So a day late again, as life intervened, but here it is:
First, this week’s blog is another tale of the Twitter Machine and the joyous cascades of strangeness that happen sometimes. It happened like this: Can*Con co-chair Marie Bilodeau told the world about a curious dream she had about a hastily-organized version of the con, in which one of the features was an absent Brandon Crilly, Han Solo to my Chewbacca in Programming skulduggery.
So obviously I promised to hunt him down.
There was also something in there about me singing, which I feel like the world should know is a bad idea. At this point I noticed that I was like ten followers short of 1,000, and declared that if I got to 1,000, I would produce a poem (perhaps suitable for singing) about the hunt for Brandon Crilly.
1,000 followers was duly reached.
I started work. I have always been fascinated by Early English* poetry, not out of any real academic interest, but just … thinking it’s cool. So (because why take the easy way out and make a haiku) I decided this was a ripe opportunity to explore the form.
With even a modest amount of research, it turns out to have been complicated, or at least, there are stringent rules which (like most rules pertaining to writing) you can only break if you’re doing so deliberately. This should be no surprise – there’s no reason why artistic forms of the past should be any less sophisticated than modern ones – but did result in me immediately having to throw out the first chunk of work I had done and start over.
Somewhere, the shades of bards and skalds chuckled, shook their fists at me, or perhaps both.
Honestly I enjoy trying to teach myself something that is a very ancient form of not just writing but – despite my intense discomfort with the idea – of performance. Because the main point of an Early English poem would be that it was recited out loud to an audience. Very many of them were probably never written down at all, but memorized, taught, and enjoyed entirely orally.
A lot of the rules are clearly tied to that, producing something that will not only sound effective when read out loud, but following a predictable enough format that an audience can follow it in a less-that-acoustically-perfect mead hall or whatever. But it’s still tricky stuff.
It also tickles my fancy that we (and by ‘we’, I mean other people whose work I am benefiting from) have had to reverse engineer these rules from the surviving poetry, because of course there is no ‘Eardwulf’s Poetic Primer’ or similar volume. The craft would have been taught orally also. So historians have done their best, although there’s bickering about some of it.
We do our best. I think a lot about the change from primarily oral culture to primarily written culture, in part because that’s a change that plays out through the medieval period and so I had to grapple with it during my own studies. I think it’s also just fascinating to think about how fundamentally assumptions about how information was preserved and transmitted changed, and how much of a struggle that has been.
Cleverer people than me are probably thinking about what the next one of these will be. I can’t help but think of all the stuff poured out on the Twitter Machine, the very direct impact it has on aspects of society and politics, and how it may be as ephemeral as the instructions Early English bards gave to each other, to later generations.
A sticky puzzle for future scholars, I doubt not.
At any rate, as a gesture of good faith, here is the first stanza of The Hunting of the Crilly.
Can*Con commences // but with Crucial lack
We have not a Crilly // he Wriggled loose like an eel
High in their hall // Hearken the Co-chairs
“Seek swiftly this Crilly // with Speed bring him to heel”
As I said, it’s hard work this, but I hope it will be worth it in the end.
Thanks for reading.
*-n.b. that I am following the lead of an increasing number of scholars by deliberately avoiding the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, which is both anachronistic and has inextricable links to a loathsome white supremacist agenda besides.