Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Review of Nicolas Barker's 'Visible Voices'

Nicolas Barker, Visible Voices: Translating Verse into Script & Print, 3000 BC – AD 2000. Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2016. xii, 179. $23.95.

[A review by Tom Bredehoft] 

My friend Pat Conner recently lent his copy of Nicolas Barker’s new book to me, knowing that I have long been thinking about the topics of verse, and form, and writing, and that my own thinking has tried to cover almost two of the five millennia that Barker’s book attempts to survey. And while I think there is much to like about this new book, I also have doubts about it, at almost every level. As I once wrote about metrical study, it seems likely that experts should never take on the work of reviewing each others’ books: we have too much at stake in our own positions to be objective about the work of others. And yet, of course, a book on such a specialized topic can only be reviewed effectively by someone with a real depth of knowledge. It is a double bind from which there really is no escape.
So let me begin this brief review by noting what I think is especially strong about Barker’s book. First, it honestly tries to survey five thousand years or so of recorded verse, and it does so with a wealth of illustrative examples, many of which (though not all) are accompanied by clear and legible photographic facsimiles, often in color. The sheer range of examples is simply astonishing, and the numerous facsimiles offer opportunity for readers to evaluate many of the claims and descriptive passages relating to them. In this, the book takes seriously a position that is dear to my heart: that the visible presentation of texts can be, and often is, meaningful in its own right, above and beyond the linguistic content of the written characters. That this is often true of verse in particular is, I think, one of the theses of Barker’s book. If nothing else, the range of examples and facsimiles will give readers interested in similar ideas a wealth of starting points for considering how the visible component of texts might operate across a vast range of Western scripts and languages. And in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I have no real ability to comment on Barker’s comments about Egyptian or Akkadian or even Greek verse, to take just three examples; surely few authors or readers will attempt to span the range that this book attempts, and I must marvel even at the attempt.

And yet.
I think this book fails to either have or express a sufficiently clear understanding of exactly what verse is, as well as an understanding of what writing itself is. Since the book attempts a survey of the intersection of those two things across the full Western tradition of writing, it seems important to me to be clear and precise about these two important defining concepts. The remainder of my comments here will do what I can to articulate both where and why Barker’s positions are insufficient, and what might be done to address those insufficiencies.

