A note on “barrowkin fell”

©2021 Michael Raven

More because it came up in the comments than anything, I should probably explain what I was intending with yesterday’s piece, barrowkin fell.

For several decades, I’ve advocated the idea that writing with readily available words and phrasing conventions should not be the only approach that poets take when they write. The poet-seers of yesteryear used a number of conventions to write with, including the use of kennings and, when there was no available word for what they were trying to convey, they were not above creating new language to simulate what was in their heads.

So, with that in mind, I tend to frequently play with mashing words together and (occasionally) create a rare true portmanteaus when I write. One example from my collection of mashups that sticks with me and I’ve used more than once is “glittershine”, which is not a true portmanteau, but felt right when I used it the first time, and I just kept it around because it has been useful to me.

Typically, the current goal of poetry is to evoke an emotional response. Hell, that’s mostly what I aim to do when I write, either to trigger such a response in the reader that emulates my own, or to evoke an empathetic response. I’m not sure when that became the norm, but I suspect it started being so around the 1950s or 1960s, as I can find more examples of “popular poetry” without the emotional qualities prior to that pivot point. I’m no expert on such things, so take that with a hefty grain of salt.

And while I’m all for that (obviously), I am also drawn to the more bardic styles with the focus on storytelling. I’m particularly drawn to some of the skaldic poetry, Beowulf, and the writings of Taliesin (often associated with the persona known as Merlin, which may have been a title and not a name, but I digress). One piece by Taliesin that has always intrigued me has been Cad Goddeu or, The Battle of the Trees. Here is an excerpt with the English translation from the old Welsh:

Gwern blaen llin,
A want gysseuin
Helyc a cherdin
Buant hwyr yr vydin.
Alder, front of the line,
formed the vanguard
Willow and Rowan
were late to the fray.

What I was attempting to capture was not the current target of evoking an emotional response, but to cram portmanteaus mixed with a sprinkling of real words (however rare using “wight” might be) to create a similar sense of something you might see in similar bardic poetry. Instead of using a real language to write that piece, I manufactured words more focused on rhythm than on emotion. So…

leprosity groankin my wight
barrowkin the moonblight
fell feykin traisy burn
fell feykin consumtirity lyrn...
monstrous leprosy of groaning, my man
of barrow, the blighted moon
foul fairie trance dizzy burn
foul fairie consumed in entirety learn...

…and so forth would be a rough idea of where I was heading with it, although I left normal language elements out to support the rhythm, so I could refine the “translated” part further and the first two lines would probably read more like “groaning with monstrous leprosy, the gravewalker in the blighted moon…”.

barrowkin fell is an experiment of language that was done more for fun than for anything else — I find myself too often caught up in certain patterns of writing and, like everything else I am attempting to do with my life, I want to shake up my writing a bit to see if something new falls out.

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