next project has started before I finish the one I’m on.
Usually ‘block’ is because I’m stuck on a technical problem. Then I read other writers to see how they solved it.
The worst block is total dissatisfaction with what I’m writing. It can bring everything to a shattering halt. Then I have to accept that I am writing badly and give my-self permission to do so. One of the hardest things to teach students was that a draft is a messy approximation of the finished product. It took me years to accept my own advice.
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
For me, letting another writer’s voice or method take over. I spent the last two years reading, and reading about, David Jones. It’s taken me six months to get him out of my current draft. Trying out other writer’s techniques is an important way of learning, but I don’t want the experiments to show up in the final product.
The other major mistake is letting the research dominate the story telling. You shouldn’t know, from reading the text, how much time I spent looking at a map or how many books and articles I’ve read about post-Roman Britain.
# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
I’m very bad at titles. So no. As a reviewer, I’d say avoid titles that are confusing and cover art that isn’t directly related to the contents.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
There are different types of bad review aren’t there? The glowing one that seems to be talking about another book is embarrassing. The one that points out where you went wrong is painful but useful. The worst kind is written by someone who is using the review as an opportunity to massage their own ego at your expense. I’ve had two of these.
My worst experience of being reviewed was by someone who made so many factual errors that it was obvious he either read with no attention or didn’t understand what he was reading. It felt like I was being gratuitously insulted by a total stranger. You want to respond. I wanted to bury the writer and the editor who published the review with a withering rebuttal. But responding is not a good idea.
Having said all that, I write reviews and because of my own bad experiences I’m aware that I’m dealing with a chunk of someone else’s life. While I think professional academics are fair game and should be held accountable for bad writing and sloppy thinking, with poetry books, if I can’t say anything positive, I’ll hand the book back. I prefer to be enthusiastic and celebrate books I’ve read which I admire or enjoy. I set up a blog on my website called Enthusiasms for that purpose.
Dealing with feedback is a fascinating problem. See next question.
# How has your creation process improved over time?
I think I was very lucky. Although I’ve been trying to write poems all my life, when I started writing for publication, I was writing articles about kayaking, or technical pieces about kayaking or teaching. You can’t afford to be precious. If you are obscure, incoherent or wrong the consequences can be serious. I learnt early on to show the draft around and ask for feedback. It took me some time to apply the same logic to writing poems, but once I did it made the end product so much better. It’s tempting but self-defeating to see writing, especially writing poetry, as a private activity.
Dealing with feedback is a skill in itself. It’s very easy to fold up and accept everything someone else says; it’s also very easy to reject everything.
I taught the idea of circles, which I read somewhere a long time ago. The inner circle is your family and friends. They are supportive but unlikely to be useful. The outer circle is editors, publishers, reviewers who may be driven by their own agenda and may not be useful. The middle circle is made up of people who know something about writing but can be trusted to be honest without being destructive. Staffing the middle circle is another skill. There’s little point in showing your work to someone if you know what they will say in advance.
It helps if you respect the person giving advice. I’m not a fan of writing workshops or creative writing classes for that reason. I’ve been in some that were comically bad. The best feedback is the one that tells me that I can’t get away with the things I already know are flawed or points out something I haven’t seen.
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
Writing stories I’m always surprised by the way the words lead off in unknown directions. Even though I’m following a storyline it’s fascinating to see how incidents and characters expand. The best moment is when I read the book a year or so later and it surprises me because it’s good. I wonder how I wrote that. The worst part of completing a book is rereading it a year later and finding that section I really should have cut out or revised. I wonder why I wrote that.
# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
Good question. Over the years I’ve encountered many writers who claim they write poetry purely for their own satisfaction and have no interest in what a reader thinks. Some of them claim, aggressively that they don’t read any other poets. I wonder why they expect their work to be published or read.
So ideally there’s a balance. I want to satisfy my own curiosity, and I want to enjoy myself. I want to learn how to improve what I’m doing. But I am convinced that if a writer seeks publication, then they should be offering a total stranger more than just the spectacle of a writer writing a poem.
I hope anyone reading A Presentment of Englishry, or the narrative I’m working on now, will enjoy the stories. So as I’m revising, I’m very consciously considering what a reader needs to know. I try to avoid writing in way that would require an unlikely prior knowledge. How good is your knowledge of 5th century heresy?
