Heroic/Homiletic (you choose) Addendum


(Following on from the previous post, I’d expanded slightly on the enigmatic reference at the end to my own writing, but realised in that context it was digressive. Here, however, it’s part of the estranged brew of published, unpublished, retro- and prospective thinking that makes blogs creative – and aligns them so strongly with the original understanding of the essai. As Montaigne says on all our behalfs, ‘I distrust my present thoughts hardly less than my past ones and my second or third thoughts hardly less than my first.’

These paragraphs are pointers to projects past and future – I wrote about a quarter of a verse novel called The Book of the Wedderburns over ten years ago, then set it aside for a few months… I have the intention of one day being good enough at Greek – or lucky enough to meet the right Cretan – to translate a few fragments from the Erotokritos. I have an idea for a tetrabiblio, four-books-in-one, that might hold the way I want to work on the ‘Monolog Recreatif’ chapter from the Complaynt – one of the overlooked masterpieces of Scottish prose – you know how it is, but sometimes it helps to set how it is down…)

I’ve been strongly engaged by two late medieval/early Renaissance texts, The Complaynt of Scotlande, probably written in Dundee in the 1540s by Robert Wedderburn, the vicar of Dundee, and the Erotokritos, an heroic verse romance written on Crete in the 1580s by Vitzentos Kornaros, a nobleman of Venetian descent.

In both cases, the texts represent a lost world: Wedderburn’s Catholic bishopric, not untouched by the traces of Lutheran reform which converted both his brothers, eventually sending them into exile, was about to swept away by Knox’s Reformation.

He lived through not only the occlusion of his faith, but the sack of the Dundee in 1548, in which his loyalties were tested by the demands of the invading forces of Henry the Eighth for ‘assurances’ from the local authorities to help maintain order. He therefore experienced a crisis of aesthetics and ideology that we associate with twentieth century figures like Shostakovich or Mandelshtam.

The Cretan Renaissance, exemplified by Kornaros’s work, and the work of the dramatist Giorgios Chortatzis, and latterly by icon painters like Emmanuel Tzanes, would be swept away by the Ottoman invasion of the island in the 1640s, and the eventual fall of Candia (modern day Iraklio/Heraklion) after the extraordinary phenomenon of a twenty year siege. Its exemplars, like Wedderburn’s brothers, went into exile in Venice and elsewhere.

In both cases, then, what intrigues me creatively is the impulse to construct alternative histories, to supplant fact with fable: the ‘what if’ scenario that characterises the defeated or secondary culture, be that the Hellenes of the late and post-Byzantine era, post-1204, post-1453, post-1669, or the Scots and indeed the Scottish language, post-1560, post-1603, post-1707, post-2014.

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Heroes and Homilies (4)

(This concluding section wants to go in a number of directions which I resist here, but will try to pick up in subsequent posts. One is the idea that revisiting stories helps us to think about what story-telling is and what it is for, and whether it is always the best means by which to understand what happens to us – an argument I’ve raised before via Strawsen’s opposition between the narrative tendency and the episodic viewpoint.

The other is the question of how this might apply to one’s own writing – for me, there are a couple of longer term projects that this talk was, perhaps, a way of positioning my imagination in relation to, but which it was not appropriate to do more than allude to here – an addendum will therefore follow, expanding slightly on that aspect.)

I’d like to conclude by suggesting that each mode and each impulse, whether it is to seek continuity or to re-read forcibly or to re-position the poem itself, has its place. Given that we live in a society which sometimes seems to believe that the facts of a matter are all that need concern us, a multiplicity of challenges to the way we tell ourselves stories seems vital.

Perhaps the most dangerous fiction we have is the idea that realism and reality are simply two sides of the same coin, that we can apply the tropes of storytelling to the world around us, that its models of character, motivation and plot will simply map onto actual events and describe them accurately.

The purpose of the quest, after all, is to enlarge our concept of ourselves, to see beyond our theories about the world into the hearts of those stories, those symbols, which enabled us to construct such theories in the first place. We do not just, however benignly, bring the stories into the present, we use them to develop, both as practitioners and as social beings: we allow them to change us.

To that end, we must admit that all shades of ‘Transfusion’ – versions, adaptations, recontextualisations, rewritings, re-presentings and reconsiderings – are a vital, necessary part of that task, not something we can shirk as in some way innate, and need hardly embark on, but a mission we should embrace as variously as possible.

There are various ways this impacts on my own work, including ongoing projects on 16th century texts from pre-Reformation Scotland and the pre-Ottoman world of Renaissance Crete. But history would have us hurry on. So I’d like to finish with a poem, a commission to write about Lindisfarne as part of a project called Colm Cille’s Spiral, a re-imagination of the legacy of the sixth-century Irish monk Colm Cille, or St Columba, through a series of contemporary art and literature commissions and dialogues that unfolded last year across Ireland and the UK. In the North-East, twelve poets including myself, Sean O’Brien, Colette Bryce and Gillian Allnutt, wrote poems about or set on Lindisfarne, which in their different ways reflected the issues I’ve been discussing today.

