Rewriting History: Radical Medievalism

Conceptual writers spend a lot of time defending writing that is done through a recontextualization or recombination of source texts. Lyric, neo-Romantic, free-verse poetry has become so prevalent that writers who look to other texts rather than their own internal emotional experiences for inspiration or subject matter often face a barrage of criticism as though they were ruining poetry or cheapening human expression. However, there is nothing certain about the way we write, nor is there any style that is more natural than any other. Contemporary lyric poetry is as constructed as any other form, and there is nothing innate about it.

Writing by recombining a series of external source texts is nothing new—it is actually very old. Medieval writers such as Chaucer borrowed heavily from a variety of texts in order to complete their own works. John Mandeville probably didn’t even exist, and whoever did write The Book of John Mandeville probably didn’t venture much farther than a bookshelf to write this famous travel narrative.
Were the authors of these texts cheating the reader and getting away with spectacular acts of plagiarism, or is there something more to this way of writing?

When we read, what is it that we most want to get out of the experience? If the point of reading is to learn about individual emotional experience, then lyric, free-verse, neo-Romanticism might be the answer, but I think we can look for something different in other texts. By cutting, pasting, and recombining texts, writers have the opportunity to express something broader and more inclusive than their own personal perception. This type of writing gives us a different, more panoramic view of the world and of writing itself. By reading more, we can learn more…. so why not bring this process to the page and expand existing texts into new ones? If nothing else, the historical precedent is there. My favourite evidence of the intersection of contemporary experimental poetics and medieval writing is Caroline Bergvall’s Shorter Chaucer Tales, particularly Banned in Poland: ‘The Summer Tale.’ Bergvall also draws our attention to the variations between translations and copies of a text in her poem Via, where she lists the first line of various translations of Dante’s Inferno, followed by the names of the translators and year of publication of each of these texts. In Via we see the slippery nature of reading and translation, not dissimilar from the role medieval scribes played when they made minute or drastic changes to texts as they copied them out by hand. Bergvall’s pieces show, among other things, that a readership is always in the process of reinterpreting and reshaping texts, and that nothing about writing is solid… not even old books.

Helen Hajnoczky‘s poetry has appeared in fillingStation, Matrix, NoD, Rampike, and Speechless magazines, as well as in a variety of chapbooks. She has served as assistant editor of NoD magazine, and as poetry editor of fillingStation magazine. She lives in Montreal where she is working on an MA in Middle English literature. Her first book, Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising, will be available in November from Snare Books.

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