It’s easy to become jaded in this industry.
Anyone who’s danced the writing and publishing hokey-pokey – involving, of course, steps forward and back, shaking all about, and getting turned around before doing it all over again – has railed, despaired, or perhaps gone a little bit Nikolai Gogol and burnt everything they’ve ever written in a fit of manic religiosity.
Each time (and there have been many) that I’ve reached a pen-snapping, notebook-hiding, laptop-slamming point in my writing career, only the fact that I typically write on my laptop has tempered my inner Gogol. And each time, I set out on a scholastic pilgrimage to rekindle my passion for literature in all forms.
Mid last year I found myself at such a point: I’d recently parted ways with my agent, and had been working through a pile of review books where each appealed to me less than the last.
Ordinarily the kind of reader who could make pretty good inroads into Borges’ Library of Babel, I was struggling to get through a book a month. Half-finished books lay cracked open about the house, paperback ducks during a particularly bloody hunting season.
I turned to podcasts instead, roaming the city as I blocked out the world with the spoken word. Having a background in linguistics, I was quite pleased when I hit upon a breezy, folksy approach to the history of the English language, and then incredibly engaged when the podcast turned to literature in Old English. My walk lasted for hours.
I signed up for an Old English reading group that same day, and promptly found myself staring at the weirdly inscrutable poetic code that is Beowulf.
If the uncanny valley concept exists in literature, it’s in this thousand year old poem. Beowulf is strange and challenging and unsettling, because it’s simultaneously so very familiar, and yet so alien.
And because of this, it discomforts and intrigues. It demands your attention – and like its characters, whose elliptical existence occurs just as much off the page as on it – its tricksy ways mock our inbuilt desire to categorise.
To a modern English speaker the language is in turns entirely opaque and strangely accessible, tantalising the reader with almosts and maybes. The sounds, the word-compounding, the syntax: it’s a half-heard conversation on a windy moor. It’s there, close enough to reach out and grab, until it’s snatched away by the breeze just before that moment of epiphany.
The narrative is a fireside yarn, composed for the ear, bursting with digressions aimed at the crowd – and yet it is a written text. The setting is a mess of anachronisms, with Christian references smattered through a deeply pagan tale.
The story itself is epic and sweeping, and for all its monster-gutting and hall-razing, it’s unusual for the way in which it presents its hero – a man whose ethical and moral commitment is without peer. This heroic expansiveness resonates in a society steeped in cynicism and irony.
It is an iceberg of a work, a wonderful riddle, one full of glittering brilliance hidden beneath the veil of its heraldic trappings and monster-stuffed plot – and you will find yourself digging deep down into its roots. Little wonder it has inspired companion and counterpoint works such as John Gardner’s brilliant Grendel, told from the perspective of the fiend who stalks Beowulf’s pages.
Beowulf is also a work that was written by hand, copied by hand, and likely read – and was probably intended to be read – by only a small group of people.
For someone whose work is frequently rejected for being too niche, it is a wonderful thing to remember that a book that touches, but touches deeply, just a small group of people is a transformative thing.
Creative works are about shared experiences, identity, and human understanding, and for me, Beowulf is all of those things.
I see my own love of wordplay and word creation in its giddying approach to language. I see my own insouciant eschewing of plot in its meandering asides and circular, back-and-forth narrative. I see so many of the texts – both new and old – that I treasure and cherish lurking in its meter.
I certainly don’t have any aspirations to become the next Beowulf poet, but at the same time, reading Beowulf in the modern writing and publishing environment is somehow freeing.
It’s a reminder that stories aren’t just the product of a distinctly arbitrary industry, but rather part of a long, deep tradition of cultural sharing and memory.
It’s also a reminder to look beyond certain systems and categories. Since my introduction to Beowulf I’ve begun writing in a variety of different genres and forms – especially those where I can speak to my reader with as little mediating space between us as possible. Running an anonymous poetry Tumblr, making some of my short stories readily available online and experimenting with digital, collaborative texts are just a few of the approaches I’ve taken so far.
Telling my stories is increasingly more important to me than perhaps being known for telling them, or than receiving external validation by moving successfully through certain channels.
Woody Allen might have warned Dianne Keaton away from reading Beowulf, but perhaps it was because Beowulf is a text that can fundamentally change the way you think about literature – and your place within that world.
Stephanie Campisi is a widely published Australian poet and author specialising in the strange and absurd. She tweets at @readinasitting and writes silly things at poetdeploriate.tumblr.com.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.