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Monday, July 9, 2012

Poetry Plunge - Caedmon's Hymn

Fortunately, we still have one really good bookstore left here in Santa Barbara -- Chaucer's. However, even though it survived the Borders / Barnes & Noble invasion, I'm surprisingly bummed those big box stores didn't make it. Because in my mind, there can never be enough bookstores.

One of my favorite things to do is to aimlessly wander through a bookstore and just browse. I have found many great reads this way over three decades, and there is no way to duplicate that experience online.

So when Borders was closing, I went in one day to scoop up as many deals as I felt I could responsibly afford, and to soak in one last browsing experience there. (And let's be honest, they were offering 70% discounts. I love a bargain.)

As I wandered through the literature section, I landed on an absolute brick of a book: The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Fourth Edition. It's 2 1/4" thick. Immediately, I had a wave of English major memories wash over me... the "Bibles" of English majors are the Norton Anthologies. In fact, I still have my "Nortons" of English Literature, Volumes 1 & 2 from college, tattered, highlighted and full of underlines. 

But funny thing, I never had a Norton Anthology of Poetry. Sure, I took the basic English major survey courses, and did my best to plow through Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, and read every play of Shakespeare. I found a poem here and there that I liked -- but really, I think I mostly liked them because I, um, understood them. Sadly, the majority of poems assigned to me went unread.

Because poetry for me is like modern art; I don't really understand what all the fuss is about. I'd much rather read a hearty biography, or something by C.S. Lewis. My favorites in college were novels written by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, James, Dreiser, and of course, Austen. Most poetry leaves me boggled. I'll read a poem now and again and feel quite confidently that a lot of deep, intense things are being said, and that I am not getting any of it. It feels like it's all written in code. But I'm not stupid. The entire process is very humiliating, and I basically avoid it whenever possible.

Yet when I stood in the literature section of the dying Borders that day, something in me drew me toward the honkingly huge poetry book. It might sound crazy, but I feel like I heard this teeny weeny little voice say, Kelly, it's time. Get over it. You're missing out, BIG TIME.

So here I am. I bought that book a year and a half ago, and it's practically been a doorstop, shaming me as it sits, shiny and new and unread. This weekend, I finally cracked open the cover and tiptoed in.

So far, so good. I think this will take me a VERY long time to work through it. But I'm not trying to get a grade, right? I have nothing to prove. I simply want to learn.

After reading through a rather dense introduction on "versification" (nope, not intimidating... OK, I'm lying) I read the first poem: Caedmon's Hymn, which is described as "probably the earliest extant Old English poem, composed sometime between 668 and 680."

After the first perusal, I had that familiar oh-no-what-was-I-thinking feeling. But I pushed through it, and read those handy little notes that are part of the Norton Anthologies. These were SUPER helpful. I read the poem again and... I was blown away. It was gorgeous. But it was so lovely for the same reason I love all good writing -- when I learn about the author and the backstory, I am won over. In other words, when I get some of the context, I see how the art emerged, and it becomes real to me. The story of Caedmon is utterly winsome: a lowly, illiterate herdsman employed by a monastery has a miraculous religious vision and receives the gift of song. (Follow the links I've given -- it's a good story.)

I'd give anything to know the melody that went with this early worship song. And repeating any of the lines from it won't do the poem justice. But there are a couple of phrases that are enchanting:
We must praise the heaven-kingdom's Guardian... and his mind-plans
He first created for men's sons, heaven as a roof...
I love these somewhat clunky but awe-inspiring images. And as I read the notes I see that the "poetry" is more obvious in the original Middle English, where lines start with the same sounds, creating an alliterative rhythm, thus fulfilling the opening lines of the Norton introduction:
A poem is a composition written for performance by the human voice... What a poem says or means is the result of how it is said, a fact that poets are often at pains to emphasize.
Whew. I still have a LOT to learn. But I am very intrigued.


  1. Hi Kelly! I actually found your blog because of a post a while back you did on masa harina, but saw your "poetry plunge" and wanted to cheer you on! I also wanted to make a suggestion: have you heard of Helen Vendler? She's a poetry professor at Harvard and has been called the most famous reader of poetry in the world, for good reason; she has a book called Poems Poets Poetry that changed my life when I read it as a sophomore in college. That book, so simple but so eye-opening, made me realize what the big deal was about poetry. It was a door into a whole other world. I highly recommend it as a companion for you as you work your way through the Norton-- I've taught with it many times, most recently this past fall, and it's always an adventure to see people's understanding and excitement about poetry grow by leaps and bounds when they start to work through it. all my best!