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Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

Maldon – A Version by Michael Smith (Shearsman Library)

I think that this is a startlingly powerful version of the Anglo-Saxon poem from 991 in which the fragmented narrative of the battle between invading Vikings and the East-Saxon earl, Byrhtnoth is given to us with an immediacy that is recognisably modern. Michael Smith’s note to his translation recognises the powerful influence of both Ezra Pound and Basil Bunting and in this way echoes the words of David Slavitt whose version of the Old English poem was published in The Word Exchange, Anglo-Saxon poems in translation (Norton 2011). Slavitt had suggested that his willingness to undertake the task of translation “was informed…by the echoes of Ezra Pound’s rendition of The Seafarer…in which the weird mannerisms of much of his own poetry look to be normalized and functional”:

“To a considerable degree, The Seafarer opens the door, then, to the rest of his work and illuminates it. The effort seems to be to depart as far as possible from normative English and still be intelligible. And what comes of that is a freshness, a response to his own imperative to Make it new.”

Michael Smith’s version of The Battle of Maldon is dramatically alive:

“…it was sundered.

He said to his soldiers

to set free their horses,

to drive them far off,

and on foot to fare forth,

to think of their hands

and boldness of bravery.

Then the kinsman of Offa

first found out

that the earl was unwilling

to countenance cowardice.

From his hands he let fly

his falcon, his fair one,

toward the wood in the distance,

and he went to the battle.

In his introduction to this lovely addition to the Shearsman Library, Smith tells us that he consciously retained the fragmentary nature of the piece because he felt that it added a sense of authenticity and realism. In terms of this ‘realism’ he then points us to a statement made by Borges about that small moment of the releasing of the falcon in which the Argentinian writer asserted that “Given the epic harshness of the poem, the phrase lêofne…hafoc (literally, ‘his beloved hawk’) moves us extraordinarily”.

In January 2016 I reviewed Kat Peddie’s Spaces for Sappho (Oystercatcher Press) and referred to Hugh Kenner’s fourth chapter of The Pound Era in which the American critic had focussed on one of Sappho’s fragments. Pound had written to Iris Barry in 1916 to complain about the “soft mushy edges” of British poetry and concluded with the suggestion that concision, “saying what you mean in the fewest and clearest words” was essential to the stirring of the reader. I go back to Kat Peddie’s poems to see once more those spaces on the page and those clearest of words which she leaves as stone markers.
And where else do I go? Well, to Christopher Logue’s version of extracts from Homer’s Illiad in War Music (Cape 1981):

“Consider planes at touchdown – how they poise;
Or palms beneath a numbered hurricane;
Or birds wheeled sideways over windswept heights;
Or burly salmon challenging a weir;
Right-angled, dreamy fliers, as they ride
The instep of a dying wave, or trace
Diagonals on snowslopes”

Michael Smith makes it clear from the start that he is not attempting “to replicate slavishly the original metre” of the Ango-Saxon but that he is instead making a new poem. It is with this in mind that one should recall the words Samuel Johnson used when asked about a newly published translation of Aeschylus:

“We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.”

Michael Smith’s Maldon is a fine poem and I encourage all budding poets to read it!

Ian Brinton, 17th August 2019

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