The role of Lindisfarne, of Jarrow and Monkwearmouth, in establishing the cultural basis from which many of the texts I’ve been discussing eventually emerged cannot be overstated: to have an English literature you must first have the concept of an England and of an English language. Of course many of the writers I’ve mentioned, myself included, would identify themselves in contrast or in opposition to that simple unity, arguing instead for many nations, many literatures, many Englishes. But that too is an act of retelling, of adaptation, and translation.

This poem has its roots in Bede’s work in history and hagiography, particularly the stories of the animals who miraculously intercede in the lives of the Lindisfarne monks, and of the carrying of Cuthbert’s body around the county after the Viking destruction of the abbey, before its settling in Durham. It seems to me there is something as heroic as it is homiletic in those tales, and, in their favouring of the fable over the fact, something fundamentally poetic that needs revisiting and retelling in every generation.

North of the Book


Cuthbert’s cloud crypt is barely blue-flecked.

Beneath it, rapt, his bestial elect

witness the bay as a sunken boat

in which the sea-fowl gospels float.


Prior Puffin / arranges fish

upon his profane / palate’s dish.

Sister Otter / won’t insist

but the bliss of water / is like a kiss.

Brother Crow / can’t allow

that a bird might know / how to bow.

Father Gull / holds Bible School

for a fresh lamb’s skull / and a crab in a pool.

Mother Whale / dives to foil

the foolish sail / and saves her oil.

Deacon Dolphin / sings descant

to the shoal’s cold hymn / in greed’s ascent.

Sacristan Seal – / wrack his stained glass –

ecstatic, reels / in the tidal mass.

Hermit Crab / with trembling claws

grabs scuttled garb / and, ragged, withdraws.

Abbess Cod / knows the abyss

is as close to God / as the white cloud is.

Abbot Herring / in a habit of silver

and a crowd of uncaring / is a harp that shivers.

Venerable Bee / levitates

while her harebell history / reverberates.


Saint Snail / can’t explain

but his pilgrim trail / is a glittering stain.


Northumberland’s casket of hills

encloses the holy corruptibles.

North of the book the page is born

from vellum sand and tide’s return.

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Heroes and Homilies (3)

(This third section is an attempt to bring the argument a little more up to date by using three contemporary writers as a means of categorising certain ways of working with old texts, what I call ‘diachronic translation’, i.e. within the same language and literature, but across historical periods that have rendered previous texts linguistically and culturally remote.)


To come on to some of the ways in which younger poets have handled the business of retelling enables us to characterize three methods. Perhaps the closest to Heaney’s is Simon Armitage’s tack in relation to story-telling and indeed formal fidelity in his translation of Gawain and the Green Knight. He forcibly links form and fable: ‘…to me, alliteration is the warp and weft of the poem, without which it is just so many fine threads. In some very elemental way, the story and the sense of the poem is directly located within its sound.’

He is also very interesting on the degree of translating he is attempting ‘…the majority of lines…seem to make sense, though not quite. To the untrained eye, it is as if the poem is lyig beneath a thin coat of ice, tantalizingly near yet frustratingly blurred. To a contemporary poet, one interested in narrative and form, and to a northerner who…recognizes plenty of the poem’s dialect…the urge to blow a little warm breath across that layer of frosting eventually proved irresistible.’

In this extract, Sir Gawain is keeping his promise to meet the Green Man, a supernatural being whom the previous year, without any apparent effect, Gawain had beheaded:

Then he heard on the hillside, from behind a hard rock
and beyond the brook, a blood-chilling noise.
What! it cannoned through the cliffs as if they might crack,
like the scream of a scythe being ground on a stone…
‘My God,’ cried Gawain, ‘That grinding is a greeting.
My arrival is honoured with honing of an axe…’

By contrast, in the ‘Argument’ to J.O. Morgan’s After Maldon, he writes: ‘The poet’s aim: not to present for posterity the known and indisputably dreary facts, but to recast the real events in an unreal mould, and in so doing hope perhaps for accidental truth.’ This is a very different premiss.

‘The Battle of Maldon’ is, famously, about a real event in a more direct way than the other poems we are considering here. We know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that it occurred in 991 in Essex; we know the names of the people involved, and we know that the poem Morgan is working from, as he says, ‘somewhere in the intervening thousand or so years, [has lost] its beginning and end’.

