This transatlantic interview series, “The Slow Boat,” provides a setting for poets to engage in occasional conversation over the course of two months. It strives to be an invitation to further inquiry into the methods and complexities of a particular composition. The aim is not to be conclusive, but, in tandem, to further explore what it is to make a poem.
Jim Goar: Although we’ve completed our interview, and this is the final question that I will ask, I think it might be a good place for the reader to begin. For the reader starting out, could you talk about the structure of King Harold and of Regeneration? A brief overview of the history you are working through, I think, will help to open this interview.
Meirion Jordan: The first of the two books, Regeneration, was an attempt to look at Welsh history through the prism of medieval British romance. I’d been fascinated for the longest time by stories from the Mabinogi, which are a distinctively Welsh take on the genre. They’re found in two manuscripts with the somewhat grand titles of The Red Book of Hergest and The White Book of Rhydderch. I really took to these two manuscripts, not just because of their lively and sometimes robust approach to ideas of history and romance, but because they were written as household books—places where a family could read the old stories, learn genealogies or pick up some basic medical knowledge. Even the stories themselves are full of local color, with digressions on place-names or important historical figures. The Red Book, in particular, felt very close to home for me. It was originally made for a family who lived about ten miles from where I grew up, and I passed the site of their former home every day to go to school. That sense was born out by the texts too, as it seemed important for them that even the distant past could become intimately present.
But to be more precise, I split Regeneration into two sections: the Red Book, which deals with things on a slightly more intimate, lyric level, looking at the distinctively Welsh characters from the stories; and the White Book, which is a trawl through the Arthurian legend from its earliest Welsh (or Brythonic) origins to Malory and beyond, with nods to The Faerie Queene and Tennyson’s Idylls en route.
I took a slightly different tack with King Harold. The whole business of the Norman Conquest has been the touchstone for some very odd expressions of English national feeling—but since I don’t really share in that, I had to pick my way reasonably carefully. Dealing with a more obviously “historical” figure in Harold Godwinson compelled me to build a different set of relationships with the texts that I wanted to explore. I broke the poem into three sections that I labeled the “chronicle,” the “history” and the “work.” The “chronicle” is modeled on The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this vast creation that combines official court records with a uniquely “official” narrative poetry and some local color, set out in a year-by-year format. There are many different versions of the Chronicle, and modern scholarly editions try to set out all the different entries for a given year together, which creates this rather entertaining collage effect—so I tried to use some of that, with a faux-editorial commentary trying to invade it from the margins. Then, with the “history,” I tried to borrow a little from a more obscure text called Encomium Emmæ Regina, which is more narrative, and is ostensibly about Emma, Harold’s sister (who was married to Edward the Confessor). Actually it’s a rather colorful and Latinate account of how great the Godwin family was, covering in some detail the events that led up to the Norman invasion. So I tried to mirror this with a sort of broken terza rima, a reflection on attempts to latch on to a continental way of doing things.
Lastly, the “work” is a rather bogus homage to the Bayeux Tapestry. The word “work” fits because the tapestry itself is a product of what is sometimes called the opus Anglicanum, this remarkable flowering of needlework and embroidery in late Anglo-Saxon England. Thence from opus opera, the running gag of Harold running England as a struggling opera company. I also liked that idea because it gave some distant internal sense to the continuing parade of people who drop in for some crucial moment in Harold Godwinson’s life and then whizz offstage: his father, Godwin himself; then Harold’s siblings Emma, Sweyn, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine; Edward the Confessor and his unlucky brother Alfred; the hard-bitten Harald Hardrada, bloody-minded William the Bastard—it’s a big cast! So the idea that Harold is in some way trying to manage this chaos, to give it a script, some sense of its own drama, seemed appropriate. It also, hopefully, injects some well-earned bathos into a subject that can both be taken far too seriously or utterly dismissed, attempting to find a middle ground that also happens to be a music-hall.
JG: Before beginning to read King Harold, I made a visit to Wikipedia’s “Harold Harefoot” page. This five-minute read hardly prepared me for a pub quiz, much less brought me into conversation with your years of study. Yet, it felt the right thing to do. I wonder about this impulse. Should a reader of your King Harold prepare with a cram session, or are you writing for the already initiated, or does knowledge of the historical subject matter little in the reading?
