systematic deviation

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Untitled Poem

[This is one of several successful assignments that will be posted here. All the posted assignments received an A- or above, and all demonstrate different ways in which the chosen question could have been addressed. The following poem, by Luke MacNeil, is written in the style of Beowulf:]

A Note on the Translation

The following poem, titled Untitled Poem, was discovered within the cell wall of an abandoned sanitarium in Lower Upperton, New Brunswick. The author is unknown, though evidence suggests that the piece was written by a male patient of voting age, most likely a student who was interred at the sanitarium for a length of time. Attempts to date the poem have also met with a measure of difficulty. Most experts agree that the manuscript was written in late September, 2006, though a few notable scholars maintain that it could date back as far as mid-September, 2006.[1]

Rather than being written in Modern English (in the style of the time), Untitled Poem is instead written in a wholly unique script, a derivation of Modern English dubbed "Deviare English." It was deciphered in October 2006 by the Welsh linguist Sir Arthur Puffington, a man of questionable intelligence and sanity, and a professed schizophrenic (an assertion disputed by doctors). The script itself is of particular note. As described by Puffington in his journals, "...the penmanship is meticulous, however the paper is littered with various marks and scribbles, which seem to indicate an unsettled mind. In addition to this, the piece is scratched out on delicate carbon paper, somewhat odd for the time, given the relative abundance of ink and white paper." A portion of the original manuscript has been reproduced and directly follows this note (see page 3).

The following Modern English translation by A. L. MacNeill is generally considered of higher quality than Sir Arthur Puffington's original translation. There are, however, a few points of note. While the original manuscript was written in an alliterative verse based on stresses (a curious structure, more in the style of Old English than any modern poetry), MacNeill has formed his translation into a far more rigid structure, incorporating tetrameter to form a consistent beat and rhythm. Nevertheless, he manages to preserve much of the alliteration and caesura division that characterize the original piece. In addition to this, there is a small portion of the poem (several lines directly preceding the dream sequence) that were rendered unreadable through water damage. This has been noted in the text.

The culmination of two work-intensive days, the MacNeill translation has gained great esteem in literary circles. Indeed, most scholars agree that it will stand to be the definitive version of our time.

[1]See H. L. Puntiglio's paper "A Few Weeks, Does it Really Matter?" for more insight on this debate.

Reproduction of original manuscript page. Note that the poem is scratched out on carbon paper, a rather unconventional medium for poetry at the time.
(Reproduced by permission of the Royal Puffington Society, Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada)

