in verse #3 : Monster Bait

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.

Your turn.


[i] From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenning#cite_ref-OED_Online_1-0, accessed 25 March 2011.

[ii] On the road with Joseph Smith : an author’s diary / by Richard Lyman Bushman. – Salt Lake City : Greg Kofford, 2007, pp. 72.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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12 Responses to in verse #3 : Monster Bait

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I’m wondering how many other elderly forms are being played with out there. You doing this, Michael Collings doing that — who else is waxing ancient on us?

    • Dennis says:

      Sorry. It’s a consequence of aging. Only the young can invent new forms of epic poetry. Us wannabe greybeards, we just have to go with what we thought we knew.

  2. Wm Morris says:

    There’s also Peter J. Sorensen’s Mormoniad

    • Dennis says:

      To say nothing of the 100-page Mormoniad published anonymously in 1858 by A. Williams & Co in Boston. Leonard Arrington said that he thought it might be the work of James Russell Lowell, but that no one so far had been able to pin it on him.

  3. William P. MacKinnon says:

    Dennis,
    I don’t think Leonard Arrington said this, I think that I commented, in my Arrington Lecture at Utah State in Sept. 2008, that I though at one time that Lowell had written “Mormoniad” in 1858 but had concluded otherwise because I could not prove it.
    Bill MacKinnon
    Santa Barbara

    • Dennis Clark says:

      Actually, Bill, Leonard Arrington said it to me, in a discussion on many matters, back when I worked for him from December of 1976 through January of 1978. He said that he and others suspected that Lowell had written it but that no one had been able to establish authorship. I should have been more clear in my post and included an attribution. We had the discussion sometime before I left, and most likely in the spring of 1978, when he suggested that I might like to take a look at the problem of authorship as a doctoral project. That was when he was still sustained as the Church Historian, and I was functioning as an archivist in the Historical Department.

    • Dennis Clark says:

      In fact, a new possibility emerges from the mists of memory: Arrington may have been telling me about your research, since it was in the context of a research question that I had come to his office. But for him, the information on the authorship of *Mormoniad* was a report of someone else’s research. Were you involved in that research in 1978?

      • William P. MacKinnon says:

        Dennis Clark,
        Sorry to be so late in getting back to you re your post of October 2, 2011, but I just saw it. I have been trying to determine the author of “Mormoniad” since 1958, when I first encountered a copy in Yale’s Collection of Western Americana. I may well have written to Leonard Arrington at some point after that to see what he thought. I at first suspected Lowell because of his Boston location and because his journal, “The Atlantic Monthly” took an early interest in Mormon affairs. (As I recall the first issue in the fall of 1857 carried a brief reference to the Utah Expedition, and in 1859 “The Atlantic Monthly” ran a long, three-part anonymous series about the war by A.G. Browne, Jr. of Salem, who had been a correspondent with the army for the “New York Tribune.”) I eventually ruled out Lowell after reading all of his published and unpublished poetry (including the “Biglow Papers”) and most of his letters for the late 1850s without a trace of anything bearing on “Mormoniad.” Also, i concluded that Lowell was so busy with his duties in starting up the “Atlantic” and in conducting his new teaching role at Harvard College that he never would have found time to publish a 100-page poem. Finally, I concluded that the absence of speculation in Boston in 1858 about a Lowell-”Mormoniad” connection was telling; that town’s literary community was so small that a major effort of this sort would have gotten out if it was Lowell’s. Even Browne’s anonymity was soon pierced after his “Utah Expedition” essays were published without attribution by Lowell a year later. A few years ago when I realized that Leonard’s papers at Utah State’s Library included a folder labeled “Mormoniad” I thought that at last I might have found a clue, but, alas, it contained just a photocopy of the poem. Have you stumbled across any good clues to this minor mystery? Please reply to me directly at MacKBPatmsn.com.

        • Dennis Clark says:

          I will reply further to you directly, but it is clear to me that you have done much more than I have to clear up the mystery. I still think it might be worth a PhD, but I’m too distracted now to pursue it. To say nothing of old. My best effort so far is to wonder whether the poem was the product of some of the restive saints in Zion, or some of the federal officers who fled Zion in disgust (it does show some clear signs of acquaintance with Mormon life).

        • William P. MacKinnon says:

          Dennis,
          Good to hear from you. This poem would be worth a major study, but like you I’m not the one to take it on, although you’d be admirably equipped to do so. I don’t think the author had ever been to Utah, although he was well-read in the various sources discussing “the Mormon problem.” I think the poet was a literate Atlantic Coaster with deep familiarity with things Washington (including its statues and monuments) and probably of the Whig-Republican political persuasion. One of the more interesting aspects of “Mormoniad” is that it was written without a clear view of the end of the Utah War. Although dated formally as July 4, 1858, it was not published until early September of 1858, yet it “sounds” as though it was written during the winter of 1857-58 without a clear idea of how the whole thing would end. Why would someone go to all that effort and expense to write a 100-page mock epic and not wait until the resolution of the event was in sight? Intriguing (and vexing). The only other person whom I know to be interested in the poem is Bill Deverell, a faculty member in history at USC-Huntington Library. I introduced him to this item when he was a graduate student at Princeton in the early 1980s, and lo and behold he mentioned it in his 2007 Tanner Lecture at MHA-Salt Lake City. Deverell is in the same boat we are in — interested but not to the point of pushing everything else aside. B. Carmon Hardy used the poem as a source in his most recent book about polygamy, but does not know the author.

  4. Dennis Clark says:

    Bill, thanks for reading!

    The author is clearly literate, and I think may well have been of the straight-out Republican persuasion. The 1856 platform introduces as its key plank “It is the duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery,” a stand that did not change as 1860 approached. He also clearly knows his contemporary politics.

    But I wonder whether he was an East Coaster. He might be an ambitious mid-westerner with some connection to Mormon history who wished to vent his wrath, but not to stain his escutcheon with something as frivolous as poetry. I’d nominate Abe Lincoln, only partly in jest, because as a railroad lawyer he would know the problems that Mormons could pose to a transcontinental railroad. As president, Lincoln sent Orion Clemens west to sound out Brigham Young on his feelings regarding the Union (well, Seward did, at least) on his way to Nevada to serve as secretary to the Territory, a trip financed by Orion’s brother Sam — which is how and why Sam met Brigham Young (if they ever did).

    As for why someone would go to all that trouble — and I agree the poem is worth more study — why not? Especially someone highly exercised about the moral atmosphere of the current season, a political aspirant. Why would Tom Paine write “Common Sense” or “The Crisis” except to stir up people to action? Why not a poem? Was it ever reviewed? I’d love to get access to the papers of “A. Williams & Co.”

    Thanks for all the further information.

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