MJ: In some ways this cuts to the heart of what King Harold is about as a poetic enterprise. There is, I think, an underlying perception in some quarters that poetry as a medium isn’t really appropriate to conveying knowledge, at least in the rather old-fashioned kings-dates-battles sense. In some ways it’s maybe correct; poetry as a whole is about revivifying and intensifying an ordinary language. Language sometimes needs to be ordinary, and sometimes it’s quite extraordinary enough. It can be difficult to see what poetry could add to ordering new guttering or writing scientific papers, for example. Where new data about the world are being brought wholesale into the compass of human understanding, there’s already an intensity implied in the corresponding innovation of language that doesn’t necessarily require the special skills of a poet.
The problem is that we can let this lead us to the entirely misleading conclusion that poetry is therefore only appropriate for interpreting the “facts,” not for giving them to us in the first place. Whatever we might believe in the cold hard light of literary theory (though this has been understood as nonsense for about as long as there has been literary theory), we look to Wikipedia first, our local library second—and poets barely get a look-in. As poets we’re aware of our audiences, and we know that our audiences believe we’ve already ceded our authority in these matters to the conventional forms of knowledge-gathering, whether that’s browsing the internet or pulling volumes out of a university library. So whenever we’ve got facts to discuss, or when we talk about things that aren’t necessarily common knowledge, we borrow those forms of authority by adding prefaces, or footnotes or appendices.
I think this is sometimes a mistake. By trying to pretend that these additions to poems are somehow offstage or not in play, we make matters worse, because we’re no longer consistently applying the very principles that have called us to poetry in the first place. Notes and other apparatuses lifted from an academic tradition create dead spaces at the heart of books of poetry, as though we’d suspended our belief in our ability to interrogate the academic tradition in the way we confront other textual traditions in our verse.
I realize this is a rather roundabout way of saying that while it might seem as though I’m writing for the initiated, or for people who already have the facts to hand, I’m not. I’m rather agnostic about the facts in any case, though I suspect there’s a fair amount in there that isn’t quite common knowledge. There’s more maybe than I could explain even if I had a second book’s space just to fill with notes on the first, and I think I have to accept that: I can’t explain it all. That might lead to places where the poem might not chime for a reader, some small loss in the overall music of the thing, but a reader can either say that I’m missing something or they’re missing something, and both answers are correct. Some loss is inevitable in putting together something as complex as a poem, and I think that trying to prevent that loss would only lead me to the sorts of ironic failure that permeates the lives of the poem’s characters.
Or, to put it another way, there’s a real issue about the politics of the text itself that I’m trying to argue through the poem, and part of that is what it would mean to keep a reader informed through a preface, or notes or indeed links to Wikipedia pages. I’d prefer that readers judge for themselves just how much cramming they need to indulge in either before, during or after reading the poem. By leaving that question largely to the individual reader, I’m hoping to provoke answers that tell readers something about their own relationship with the history that provides the poem with a vehicle. So long as they’re prepared to believe that I’m being straight with them, they’ll get along with it OK I think.
JG: Although they are not notes, in the first section of King Harold, the voice on the right side of the page plays a subsidiary role to that of the left. It annotates, defines and clarifies:
Over north, that was north
and west, that was west and wealas ‘Foreign’
to England, that was half England That is, half Danish.
out of the red field and the common field, Land, its tenure and
by wyrm-wood and rood-wood, obligations.
one foot by Humber-bank.
However, as I move through the section, I begin to read the right side before reading the writing that it references. There is a humorously knowing tone that draws me. Do you see these voices in combat for the reader’s attention? Are they in dialogue with each other? Is there something of a younger brother, Robin to Batman, or secondary scholar to primary source going on here? Which voice should be heard?
