I don’t often write poetry these days. I did as an adolescent, and during two periods in my adult life when I was prey to overwhelming and conflicting emotions. At times like that, the emotional dimension changes the whole structure of my experience, and linear prose seems woefully inadequate to describe what I want to express.
I am also painter, and there is a similar phenomenon in the visual arts I produce. During periods of emotional stability, I paint what someone categorized as “creative non-fiction” — landscapes that highlight what I choose as the object of focus, but without extensive manipulation. During periods of emotional upheaval, I paint elaborate, seemingly chaotic, surrealistic pieces, full of metaphor and unexpected connections. This takes the two-dimensional space, upon which I am skilled at creating the illusion of a third dimension, and adds a time element by linking it metaphorically with other works of art.
For the past seven months I have been studying Old English, the language spoken in Britain between 500 and 1066 AD, the language of Beowulf. This involves, among other things, trying to decipher and understand poetry in a language structurally very different from modern English, from a very different culture, intended to be delivered orally and for the most part transmitted orally. In other words, pretty much all of the assumptions are different.
I had as my stated goal becoming proficient enough in Old English that I could write passable texts in the language for the Society for Creative Anachronism. I’m not there yet. Yesterday I found myself wanting to write a piece synthesizing a cluster of observations that are related in my mind, and which are a source of personal inspiration. I have tried, and failed, to digest them into a piece of linear English prose that convinces anyone. I imagined myself expressing them in Old English poetry, to a person living in 1000 AD, and fancied (although this is probably wishful thinking) that he would have a better grasp of my message than a modern academic audience.
My central idea involves a resonance between the years 535, 1315 and 1815 created by stupendous volcanic eruptions that cause abrupt global cooling, massive mortality and disruption of human activity, followed, after a significant time lag, by reorganization according to new principles. I wanted to look at the pattern, and its ramifications, from the perspectives of 535, 1315, 1815 and 2015.
The complexity of this framework defies linear organization. Trying to fit an exposition into an academic mold would result in a tome of unwieldy proportions, unlikely to be consulted, whose interrelated pieces were too far removed from each other to interact in the mind of the reader. To some extent that difficulty can be overcome by having the piece in electronic format and using a search engine, but search engines are extremely literal and fail to uncover metaphors. When I use a search engine, I only find what I am looking for. When I allow my human brain to range over the same texts, I see things I wasn’t looking for, some potentially of great significance.
I resorted to poetry. I took as my point of entry the Old English poem Deor in which a bard who has lost his place relates a series of historical and mythical reversals of fortune, with the refrain Þæs ofereode,þisses swa mæg (That passed, this may well also). Using this refrain for each of the stanzas of my poem established a connection to the sentiment, not only as it might be construed in 2015, but also as it might have been construed circa 1000 AD. Repetition of words, imagery, meter, rhyme and alliteration creates resonance between the stanzas, integrating the hole, and also resonance with other pieces of poetry known to the listener or reader.
The other two literary/artistic pieces I specifically incorporated were the mosaics in San Vitale in Ravenna, in process in 535 AD , and Dante’s Paradiso, written around 1315 in Ravenna. I interpret Canto XXVII to contain a description of the atmospheric effects accompanying the 1315 eruption.
The final stanza of my poem came as a complete surprise to me — I had planned to end the poem with
What poet now
In some virtual Ravenna
Or Florence by the Western sea
Gazing skyward, prophesies
Famine, war, pestilence
Another cycle grinding painfully
To new beginnings? 2015
Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg!
But that became the penultimate verse, and rather than leaving the image of impeding doom as the capstone, I added an image from near-death experiences and made the poem more hopeful, if not for this world, for the next.
There is no man, who having tasted death
Does not know Heaven.
Why then do we cower under darkened skies?
Þæs ofereode,þisses swa mæg!
Did the unconventional creative process generate this result, or did it somehow come from outside? Ultimately, does it matter?
Image #1: The Good Shepherd, mosaic in Mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna. Wikipedia. Public domain.
Image #2: Original Celtic-style painting, by Martha Sherwood, 1982. All rights reserved.