1. The nature of verse. Barker’s position, I believe, is to claim that poetry is language adorned with features intended to improve its memorability. This book’s Preface, for example, begins with the claim “poetry is a memorial device, its purpose to remind audience or reader” (ix). Again, at the beginning of the first chapter, he writes “the verbal devices by which we recognize verse were originally memorial in function,” though adding “they came to have their own discipline” in time (3). Further, “verse had separated itself from all forms of prose long before the first preserved records of either came into existence” (3). But since the forms of prose Barker has been discussing were those used by orators and preachers, organized by what Barker characterizes as “mnemonic system[s] for recording words: rhetoric and theology” (3), he seems to be suggesting that it is verse’s particular focus on the specific mnemonic tools of alliteration, meter, and rhyme that define verse.
My anxiety about this definition or understanding of verse derives, in part, from the way Barker’s book appears to work upon a definition of writing as a technology designed also to supplement memory, a topic on which I will have more to say below. But here, it is important to note that defining the two phenomena this way aligns verse and writing as being analogous phenomena. Such an alignment may well give a book a valuable coherence: if writing’s purpose is the same as verse’s purpose, what could be more natural or appropriate than to look at the history of written verse?
Unfortunately, I am convinced that the central claim that the formal features of verse have a memorial function is simply untrue. Ignoring, for the moment, the complications of writing, it think it is more correct to understand the formal features of verse as artifice in language, the very precondition for at least some sorts of art in language. In oral contexts, verse is, specifically, an artificial subset of language more broadly. The fact, which I think all must acknowledge, that prose too may be adorned with rhythms, with alliteration, with rhyme, tells us that such artful adornment is not the distinguishing feature between verse and prose. The central difference lies, rather, in the structural (not memorial) form or function of such adornment in verse. Verse has a meter, a measure, by which an entire passage of verse (a poem, a section of a poem) has a defined structure. When what we once took for the adornments of prose turn out to be structural, after all, we know we have left the realm of prose behind. That those adornments (structural meter, as well as its elements, which may include rhythm, alliteration, or rhyme) may serve as aids to memory is a bonus, not a matter of definition.
I think we might actually go a step further. The artificiality of verse is, in fact, not originally or essentially mnemonic, but generative. This is certainly the case in oral-formulaic traditions (a topic Barker barely even mentions), where verbatim memorization is not at issue. And I suspect it is true in most other types of verse composition as well—except for those varieties of written verse that rely upon visibility for their effects.
As always, discussions of this topic are made more difficult by the common desire to also define or understand the difference between verse and poetry. And Barker’s book certainly often appears to restrict his range of interests to poets and poems in particular. I might be willing to accede to a claim that all verse is poetry, because it is all artificial and hence art-ful, but this additional level of definition is passed over entirely, I think, in Barker’s book, in part because of the problematic claim that poetry has a memorial function.
And, in the end, Barker’s book seems to operate on the widespread belief that we all know verse when we encounter it. Though an early passage of the book  admits the difficulty of sometimes recognizing whether or not a given passage is verse or prose, nowhere does the book offer any actual guidelines for distinguishing the genres, I think. And since the book is very good at saying (and providing numerous examples of) verse written in long lines, not lineated according to verse structure, the comparison to prose and a demonstration of how we can identify verse in such cases would have been very welcome. But maybe that’s just me.

2. The nature of writing. The very title of Barker’s book exemplifies an understanding that what writing makes visible is language, since we know the title does not refer to writing’s ability to preserve the unique auditory or acoustic qualities of a well-known, well-loved individual’s voice. Certainly, writing is not language, though it has often been held to represent language, or to represent pieces of language. And yet even if we assent to the claim that writing’s central purpose is to record language, to preserve it across time, that claim does not entail that all other properties of writing are ignorable, meaningless, or irrelevant. That is: even if the purpose we put writing to most often is to record language, it does not follow that writing is (merely) a record of language.
What other things writing is or might be are often hidden from us, I think, by our very willingness to treat writing as recorded language. And often enough, it is writers and poets themselves who have treated writing in this reductive fashion, encouraging readers to do the same. But a history of the intersection of writing and verse, I firmly believe, must attend both to cases where the written text does and does not do more than represent a passage of language.
This is a truth Barker knows well enough, and his book essentially ends with a discussion of concrete poetry, in which the texts we see cannot readily be spoken aloud. The implication, obviously, is that some poems are more than pieces of language, and their texts are more than or different from representations. Some poems are not about voices, or about reciting or reading out loud. For Barker this appears to be understood as a development of the (late) age of print, the end result of poets taking greater and greater control of the appearance of their words on the page. As a result, Hrabanus Maurus’s remarkable Carolingian multiple acrostics are mentioned only in the final chapter, standing as a kind of precursor to the concrete poets, and acrostics in general (though mentioned by Barker as being produced among both the Greeks and Akkadians) are referred to only briefly and vaguely. 

Adalstan Acrostic, from Oxford Bodleian Library C 697; 10th c.
Acrostics, of course, involve two-dimensional structures, as one reads all of the words in sequence as well as also reading the words spelled out (usually vertically) by initial or final elements in each line. But since spoken language is linear in time, such two-dimensional structures as acrostics always stand as examples of what writing can do that speech cannot: acrostics are always examples of writing that exceeds the representation of speech. Yet Barker seems tied to a perspective that wants to understand poetry as a genre of speech, and written poems as trying to capture “voices.” The long history of poems that are art in writing, as opposed to art in language, is thus a problem Barker’s book mostly ignores—until it can dispose of it as a late, print-mediated development.

