Every language has different registers of diction, but the English language comes by those registers in a particular way, one that reflects the entire history of the language. Unlike the romance languages, which were derived from the Latin spread throughout Italy, France, and Spain during the Roman Empire, English descended independently from German. Old English, the language of the eighth- or ninth-century poem we call “The Seafarer,” now looks and sounds to us like a foreign language, close to the German from which it was derived: with some study, one can see that the Old English line “bitre breostcaere gebiden hæbbe” means “bitter breast-cares abided have” or “I have abided bitter breast-cares.” The language of Chaucer’s fifteenth-century Canterbury Tales, or what we call Middle English, feels less strange, in part because its sense now relies largely on word order rather than on word endings: “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” or “then people long to go on pilgrimages.” And the Modern English of the Renaissance we can read easily, because it is the language we speak today, even though the language has continued to evolve: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”
How Poems Think, by Reginald Gibbons. University of Chicago Press.
“Do poems think? Big question, one that has nagged people at least since Plato was grumbling about the dangerously loose thinking of poets in contrast to the rigor of philosophers. “There’s an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” he said in the Republic — but what exactly that quarrel was is moot — not least because Plato’s use of dramatic dialogue to make his case was itself poetical.”
… [As] Pound puts it in “How to Read,” “English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translation, every allegedly great age is an age of translation.” Maybe our afﬁnity for translation has to do with the fact that reading English is already a matter of translating, internally, between its Anglo-Saxon and Latinate elements. To appreciate Shakespeare, in particular, requires this sort of quasi-bilingualism: “No; this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red,” says Lady Macbeth, and the contrast between “incarnadine” and “red” brings home the disparity between the rhetoric of blood and its reality.
This work is an arabesque stroll through the gardens, orchards, wild growths, shores, and splendid ruins of the English language. It’s a love letter to the history of poetry in our language — a love letter apparently lost in transit, its contents recited by heart to anyone willing to listen by someone who had found it and, not knowing its destination, still felt moved to sing of the joy found in those pages.
Of course, we learn as children that these types of transmissions lose things in transit: “love” may become “live”; “blew” may become “blue”; or, as in the case of Mlinko’s poem “Bayt,” “ana” as the Anglo-Saxon word for “alone” can become the Arabic word for “I”: “But ana [“alone”/“I”] do not grieve”; “And ana [“alone”/“I”] have drawn / the wilderness around me,” etc.
“Bayt” braids the two aforementioned traditions — the Anglo-Saxon and the Arabic — via subject and form. The poem evokes in its three subtitled sections the pre-Islamic era poets Abu Aqil Labīd ibn Rabī’ah (or simply “Labīd,” whose work has been preserved in the Mu’allaqat) and al-Shanfara. Meanwhile, each line carries a heavy visual split in it, representing the distich-making effect caused by alliteration in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Add to this that the poem is peppered with Anglo-Saxon words and you end up with moments such as:
“On leftovers ana breakfast like the spleenish wulf the wéstenes chase.
He sets out hungry, nose in the wind, up the wulfhleoþu.”
There is a glossary at the conclusion of the poem to glean the words in italics: “ana” has been mentioned above, “wulf” means “wolf,” “wéstenes” is said to be the plural of “desert” or another highly-loaded word in the history of poetry in English, “wasteland.” It hardly needs saying that this is an entirely different poem without the glossary at the end of it; or that some of the definitions offered should be taken with a grain of salt — like the aforementioned “wasteland.” All of this is a part of poetry’s play, as is the pastiche of forms and cultures and the formal signifying.
In short, provided you love how poems can sound and have a simultaneous abiding interest in the history of the lyric you’ll likely have a sense of what Mlinko is up to, which is nothing short of searching for a cup capacious enough to hold as much poetry in a given moment as it can. It is my hope that all readers of poetry are interested in how poems can sound and in the history of the lyric. Mlinko is seeking to meet us there, although very much on her own terms.
The event has passed now, but a project to keep an eye on for publications etc!
Source: Events | The Past in its Place