Untitled Poem

Hear now the tale of the student,
Frustration-filled and anger-fed,
His project due yet started not,
The young fellow at loss for words.
For weeks he walked his blank white halls,
And snapped the stalks of pencils slim
That cleave and splint like spines of slight
And fragile beasts; and crushed the
The poles of plastic pens, their blue
Ink fountained, and flood the floor
To soil and stain his sole-spent socks.
A hoard of holes did rent the walls,
And scores of blood-soaked bandages
Did bind his broke and trembling hands.
For days on days he paced those halls
Neglecting sleep, his thoughts silent,
His mind muted, capacity blocked.
His project due on the morrow
Without a word to show for it.
At last he sat at working desk,
Produced a pile of pure white sheets,
And moon-clothed pen, passed down to him
From father old, he who wrested
The silver stalk from claws yet stiff,
Those the family's fiendish banker,
While cold dead corpse lay untended
On top of its full funeral pyre.
The student thus, he settled down,
Did think of those fine writers past,
Of heroes old, long passed away,
Who wrestled might with writer's block.
Sir James the Joyce, of Irish birth,
A scribe of scarce but seven words
(Just seven words!) in but a day,
Those words well wrought from weighted mind;
He wrote the words on paper fair,
And copied there, confusion cried
For their order did him escape.
And then he thought of Henry Roth,
Whose pen was plagued with sixty years
Of quiet calm; call it sleep,
In a manner, of his lame brain -
Other organs were more awake,
And filled with flights of foul incest;
His pent-up pen which stayed his page
Discharged (its said) by dullard sis,
And ill-bred ink which once ran dry
Unloosed unto his willing cos;
And woe it was, his body well,
But mind maligned by selfsame act.
And then he thought of villain famed,
Mad Jack Torrance, whose old hotel
O'erlooked a leering length of maze
As twisted as his tortured brain;
When his writing had lost its way
He tried to tame his wife and son,
With winking edge of well-stoned axe;
He would not write in lieu of that,
And blamed them both for such his state;
For too much work and not much play
Made mad Jack Torrance a dull (brained) boy.
And thus he thought, the student still,
Of people past who've suffered same,
Until he fell beneath the spell
Of deep deceived and drowsy sleep.
The pictures played across his mind.
He dreamt himself a whitened sheep
With hollowed head, held in a pen,
His body bent upon a trough.
He chewed and spat and chewed again
His projects past, the papers mashed.
In time he tired of tripe-filled sup;
He gained some ground and hopped the fence,
And found his form in land of night,
Where star-strewn sky ruled over sun.
In dim-lit dales he saw the forms
Of suffering souls, like Sisyphus,
Rolling their rocks up rambling hills,
To have them roll back down again;
And faint-lit forms for freedom reached,
They clinched by chains to mountain tops
Where monkeys met with caps and wings
Did stab and slash with red-inked pens.
The sheep then saw a skull-capped sign,
Its arrow aiming down gold-bricked road.
For time on time, the sheep traveled
Until it came upon a field.
The fractured form of critic there
Did till the field with pole of wood,
She bent and browned with years of age
And wrapped in rags of words and text,
Her dress designed from sheaves of books.
Not crop of corn nor leaf of green
Did critic cull, but she instead
Grew crops of brain, round mounds of meat,
They fleshed and formed by craggy hand.
And all about the mind-full field
Some scarecrows sat, to scare the birds,
Their cratered crowns bereft of brain,
And filled instead with heaps of hair.
"Ho there," hollered the critic hag.
"A finer fleece I've never seen."
"I'd sell the stuff," (so said the sheep)
"But for a brain, as such you've sown."
"It's done,"she said, the deal declared.
The critic culled a ripened brain
From darkened deepness of the dirt,
And showed the sheep into her home,
And there the trade would consummate.
She strapped the sheep on stony slab
And split the skull with scalpel blade;
Then fixed the flesh into the head
And sewed the skull, now stitched and scarred.
She spun some gears and turned some cranks,
And sent the slab into the sky
Where lightning lived and lit the night;
Bold bolts caressed the bright device
'Till jagged jolt did strike the sheep
And leapt to life the planted brain.
And so the slab, its service done,
Did then descend back to the floor,
And then 'twas time for sheep to fill
Its end agreed to bargain full.
And so the sheep was shorn its wool,
But garish gleam did gilt the eyes
Of critic lean; she leched and leered
And drew from drawer a carving knife,
Then nicked the nose of naked sheep,
And put the piece into her mouth.
"Your wool is well," the critic said,
"But mounds of meat would fill my frame.
I'll cook you yet, and feast my fill."
From place to place the sheep did dart,
And critic chased, her knife o'erhead.
The house outgrown, outside they ran,
Where spark-filled sheep, still yet aglow
From lightning bolt, did light the night;
Jumped back and forth o'er garden fence.
The critic chased, did count the jumps;
Her eyelids fell with every leap
Till down she dropped, a dam asleep.
And sure the sheep did bound away,
With not its nose, nor still its wool,
Yet bountied brain made up the rest.
The student thus did wake from sleep,
His languid limbs yet still a-tingle,
And found his mind to be unblocked,
His project pent lay all exposed
To freshened frames of now-clear mind.
And so in such a schizoid twist
That thus recalls poor Philips Dick,
The student makes his laboured verse
An essay on it's own creation.
Do students dream of 'lectric sheep,
And wake to find their problems solved?
It seems that such was here the case.

[1]At this point in the text are four lines which are not readable.

Similarities of Untitled Poem to Beowulf

Over the past several years, the epic Old English poem Beowulf has gained an increasingly larger distinction in our culture, its influence seen in everything from film to comic books. Nowhere is this influence more evident than in Untitled Poem, the subject of this project. Nearly every aspect of the poem, from its grammatical structure, to its lengthy digressions on mythic heroes of old, to its epic storytelling, has been clearly influenced by the literature of Old English, and its greatest debt is unquestionably owed to Beowulf.

The most curious influence of Beowulf on Untitled Poem can be found in its literary structure. Beowulf was written in an alliterative verse with four stresses per line, two stresses on each side of a dividing caesura. Where Untitled Poem has a more modern rigid structure (in this case composed in tetrameter), most of the other Beowulf features are present. Nearly every line has four stresses, divided in the middle by a distinguishable caesura. Alliteration has been used throughout the piece, generally following the style of Beowulf (with the alliteration on the first and second stresses, and the third and fourth where possible). In addition to this, the poem mimics Beowulf's sporadic use of kenning - hybrid words that are usually metaphoric in nature. Examples include "sole-spent"(used to describe the worn bottoms of the protagonist's socks) and "moon-clothed" (used to describe the silver coating on a pen). With all of these distinct grammatical features being relatively rare in modern poetry, it's fair to say that the poem has been influenced by Beowulf in most, if not all, of these aspects.

