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The Joys & Delights of Being Nobody & Everybody: Caedmon’s Hymn


Nu sculon herigean          heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte             and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder,         swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,                        or onstealde.

He ærest sceop                  eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe,                halig scyppend;
þa middangeard               moncynnes weard,
ece drihten,                       æfter teode
firum foldan,                    frea ælmihtig.

CAEDMON (translation)

“Someone speaks, someone hears: no need to go any further. It is not he, it is not she, it’s I. (Or another, or others – what does it matter?) The case is clear: it is not he, she, they who I know I am (that’s all I know), who I cannot say I am. (I can’t say anything – I’ve tried, I’m trying.) We know nothing, know of nothing: neither what it is to speak, nor what it is to hear.”

SAMUEL BECKETT (from The Unnameable)

The above poem by Caedmon, sometime’s known as Caedmon’s Hymn, is one I recite everyday as part of my Poetry Liturgy. Caedmon, who like Madonna and Prince, is only known to us by this single name is often referred to as the creator of the first poem in the English – Old English that is. He (?) lived approximately 1,500 years ago in Whitby Abbey, which can still be found on the East Cliffs above Whitby in Yorkshire, overlooking the North Sea. When corona is over, I for one am planning to make a pilgrimage!

Bram Stoker set Dracula in Whitby, and the ruins of the monastery feature in Mina Murray’s Journal in Chapter 8 where she wakes up concerned and alarmed in the middle of the night to find her friend Lucy Westenra has vanished. Lucy is prone to sleepwalking, and so is eventually spied by her friend across the harbour, in the grounds of the Abbey, lying in a “narrow band of light as sharp as a sword-cut” whilst next to her a dark figure (Dracula) feasts on her blood.

1400 years before this grisly fictional event, a less grisly, but still quite possibly fictional event occurred in the moonlit grounds of the Abbey in question, although like a lot of fiction, it has come down to us in the guise of history. Which is to say Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica in which he recounts how the lay brother, the quasi-illiterate Caedmon, stole away one evening to sleep with the animals because he felt ashamed by his inability to join in with the freestyle rapping and bantering over some groovy harp music that all the other monks were enjoying, primed by food and drink.

While Caedmon was asleep he had what we might recognise now as a kind of anxiety dream in which someone approached him and asked him to sing a principium creaturarum, the phrase translates as ”the beginning of created things”, a kind of creation myth,  According to Bede, Caedmon on awaking, shared this hymn with his foreman, who then got the abbess, St Hilda of Whitby, to vouch for the authenticity of this dream as a divine vision, and voila: the first “poem” in English was born!

That’s the official non-fictional account. But as Martin Irvine explains in his essay “Medieval Textuality and the Archaeology of Textual Culture”, the poem is “totally formulaic”, and that “rather than providing an origin for poetry, [Caedmon’s hymn] is composed of a number of “anonymous, intertextual and transtextual units, drawn from a word-hoard, the poetic lexicon, a metrical and syntactical model, whose very mode of being is that which is always already said before”. Another way of putting it is that it is a kind of “mosaic of textual citations”, hardly revealing the identity of the poet, but rather the intrinsic anonymity of Old English poetry: “Caedmon is a poet finally anonymous.”

And maybe even finely anonymous. With both the aesthetic bearings of that word (rich, valuable, costly), as well as a moral etymology suggesting “true, genuine; faithful, constant.”

For those pre-moderns, anonymity, intertextuality, and transtextuality -to clothe these moves with highfalutin academic terminology- was a given when it came to notions of authorship. This would drastically change in the 18th and 19th centuries, as we shall see below. But it was in the mid to late 20th century, that literary critics like Barthes and Foucault would return to  questions about authorship and anonymity again. Barthes most famously in his essay “The Death of The Author” where he writes how for Mallarme, “as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality…that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”: Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing (which is, as we shall see, to restore the status of the reader.)”

Foucault also reminds us in his essay “What Is An Author” that our ideas about authorship, and the sense of author’s “owning” their texts, is an inherently modern form of “appropriation”, harking back to the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century when our current system of droit d’auteur and the various copyright rules we associate with this were first established.

So when it comes to asking the question “Who wrote that?” and replying with someone’s name, we are dealing with an essentially modern phenomenon, encompassing just a couple of centuries. “There was a time,” Foucault reminds us “when all the texts which we now call ‘literary’ (stories, folk tales, epics, and tragedies) were accepted, circulated, and valorized without any question about the identity of their author.” The author’s “job” or function before the 1800s was much more in line with that of a ideas disseminator, in the way that a baker disseminates bread. To echo Beckett again, this time from Texts For Nothing, which Foucault quotes in the above essay: “’What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking.”

