The Word Exchange: Riddles and Charms from Anglo-Saxons

Posted on January 25, 2011 by Scott Esposito

We're still talking about The Word Exchnge this week in anticipation of our upcoming event on Feb 8 with poets and translators Greg Delanty, Michael Matto, and Robert Hass.

A while back, Nick Laird--one of the 70-some poet/translators to contribute to The Word Exchange--wrote a piece for The Guardian about his contributions to this book. Here he explains just what are the "charms" in The Word Exchange:

The charms are something different again. They're a weird mix of Christian and pagan, and they're incantatory, designed to do work, to cast a spell. They remind you that poetry is an art of invocation. Whereas prose evokes, poetry invokes – it's a summoning act. The charms involve a kind of homeopathic magic, where a small part of the something stands in for something else, and this in itself is similar to what poetry does when it uses metaphor.

He actually ended up translating one of the charms for the book, and here's his description of some of the translation factors that came into play when translating from Old English:

Anyway, I wanted to do a riddle or a charm but I'm so slow at my admin that by the time I went to pick, the riddles had all been taken, as had all but one of the charms. "Against a Dwarf" had gone, as had "The Nine Herbs Charm", "For a Sudden Stitch", "For Loss of Cattle", "For a Swarm of Bees" . . . The only charm unchosen, "For Unfruitful Land", was long and repetitive, comprising lengthy instructions in prose and then the spoken invocations in verse, composed, like all Anglo-Saxon poetry, in hemistichs. Considering that "Anglo-Saxon poetry" covers about 600 years, the forms it takes are remarkably uniform. The equivalent would be for everyone from Chaucer to Carol Ann Duffy to have written in the same style. The hemistich is a kind of verse where long lines are split into two and linked by alliteration. Strict Old English metre (and rhythm) is almost impossible to produce in modern English because of changes in the syntax, and I don't think alliteration works in modern English, at least not in a consistent, line by line way.

And here's one of the 95 riddles in the book. Answer to come later in the week:

I can chortle away in any voice,
an impressario of impersonations
and change. I broadcast my deathless lyrics,
never backward in coming forward.
Ancient soloist of eventides, I perform
for those unwinding at home.
They sit quietly in their houses,
downcast. Ghuess who I am?
I parody as loudly as I can the japes
of comedians. I top the charts,
karaoke the most popular songs.