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Exchanging Words and its Motivation


Jacob Riyeff, University of Notre Dame


On the evening of March 21st, 2013, poet Greg Delanty and several medievalists from the University of Notre Dame presented "Exchanging Words: Renewing Old English Poetry," a reading of Old English poems and their Modern English verse translations. The idea for the event began to take shape as I read Basil Bunting's Newcastle lectures last summer. Though I still have reservations about Bunting's notion that English poetry through the ages has particular affinities to the "four thumps" of Old English verse, I was convinced anew of the value of Old English poetry's sound, its music, for contemporary poetry—if not as primordial referent and source, at least as rich counterpoint to modern prosodic practices. Though in my own academic work I am generally of a historicist bent, Bunting's enthusiasm for Old English form reminded me of the enthusiasm I had for the music of Old English poetry long before I began my graduate career. During my years at Notre Dame (where I am currently doing my PhD work) I have often been an instigator of reading Old English poetry aloud in groups, but Bunting got me thinking bigger.

And thinking bigger led me to consider that, as students of a corpus that is difficult for the general public to access to say the least, part of our role in addition to the scholarship we produce should also be to broaden and increase the audience for Old English poetry within our larger culture. This is in part simply the desire of a humanist and lover of poetry, but it is also intended as a constructive reaction to the often-marginalized position of Old English studies as a subdiscipline. If we do not work to make the Old English corpus more accessible and available, to provide opportunities for it to interact with the contemporary world, we have only ourselves to blame when others, even within our own departments, are unfamiliar with what we do.

This rumination led me to the idea for a public reading of Old English poetry, and I wanted to do my best to attract an audience beyond other Anglo-Saxonists and later medievalists. Thankfully, my increased attention to contemporary (re)presentations of Old English poetry led me to Greg Delanty's and Michael Matto's collection of modern verse translations, The Word Exchange: Translating Anglo-Saxon Poetry (W.W. Norton, 2011). The Delanty-Matto volume, for those who are not familiar with it already, brings together over seventy contemporary poets for the purpose of making translations of Old English poems that can stand as "poems in themselves" (xvi). What so excited me about the project was 1) that so many contemporary poets signed on to experiment with Old English, 2) that many of the translations are actually quite good as Modern English poems, and 3) that the volume is facing-page, allowing for a renewal through translation that simultaneously allows the presence of the original. The book, with its lineup of well-known contemporary poets, appeared to offer a means for attracting a more diverse audience to my own Old English poetry event.

I decided that a first step in attracting a broader and larger audience for Old English poetry would be to invite Greg Delanty to campus to offer a brief talk on The Word Exchange as poet and editor, and to give a reading of the Modern English translations. Delanty and Matto had presented talks on and readings of the material several times before both in academic and public settings, and it seemed reasonable to draw on the success they had already achieved even as I shifted the performance more toward the original poems. But equally essential to my plan for the event was the reading of the original poems by those students and faculty who have devoted so much of their time to the study of these texts.

Greg agreed to my request, and we presented "Exchanging Words: Renewing Old English Poetry" at the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore here on campus. In addition to Greg's talk and readings, eight Notre Dame medievalists (including Dr. Chris Abram, who offered a brilliant performance of "The Riming Poem") read out the unique stress patterns, alliteration, and cadences of Old English verse to an audience of over sixty-five people. Beyond the reading itself, other opportunities to discuss Old English poetry beyond the class room and across specialties were built into the day. Greg visited Dr. Abram's "Translating Anglo-Saxon Poetry" class to discuss the process of translating Old English into modern verse, a class which itself consisted of a pleasantly surprising range of non-specialists. And we kept him busy having meals and coffee with students and faculty from several departments and period specializations.

Video of the performance is available at http://youtu.be/qFTMSvdVcG8. Greg led the evening with his characteristic light-heartedness and Corkman charm, and those of us who read the Old English enjoyed sharing the texts we study in a less casual setting. And most importantly, the goal, to read Old English poetry in public to an audience comprised largely of people who are not medievalists, was accomplished. Through advertising on campus and in town; through newspapers, listserves, and posters; and through word of mouth, we attracted faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students from various disciplines and periods of specialization as well as a number of people with no official affiliation with academia. The fact that we held the reading in Notre Dame's bookstore also allowed greater access to the wider community, as people passed by on their shopping trips wondering what on earth was going on. (One passerby asked simply "Is that Danish?"—a pretty good ear really.)

Though our work is primarily concerned with advancing the discipline and with teaching our students, and rightly so, that Thursday night we brought knowledge of Old English to a much broader community for over an hour. The solidarity of an internationally-recognized and astute poet with a band of (mostly) nascent scholars of a dead language, presenting to an audience almost completely made up of non-specialists, was to my mind a solid witness to how engaging, interesting, and plain fun those of us who have given the time to specialized study of this language and its verse can make Old English poetry for others. As we move forward with plans for subsequent years' events, the format and other features will surely evolve. But the goal of broadening and increasing the audience for the poetry we find so fascinating will remain. It is my hope that the success of our first effort will encourage others enamored with Old English poetry to experiment with similar endeavors in order to continue bringing the corpus to those outside of its professional study.