NEW POETS OF RUM RAM RUF: Amit Majmudar
BOOM! Latest entry just dropped on the Tales After Tolkien Society blog.
After my last blog post on the nearly perfect Old English metrics of “Dear Tolkien Estate,” I can’t resist tackling another new (to me) poet with more experimental tendencies: Amit Majmudar.
As Ohio’s first poet laureate and the author of a verse translation of the Bhagavad Gita (named Godsong, 2011), Majmudar – a diagnostic radiologist in his spare time – is someone whom I’m kicking myself for having missed during my first hunt for revivalists. And he’s good. Although “The Grail Quest” isn’t technically a speculative poem, it shows exactly what someone can accomplish merely by hinting at the old alliterative prosody – that is, by practicing a meter unconcerned with strict Sievers types or full-scale structural alliteration.
As its title indicates, “The Grail Quest” is another Arthurian poem, and Majmudar refers initially to both Chrétien de Troyes, the French romancer who created the Grail legend, and Sir Perceval, its original quester. (Later Arthurian tradition would eventually replace Perceval as central quester with the pure-in-heart Sir Galahad.) You can read the full text of “The Grail Quest” here; America Magazine published it just last December. For your convenience, the first five lines are an excellent gateway into Majmudar’s metrical abracadabra:
Perceval almost pierced the veil,
never uttered a Christ-laced curse.
Purity of heart is to will one thing,
wrote Kierkegaard before the churchyards
turned charnel houses in excruciated Europe. (lines 1-5)
The tell-tale caesuras are readily apparent to anyone, but they’re about the only aspect of Old English poetics Majmudar reproduces. Although his first line creates something like an “establishing shot” for good structural alliteration (that is, “Perceval” and “pierced” link his a-verse to his b-verse), the next two lines break that patterning decisively.
In lines 2 and 3, the b-verses only alliterate internally – an unhistorical practice that Majmudar frequently repeats. He likewise shows little interest in following standard Sieversian rhythms. Although some half-lines display a valid pattern, for instance “Perceval almost” (type A), “pierced the veil” fails the Sievers test by having only three syllables, and “Purity of heart” deploys the SxxS pattern that Old English poets considered improper.
I could go on. For example, besides intra-verse alliterations, Majmudar deploys other quasi-historical deviations such as delayed alliteration, interlinear alliteration, and crossed alliteration. Yet, at this point, part of me almost wishes to apologize for all this detailed talk of prosody … yet the metrics behind Majmudar’s poem truly are different from those found in “Dear Tolkien Estate,” and I can’t help but mention them: they create such a radically different style of revivalist text. By way of comparison, imagine the difference between jaguars and tigers. Both animals, clearly, belong to the big cat family, but each is fundamentally its own beast. In a similar way, Majmudar’s metrics make his poem unique, and this uniqueness has a profound effect on what meanings we can (or should) take away from his poem.
In one sense, “The Grail Quest” is a text that meditates on poetic form itself. To that end, Majmudar joins a host of other revivalists who reflect upon the core weirdness of resurrecting an archaic medieval meter for modern times. In particular I’m thinking of Richard Wilbur (“Junk”) and Edwin Morgan (“Spacepoem 3: Off Course”). All three of their poems diverge strongly from strict Old English meter, but for the way I read “The Grail Quest,” Majmudar’s thematic justification for his unhistorical poetics is particularly fascinating.
Look at Majmudar’s first stanza. There, his speaker questions the status of the Holy Grail as literal physical object – perhaps it is merely a lure, he says, an imaginary MacGuffin in pursuit of which Galahad will “attempt and test / truth by joust” (l.17-18). However, in the second stanza, the Grail Quest transforms into a personal quest for the speaker. For a poet especially, this private quest leads not to an “impossible castle” (l.19) but to the perfect poem: a text shaped by its ideal form, faultlessly conveying what its intrepid speaker – who wonders hesitantly “whether ⸱ my words were worthy” (l.25) wishes to express.
In poetry, needless to say, metrics are welded to form, and one ideal way to convey Arthurian content so heavily associated with the Middle Ages is through a specifically medieval meter: the alliterative. The Alliterative Morte Arthure comes readily to mind; so does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Hence Majmudar’s poem. But there’s a problem. For poets writing in the 21st century, a totally faithful historical restoration of the medieval alliterative meter is coming about six centuries too late.
Quite early in Majmudar’s poem, history enters the text through a subtle reference to the First World War, i.e., “the churchyards / turned charnel houses” of an excruciated Europe. This war has often been viewed as a cultural diremption between late modernity and the earlier Edwardian and Victorian eras, and thus, under my reading of “The Grail Quest,” the Great War also implies a nearly unbridgeable chasm between modernity and the Middle Ages. Simply too much has come to pass in the last 600 years; nobody today can revive a literary form established by a long-dead era without irony. This realization is partly what drove Ezra Pound’s famous revolution against traditional poetics, and although Pound also drew inspiration from Old English poetry, he lengthened and loosened the Old English poetic line in radically new, modernist ways.
In this context, I thus cannot help but see Majmudar’s reference to lapis lazuli in line 7 as a deft allusion to Yeats, whose poem by that name provides one more modernist meditation on life and art.
Because new worlds require new poetics, however (or so the argument goes; C. S. Lewis wouldn’t agree), what I find enthralling about “The Grail Quest” is how Majmudar seems to suggest a historical and cultural justification for his “impressionistic” revival of the alliterative meter. According to most medievalists, linguistic changes are to blame for why alliterative poetry disappeared after the 16th century, and I’ve elsewhere claimed that one of the stronger arguments for impressionism in the Modern Revival is how Modern English differs from its earlier cognate languages. There’s still a good basis for this claim, I believe, but let’s also consider one strong parallel within the history of Arthurian literature.
This parallel even seems to be suggested by “The Grail Quest.” Notably, when speaking of Arthurian legend, it’s often helpful to remember that Arthuriana is the original “fan fiction.” New authors constantly re-write characters, invent them, or modify their core qualities. Chrétien de Troyes is a case in point. As mentioned before, he created Sir Perceval as the original Grail knight. But Majmudar does not trust any “poet ⸱ pimping a tale” (l. 11), as he says, and neither, apparently, did several late medieval authors. Once the Grail transformed into the Holy Grail, the tradition quickly needed someone who better exemplified Christian virtue. Thus the Vulgate Cycle (13th-century) was born, and it soon replaced Sir Perceval as principal quester with the supremely virtuous (and markedly virginal) Sir Galahad. His companions became Bors and Perceval; poor Sir Perceval had quested himself into a demotion.
In other words, the times they were a-changin’. No longer did the original Grail knight from de Troyes’s romances – never exactly the sharpest tool in the shed – suffice. Perceval had lost his “it” factor, so the tradition required a revision. All this seems implied by “The Grail Quest.” In Majmudar’s first stanza, his speaker begins explicitly with de Troyes’s version of Perceval before quickly pivoting to Sir Galahad, his literary replacement. And just as Arthurian tradition has rewritten Sir Perceval, Majmudar is rewriting the Holy Grail, transforming this Christian symbol from a cup filled with Christ’s blood to a poem fitted perfectly by its form.
All this helps explain Majmudar’s revisions on the
traditional poetics of the alliterative meter; the old poetics no longer
suffice. One can agree or disagree with this assessment as you please. After
all, the Modern Revival will always have its purist poets, those folks
supremely interested in historical authenticity: Rahul Gupta, Jere Fleck, Math
Jones, Adam Bolivar, the Inklings. But Majmudar isn’t one of them … and “The
Grail Quest” partly explains why.