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Ancient Tongues and Hybrid Texts


Ahead of his upcoming course in Bristol, Rowan Evans writes about the intricate link between ancient languages and experimental poetry.


Language started shaking
ok the day started shaking
ok words are a matter of shaking

– Caroline Bergvall, Drift (Nightboat Books, 2014).


This Autumn I begin practice-based PhD research at Royal Holloway, exploring how late modernist and experimental poetry encounters the ancient languages and dialects of the British Isles. Innovative poetics creates openings in which strange encounters with ancient language can take place, encounters which in turn bring important dimensions of otherness to how we think about our place in the world. As an artist and researcher, I am drawn to ‘hybridity’ as a suggestive and provocative term: writing between languages and across centuries, or interacting with the nonhuman to construct radically combinative ways of thinking, writing and performing.

In this Poetry School course we will be thinking about what hybridity could mean in our own writing – how we can take on the words, signs and sounds of others (human or otherwise) to write beyond ourselves and our immediate experiences. Translation is a practice that, by its nature, primes us for empathy, collaborative thinking and a valuable sense of estrangement. The joy of working with older and parent forms of English is that they expose these qualities of multiplicity and double-meaning as being already present in our everyday language, while quickly dispensing with crude notions of singular national identity as sheer fiction. Recognizing the truant activities of Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, the several branches of Celtic and Latinate tongues within ‘English’ literature will affect how we think about the history of places and the speaking bodies that pass through them. Language is always turbulent, provisional, unstable.

We will look at a rich array of ancient and early medieval poetry and literature, from texts written between the early centuries and the 1400s. This may include the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book; the Old Norse Poetic Edda; the Middle English poems of the Gawain/Pearl-poet and extracts from Irish mythic cycles and Welsh prophetic verse. At the same time we will look at post-war and contemporary poets, writers, artists and performance makers who have drawn directly on these sources in their work. As we read and respond, I will be encouraging us to write poetry that doesn’t simply adapt ideas or narratives, but engages directly with the texts through quotation, translation, re-purposing and other experimental methods. You don’t have to be fluent in medieval languages to enjoy this process. In fact, a position of unknowing and curiosity is perhaps the most exciting place from which to approach writing poetry; it is often the breaks or lacunae in our knowledge that allow space for our most inventive and unexpected thinking. ‘Þvi at ovist er at vita / unknowing is to know’. There will be an opportunity, too, for you to find and individually research poems and texts that draw your attention, and to use these as the basis for creative work in and out of the classroom.

In my own practice as a sound artist, performer and artistic co-director of the performance company Fen, I am motivated by how experimentation on the page can lead to work made for an audience. Part of this course will encourage us to get texts on their feet, to see what happens when we combine our words as a group or write poems to be spoken by people other than ourselves. As in many cultures, there exists in Old English and Old Norse verse (in forms such as galdralag or ‘spell metre’) a formal poetics of ritual and incantation, where speaking lines aloud lends them greater communal power or significance. This has dramatic implications when mapped onto contemporary methods for sounding and speaking poetry, and the potential for combining words with other artforms.

Ancient tongues are far from outdated. Inheriting the neologisms and etymological play of James Joyce, David Jones, Bill Griffiths and others, there is a swathe of contemporary poetries taking the legacy of medieval verse and late modernism as a positive point of departure. Poets and artists like Caroline Bergvall, Anne Carson, Jos Charles and Mendoza continue to use the transgressive and generative powers of verbal archaeology to write about female and queer embodiment, about contemporary trans experience and forms of political resistance. And in the field of eco-poetics and performance, artists like Hannah Tuulikki and Elizabeth Bletsoe use historically-driven language to radically re-encounter animal species, within a dense ecology of regional dialect and folk memory. These are a few of the waymarks we will touch upon … ‘hier mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð’.

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Image Credits:

Animation by Thomas Köppel for Caroline Bergvall’s Drift

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