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Thread: Archaic language in writing poetry in the 21st century

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    Archaic language in writing poetry in the 21st century

    Hi all,

    As they say, long time lurker, first time poster. I've been browsing the threads here and read something that dismayed me a bit and was compelled to register so that I could get some opinion.

    In an old thread, which I won't raise from the dead so as not to disrupt any sense of time here, someone said that archaic language should not be used in modern poetry since this is the 21st century. Words such as o'er, e're, thy, hither, etc. may sound normal in a 17th-century poem because these words were in fact used in everyday speech, but the person argued these words would sound out of place in a 21st-century poem. Some may even say that archaic words in modern poetry is pretentious.

    I can understand this view to a degree. But, what if a person today wrote a poem that reflects the 17th century and wanted to transport the reader to that period, would using words of that period be appropriate? Or what if a writer wants to write a poem in the style of Shakespeare, Milton, or Pope? Using the vocabulary of the 16th, 17th, and 18th century would seem right, though I can understand the need to keep words and spelling modern.

    Then there is the use of elisions ala Milton. Would eliding words so that a line can be scanned metrically be out of line in modern poetry? I really don't find it wrong to use archaic words in writing poetry today. What say you?

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    Card-carrying Medievalist Lokasenna's Avatar
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    It depends on what you're trying to achieve with your poetry. If you're referencing the thread I think you are, then that particular poet's use of archaic terminology certainly needed a bit of work. But there's nothing inherently wrong with it.

    That said, it depends entirely on the poem. Sometimes when you read poetry that's gone in for the full thee-thou-thy treatment, it does come across as somewhat twee. I think it requires a lot of skill as a poet, as well as a good working technical knowledge of archaic language, to pull it off successfully.

    I think it was about a year ago (maybe more), but someone posted up a poem on here that they had written in bona fide Middle English. It was an extremely impressive poetic experiment, carried off with flair and aplomb. On the other hand, one occasionally reads poetry (not usually on here!) where someone has thought to lend their rather awful poem a certain air of elegance by arbitrarily (and usually incorrectly) changing certain words to old fashioned forms, with no reference to the theme of the poem itself. IT tends to feel rather strained.

    Also, welcome to the forum!
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    Dance Magic Dance OrphanPip's Avatar
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    And then you have poets like Spenser who write entire epics in yee fake olde English.

    There's no reason why it would not ever work, but like Loka said, it is often out of place in most contemporary poetry, and used poorly.
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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    There's no reason why it would not ever work, but like Loka said, it is often out of place in most contemporary poetry, and used poorly.

    I concur as well. Another example that comes to mind is the pseudo-medievalism of Thomas Chatterton. What I think would need to be understood by the poet employing an archaic language is that this language would be clearly recognized as being archaic. The danger is that employing an archaic language results in something of a pastiche of the poetry of the past. I think that a better approach would be a poetic language built upon a archaic language. Here I think of Gerald Manley Hopkins, Ezra Pound, and Seamus Heaney whose language... such as the frequent employment employment of consonance and alliteration... hearken back to older poetic devices.
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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    I think Lokasenna and stluke have nailed my own feelings on the matter, though I've often expressed my dislike at the pervasive distaste for archaicisms in modern poetry. I definitely think they have a pertinent place. Not only do they evoke history, but they also evoke a certain remote distance, which I think can be a valuable aesthetic when used correctly. I think the outcry against them is that, as has been said, they're frequently used by inexperienced poets who only want to imitate their idea of what poetry is (or, more accurately, used to be). The funny thing about elisions ala Milton is that they're incredibly common in everyday speech, but almost absent in modern text. It's a good indication of how there actually is a disconnect between writing and speech. I live in the south (of the US) and if I were to write how most people down here actually speak it would probably LOOK archaic in text.
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    Loka, actually, I'm not referring to any particular poem that someone submitted. The thread I'm referring talks about poetry in general and in fact is a place in which people can ask questions about poetry. I believe it's somewhere on page 15. Someone by the name of aunty-something said that archaic words have no place in modern poetry.