But all along, writing has been more than a tool for representing language. The related notion that writing is somehow related to memory goes back at least to Plato, and perhaps a good deal further. Of course, one of the chief physical features of writing is its durability across time, so very much in contrast to the evanescence of spoken language. It is this durability, or endurance, that generates the comparison to the mental function of memory, which is so widespread in commentaries about writing as to need almost no justification. And the origins of Western writing, at least, in record keeping seem to suggest that the enduring record is what was valued in the earliest written texts. But the part of writing that preserves or records something preserves language, and definitely not memory, and this seems important to note and be clear about.

These critiques, about Barker’s largely unstated definitions and understandings of verse and of writing are not mere quibbles, I think: I think they reveal much about how this book builds itself. It is an appealing notion to imagine that poetry or verse is properly read or recited aloud, but it is, at best, a notion that applies to only some poems, and perhaps not always the best ones. Even Shakespeare, I think, writes some poems that cannot be read aloud, or that lose some of their meanings when they are read aloud. To understand the nature of verse expression we must always attend to whether a particular poem is a work of art in language, or a work of art in writing, or even a work of art in manuscript or in print. If we assume that “real” poetry is art-in-language, we must conclude that acrostics, to take only a kind of example that Barker refers to on a number of occasions, are mere writing games (Barker, writing of an Egyptian poem with numbered stanzas in which the numbers are repeated homophonically inside the first and last line of each stanza, suggests “These artifices, however, even the play of words, are all more scribal than authorial” (12) suggesting just what sorts of play an author or poet is allowed, in Barker’s view). But surely we should judge an acrostic on its merits, rather than assume or assert its use of a second dimension is merely a toy or a trick.
In the end, I am suggesting here that there is more than one kind of poem. Some poems are works of art in language. Some are works of art in writing. Some, I believe, are works of art in print, and some poems literally have two-dimensional or even three-dimensional spatial structures. A history of poetry, even a more limited survey of how poetry has been recorded in writing, needs, I think, to have a clear and effective understanding of what poetry is, what it consists of, and how these different kinds of poems make their different kinds of meanings—because writing is essential to some of these kinds of poems and irrelevant to one. Each time we read a poem, any poem from any period, it matters to the act of reading to know and understand which of these kinds of poem it truly is, in both the poem's essential nature, and in the instantiation of the poem we see before us.

And yet the kinds of poems I’ve described in the paragraph above have become clear to me (to the degree that they are clear) only after literal years of trying to understand how poems I’ve read have been recorded and represented across time, and it has been some of the hardest intellectual work I’ve ever engaged in. In some ways, I can hardly critique Nicolas Barker for not seeing what it is I think I have seen. And thus we return to the problem of an expert reviewing another expert’s book.

In the end, I found much to value in this book, and not only the profusion of facsimile images. Barker’s range of reference remains impressively and usefully broad: there is much to follow up here, in every chapter. It is a book that, in the best way, has much to teach: especially if the reader is willing, as all critical readers should be, to judge for herself which of its teachings to accept, and which to reject. This review attempts to articulate what I’d try to do better, if I were trying to write such a book: but I can only do so, of course, because the book exists in the first place. I hope it is read widely by all those interested in the materiality of text.  

Monday, July 18, 2016

Saxon Idols in America, 1837-38

Freya, or Friga.  Ladies' Garland 12, 1838.
I recently came across a bound volume of The Ladies' Garland, vol. 1 (1837-38), which, as the subtitle suggests, was "devoted to Literature, Amusement and Instruction," and contained "Original Essays, Female Biography" and a variety of other things. 

I was especially interested to get this volume because of the set of seven illustrations and brief essays on seven so-called "Saxon Idols," the supposed Anglo-Saxon dieties that gave us our modern English names for the days of the week. 