MJ: My “model” for this part of the poem was Michael Swanton’s text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which lays multiple versions of the chronicle side-by-side and supports them with footnotes. It creates this slightly weird collage where you see the same events (the same years) through multiple viewpoints, and it’s often only the presence of the notes that holds the thing together. That became my starting point for the voices of page and margin—this set-up of a “straight” transcription or translation, with a scholarly voice trying to keep the whole thing on course.
I think it’s supposed to play with the touch of the double-act, though the marginal voice definitely develops as things go on. I think the Batman and Robin analogy is rather apt, since what starts out as the principal voice slowly gets drowned out as the marginal voice discovers their divergence in purpose. And the ending is probably how you’d imagine it: an embittered Robin thwacking the aging Batman over the head with an antique clock, dropping Batman’s 5 o’clock shadow into greyish soup one dull Wednesday evening in the Batcave.
Maybe that’s stretching an analogy too far (in the best medieval style, I should add), but the underlying drama here is that the scholar trying to steer (his own) history is Harold Godwinson, writing the chronicle of his own deeds in a kind of failed attempt to have the last word. But unlike the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s ability to incorporate an “official” poetry into its text, Harold’s much more on his own: His efforts aren’t anchored by the same politics that could give Anglo-Saxon court poetry its stable, recognizable form. His enterprise is all poetry, or none, and that gives the whole scenario something of the instability of the double-act, brothers on stage and rivals off it.
JG: There is a doubleness to this first section. There is the conversation between the two columns, but there is also a feeling that the left column is in a self-making conversation with its text. At one point, the left column hints at what it might be:
In the first quires, many erasures.
Is this first section of King Harold an erasure? And here I am moving a bit ahead of myself, but when the final pieces in King Harold bring attention to the writer, I hear Monmouth’s claim to an ancient book; the phrasings themselves draw parallels with Arthurian legend. Here is a possibility of Malory’s “Rex quondum, rexque futurum.”
Authority and art:
doing, not as being. “Ego, Harold, reflexi et reflecto.”
History their channels of negotiation.
Could you talk about your process and form for King Harold as a whole? Are you writing over multiple legends?
MJ: At least in part the “erasures” refer to Cnut’s purge of the English aristocracy in the early years of his reign, and I suppose the conflation of writing and politics in this sense—the purgative, the openly autocratic—has its parallels in the voice of Harold. It is, at its heart, a poem about losses, and often the worst of these are the losses we sustain through misguided attempts at compliance with the prevailing editorial strategy of the times (compare to John Clare perhaps). But Harold, in that first quire (or section or whatever), clings gamely on, and this is what I think gives the whole thing its occasional air of comedy: Like Wile E. Coyote, he thinks he’s somehow survived the drop off history’s cliff, when all he’s done is grabbed a tree branch a little ways below.
The reason that main column doesn’t re-emerge later on is because Harold is trying to find new ways of writing his history, without involving history itself. He’s sacked the chorus line and is trying to do the entire show with just himself and a few cronies as his leads. I suppose this is a bit like Geoffrey of Monmouth’s attempts to bring a “British” legend to Anglo-Norman ears; there was no way that the multiform Arthur of the heroic tradition was going to make a splash in the Galfridian world, so Geoffrey edited an entire tradition down to a handful of key points and re-grew the story from that. Geoffrey’s “book” is perhaps a good emblem for Harold’s process of trying to write himself through the poem—a belief in the existence of an authorized version, a single volume that tells the whole truth and nothing but in 12-point Times.
My process for Harold was hopefully a little more knowing, if by no means more successful. The central conceit is of Harold trying to write his own history, attempting to recover his reputation or somehow redeem himself through doing so. Stories seem to have circulated in the two centuries following Harold’s death that he’d actually survived the Battle of Hastings and had instead become a hermit, a holy man or an anchorite. Some of these stories had Harold living an implausibly long time, so it didn’t take much of a leap of imagination to have Harold live to something like the present day and (drawing on the association between churchmen and writing, no doubt) try to write his own history of himself. In each of the poem’s three sections he seems to turn to a new idea of how to write that history. A running joke, of sorts, is that Harold continually restarts his book as each form reveals its inadequacies. So we have the attempt to balance fact with commentary in the chronicle, the attempt to be a singular, unified voice in the history, and the attempt to embrace a somewhat disingenuous polyphony with the work. They all end in a somewhat ungainly manner, though, and it’s only a sense of sadness over Harold’s very human loss that saves the whole thing from descending into farce at the end.