    I have to disagree. I think archaic words can be be used in a modern poem that doesn't have a modern subject matter. But I do agree they should be used appropriately and even sparingly. Of course, the overall language of the poem need to accomodate the archaic words. You don't want to have a word like "laptop," "radio," or whatever with words such as "o'erwhelmed" or "e're."

    Where is this poem in Middle English? Would love to read that.

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    Jethro BienvenuJDC's Avatar
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    But it's poetry...how can we place rules for poetry?
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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    I've been reading both Spenser and Chaucer this week and I don't find their archaic language to be part of their charm. Their poetry is good for other reasons which may not be so readily noticeable. Thinking you can write like some past master just by adopting their diction is a little arrogant and silly, like those folks who think they can write like Hemingway if they just drink enough and join the army. However, that's all an affectation, an imitation of some radical highly noticeable personality quirk, and is not the substance of true poetry.

    Nowadays, there is an emphasis among the young, that creativity is all about uniqueness or originality. One must distinguish oneself from the pack in some way, and rather than developing something altogether new, the uninspired will rummage around in the past for some ancient relic, polish it off, and call it their own. But if they have no deep insight into the past, and what gave rise to their particular affectations they become inauthentic, and their poetry is the poetry of gimmicks.
    Last edited by mortalterror; 04-09-2011 at 12:54 AM.
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    Reading Chaucer is not like reading a modern poem with archaic diction. Chaucer's wrote in a language contemporary with his time.

    Writers have always looked to past writers for inspiration and instruction.

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    Registered User Delta40's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Doom View Post
    Where is this poem in Middle English? Would love to read that.
    http://www.online-literature.com/for...ad.php?t=41727

    The poem was edited over several posts. The content of the poem is timeless since it relates to marital woe.
    Last edited by Delta40; 04-09-2011 at 06:51 AM.
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    Card-carrying Medievalist Lokasenna's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Doom View Post
    Loka, actually, I'm not referring to any particular poem that someone submitted. The thread I'm referring talks about poetry in general and in fact is a place in which people can ask questions about poetry. I believe it's somewhere on page 15. Someone by the name of aunty-something said that archaic words have no place in modern poetry.

    I have to disagree. I think archaic words can be be used in a modern poem that doesn't have a modern subject matter. But I do agree they should be used appropriately and even sparingly. Of course, the overall language of the poem need to accomodate the archaic words. You don't want to have a word like "laptop," "radio," or whatever with words such as "o'erwhelmed" or "e're."

    Where is this poem in Middle English? Would love to read that.
    Ah, sorry - my supposition was a stab in the dark. And perhaps I have expressed myself poorly - a modern poem with a modern context can use archaic terminology, but I still think it has to in some way fit with the theme of it in order to work.

    Alas, I can't remember who wrote the poem. It was a long time ago. All I remember is that it was in the Personal Poetry section.
    "I should only believe in a God that would know how to dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, solemn: he was the spirit of gravity- through him all things fall. Not by wrath, but by laughter, do we slay. Come, let us slay the spirit of gravity!" - Nietzsche

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mortalterror View Post
    I've been reading both Spenser and Chaucer this week and I don't find their archaic language to be part of their charm.
    Well, Spenser was archaic even in his time while Chaucer wrote colloquially. In fact, Chaucer really preceded Shakespeare in capturing English as it was spoken by a variety of people in a variety of ways. That said, I do think Middle English has an aesthetic and rhythm that's completely different than Modern English and I actually tend to prefer it on an aesthetic, rhythmic, and basically phonetic level to modern English.

    Quote Originally Posted by mortalterror View Post
    Nowadays, there is an emphasis among the young, that creativity is all about uniqueness or originality.
    That's hardly a modern emphasis. Ezra Pound flat-out said "Make it new", and a lot of older writers and poets wrote about originality, the giants of the past, and how to forge their own path.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dr Doom View Post
    Writers have always looked to past writers for inspiration and instruction.
    Yes, there are both positive and negative emulations that are just a part of learning your craft. I was reading some poems of Ruben Dario's last night and it struck me, for the first time, how much he had in common with Walt Whitman. However, there's a difference between incorporating stylistic traits of an author you admire, and wearing a crumpled ascot or beret, dressing all in black, and drinking absinthe. We all know somebody who's done this at some point. The art world is full of posers and poetasters, really superficial people who think that hundred dollar words lead to million dollar sentences.

