My friend Allen just sent me a note about his chapbook, Grendel's Pond. It includes an excellent resume of the Grendel legend, and some of its symbolic implications.
GRENDEL’S POND is the fourth in a series of small chapbooks comprised of selections from THE CITY OF WORDS, an epic work of more than 5,000 individual texts. There are 38 texts in Grendel’s Pond: poems, prose pieces, and pieces of writing which do not fit easily into any categorical genre. I call all the works ‘texts’ for the very simple reason that any piece of writing is literally a text, and there are many varieties of verbal expression in THE CITY OF WORDS. It is the writing itself, the language, that is the important part, not the category.
Grendel is a monster in the early English epic BEOWULF, the fiend whom Beowulf fights and kills. Grendel lives with his mother underwater in a fen or boggy pool. After Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel in their first encounter, the monster’s mother ravages the countryside even more fiercely in revenge. Beowulf then determines to complete his effort by seeking out and killing this second fiend. Their battle occurs underwater in this pool, and is a more desperate fight than the encounter with Grendel. My title refers to the choices a poet must make in pursuing his craft. While it’s convenient to think of the pond as a symbol of the Unconscious (personal and collective), I also have in mind the ordinary external world, whose surfaces must be plumbed to get at any kind of truth. There are plenty of monsters in both places. The poet here is seen as someone actively engaged in conflict, not a mere commentator on or describer of events. This engagement is largely invisible, just as Beowulf is fighting unseen by human eyes. The most valid poetry comes from such depths, and anyone seriously engaged in the effort to create poetry is entitled to a share of the epithet ‘heroic.’ Beowulf succeeds in slaying Grendel’s mother and re-emerges from the pond, having freed the inhabitants of that area from terror and suffering. Successful poetry also liberates us, the readers, if only by reminding us of a larger, more heroic world than the compelling surfaces of ‘the daily grind.’
Robert Bly’s very perceptive book IRON JOHN is a kind of echo of Beowulf, in that Iron John is discovered living at the bottom of a pond. He is brought to the surface by a less dramatic hero than Beowulf but still a very effective one. Iron John is immediately imprisoned in the local town, but eventually escapes, helped by the young son of the King. Ultimately Iron John reappears as a “Lord of Life’, having emerged from a kind of enchantment that had imprisoned him in the pond. This is a primary aim of poetry itself: to wake the reader from
the drowsy humdrum repetitive rounds of everyday existence into a sudden awareness of a world one does not usually see or think about but which is there all the time. The poet shares the same world we do, but he or she lives in it differently, beneath the surfaces most of us take for granted, and because of this ceaseless interactive struggle “in the depths” , poems emerge with the power to propel us, even if only for a moment or two, into that more real place we usually describe as ‘dreamland.’ The Poet’s dream is the dream of the Real, and the poet’s touch wakes each of us into a world of the ‘really Real’. These vivid moments enable us to return to ordinary tasks and involvements with a revitalized sense of ourselves, making possible a more productive, satisfying relation to all those around us. Poetry places us in touch with a larger feeling of both self and world. It is in this sense I find it a ‘heroic’ human action.
Grendel’s Pond is dedicated to a close friend of mine, who lives in Montreal, Canada. We met in 1983. I was hosting a weekly poetry reading series, at an art gallery. Brian was a scheduled reader for a Saturday night in late October. He arrived on time but alas, the weather was cold, wet and windy, it was a Saturday night and no one else came by! Brian and I spent a couple of hours talking, and I re-scheduled him for a later date, that proved much more successful. This is an example of the many disappointments any poet is in for, in seeking connections with the ordinary world. The poet soon learns to accept the loneliness of the poetic effort. It was Brian who, several years later, introduced me to Robert Bly’s IRON JOHN, on a trip we made to New York City, where among other things we attended a poetry reading in an apartment in Greenwich Village. Our own poems were well received by the people gathered there, all of whom were very creditable poets themselves, though unknown to the public at large. This, too, is part of the loneliness of the poet’s life.
Best wishes to all readers of GRENDEL’S POND! May each of you find in it a gleam or two of the ‘really real.’
Side note: I very much remember the poetry readings, or rather, encounters, he refers to. The first took place in his gallery, Gallery No, in Toronto (open for a year, our little in-joke was that it soon became No Gallery). The second one took place in Emily Glen's apartment in Greenwich Village in 1988. Her Sunday-night readings were advertised in the Village Voice. These inspired a series of readings we did in our apartments in Toronto; later transferred to the Art Bar at the Gladstone Tavern, they eventually became the Art Bar poetry series, which continues to this day. I wonder if anyone out there knows what became of Emily Glen? If alive, she's very old. On the net, I found this account by one of the sorry but lovely souls who took regular part in those readings: it sounds like it comes from about the time we were there.