Grammatical similarities aside, more obvious comparisons can be seen in the content of the text itself. Just as the Beowulf poem contains numerous historical references and digressions, so too does Untitled Poem refer to its own "heroes of the past," figures who have faced a struggle comparable to that of the protagonist (in this case writer's block). Many of the references in Beowulf are somewhat vague and obscure (this is perhaps owing to the fact that people of the time were already somewhat familiar with the referenced stories, and did not need expansive digressions). This is mirrored in Untitled Poem, where only brief but suggestive explanations are given. The first "hero" mentioned is the Irish author James Joyce, who was notoriously finicky when it came to writing. A well-known anecdote is relayed in the poem, in which Joyce spends an entire day labouring over the writing and ordering of seven words.[1]

Following Joyce, there is a mention of American author Henry Roth. After writing his first novel, titled Call of Sleep (obliquely referred to in the line: "call it sleep, / In a manner, of his lame brain" ), Roth sustained a bout of writer's block that lasted for nearly sixty years. This is attributed (at least in part) to his admitted incestuous relationships with his sister and cousin (and the subsequent mental fallout that followed). The third reference in the poem moves away from the real-life literary "heroes" presented in the previous examples, and instead presents a fictional villain: Jack Torrance, the antagonist of Stephen King's novel The Shining. In the novel, Jack's struggle with writer's block is the catalyst for his descent into madness (a catalyst that is exploited by the novel's haunted Overlook hotel - the hotel itself is given an oblique reference in the line "whose old hotel / O'erlooked a leering length of maze / As twisted as his [Jack's] tortured brain). Finally, there is an obscure reference to author Philip K Dick in the poem's final lines. Dick spent much of his life battling mental illness, most notably schizophrenia. As a result of this, most of his novels and short stories deal with themes of alternate realities (including one of his more widely-read novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, which is also referenced in the poem's closing lines). Dick's themes have a twofold application in the poem. First of all, the writer enters an alternate reality (in this case a dream world) where, after a series of bizarre occurrences, he manages to solve his problem. The other influence can be seen in the fact that the project being laboured over in the poem is, in fact, the very poem itself (a meta-construct not unfamiliar to several works of literature, one of the best examples being Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle).

Yet for all of this, the poem's most obvious similarity to Beowulf is its theme of a hero undergoing a journey and overcoming an epic obstacle. In this case, the struggle is a more modern one than Beowulf faced (and one that was a non-issue in Beowulf's time): writer's block. The student's internal struggle is evident from the beginning (he stalks the halls, destroys writing utensils, rends holes in the wall, etc.). His quest to solve this problem is embarked upon once he enters the dream realm, where he overcomes various obstacles to regain his brain (thereby solving his writer's block). Yet rather than modeling the quest specifically on ancient mythological themes and subjects (swords, dragons, etc.), much of the dream is taken from relatively recent sources that have entered into our modern mythology: elements from L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz (flying monkeys, the yellow brick road) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (various elements of body-horror) can be clearly seen in the protagonist's dream.

Despite these similarities, there are still a few points in which Untitled Poem differs from Beowulf. For instance, Beowulf's journey is a far more epic one, where he must overcome three obstacles instead of just one (the "rule of three," where the protagonist must overcome three obstacles, is a staple of literature, and one not evident in Untitled Poem). Also, Untitled Poem is treated with a far lighter and more comedic hand than was the epic Beowulf. Nevertheless, it's debt to Beowulf, whether looking at style, composition, or content, cannot be denied. The poem presents a credible example of a modern subject intentionally written in the classic Old English Beowulf style.

[1]There are several slightly different versions of the tale, though they typically go like this:
One day Joyce sat in his study, sprawled over his desk in a distraught state. A friend came in and asked what the matter was.
"I only wrote seven words today," said Joyce.
"But James," said the friend, "For you, seven words is superb!"
"Yes," said Joyce, cradling his head in his hands, "But I don't know what order they go in!"

Works Cited

Black, Joseph, ed. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Medieval Period. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press. 2006. 36-37.

"Henry Roth." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 30 September 2006. 1 October 2006.

Jones, Miriam. Class Lectures. Saint John Campus, University of New Brunswick, Saint John, NB, 14/19/21 September 2006

"Rule of Three." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 10 Septemeber 2006. 1 October 2006.