My very first memory of poetry is being taught a poem that my mum herself had learned off-by-heart as a student at university. ‘Caedmon’s Hymn’, a short poem of just nine lines, has a wonderful story of its own: it came to the poet, Caedmon, in a dream, after he fled a party at which he was supposed to perform. Caedmon, you see, is terrified of speaking in front of people, and so he slips out of the party before his turn comes around. He falls asleep, and is visited by a mysterious figure who tells him to sing of “the beginning of all things”. To Caedmon’s surprise, the words start flowing and he is able to perform his poem to all the other monks. There’s one more interesting fact about this poem that you need to know: it’s written in Old English, the language spoken in England between (roughly) the sixth and twelfth century.
In hearing Caedmon’s story and his poem, I learned three important things:
1) You can experience a poem without understanding it
The language of Old English feels familiar to us in its rhythms and sounds, but it’s not easy to understand the words themselves. Our vocabulary and pronunciation has changed so much over the intervening centuries that we can’t just jump into an Old English poem and get it right away.
But I found that that doesn’t really matter. In fact, the experience of letting the sounds wash over me, and of learning to form those unfamiliar words with my own mouth, was an enjoyable and valid experience in itself. Perhaps you could try listening to a poem read in a language not your own: what can you understand from the pace, the rhythm, the music of the words as you listen?
2) Inspiration can strike unexpectedly
Caedmon’s inspiration comes to him in a completely unexpected way. We might not all be so lucky as to resolve our writer’s block thanks to a dream of a mysterious stranger, but there’s something about listening out for inspiration and being ready to respond. When we’re stuck with a piece of work, doing something completely different like going for a walk or listening to a piece of music can be just what we need to unlock our inspiration. Perhaps now is a good time to look around you – really look, with an open mind as well as open eyes – and find something to inspire you to write a poem of your own.
3) Poems connect us
When I was little, I remember feeling that this poem connected me to what seemed an impossibly ancient world, of songs and dreams, and I have since always looked at poems as a way to connect me to someone else’s experience. Now more than ever, we need these connections to help us understand each other, and to keep our bonds strong while we’re apart.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that I went on to write my own poems (just for me) throughout my childhood, as a way to tell stories and create glimpses into different worlds. I also studied Old English at university, and eventually wrote my doctoral thesis about this wonderful, confounding, intricate language. I now work as the CEO of the English Association, a learned society for English, and a charity which works to further the knowledge, enjoyment, and understanding of the English language and its literatures. It is a privilege to share the joy of high-quality children’s books through English 4-11 Picture Book Awards, a competition which recognises the best children’s picture books as recommended by teachers and education experts.
Becky Fisher is CEO of the English Association.
Photo of Caedmon’s Cross by Rich Tea, by Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0