By dramatizing it, writing it all through Harold’s voice, I wanted to be able to take a step back from the difficulties of each attempted history—a step back not in the distancing sense, but in the sense of the stage magician’s “Ta-Daaa!” My own trick, if I have one, is showing the failure of the trick. As a Welshman writing about an English national myth, I suspect a flavor of Tommy Cooper is inevitable, but for the record I’m not going in for mockery. Rather, like Tommy Cooper, I’m aiming for a comedy that lives in our sense of a true sadness narrowly averted, the sense of timing that transforms a failed magician into someone who can show us the point of attempting magic at all. The multiple legends, the competing versions of Harold’s history, shuffle offstage one-by–one—covered in whitewash, to be sure, but not without some applause from me and maybe the readers too.
JG: I’d like to return to the final lines of your first response, concerning a reader’s need to study up on history when reading King Harold. While not saying that readers should or should not have a firm grasp of the historical aspects of the text, you do ask that they trust in the telling. As long as the reader is “prepared to believe that I’m being straight with them, they’ll get along with it OK I think.” Harold’s fate is not treated as a static history. He is far from an unchanging figure, and is instead something very much in the process of becoming. He not only interprets the facts of his history, but he makes them. He survives very well without a trail of academic luggage. Your previous book, Regeneration, also takes and remakes a history. However, unlike King Harold, which opens with the telling line, “Lately I have not been myself,” it opens with a preface. Is this difference significant? Is King Harold able to do something on his own that Regeneration could not? Are the readers forewarned that the “I” of Regeneration is not “being straight with them”?
MJ: I hope so. I think Regeneration is much more knotted as a book in some ways. Its shifting perspectives, hopping from one voice to the next, don’t lend themselves to the same ways of building narrative that Harold tries to manipulate to his own ends. I suppose it’s framed by the differences in subject, and in source material: Harold is well-documented, present in the whole spectrum of historical re-telling from fact to fancy, a true subject of history (ha ha!). He survives without a train of academic luggage because he embodies his own history, its academic twists and its poetic turns.
This isn’t an option for Arthur and the characters of the Mabinogi. They are fanciful to begin with, projections of dim maybe-real people that flicker through the literature like ghosts. Commentary on who they are starts with literary criticism and ends in history, the opposite way round to Harold! They’re placeholders for something missing. Arthur isn’t a single story, but a complex of them, a “tradition,” a contusion of failed ideas on nationality and “the basis for right living” (to borrow de Valera’s phrase). The idea of a “straight” telling, where the politics of understanding are held in common between writer and reader, dies with Arthur—which is, I suppose, the heart of his tragic story. So instead I had to worm my way in there. In order to get even within a thousand miles of Arthur I had to travel via my grandfather and his generation, bringing all my uncertain memories along for the ride. I’m not sure the reader is even supposed to trust the “I” of those more personal footnotes.
Exactly how the book flags that for the reader, I’m not sure. Regeneration’s prefaces, I think, arose from a need to explain (perhaps justify) the footnotes in a way that was quite dependent upon its mode of publication. There’s a less trusting relationship between that book and its readers than there is in Harold—though since Harold hasn’t gone through the printing process yet I doubt that this is a final assessment. Regeneration’s prefaces felt like they were needed in the same way that blurbs and author bios are assumed necessary in most literary paperbacks. The prefaces fulfill a useful function in that they frame the problems of the book, though they’re maybe as much disclaimer as they are anything else. Where they fail, I think, is that they aim to introduce the book to a general reader, and I doubt that a general reader will encounter the book due to the relative isolation of poetry from other readerships.
Meirion Jordan grew up in Wales and studied mathematics at Somerville College, Oxford. He has published three collections of poetry: Moonrise, Strangers Hall and Regeneration. He holds a PhD from the University of East Anglia, and plays fiddle in the Norfolk folk group Stookey Blue.