    When Ezra Pound was writing in old fashioned styles, that was righteous. He was playing an incredibly deep game. That was a part of who he was as a person and an artist. It meant something to him and he wasn't just doing it to be different or showy. Modern writers, if they are writing in archaic ways, but they don't have the background for it... they can't do it right, and it's a little insulting to the people who really know the difference, that they would even try. I don't know if you've ever seen somebody try to be something they are not, or speak in an inflected way, in a gender, or accent they don't really possess. I don't know if you've ever seen someone unstudied attempt something foreign to them, but it tends to look silly and inappropriate. That's the way I see a lot of would be artists using specialized language today.

    When appreciating the past, we should try to emulate what is eternal and not what is transient.
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    Alea iacta est. mortalterror's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by MorpheusSandman View Post
    Well, Spenser was archaic even in his time while Chaucer wrote colloquially. In fact, Chaucer really preceded Shakespeare in capturing English as it was spoken by a variety of people in a variety of ways. That said, I do think Middle English has an aesthetic and rhythm that's completely different than Modern English and I actually tend to prefer it on an aesthetic, rhythmic, and basically phonetic level to modern English.
    But do you like him for his aesthetics or because he used words and spellings that are now obsolete? I like him for his sense of meter, rhyme, humor, imagery, character, plot structure, etc. In Chaucer, archaism can't be helped. It's just the way the language was back then. But with Spenser I have a right to be annoyed at what I find to be an unnecessarily frustrating aesthetic choice.

    Quote Originally Posted by MorpheusSandman View Post
    That's hardly a modern emphasis. Ezra Pound flat-out said "Make it new", and a lot of older writers and poets wrote about originality, the giants of the past, and how to forge their own path.
    I think the emphasis on originality is new, though it is a growing force. The roots of it are in the Romantic movement. The sentiment gets reborn and compounded in the era of Modernism and has reached it's zenith only recently.

    I'm not sure how you are interpreting Pound's statement, but I don't think it's as clear cut as you make it sound in your post. I'd have to re-read the essay to be sure, and I don't have it by me at the moment.
    Last edited by mortalterror; 04-09-2011 at 04:34 AM.
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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mortalterror View Post
    But do you like him for his aesthetics or because he used words and spellings that are now obsolete? I like him for his sense of meter, rhyme, humor, imagery, character, plot structure, etc.
    Why must it be either/or? If poetry is about capitalizing on the aesthetic possibilities inherent in any given language, then Chaucer did that for Middle English, and I value him because he wrote in that medium better than any other (at least, better than any other I've read, which, admittedly, isn't a ton). Without his use of "words and spellings that are now obsolete" he wouldn't have the same aesthetic. BTW, it's not really the spellings but pronunciations. I really just think of the spellings as a map to remembering that certain letters/words were pronounced differently so I should pronounce them differently in my head.

    Quote Originally Posted by mortalterror View Post
    I think the emphasis on originality is new, though it is a growing force... I'm not sure how you are interpreting Pound's statement, but I don't think it's as clear cut as you make it sound in your post.
    I will say that modernism did seem to revel in perversity (literally "turning (art) around" as much as it could) for the sake of being original more so than any past age, and perhaps that came with the hyper-awareness of history and antiquity. I've often wondered if the weight of history mounts on artists as time goes on. IE, do modern writers have to worry MORE about equaling (in their own way) even MORE older greats, or is did the past generations have to face down just as many giants in slightly less compressed canons? Many of the writers the older greats imitated are nearly forgotten now. Then again, that also leaves centuries full of nothing but the best for modern/future writers to try and equal.

    As for the Pound quote, it may be a bit more complicated, I haven't read the source in a long time either.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

    "I'm on my way, from misery to happiness today. Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh" --The Proclaimers

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