There’s real satisfaction when a stranger says they like my work. I’d be delighted if a reader was lured into finding out a little more about the historical background to the stories. There’s another level of satisfaction when someone who knows this material better than I do tells me what I’ve written has given them new insight into it.
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
With poetry this is a loaded question, since the assumption is often that poetry is an expression of emotion. Poets who spend their lives writing about themselves don’t often interest me so it would bore me to be one of them. Besides, how many poems have you read about happiness? Apart from the usual emotional Ferris wheel of excitement and disappointment, I think of writing as a craft or a trade. I’m not ‘expressing myself’, I’m building something. On the other hand no one’s paying me to meet a deadline. There are days I can’t do it, so on those days I have learnt to do something else.
# Do you have any creativity tricks?
I ‘translate’, usually early medieval texts. I can stumble around in two medieval languages and two modern ones. It’s a way of forcing me to think about modern English. It’s also a useful practice when I’m stuck or bored with what I’m doing. ‘Translate’ is in inverted commas because I would be mortified if anyone read the end result. ‘Stumble around’ is not false modesty.
I walk a lot. Some of the best lines come from the rhythm of walking. I compose as I walk and If I can remember it until I get home and write it down, it’s usually worth keeping.
# What are your plans for future books?
I set out to tell three stories from Laȝamon’s Brut. The first appeared in A Presentment of Englishry. I’m working on the second now, which is the story of the end of Roman Britain. Parts of it have started to appear in journals and on line. If I finish it, and If I find a publisher, I will have to do the last of the three stories.
#What do you think about writers having to have an online presence.
There’s definite pressure on modern writers to maintain their ‘online presence’. I often wonder how some have time for writing, they are so active on twitter, Instagram, Facebook discussion boards, blogs etc.
However, while answering your first question I was laughing at the number of links I included, so perhaps a limited involvement is useful. I am the poetry editor for the Brazen Head, and a reader for DragonSmoke press. I also write articles, reviews and blog. I used to worry these would detract from my writing. However, none of them is particularly time consuming and reading a superb submission to The Brazen Head or DragonSmoke press keeps me honest when I’m evaluating my own work. Having to verbalise why I am not going to accept a poem, or writing a critical review, makes me want to ensure I’m not guilty of the same flaws.
Having a rough idea where you are on the scale from utterly incompetent to excellent is important in any activity. And matching ambition to that awareness is essential.
#what’s the best writing advice you’ve ever been given.
You can’t read too much. Good writers are always good readers first.
The idea of ‘critical circles’ I mentioned above.
‘You can’t play the instrument if you don’t take it out of the case’. One friend writes a poem a day. Everyday. He throws most of what he writes away but he’s the most technically proficient poet I’ve ever met. ‘Translation’ comes into this category.
Finally, something I read in one of Alan Garner’s books:
If someone else can do the job better, let them.
Always take as long as the job requires.
Thursday, June 10, 2021
Chapter three of the story of Vortigern. Follow the link below. You can read Chapter one in Long Poem Magazine. Chapter two is also online in the previous Brazen head.
Tuesday, June 8, 2021
I will rave about both these in detail later, but they are so very good. Both excellent in their own ways. In all the translations I've read of Y Gododdin, I've not read one before that sings in English.
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
I’ve been reading William G. Carpenter’s Eþandun for a review in the next issue of the Brazen Head. There’s a quote on the inside of the dust jacket that intrigues me. It describes the book as ‘A war epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil, Eþandun (eth-an-dune) paints Western Christendom in its darkest hour.’
Leaving aside the inaccurate hyperbole in the second part of the sentence, I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to write ‘a war epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil’ in the twenty first century.
My tentative answer is probably not, however….
David Jones was probably the last person to do it successfully. In Parenthesis works because Jones was describing a war that he’d fought in which his readers had either fought in or knew about and could recognise the accuracy of his descriptions. Secondly, he was able to blur the distinction between autobiography, history and fiction. And thirdly his heroes are believable men in extra-ordinary situations who are raised to the status of legendary figures by the way Jones presents them. Though his language, though his habitual blurring of the past and the present, he was able to raise the story of the historical assault on Mametz wood into the realm of legendary activity, while holding on to the historical event.
