Poetry Sunday: “Prepositional,” by Lorna Knowles Blake

Two things ultimately convince me that this poem—whether the author consciously intended it or not—arises from the accentual rather than the accentual-syllabic tradition. First, every line but one in “Prepositional” includes a mid-line caesura, a comma that breaks the line into two parts. And, many lines contain what in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse verse is called a “kenning”—a compound word made of two stressed words jammed together and often, but not always, hyphenated; the classic example is “whale-road” used to describe the sea. Three of the end words in “Prepositional” look like kennings: “birdsong,” “breadcrumbs,” and “quicksand.” When I went for help to Thomas Cable, coauthor of A History of the English Language and professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, he reminded me that kennings tend to be metaphorical rather than literal, as these compound words are. Still, I believe that Blake intended these compound words at least to evoke the idea of a kenning. Note that they can be scanned either as trochees [ / ~] or as spondees, with two stressed syllables in a row [ / / ], and this that this flex—another example of shimmer and blur—is one reason I could not decide whether some lines had three stresses or four. In any event, these things—medial caesuras, kennings, and 3 or 4 beats per line—lead me to conclude that the prevailing form here is accentual, or Anglo-Saxon verse.
The poem most often offered to illustrate Anglo-Saxon verse is “Caedmon’s Hymn,” of which the first two lines in one translation are:

He first made // for the children of men
Heaven as a roof // Holy Creator

[From http://tinablue.homestead.com/Prosody4anglosaxonmeter.html]
In the example above, the stresses are shown in boldface and alliteration by underlining, and the second line shows the classic arrangement of four beats in a line bisected by a pause, where alliteration between heaven and holy connects the two halves. Molly Peacock, featured previously in these columns here and here, introduced me to my favorite example of Anglo-Saxon verse, Michael Alexander’s translation from Old English of “Wulf and Eadwacer.” As she notes in “How Poems Work,” “every Anglo-Saxon line has this pattern: Bang, Bang –  Bang, Crack.” I’ve used underlining to show consonance and bolding to show stressed syllables in the first few lines of this lovely old poem.
Wulf and Eadwacer

[translated into modern English by Michael Alexander]

The men of my tribe would treat him as game:
if he comes to the camp they will kill him outright.

Our fate is forked.

Wulf is on one island, I on another.
Mine is a fastness: the fens girdle it
and it is defended by the fiercest men.
If he comes to the camp they will kill him for sure.

Our fate is forked.

It was rainy weather, and I wept by the hearth,
thinking of my Wulf’s far wanderings;
one of the captains caught me in his arms.
It gladdened me then; but it grieved me too.
Wulf, my Wulf, it was wanting you
that made me sick, your seldom coming,
the hollowness at heart; not the hunger I spoke of.
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Our whelp
……….Wulf shall take to the wood.
What was never bound is broken easily,
……….our song together.
[Source of the English translation: The School Bag, ed. by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes (Faber & Faber 1997), found here.]

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