Three Zeroes

Nothing could be more post-modern than the millennium - that change at the level of signifiers which should, we obscurely feel, be massively significant, but which in fact signifies zero. In triplicate.

In these last days of the twentieth century, I am reading Seamus Heaney's readable new translation of Beowulf, a masterwork of the first millennium A.D. (From somewhere between the seventh and tenth centuries, apparently - they were more flexible about dates and publishing deadlines in those days, it seems.) This gives rise to a couple of banal reflections.

The first is simply extreme relief that I have lived at the end of the second millennium, not the first. The world of Beowulf is unremittingly grim, violent and stupid. The hero would have made a very good football hooligan. He travels to a distant country looking for a fight, picks on Grendel (The author allows him all the modern hooligan's favourite excuses: "He started it.", "He's different from us.", "That Grendel's really horrible.") and pulls him to pieces. When Grendel's mother (the one sympathetic character in the whole piece) comes back - as which mother would not? -to collect her boy's arm, wrenched off by our hero in the scuffle, she gets chopped up as well. Later Beowulf goes for a dragon, with little sense of his responsibilities towards what is clearly an endangered species.

In our late twentieth century, there is plenty of macho nonsense still around. Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude van Damme would fit happily into a movie version of Beowulf. But nobody (I hope) hails these as the very flower of our culture. On the streets of our cities, modern Beowulfs (Beowolves?) strut ostentatiously, but finally most of them get put away till they're older and wiser. (Not that big B. himself improved with age. He had been reigning for fifty years when the dragon started causing bother, and still his immediate reaction was to go beat it up. The only difference from his young self being he was now more miserable and sorry for himself.)

So we've possibly come a fair way in a millennium. Or have we? This sparks a second reflection.

A millennium is a long time, and anything can happen. I think of Rome around the time when B.C. became A.D. - the city of Catullus and Virgil, of Horace and Ovid. Not without its problems, not without its inhumanities, but a place where sophistication of thought and intelligent elegance of language were possible. But after a few centuries European civilisation had sunk to the Beowulf level, and the glorification of people hitting each other. Gibbon has explained how this happened - the potent mix of Christianity and barbarism that sapped a culture. But if it hadn't been the Bible-bashers, someone else would have done it. History's like that.

So as we enter Millennium 3, full of sprightly hopes, we need to recall that the most promising of millennia can go pear-shaped. Yet when things go wrong, still something can survive. The one manuscript copy of Catullus, famously, was used as a wine-bung, but rescued just in time. Even the gloomy monasteries of the Dark Ages had libraries and scriptoria.

At the moment, poetry is unsure what to do. Poetry seems to thrive best when it provides a channel for what cannot be said in the official discourse of the times. When, at the end of the eighteenth century, millenarian longings could no longer find appropriate expression in the language of politics or of orthodox religion, we had the great Romantic explosion of verse. When the heroic figures of the French nineteenth century were straining after the unsayable, one again, verse was the medium. In our own century we have read the testimony of the First World War poets, claiming a right for the private voice to be recorded, despite the clamour of official propaganda. In our last half-century, the finest poems have come from the heavily censored countries of Eastern Europe, where Aesopian language found a way to say truths in ways that the censors were made uneasy by, but could never quite crush.

In today's world, everything seems sayable. In the glorious chaos of the Internet, what place for poetry. We stopped bothering to count readers at Snakeskin once we were assured that we were reaching a reasonable number - but we know that we get fewer hits than the hampsterdance. Is it silly to keep on with this antique medium of verse when so many other opportunities abound? We say no. Long live the medium whose practitioners need no more than a biro and the back of an envelope. Or perhaps not even that. Our great example of the twentieth century is Akhmatova, composing Requiem, and committing it to memory, but not daring to write it down. The poem has survived its persecutors.

Verse must be kept alive. Times may come soon when we desperately need it.

This issue of Snakeskin mixes the playful and the serious. We hope you enjoy it.

And to quote Henry James, in letter of December 1899 to Sarah Orne Jewett: "Heartiest wishes for the great dimly-looking, formidably-bulking, ambiguously-scowling New Year."

And a happy new century, too.

All the best