When Morgan says he is departing from the facts, then, there is a sense that he is doing so in an attempt to restore what has been lost textually as well as what has been obscured by a millennia of cultural change. These elements are characterized in a phrase which recalls the slippery quiddities of Henryson’s poem: ‘accidental truth’. The main device he deploys to discover this is a strikingly apt use of anachronism, in a manner which recalls Christopher Logue’s treatment of The Iliad, as in this description of Godric, whose subsequent flight from the battle leads to a general retreat, isolating the Earl’s personal retinue, and compelling them to make a last stand:

Just as a designated driver
hangs about outside the theatre,
checks his watch from time
to time, so Godric, groom
to Byrhtnoth’s great white horse,
lingers at the battle’s back end.

To a soundtrack of distant clamour
he unpacks curry-comb, soft-bristled brush,
the thing-for-taking-things-from-horse’s-hooves.

The third way of working is outlined by Alice Oswald in her introduction to her translations of the epic similes and deaths of minor figures from The Iliad, where she says, ‘This version, trying to retrieve the poem’s energeia, takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.’ Energeia she defines as ‘something like “bright unbearable reality”. It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves.’

We are reminded of Eliot’s careful warning from ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘human kind/Cannot bear very much reality’, but we are also, perhaps, struck by the strangeness of the image: in what way does removing the roof from a church remind us of the presence of the holy? We might think rather of the theft of lead or indeed the iconoclastic destruction of invading armies or, as in that Reformation that swept away Henryson’s worldview, of a supplanting faith.

What Oswald is pointing to, however, is an interesting point about the version as opposed to the paraphrase: her translation removes the narrative – that aspect of invention we associate with the novel, and focuses instead on the imagistic and the elegiac: two modes we still strongly associate with poetry. It is as though she is focusing the modern reader on those aspects of the epic that fiction has not yet fully appropriated.

In his introduction to his translation of The Aeneid, John Dryden produces a famous tripartite definition of translation which may serve to sum up some of the tactics reviewed here:

‘First, that of metaphrase, or turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another… The second way is that of paraphrase, or translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not altered…The third way is that of imitation, where the translator (if now he has not lost that name) assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion…’

Perhaps, then, the three ways of approaching the poet’s quest outlined above happen – roughly – to concur with Dryden’s description. You can preserve the metre and the matter as closely as possible, as Heaney and Armitage are at pains to do, in the metaphrastic manner. You can diverge into what seem to be necessary changes of perspective, imagery or form, as J.O. Morgan and, elsewhere, Christopher Logue do, in a paraphrastic way. Or you can peel away and attempt something quite different in either style or structure, that serves to explore themes that, whatever their degree of presence in the original, echo more forcible in a distinct modern context. That is more what Patience Agbabi and Alice Oswald are engaged in, though aspects of all three modes can be found in each author’s work.

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Heroes and Homilies (2)

(This second section is where the homiletic theme appears in relation to Henryson. Parts of this draw on a review of Heaney’s Henryson, reproduced elsewhere on this blog, that I did for The Scottish Review of Books. But, as I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s been totally transformed in this new context. Except for the bits that are the same.)


The exemplary hero in this contemporary quest is Seamus Heaney, who in three key texts epitomises different aspects of the impulse to adapt, and the complex gesture of what I’m calling diachronic translation. In Beowulf, Sweeney Astray, and in The Testament of Cresseid and Seven Fables by Robert Henryson, we see three takes on this phenomenon. And, as we know, in stories, everything should always come in threes. I’ll briefly outline the first two here before going into further detail on the third.

Beowulf we might describe as the just-distant-enough work: written in Anglo-Saxon somewhere in or between the 7th and 10th centuries, it is no longer comprehensible to the ordinary reader, but its heroic narrative and its alliterative framework feel like an originating text for much in English literature from Shakespeare (whose Caliban sometimes seems a direct descendent of Grendel) to Pound (whose manifesto ‘A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste’ might well have been called ‘A Few Don’ts by an Anglo-Saxon Bard), and onto the saga-loving W.H. Auden and that great British primitivist, Ted Hughes.

Then he who had harried the hearts of men
with pain and affliction in former times
and had given offence also to God
found that his bodily powers failed him.
…The monster’s whole
body was in pain, a tremendous wound
appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split
and the bone-lappings burst.

Sweeney Astray: A Version from the Irish, by contrast, is an unambiguous work of translation, from the medieval Irish into an astonishing shape-shifting English in which the depiction of the cursed king, maddened and metamorphosed, resonated with the conflicting nature of identity and to the identities at the base of much conflict in these islands in the 1980s. Its approximate parallel in this was probably Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns (1971), in which King Offa contended with invasive anachronisms in place of rival kings. Both texts look to the past to complicate or, as the jargon of the time had it, to problematise our notions of simplistic identity.

My curse fall on Sweeney
for his great offence.
His smooth spear profaned
my bell’s holiness,

cracked bell hoaring grace
since the first saint rang it –
it will curse you to the trees,
bird-brain among the branches.

To look at Heaney’s Henryson in slightly greater depth, it provides an example of the nearly-familiar which raises some interesting questions as to the point of all such exercises of adaptation.

