I was a graduate student at the University of Washington, studying Anglo-Saxon poetry, struggling to translate Beowulf, when I first thought of writing an epic poem about Joseph Smith in Anglo-Saxon verse. It’s a good thing I wasn’t studying Old Norse. I fancied myself a poet; I’d even written one of my term-papers in verse. It was called “Monster-Bait” and written about Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan. The first page was in a seven-stress line, so it looked pretty much like prose; the second, in a six-stress line, and so forth for five typed pages. About the only other thing I remember about the paper is the last line of the first page: “And the bait is monsters, monsters, monsters; monsters are the bait.” Now try to imagine that line crawling with kennings.
A kenning is far easier to exemplify than define, as I’ve found. When you call the sea “whale’s road” you are employing a kenning, as you would be in calling a train an “iron horse.” The definition from Wikipedia is far less forgiving: “a type of literary trope, specifically circumlocution, in the form of a compound (usually two words, often hyphenated) that employs figurative language in place of a more concrete single-word noun.[i]” This trope is not dead in English, but isn’t used much in contemporary poems. Wikipedia goes on to say that “[t] he simplest kennings consist of a base-word … and a determinant … which qualifies, or modifies, the meaning of the base-word.” In my examples, “road” and “horse” would be the base words, and “whale’s” and “iron” the determinants. But the killer in that second sentence from Wikipedia is the word “simplest.”
You see, I was trying to translate Beowulf into contemporary English Anglo-Saxon verse. The first time I walked into my Old English class, sat down, and read from my translation, one of the students turned to the professor and said “That’s not a translation,” and the professor, Robert D. Stevick, may he rest in peace, said “I think I know what he’s trying to do.” And the hardest parts to translate were those damned kennings. Anglo-Saxon is an inflected language, but English has shed most inflections. A vestige of them remains in the genitive, however, in that “s” ending: whale’s road, dog’s breath, mother’s kiss. But there is another form of genitive in English, one I am fond of: “road of the whale,” “breath of the dog,” “kiss of the mother.” I had a hard enough time translating the simple kenning. In Old Norse, they get compounded, sometimes nested 7 or 8 deep (go read the article, if you’re interested — my Old Norse isn’t good enough to explain it).
It occurred to me, late one night or early one morning, that I should actually try to write a new epic in that Beowulf meter, and, since John Brown was already taken, it occurred to me that Joseph Smith was an equally heroic figure, but less bloody. So, thirty years later, when the idea still hadn’t lost itself in the maze of my forgetting, I started writing rough stone, rolling waters, now appearing online in the ProvoOremWord. But, I hear you say, Joseph was essentially a writer. Where’s the action, where’s the epic, where’s the glamour in that? Uncanny how we think alike.
When I started shaping the poem, a further problem arose: Emma. Oh sure, there are women in Beowulf, like Wealhþeow and Grendel’s dam, but neither of them was the hero’s great love, nor his wife. What kind of epic could I write about a farm-boy who marries young, writes books, and manages to piss off just about everyone in his life at one time or another. Including Emma. When no answer presented itself to my questing mind, I started writing the poem slowly, deliberately, halting upon my hip. The longer I worked on it, the more it seemed that Joseph was an actor in a Greek tragedy, rather than an epic hero. But what would be his hamartia, his fatal flaw?
I finished the first draft of the poem with no answer to that question. Richard Bushman, after living with Joseph’s story for seven years in writing Joseph Smith : Rough Stone Rolling, when asked about Joseph’s relationship with Emma, said “I see their relationship as tragic. She believed in him but could not bear plural marriage. He loved her but could not resist his own revelation. They were both heroic actors on a large stage trapped in terrible moral dilemmas.[ii]” But does that tragic relationship make Joseph the protagonist in a tragedy?
That’s when I realized that I had written the entire poem without consciously creating or employing a single kenning. I had come to the conclusion that Joseph’s death in Carthage was a political assassination, not a martyrdom. I could have referred to him as “bullet’s hospice” or “altar’s ego” but the notion had never crossed my mind. I had focused on his relationship with Emma, on his revelations, on converting the long, loose line of his dictations into 4-stress alliterative verse, but it had never occurred to me that the monsters in the story — mobs, mainly — looked upon Joseph as an excuse to gather and gnash.
I had also come to realize how provocative he was to his fellow Americans. So it came as a welcome (and guilty) pleasure to find myself writing a stanza that portrayed him as a speaker, preaching a sermon, talking about his own experience, rather than working with the difficult facts of the very public life of an intensely private man.
Another sermon, another story: I started with stones to help me see the book and read its writing back to breath, and saw the bond of place to what has happened in human lives. Who knows what records fill a rock? Who knows the heart and heft of stone? Who sees the heart of stone? Who stares enough to know the grain and nift of any stone that isn’t cleft and buffed for diadem or mace? I’m a rough stone rolling down, chipping this corner, chased by the carters who’d haul me off and dress me out to suit their design and fit their structure — but I take a bounce and bash a tree or crack a boulder and smooth an edge, or strike a spark and fire a forest — not bound to rest till rounded smooth.
About the only part of that stanza that belongs to Joseph Smith is the twelfth line. The longer I worked on the poem, the more important it became to me to get away from Joseph’s exact words, to work out for myself what was going on in his life, among his friends, in his family, to make up at least some of the poem for myself.
But hold on, I hear you saying, that’s true of all verse.