Lori's Book Nook

To read aloud…

Posted on: December 17, 2006

This bit of Anglo-Saxon pleasure from Earle Birney needs to be read aloud. Some background on Old English Poetry:

Old English poetry was very formulaic, with the same patterns being re-used with variations time and again. Additionally, alliteration and stress were used in the place of rhyme, which can sound strange but powerful to the modern ear. Another striking feature of Old English poetry was the use of many metaphors or kennings for common subjects: The sea could be referred to as the ‘whale’s way’, ‘gannet’s bath’, ‘swan’s riding’ and so on.

Or, as the great Seamus Heaney points out when he writes about his task of translating Beowulf:

I had noticed, for example, that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem in my first book conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables – ‘The spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father digging. I look down…’ – and in the case of the second line there was alliteration linking ‘digging’ and ‘down’ across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.

Wow…a lot of ‘ado’ before I get to the poem for today.

Canadian poet, Earle Birney (1904-1995), probably best known for his long poem, David (I wish there was a link!) — read in many a classroom! One of my favourites is Anglosaxon Street

A memorable poem, with the rhythms of Old English, some brilliant images, and, yes, some rather strong (ooo, controversy!) language. Here it is:

Anglosaxon Street
by Earle Birney

Dawndrizzle ended   dampness steams from
blotching brick and   blank plasterwaste
Faded housepatterns hoary and finicky
unfold stuttering   stick like a phonograph

Here is a ghetto   gotten for goyim
O with care denuded   of nigger and kike
No coonsmell rankles   reeks only cellarrot
attar of carexhaust   catcorpse and cookinggrease
Imperial hearts   heave in this haven
Cracks across windows   are welded with slogans
There’ll Always Be An England   enhances geraniums
and V’s for Victory   vanquish the housefly

Ho! with climbing sun   march the bleached beldames
festooned with shopping bags   farded flatarched
bigthewed Saxonwives   stepping over buttrivers
waddling back wienerladen   to suckle smallfry

Hoy! with sunslope   shrieking over hydrants
flood from learninghall   the lean fingerlings
Nordic nobblecheeked   not all clean of nose
leaping Commandowise   into leprous lanes

What! after whistleblow   spewed from wheelboat
after daylong doughtiness   dire handplay
in sewertrench or sandpit   come Saxonthegns
Junebrown Jutekings   jawslack for meat

Sit after supper   on smeared doorsteps
not humbly swearing   hatedeeds on Huns
profiteers politicians   pacifists Jews

Then by twobit magic   to muse in movie
unlock picturehoard   or lope to alehall
soaking bleakly   in beer skittleless

Home again to hotbox   and humid husbandhood
in slumbertrough adding   sleepily to Anglekin
Alongside in lanenooks   carling and leman
caterwaul and clip   careless of Saxonry
with moonglow and haste   and a higher heartbeat

Slumbers now slumtrack   unstinks cooling
waiting brief for milkmaid   mornstar and worldrise

Toronto 1942


17 Responses to "To read aloud…"

I recognise the Anglo-Saxon roots of this poem, emphasised by its transferrence of middle and old English nouns into a modern setting. What I did not expect was the Haiku-ish feel to it all.

How can you resist lines like: “not all clean of nose” or neologisms like “attar of carexhaust”?

They are wonderful – the eyecaught at firstsight “Junebrown Jutekings jawslack for meat”.
It still feels of Japlishhaiku multivisualed wordconstructs

Mockingnot, unlearning modernspeak.

Seriously, it is an interesting exersize in adaptation. Using Olde English constructs with modern concepts.

It’s a mighty thick wordstew, even for a poem…

There is an interesting linguistic side to all this word play.
From what I know of the German language, it creates compound words along the lines of “Jawslack” and “carexhaust”. This appears in old English and even in Chaucer (1400’s).Is thisw a sign that the saxons had left their mark even after the Norman invasion? A matter for some research when I get back to civilisation and bookroomcloseness.

The Saxons left their mark, definitely. English still has enormous numbers of Germanic words — Heaney wrote his Beowulf translation using only that pool of vocabulary. We’ve lifted and altered vocab through the generations, but it’s still all there — which is why we have so many synonyms. [Un-law-ful and il-leg-al being one of my favourite examples of morphologically identical words from different roots.]

Another of my fave examples from a long-ago class (if you get me going on language & linguistics over pints, you’ll get this diagrammed on a napkin): the Indo-European re-construct *bhler came to the Germanic languages as Blumen or bloom, to early Latin as flor or floralis…which we then borrowed (floral). Over time, the Latin mutated to Early French, where the word became flour (and Modern French, fleur), which we again borrowed for flower and flour.

So, while we borrowed extensively from the Latinate languages (through the 1066 Norman invasion & various academic purposes), there’s still lots of the early Germanic in English to make these compounds strangely homey…

Uh Oh – you just mentioned the dreaded word “Indo-European”. I am having to study up on that because it is one of the supports of my theory of the historicality (horrible word, I know – I love “horrible” words) of Myth.

Well, not so much study the IE language but attempt to find what credible work hasbeen/isbeing done on “ProtoIE” (I’m not convinced by the Italians). The conventional history of IE has it going back to a pastoral/agricultural base. I believe it should be traceable back to a “bottleneck” group near the end of the last Ice Age. The whereabouts of that group should be identifiable from the objects described by those words. Aggghhhhhhh – sorry – I’m going on again, ain’t I.

Oh, don’t worry. I like talking about language…I find IE a tidy idea, and then there are people who go deeper — to a proto-world language.

I just read an Orson Scott Card that played with the origins of fairy tales, growth of language, etc. called “Enchantment” — very good book. (of course! it’s one of his!)

What is interesting about the theories of IE are how the theories of its origin vary with the geographical location of the researcher. Europeans postulate a Europe-wide origin, Indian researchers postulate an Indian origin with Sanskrit being an original offshoot and language groups to the south of Sanskrit showing evidence of also being IE. It is all very confusing for an extremely ancient amateur dilettante.

Oops, and i am heading to Ebay to find “Enchantment”

[…] I written about Heaney before now? I know I’ve mentioned him, but I’ve yet to devote a whole post to the […]

What is the theme to Anglosaxon Street?? or any figurative devices used to bring out the theme and how?? It’s really confusing with all the old english and weird words.

The theme? Is this a question for school? I haven’t thought of poetry themes in a hell of a long time!

Working class drudgery? That’s my short answer. He goes through the look and feel of the streets, then talks about the working men, the struggling wives, the reeking children, then the general course of the evening…all the while, using the most, uh, colourful images of lower class stereotypes.

The words aren’t necessarily weird, just packed together. ‘carexhaust’ looks alien, but he’s just jammed the two words together to make a Germanic combination, reflecting a bit of what we’ve lost in the transition from Anglo-saxon to English, that the Germans retained.

But don’t quote me on this. And I mean that, if you just cut and paste what I’ve written to a school paper — one, your teacher will think you’re a nut, and two, you’ll learn nothing about how to think about poetry (or any writing for that matter). Use your gut — what do you think/feel it means? That answer, if you can back it up with an example or two, is the correct one. 🙂

[…] …. or the rich neologisms of Earle Birney (see AngloSaxon Street in this post). […]

“David” by Earle Birney is now available on line.
It is part of the University of Toronto’s Representative Poetry collection.

Nice! Thanks Francois — one of my favourite poems!

[…] was just brought to my attention that the famous truly Canadian poem David by Earle Birney is now […]

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