It is a magisterial reclamation of the late medieval Scottish makar because it both delights and compels us – particularly those of us who, like myself, are Scottish readers – to reappraise our relationship with the literature of what we think of as our distant past. Heaney achieves two things: he brings back to a broad readership (well, broad for poetry) a series of key texts which are not commonly read; and he also places before our attention the matter of how such texts slip from that readership to a narrower band of academics.

Most important, perhaps, is that delight: he conveys in his lithe, close, empathic work something of the cause of his enthusiasm: the subtle mind of Henryson himself, deftly arranging the tales and the tropes of his era, finding a distinctive marriage between the intellect and the senses in a music that still sings from the page, echoed by Heaney’s own Ulster Scots-inflected take.

In order to grasp what is distinctive about Heaney’s Henryson, we need only compare it to his Beowulf: a text definitively placed beyond all but a handful of professors (and often-reluctant undergraduates) by the evolutionary movement of English itself. It simply can’t be read outside that circle.

With Henryson the matter is more complex – his originals are still comprehensible to a degree, but by a different, more fractured constituency of scholars and Scots. A further issue is the way his psychological insights are set within an intricate allegorical system which would seem, on the surface, less easily accessible to the modern world.

To the objection, that, given the relative accessibility of Henryson’s Scots, the exercise hardly seems necessary, Heaney has rehearsed three motives: freeing the text from the purely academic; refreshing the reader by engagement with another sensibility; and, the one that I suspect may have the strongest impetus, the poet’s own sheer pleasure in a species of verse-making ‘by proxy’. As Heaney confesses, the poetry more than spoke to him, it sang to such an extent that he ‘developed a strong inclination to hum along.’

This is the genuine delight of the poet-translator who recognises a meeting not just of minds, but of those inner musics which shape our minds’ utterances, a harmony where before there was only the solo voice. Its fitting representation is the dual text, where stanza accompanies stanza in a stately medieval dance one can almost imagine Henryson joining in.

If we look at a stanza from Henryson’s version of Aesop’s fable of ‘The Cock and the Jasper,’ we can observe the intricacies of this dance. First the Scots:

As damsellis wantoun and insolent
That fane wald play and on the streit be sene,
To swoping of the hous thay tak na tent
Quhat be thairin, swa that the flure be clene;
Jowellis ar tint, as oftymis hes bene sene,
Upon the flure, and swopit furth anone.
Peradventure, sa wes the samin stone.

Then Heaney:

Giddy young things, with their minds on nothing
But swanking in the street and being seen
Have little interest in their besoming.
They birl the brush to make the floor look clean.
So precious items dropped are very often
Swept from the doorstep out into the yard.
Something like that, in this case, had occurred.

Here Heaney is clearly substituting a modern Scottish lexis and alliterative pattern for that present in Henryson: ‘swoping’ and ‘swa’ becomes that birling of the brush, catching up the use of ‘besom’, which in Scots often refers to just such self-possessed young ladies. Perhaps a touch of the otherwise omitted ‘insolent’ also influenced his choice. (We can see there is a tiny difference between cleaning the floor without looking, and only cleaning the floor so that it looks clean, but this is carping.)

There is a much clearer distinction between tones. Henryson repeats himself on the rhyme word ‘sene’, in order to contrast these types of seeing – the young women displaying themselves, and their sloppy behaviour being witnessed and judged. He weighs things up in an even, grave manner – that ‘Peradventure’ in his last line maintains the juridical voice of ‘wantoun and insolent’. Heaney on the other hand divides the stanza into an expressive quatrain, then an explanatory tercet.

In this approach he is echoing that of Dryden, whose term ‘Transfusion’ Heaney cites approvingly in his introduction. This is from Dryden’s ‘Preface’ to the Fables, his late collection of translations from both classical and medieval sources, including Chaucer, so Heaney is also inviting us to study the Preface’s argument regarding his own tranfusions. Dryden addresses those who feel ‘that it is little less than Profanation and Sacrilege to alter [Chaucer’s language]…’ continuing ‘When an ancient Word for its Sound and Significancy deserves to be reviv’d, I have that reasonable Veneration for Antiquity, to restore it. All beyond this is Superstition.’ Language, bluntly, changes; general comprehension diminishes, and, as for those whose learning empowers them to feel otherwise, he says ‘Let them neglect my Version, because they have no need of it.’

Dryden prophesies that he too will become subject to the same need for transfusion. His conclusion appears both irrefutable and modest: ‘…there is something in it like Fatality; that after certain Periods of Time, the Fame and Memory of great Wits should be renew’d.’

Heaney clearly likes the parallel that, as Dryden engaged with Chaucer, so he engages with a Scottish Chaucerian. The most interesting element in this, however, is that there are clear hints Henryson might have enjoyed it too. After all, both in the Testament and his fables there is a dry take on the manner in which a scholarly author of his time engages with his original texts (I loop together here parts of both original and translation):

Quha wait gif all that Chaucer wrait was trew?
Nor I wait nocht gif this narratioun
Be authoresit, or fenyeit…

(Who knows if all that Chaucer wrote was true?