Now you or I, or indeed Caedmon, whoever he or she was, probably don’t have much of a problem with this. But quite a few people on Twitter do. And when I say Twitter, I don’t necessarily mean the platform or any individuals on that platform, I mean the Twitter hive-mind which works its way out in highly circumscribed rules and regulations which are enforced largely via a kind of uninterrogated, and perhaps largely unconscious series of diktats.

One of these unwritten rules is around authorship and attribution, conveyed thus: Thou shalt not leave off the name of an author when tweeting someone’s poem or a page from a book. Even if a tweet (let us not forget), is by and large the equivalent of walking down the road and overhearing a few words from a stranger’s mouth, before you walk on. It is not a published, or edited, or fact-checked article or book. It is not even a more extensive personal blog, or article, like this one. It is, for most people, including me, a kind of digital commonplace, where we post things we’ve seen or read or heard or thought, either because we want to remember them for ourselves, or in the hope that someone else might feel compelled to comment in some way. Tweets for me are conversation starters. (With this in mind, I’m hoping to have even more conversations on Twitter than I normally do -not that many, not for want of trying- prompted perhaps by someone replying to a poem with “who wrote that”? I would love that.)

My experience of Twitter is largely through the lens of the poetry community. I joined Twitter in 2017 after discovering the account of an Iranian-American poet called Kaveh Akbar, who everyday, without fail, would tweet a few poems from whatever book he was reading at the time. For a few years, I took Kaveh as my model, and would hunt for exciting new and old poets and poems to tweet and retweet, following no other guidelines for doing so other than what delighted my sensibilities.

But after a while I began to notice something about both the poems I was tweeting as well as those being tweeted by others. I noticed that we were all being guided or “policed” by an invisible hand, one which took me a few years to identify. The way this hand worked was not only through precedent and imitation, but also via Twitter’s own insidious form of carrots and sticks. These are very simple. If you tweet something, and this appeals to the hive mind, residing in Twitter’s hive brain with its own obscure algorithm for how information is distributed, then you as tweeter are “rewarded” for your efforts by lots of likes and retweets.

But fall foul of the hive mind, and one is “punished” with scant or even no likes and retweets. It’s as simple as that. This see-saw motion of carrots and sticks becomes particularly evident when you only tweet about one thing. I know this because for over two years, I exclusively tweeted and retweeted photographs of poems I’d read and loved and wanted to keep/share for myself or others. Along with the names of their writers. And even though my main purpose for doing so was to have a personal online digital commonplace, I noticed that one couldn’t help but after a while to be affected by the social feedback one got to ones tweets.

I use the word insidious because it took me a while to fully understand how I was being influenced not only by other people’s tweets but their feedback through likes and RTs. Eventually I came to understand that there are certain poets that the Twitter hive mind adores, and others that it really doesn’t care for. If you tweet a poem by one of the adored poets, or the flavour-of-the-month, whoever is currently occupying that spot, you are “rewarded” for doing so by lots of retweets and likes.

Some of these poems would get up to a hundred retweets, which is diddly-squat in terms of modern social-media virality, but for something that so few people are interested in anyway (poetry), this can feel like winning the dopamine-jackpot as far as our socially-attuned minds are concerned. It appears that our minds “translate” likes and RTs into affirmations of our own wobbly egos, which then keeps us tweeting, which then keeps making money for Twitter, which then Capitalism.

Some poets that I tweeted, even though I felt their work was of equal value and interest, even though their poems were largely similar to the kosher poets who got all the tweets, were not tweeted, liked or Retweeted that much, and sometimes not at all. I found this very interesting, especially as my initial impression of Twitter through Kaveh, was that it supported a very diverse and wide-ranging array of tastes. I no longer believe this to be the case. 

Tweeting is a very selective process. Today, apart from a bunch of poems that had caught my eye, I tweeted about having watched Leonard Bernstein on YouTube lecturing on The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity, as well as about my doggy pal Max. Having revisited my YouTube history from yesterday though, I can see that I also watched on March the 31st 2020, a stand-up set on Comedy Central channel, Angela Merkel’s 12 minute address to her country about the Coronavirus (after hearing Dan Savage singing its praise on his podcast). Scrolling down further, I also see that I partially watched a few minutes of a Hania Rani concert,  as well as half a video of some guy explaining the secret to a Derren Brown illusion. And finally, just because I was checking the spelling of the title for a silly comment I made in a text to someone, Chatanooga Choo-Choo played by the Glenn Miller orchestra.

And yet, of all of those things, I only shared the Lenny Bernstein Harvard lecture. Mainly because, of all those things, this is the video I most wanted to remember having enjoyed on the 31st of March in the middle of the coronavirus. But it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge other forces at work.