Having said that Private Ball is hardly heroic. He crawls away from the battle field and abandons his weapon. But you can believe in Private Ball in a way you never believe in Achilles.
If this sets up the criteria for a successful ‘war epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil’ then perhaps we could split the question into two parts. Firstly a war epic about a modern war, and secondly one set in the distant past.
A modern war poem in the tradition of Homer or Virgil, assuming such a thing were desirable, could be written by someone who had fought in one of the many wars in the past fifty years. It would be realistic. It’s central character would be an ordinary soldier like Private Ball. It would blur the distinctions between autobiography or report. And then you’d wonder why bother? If it’s a narrative why trade the powerful effects of documentary prose for the inevitable fictive effect of poetry? How would it struggle free from all the films and books that are already issuing from these conflicts to claim the necessary seriousness an epic requires?
Difficult but possible.
For a story set in the past the differences between what Virgil was doing and what a modern poet could do might be too great.
His audience were trained in the use of weapons and accepted combat as a natural part of their lives. That might be the crucial difference between a Roman Aristocrat who has fought in the Empire’s wars listening to or reading the final combat in the Aeneid, and a modern audience reading that same passage.
In a patriarchal, military society geared to colonial expansion, warfare might be a fine subject and Aeneas a role model for men. but women have walk on parts in Virgil and Homer, and they are usually dead or grieving at some stage. Today, wars are things most people hope to avoid, not a highly anticipated career opportunity for every young man.
To compound the problem, sword swinging heroes have been conscripted by various fantasy genres. There is something enjoyably adolescent about them. If only your problem were so simple you could pick up a sword and belt it. If only the messy life that confuses and defeats you could be reduced to a simple binary proposition and personified in one opponent you could hack to pieces. If only beautiful members of the desired sex just threw themselves at you because of your ability to wave your phallic symbol around. It’s a nice idea for the frustrated and lonely adolescent lurking in everyone. But its hopelessly simplified and unrealistic. Moreover, familiarity with such fantasy exerts a gravitational pull on what was once meant to be taken seriously.
Perhaps the idea of the hero who wins a war or changes history on his own has always been unrealistic. Even In the first century AD Roman armies were victorious because of the ruthless discipline belted into their infantry during training. But for that original audience of Homer and Virgil, the past was also a very different place to their own present: gods interacted with humans while larger than life heroes stalked about the earth.
In the 21st century we split History, which is (hopefully) evidence based and factual, from a thing called Fiction which is a culturally sanctioned form of lying. The split is very recent, certainly post-medieval. By a process of historical evolution poetry now belongs firmly in the category of fictive literature. It’s almost impossible for a modern reader not to read the Aeneid as fiction; a high-class Roman Marvel Comic with suited superheroes and bickering gods. The suspension of disbelief we’ve learnt from reading and watching fiction automatically takes over and the effect is amplified when we see the lines don’t go all the way to the right hand margin.
So is the essential problem that Virgil and Homer weren’t writing fiction?
Today, anyone attempting a story set in the past has to assume that the poem will be treated as fictive. No matter how accurate the details, the minute King Athelstan speaks to his troops before Brunnaburgh, the story has slid into the comfortable and comforting world of make believe.
No one to day has donned armour, mounted a horse and charged a line of archers. No one has stood his ground behind a line of shields while a bunch of sword whirling Britons tried to take his head off. There’s not much evidence to tell us what it was like, either. As you go back in time, first person accounts of battle become non-existent and descriptions of battle become increasingly rare until they disappear. They are almost non-existent for pre-Conquest England.
If you stay this side of 1800, where there are eyewitness accounts and increasing amounts of first-hand information to draw on, than the days of the individual hero are already long gone and war is a brutal, increasingly mechanised, increasingly impersonal affair which essentially redefined heroism.
So my tentative answer is I don’t know how anyone could overcome the problems inherent in the fictive nature of the enterprise. To write about a modern war in narrative poetry would fictionalise the reading experience and inevitably mute the effect. A poem telling a story set in the more distant past is inevitably an historical novel written in short lines. It might be historically accurate, but focus it on warfare, and it’s going to read like a fantasy novel.