O master Aesop, poet laureate,
God knows you are most welcome here to me
For are you not the very one who wrote
Those fables, which are make-believe, maybe…)

Ar ye not he that all thir fabillis wrate,
Quhilk in effect, suppois thay fenyeit be,
Ar full of prudence and moralitie?

By insisting on being part of an interpretive chain, in which the veracity of the previous link cannot be known, Henryson aligns himself with the trickster figure of his fables, the fox, who in ‘The Fox, The Wolf and the Carter’ fools the carter in this passage which deploys the same key verb, ‘fenyeit':

With that he made a far, free-ranging detour,
Then stretched out in the middle of the road
Pretending to be dead…

With that he kest ane cumpas far about,
And straucht him doun in midis off the way;
As he wer deid he fenyeit him…

It is this sense of engaging with something slippery and indefinable, in order to preserve something primal and undeniable that Henryson cultivates so carefully, whether it sometimes undercut his gentle moralities or not. It is this which, in turn, Heaney is so intrigued to uncover and re-present. At such moments, the scroll of the story, which carries strange truths rolled up within it regardless of its provenance, is being passed from Henryson to Heaney as it was passed from Aesop or Chaucer to Henryson.

This is perhaps Heaney’s greatest gift to the reader, and therefore of retellings of this sort: to send them back to the original, supported and refreshed, to consider such subtleties of interpretation rather than stumble over misremembered or never-encountered words.

Any gesture which brings to the broadest possible audience, as Heaney’s translation does with such delicacy, one of the most subtle and affecting moments in European literature, can only be welcomed. Right at the end of the Testament, the diseased Cresseid, reduced to begging, meets Troilus again. On the surface Troilus and Cresseid fail to recognise each other, and yet – so characteristically of Henryson – Troilus is, without knowing why, agonisingly reminded of their lost love:

Upon him then she cast up both her eyes
And at a glance it came into his thought
That he some time before had seen her face.
But she was in such state he knew her not;
Yet still into his mind her look had brought
The features and the amorous sweet glancing
Of fair Cresseid, one time his own, his darling.

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Heroes and Homilies (1)

(This talk was delivered in the summer of 2014 at Bede’s World as part of their lecture series, and to accompany an exhibition curated by Roger Wollen, ‘Myths, Memories and Mysteries,’ which focussed on a number of contemporary artists influenced by the Byzantine models which had also influenced the monks of Jarrow and Lindisfarne themselves.

I thought a look at the way poets similarly revisit the ‘deep time’ of classical, dark age, and medieval poetry might amount to some sort of parallel endeavour. So this was given the subtitle ‘why poets need to revisit the poetry of the past’.

It constitutes a sort of companion piece, then, to the ‘Love and the Romans’ post – and indeed relates obliquely to a third talk I’ve not yet posted, trying to flesh out (and thereby critique) the notion of poetry as shamanic.

I’ll post it in four sections again: intro; a bit on Heaney; some thoughts on Simon Armitage, J.O. Morgan and Alice Oswald; and a conclusion that nearly veers off course entirely into a set of my own unfinished projects – but I pull it back, people: I pull it back from the brink!)


When my April showers me with kisses
I could make her my missus or my mistress
but I’m happily hitched – sorry home girls –
said my vows to the sound of the Bow Bells
yet her breath is as fresh as the west wind,
when I breathe her, I know we’re predestined
to make music; my muse, she inspires me
though my mind’s overtaxed, April fires me,
how she pierces my heart to the fond root…

Prologue (Grime Mix) by Patience Agbabi

Roger Wollen begins his introduction to the catalogue for ‘Myths, Memories and Mysteries’ with a resonant, difficult truth: ‘All artists are in thrall to the past. They cannot escape history.’ As with art, so with writing. Retelling is just another way of telling. But what it tells is not just the same story, at some level it also incorporates the story of the story, and so it reveals something more, something new: our attitude toward the story. Thoughout literary history, poets, dramatists and storytellers have retold tales precisely so that they could put their own focus, their own spin, their own take, on something more or less familiar to their own audience.

From Virgil seizing upon the aftermath of the Iliad and the escape of Aeneas from the destruction of Troy to tell the founding tale of Rome, to Shakespeare zooming in on Troilus and Cressida from the same epic source to reposition a story already told by Chaucer and Boccaccio, artists are drawn to the nearly-familiar and the just-distant-enough to adapt, translate, and reposition, not just the stories, but themselves as storytellers, dramatists or poets.