We all have some notion of how we’d like others to see us, which is connected of course to how we’d most like to see ourselves. And I think it’s fair to say, that I’d like to see myself, and also give the impression to others, as being predominantly a deep-thinking, cultured, even somewhat genuine/”nice”/sincere human being. And so naturally my online avatar tries to reflect that.

Those aspects of me that don’t fit into this socially-mediated profile, I don’t share on public platforms. We all do this. The sociologist Irving Goffman in his book The Presentation of Self  likened this to a kind of theatrical performance. There is the stage, in this case our social media platforms like Twitter or Instagram, where we present highly curated versions of ourselves in an attempt to shape and influence the impressions others have of us, as well as to bolster our own self-esteem. And then there’s the “back region” where we put aside those roles and do things that might be in conflict with our presented selves. None of the largely woke folk I follow on Twitter ever post about what kind of porn they watch, or the shitty things they sometimes say or text to their loved ones, or indeed anything that might in some way call into question their/our avowed and important allegiance to Western, liberal values.

In order to strengthen those shared values, Goffman explains how performers (in this case Twitter avatars) will work together in regulated as well as unregulated ”teams”, forming bonds of collegiality based on their common commitment to the performance they are mutually engaged in and want to continue experiencing.

Welcome to the echo chamber filter bubble. You see this a good deal on Twitter where everyone is both performer (of their idealised selves), an audience to others, as well as a kind of Director, who as Goffman explains “may be given the special duty of bringing back into line any member of the team whose performance becomes unsuitable. Soothing and sanctioning are the corrective processes ordinarily involved.” Soothing and sanctioning on Twitter works by and large through Likes and Retweets, or lack of. But also through tut-tut comments, and sometimes even open berating.

So what happens when we stop attributing human names to pieces of text, and go back to an expressive system that existed for about 1000 years, stretching from Caedmon all the way to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe? I don’t really know. Currently I’m trying this out as a personal experiment on Twitter. And so far, I feel “lighter” and “freer” since I started leaving off authors’ names in my tweets. The words therein now seem to function more as riddles and koans (for me, and maybe for others too, I hope). As my handle on Twitter is @poetrykoan I guess I’m finally arriving at the place I’d unknowingly been aiming for right from the start? I am also losing Followers.

The other wonderful thing about tweeting as Nobody/Everybody is that I no longer have to listen to my Superego or Inner Critic playing whatever version of Identity Politics Radio is currently playing – moaning at me because I’m not tweeting enough poems from a certain ethnic group, or sexuality, or nation. Or alternately moaning that I’m tweeting too many poems from a certain ethnic group, sexuality, or nation.

For me personally, this feels a bit like being able to both listen to as well as “play” (through poetry and other texts) from a blind-auditions perspective. Does a poem work, or move me/you as a poem, rather than as a confirmation of whatever bias (positive or negative) we may or may not have towards a particular author? Surely removing the author’s name, and thus all associations we have with that name might enable this to happen more than it usually does when the poet’s existential CV (their nationality, sex, race, publishing history, political persuasions, class, and so much more) arrives alongside a poem, baked into their name?

Does a Lucille Clifton poem read as a great poem, even if the name Lucille Clifton isn’t attached to it? Yes it does! Does a Thurston Moore poem rightfully bomb when someone tweets his latest efforts from the March issue of Poetry (sorry, not me)? Yep. And that’s exactly how it should be.

One thing that being on this planet for almost fifty years has taught me: if we try and keep our culturally-predicated Superegos happy, we might as well try and keep the wind happy. For they change all the time, and can never be entirely appeased.

Of course if someone DMs me saying they googled a poem and couldn’t find it, and they really want to buy/read the whole collection from which it comes, I won’t hesitate (if I can remember) to share those details. But for the most part, I don’t think people are needing this information when they grumble about a name being left off a poem. I think having an author’s name is largely just an unquestioned custom/praxis/rule on Twitter now. 

So from now on, if people ask me the author of a poem I’ve just tweeted, I will tell them Caedmon. Not to be facetious or withholding, but because in some way this is true. You might be able to attest to this yourself if you’ve ever made a poem. The initial draft isn’t really composed at all, it’s more like transcribed, amuensis-like from some impulse, urge, or felt-idea deep within you. Who knows where it comes from. God? The collective unconscious? Caedmon? I don’t know, do you?

I for one wouldn’t be able to tell you what that impulse is or represents. I’d like to believe it’s a common well from which we all dip our individual buckets and retrieve some sustenance, joy, and solace in our all-too brief and contingent lives. In which case, please enjoy the water from my tweet buckets, as I enjoy the water from yours. But if you ask me where that water comes from, I will first of all point to the sky, and then to our hearts which were touched in some way by words of this poem, enough to tweet it or read it, enough to even start a human conversation about it. And finally to the blood that beats in all our loopy veins. It comes from me, it comes from you, it comes from no-one, which is also to say: everyone.