Gawain in 101 tweets

This month, I composed a translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 101 tweets, corresponding to the 101 stanzas of the original Middle English alliterative poem. This project was inspired by Elaine Treharne’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf in 100 tweets and Alice-Catherine Jennings’s translation of the Old French poem Song of Roland in 291 tweets. To create my translation, I cross-referenced Neilson’s translation with the original Middle English text.

I was thinking about Gawain because I have been reading it with my undergraduate seminar, Literary Approaches to the Past. One of the themes of the course is the way that attitudes toward the distant past find expression not only in literature but also in the material conditions of its production, transmission, and reception. We began with William Caxton’s printed edition of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, and we will end with Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court. In late April, we will visit the Burns Library at Boston College to explore rare books and manuscripts relating to the course content.

Gawain occurs in only one manuscript copy, known today as British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. Unusually for a manuscript of medieval English poetry, Cotton Nero A.x has illustrations depicting scenes from the four poems it contains, including Gawain. I chose to include images of the manuscript text and manuscript illustrations at appropriate points in my translation, because I felt that this was an opportunity for medieval and modern text technologies to speak to one another. Ironically, in this my translation comes closer to reproducing a medieval experience of reading Gawain than modern critical editions, which tend not to include images of the manuscript text or the illustrations.

Translating Gawain in 101 tweets was an exercise in concision; it also taught me two things about the poem as a poem. First, I was reminded that this is a poem of lists: lists of clothing items, lists of food, lists of animal parts, lists of landscape features. Many of the tweets took the form of a list. Second, the third section of the poem is very long. The poet devotes more attention to Gawain’s stay at Hautdesert Castle, its three hunting scenes interlaced with three bedroom scenes, than to any other event in the poem. This imbalance teaches us something about the poet’s conception of the poem as a narrative; it also raises questions about the conventional modern title for the poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which refers only to the action of the first and fourth sections.

Poem in burntdistrict

A poem of mine appears in burntdistrict. Written in couplets of roughly eight-syllable lines, this poem began as a parody of the absurdly specific submission guidelines issued by some poetry journals. I felt that some of these guidelines had rather strange implications for the act of composing verse. Here is the poem:

Submit Seasonal Poems Two Months in Advance

I am writing autumn poems
in June, Doctor, my liver hurts,

I have started thinking in words
I don’t recognize, please help me

kill myself. I love the summer
and what the fall inherits,

trees, the clarity of nighttime,
it is fall during each season

separately, but especially
during summer, which sometimes begins

two months in advance, and sometimes
earlier, the chicks melt, sometimes

summer begins in other countries,
in advance, indiscernibly,

one day it is clear to people
through and through.

Poems in Cricket Online Review

A sequence of four of my poems appears in Cricket Online Review. These poems are drawn from a book-length manuscript entitled The Short Century. They use lines of mostly six or nine syllables to explore textures, anticipation, and the juxtaposition of large and small. The poems are untitled. Here’s one of them:

it pummels the surf, it is not meant
so the phoenix wrangles its cracked skin
always the last time/ whether on
or in, it is a view you can’t get
possible response runs the table
(then actual response) like a gun
waits in the stocking like a catfish
brighter than life and incredibly

Update, 12/14: artist Marcy Erb has drawn a lovely illustration for one of my Cricket Online Review poems. Now I will always think of the illustration in connection with this poem:


Artwork by Marcy Erb