Sometimes that is about placing themselves within or indeed creating a specific tradition, as the medieval Scots makar Robert Henryson did in relation to Chaucer with his Testament of Cresseid. Sometimes the impulse is more overtly to do with translation, as in the updating of Chaucer by John Dryden, or John Donne by Alexander Pope, where the language or the metrics have been deemed too old-fashioned to serve, but the content or the sensibility appeals, or is itself the element they wish to adapt.

Sometimes the gesture is a type of criticism of society, as in Tennyson’s Victorian Gothic revisiting of The Idylls of the King in the face of industrialization and the advance of the secular. Sometimes it expresses a profound shift in sensibility, as in the Modernist retreatment of The Odyssey we find in Joyce, and in Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Our period is no exception, indeed, we might be said to be passing through an especially fecund period for adaptations of the sort I’ll be discussing here – from re-readings of sometimes neglected classics, to what we might term diachronic translation, where the literature of an earlier period is translated into a more modern idiom within that same literature. Thus we have, among others, Christopher Logue’s and Alice Oswald’s rethinkings of Homer; Patience Agbabi’s and Lavinia Greenlaw’s recasting of Chaucer; J.O. Morgan’s meditation on the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon; and Simon Armitage’s translations of Gawain and the Green Knight and the Arthurian legends.

Of course the key element which links these texts is not just their historic remoteness or their cultural status. It is their moral or heroic dimension. These are poems which ask their readers what it is to be good, what it is to be brave. Such questions, you might think, would be answered in very different ways in different historical periods, and the relevance of the ancient or the medieval viewpoint to our own might seem slight.

Seamus Heaney points to this when he argues in his introduction to Beowulf: ‘as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time.’ It is perhaps because we are so reluctant to concede the primacy of our present moment, whether to the other realities of the past or to the different reality of the work of art, that we should attempt such adaptations and translations. As Lavinia Greenlaw says of Troilus and Cressida, ‘For this story to have passed…across the centuries while losing nothing of its force is a reflection of the way in which stories outgrow and survive us by being about us at a far deeper level than any stories of our own.’

There is in such ideas, such sentiments, something of the drivenness and humility of the heroes these poems are about. In other words there is a certain amount of self-valorising in the best sense of the term in these adapters’ roles: in a way they themselves become the heroes of their own quests to transcend their era and their egos’ limitations, and recover the grail of the perfect text, at once original and revision, their own and their masters’ work.

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Non-Standard (4)

(Much has changed since this final section was written, not least the formalisation of the live literature campus into another aspect of the rethinking of the arts as a calendrical round of festivals and an administrative round of grant applications. The notion of the gift advanced here, for instance, has been conceptualised by the Academy as ‘Impact’, and Creative Writing has proven very valuable to it on these terms.

But the relationship between what writers do in their own work and what writers offer the institutions they join is as subject to the niceties of interpretation as ever, and, it seems to me, is in as much need of the insights offered by the metaphor of translation now as they were then.

Incidentally, the book discussed below was later published as A Balkan Exchange (Arc, 2007), and the method by which it was produced, dialogic translation, led to other projects and other publications for me in Chinese and other languages, and is much discussed elsewhere on this blog.)

I’d like to conclude by briefly discussing the third area in which the poet’s role in the academy has an impact: the active cultural life of the campus. Since coming to Newcastle I have been asked to organise a number of different kinds of literary events from small-scale readings to a week-long translation seminar, and I’d like to outline what I feel is the point of having such a programme. 

Lewis Hyde, in his brilliant book on creativity, The Gift, poses a central question for the writer in our society:

How, if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market? … Like the Jew of the Old Testament who has a law of the altar at home and a law of the gate for dealing with strangers, the artist who wishes to lose neither his gift nor to starve his belly reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the work is created, but once the work is made he allows himself some contact with the market. And then…if he is successful in the marketplace, he converts market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art.

Just so the poet who allows him- or herself contact with the academy is temporarily putting their true vocation second to the vocation of teaching, profoundly valuable as that is in both senses of the word. Their employer may not see this as much of a sacrifice, but be in no doubt that the writer constantly and jealously counts up the hours and the weeks. Therefore a wise employer allows their writers ample space to set up the altar not just at home but on the campus. After all, the Academy itself had similar origins as an olive grove sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom.

To the extent that this is possible, it is also possible to share out what Hyde calls the gift wealth of creativity. To the extent that this is done, the school, college or department is admitted into a creative space. To the extent that it is coopted, quantified or controlled, it becomes commodified like any other product intended for the marketplace. This in itself is not a terrible thing: most authors wish much of their work to be published, and the fundamental contradiction between sharing and selling has long been internalised. The important factor is that all parties understand what they are negotiating about, otherwise integration simply turns into another type of exploitation.