Nothing in the essays or illustrations, really, was new: much of it was derived directly from Richard Verstegen's 1605 book, A Restitvtion of Decayed Intelligence in Antiquities, Concerning the Most Noble and Renovvmed English Nation (usefully discussed by Rolf Bremmer in his essay "The Anglo-Saxon Pantheon According to Richard Verstegen")

But whoever wrote these essays for The Ladies' Garland also consulted Sharon Turner, a much more up-to-date historical source, though Verstegen's illustrations were almost certainly the direct source for these new cuts, which may well have been executed in America.

Thomas Jefferson, of course, promoted the study of Old English at
The Idol of the Moon
the University of Virginia, so there has long been an interest in Anglo-Saxon studies in America. But these brief essays and their illustrations must mark an early example of Anglo-Saxonism in American popular discourse: they are fascinating and strange, even if the volume I have is well worn, foxed, and with many of its pages browned. 

It is not really clear to me why this material was felt to be suitable for the audience of The Ladies' Garland, but the series did run through seven issues, and among the Female Biographies the magazine included was Joan of Arc, so perhaps the editors simply had a medieval bent. And unfortunately, neither the images nor the essays are accompanied by signatures or other identifiers. The identity of this early American antiquarian may no longer be recoverable.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Back from Vacation

Early twentieth-century memorial
cross, in the Anglo-Saxon style: Bamburgh.
Chancery Hill Books and Antiques (by which I mean me) was lucky to go on a kind of vacation recently, two-and-a-half weeks in Sweden, Estonia, and England, accompanied by two academic conferences: the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research conference, in Tallinn, where Rosemary gave a paper on students protesting at WVU after the Kent State shooting, and I gave a paper at the Leeds International Medieval Congress on Old English and Old Saxon verse. 

In the UK, we had a rental car, which we picked up from what the Manchester airport cheerfully called the "Rental Car Village," which made me think of nothing so much as a J. G. Ballard-style dystopic novel, in which the protagonist would find himself or herself stuck in such a village, with every opportunity to rent a car and escape, but somehow never managing to do so before all of civilization had collapsed. We, fortunately, escaped not once, but twice, though not without some dystopian moments of our own.

The highlight of our trip, we thought, was staying up in a tiny little village called "Brownieside" in Northumbria, though we never did see any brownies. But we went out each day, walking along the coast, at Dunstanburgh Castle, at Bamburgh, and on Lindisfarne. It was just what we wanted: a lot of walking, to find and see places we didn't know anything about (like the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, which we'd never heard of), with time, too, for reading and relaxing. 

Mary Elliott's grave marker, Bamburgh.
Though I went into a book store or antique store in every country we visited, I bought only three books, so you know it was a real vacation. Perhaps my favorite textual moment on the trip was in the churchyard in Bamburgh, where a variety of interesting headstones and monuments may be seen: not only the Anglo-Saxon-inspired cross pictured above, but the elaborate memorial for Grace Darling, an early-nineteenth-century lighthouse keeper's daughter, made famous by a daring rescue in the aftermath of a local shipwreck. My favorite, though, was a humbler stone, Mary Elliot's marker, from 1778.

The poem carved on Mary Elliott's headstone reads "It is my lost to rest me here/Till my Redeemer Christ appear/With troops of Angels from on high/Resounding loud his great Majesty."

Perhaps I have spent too much time, lately, thinking about textual identity and textual change, and perhaps I am far too focused on form and meter, but I could not help marveling, when I read this little poem, about the astonishing act of textual emendation perpetrated upon it:

The word "great," it appears, has been chiseled away, though incompletely. This change, of course, improves the meter of the poem, although the act of erasure leaves a legible trace, a Change that all readers can Track. The expunged word has not truly been expunged: we readers may choose, each time we read this, which form of the line we prefer.

It's no wonder I am fascinated with the materiality of texts: this stone gives us two poems for one, as the word "great" is both present and absent simultaneously. The inscription, as it stands today, does not need to choose between the readings at all. And neither, in truth, do we.