At Newcastle, we try to programme from the regional microcosm to the international event, so in addition to local writers launching books, we have talks and readings featuring the likes of Anne Michaels or John Kinsella. We have the annual Bloodaxe Poetry Lectures, always delivered by a poet. But we also look at the format of the poetry reading itself, and utilise the dozen or so writers associated with the School, including Northern Rock winner Gillian Allnutt, to organise readings on public themes including the Gulf War or Holocaust Memorial Day. We work closely with a dramaturg to make these dialogue readings, without introductions, where text can speak to text. We work with the School of Music to put on events combining poetry with music – at the moment I am organising a launch reading for Jackie Kay’s new book at The Baltic which will involve the Scottish jazz group The Spontaniacs. 

In all these activities a critical eye is being applied to re-examine conventional structures, and creativity itself is at once providing links between different parts of the university, and drawing onto the campus members of the public.

But one event brings together all the themes I’ve been discussing. In 2003 I and a couple of other writers went on a reading trip to Bulgaria, organised by the British Council. We read in Sofia Prison and Sofia University – and believe me we could tell the difference. We worked with an exciting group of Bulgarian writers and realised that we wanted to extend the link. Last year I and a fellow poet, Andy Croft, went back to Sofia to teach these writers Creative Writing techniques – skills for which there was little or no provision there – and this course was accredited by Newcastle University. Last month a group of four poets came over and worked with us on producing a book of translations of their poetry, the first such grouping in English for fifteen years. 

In the course of our discussions we had much need of notions of foreignisation and domestication, and not in a metaphoric sense. And so the academic discipline of Creative Writing provided the link between these artists and an innovative project: this catalytic role is the one the poet in the academy should be called upon to fulfil –not an excluded, disaffected Bartleby, not just a teacher, but, in Sidney’s understanding of the term, a mover. Just don’t ask us to be shakers too, unless you mean in the spiritual sense…

At one point during this week I and a colleague were sitting typing up the day’s translations. Suddenly we paused, looked at each other and agreed that this was the best job ever. That was the moment at which all the different roles I am called upon to play in the academy – writer, teacher, facilitator – coalesced. It may be the only such moment I have amid the usual floods of admin and cunning undergraduate excuses, but I am nonetheless profoundly grateful to have experienced it. 

The act of translation is so fundamental to the kind of cross-disciplinary lives writer lead in the academy – and the academy leads in them – that it is often possible to overlook that it is happening. To do so, however, is to let one discourse, usually the most powerful, dominate all others. When the academic drowns out the poet in you, you know that something fundamental to both writing and teaching has been lost. The translator, thankfully, knows that communication is performative, self-scrutinising, and – in the academy especially – must be ongoing.

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Non-Standard (3)

(This third section throws down some ideas about teaching Creative Writing that would obviously benefit from being revisited, particularly in terms of the power relationship inherent in mentor-tutee interactions, but the main intent is, I hope, evident: to carve out a little space in which such matters can be considered.)

I’ve been attending and hosting poetry workshops for twenty five years, ever since turning up at one in Hertford College run by Stefan Szymanski in my second year as an undergraduate. From that callow body (whose members included Martyn Crucefix among others), to the group I currently attend with the writers Sean O’Brien, Paul Farley, and others, and including all the academic teaching I’ve done at Lancaster and Newcastle, there has always been a consistent if arguable set of assumptions: that the poem must stand by itself as a cultural artefact, that through it the writer can affect the reader in quantifiable as well as unquantifiable ways; that the quantifiable ways can be discussed and the text altered as a consequence; that the unquantifiable can be negotiated even when it cannot be fully articulated .

Literary theoreticians are not keen on this point of view. When I was touring the anthology Strong Words around the universities five years ago with its co-editor, Matthew Hollis, its subtitle, ‘modern poets on modern poetry’, caused one literature colleague to challenge us as to what gave poets any special authority about poetry. He meant as opposed to anyone who chose to write or read a poem, but his unstated implication appeared to be as opposed to academics. The first part of his challenge is, I think, addressed by Kathleen Jamie in her piece for Strong Words, ‘Holding Fast’:

If our poetry is engaged with, and received well by others, by readers and critics, their interest and engagement gives us the moral strength to permit ourselves to make further moves…We accrue permissions, and consequently make poems, which in turn grant us permission to extend into new scary areas. Through that we develop poetic authority.

What’s the difference between the professional poet and the occasional writer, reader or critic? Partly it’s that exposure to an audience, consisting of writers, critics, and readers; partly it’s that commitment to the whole journey. As Kathleen goes on to say, ‘Each poem individually does not require an inner ‘permission’, but ‘permission’ is required for the bigger breakthroughs which occur maybe once every few years, perhaps once a decade.’

The second, unstated, challenge – in what sense are poets better suited to teach poetry than academics? – goes to the heart of the Creative Writing endeavour. It is easy enough to argue that writers must keep a foot in the marketplace; that their knowledge of what gets published and how is what draws students to courses where established writers form part of the teaching staff. But of course students are drawn to all creative writing courses; there is such demand that it would be more accurate to say that those courses with established writers on them get to reject a better class of applicant.

A further complicating factor is an idea often stated by writers themselves: that poetry, and writing in general, cannot be taught. This would seem to display a certain complacency in terms of what those writers themselves have already been taught, whether by practice – the sheer repetitive act of doing something badly until it gets better – or by the secondary route I followed, of studying literature in order to learn how to write.

There is an echo in this of the way more privileged members of society are apt to regard what they possess as somehow being innate to them. Creativity becomes innate in much the same way as the right of members of a certain class to a commensurate level of education or to property is innate. Those of us who have, because of our different origins, come to look ambivalently on education as simultaneously liberating and restrictive, have greater respect for its powers of transformation.

Let those who wish to learn creativity determine whether it can be acquired or not through practice, instead of leaving the matter to the theories of those who may simply be reluctant to teach it. Or the suspicion will remain that those who are ‘born with it’ coincide on the whole with those who are born with most other things too.

Is everyone potentially creative? Let’s at least try to find out. Scan the creative mind, examine the roots of literary techniques in the mind’s ordinary behaviour. Neuroscientists use diseased brains to posit models for the activities of healthy brains. Why not use creative minds to posit models for creativity? Perhaps artists are actually distinct or disordered, or, more challengingly, perhaps non-creativity is simply a social disease.

To return to the question of why writers rather than academics might have some insights into the teaching of writing, I’d simply argue that what writers teach tends to be based in practice rather than theory, and this is not because writers tend to be less interested in theory. Rather it is the case that practice is fundamental to this particular learning process. The text under consideration differs from texts considered in literature classes, in that it is not fixed. The student has still an ongoing role in relation to the criticism being offered: he or she can simply alter what is being discussed, and so alter all the terms of discussion. The text is fluid: under discussion, it becomes performative.

It’s the dynamic of this relation between student and tutor which means it’s not helpful for the tutor to be a non-writer. How can you advise a student on, say, whether or not to rhyme in any given poem or for any stage in their development unless you know something of the processes which lead toward and away from rhyme, and therefore have some means of assessing where they are in relation to such a process? This also applies to the relationship between any text being generated and previous texts, the latter of which may not have a direct pedagogical function: a study of the sonnet may not inspire another sonnet of any artistic merit, whereas an exercise based on bedrooms we have known may do exactly that.

Essentially a writer does not develop by being told things in seminars or by reading books on how to write, but by engaging in the act of writing, and discussing the product. Writing is an intuitive business, and teaching it is similarly intuitive: you have to know the student as well as the student’s writing; you have to encourage them at the moment they are ready to be encouraged, and push them in the directions they are able to go as well as agree whether these are appropriate directions for their writing. The teacher’s role is a kind of chiropractic of the imagination, based in paying attention and broadening their students’ knowledge and skills at the point when this will make most rather than just any impact on their creativity.

The student’s experience is therefore best defined as learning-through-practice. In this sense an adequate theory for what happens in a creative writing class does not yet exist. I would suggest devising such a theory is the poet’s job, it is where we locate the academy in the poet, and that it must concern itself with defining the strategies we bring to bear on this fluid text. All I can say is that, unusually, Bartleby is willing.

This method of teaching Creative Writing perhaps arose from the compositional methods taught at Scottish universities and exported to American institutions – as Robert Crawford tells us, ‘the eighteenth-century Scottish teaching of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres had been bound up not only with the appreciation of older literature but also with the production of new work…Developments in America often followed that Scottish Belles-Lettres tradition…’. But rather than following his interesting route from Longfellow at Harvard on through Frost via the Iowa method, I’d prefer to backtrack in the direction suggested by Tom Grimes in his anthology of Iowa writers, The Workshop, where he states, ‘This method mandated a return to the study of classical rhetoric, a belief that literary craft could be learned.’

One of the key arguments in Sidney’s Defence of Poetry was that poetry itself was not only something that could be learned, but that it, in itself, was the highest form of teaching:

And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching. For who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? and what so much good doth that teaching bring forth (I speak still of moral doctrine) as that it moveth one to do that which it doth teach? For, as Aristotle saith, it is not gnosis but praxis that must be the fruit. And how praxis can be, without being moved to practise, it is no hard matter to consider.

As Brian Vickers tells us in his introduction to English Renaissance Literary Criticism, this is a brilliant reapplication of the affective triad as Cicero defined it of docere, delectare, movere. By requiring similar skills from tutors, and seeking to inculcate them in its students, Creative Writing is reoccupying an under-used wing of the academy, and, as I suggested earlier, its influence can and perhaps should be felt in other corridors of learning. Those undergraduates who have studied it appear to have a more lively response to the poetry they discuss on literature courses, and the essays in which they discuss it also appear more alive to the possibilities of writing good English. In short, they begin to regard writing as something they can inhabit, and to look on those forms produced by previous writers as not entirely alien constructions.

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