Behind The Hymn
The crime, a simple one, common as Caedmon's:
against community. Venerable Bede
paints his story against a prelapsarian harmony,
a backdrop of high human community.
No one making fun of another's voice.
No mere tolerance either: "Everybody plays the fool sometimes
so rise and fall my friend
and sing to spite the voice you'd have if you wouldn't sing.
No need to wait, no need to stack the deck."
The pre-fall world not simply a man and a woman built from him,
but the gentle perspective edited out of Beowulf,
an alternative community of visionary tenderness
we find in the story behind the hymn.
But Caedmon couldn't take it, out of bashfulness
according to the officials, but there's reason to be skeptical.
He doesn’t appear to me as he appeared in Levertov,
the poor misfit cowherd not let in the exclusive club,
not so much the little drummer boy as the stone
that rejects but has to pretend it is rejected
to be the cornerstone. Unlike Rudolph,
he was already invited to play in their reindeer games.
Thus he is harder to pity as he hides in his barn
disguised as the isle of misfit toys.
His is the first British rehearsal room.
One could see him plotting revenge, seeking fame.
Sure, his preference for "simple beasts"
over Beowulf-like epic poetry scene preening
is to be admired and even praised,
especially if the songs most of them spoke
were monster stories in which Grendel
always bore an uncanny resemblance to clumsy
illiterate anti-social cowherds (mama's boys to boot).
But there is no evidence in Bede to suggest
that the community from which Caedmon ran
was anywhere near as brutally macho as Hrothgar's meadhall,
and that bit about finding in the barn
the monotheistic god
so supported by those colonizing continentals,
sneaky, absolutely sneaky!
And not even for a reason as noble
as the Africans in the American south
taking on the religion of their oppressors
or even Caliban learning to curse in the highest
state of the art Elizabethan English Prospero made available to him.
No, Caedmon answered imagined coldness with coldness,
had to see heaven (“Heofron”) as a roof ("hrofe”)
and not accept the sky, the open air.
Caedmon just needed his space, which I can respect,
but he couldn't even see the tame beasts for the angels
who battered his heart into song.
Heofron was no hrofe but that which protected Caedmon
from his own tendency to abstract angels from beasts.
In his creation song, the earth comes last.
I don't doubt his good measure as much as I doubt his honesty.
No "sudden angel" scared him back into the circle
as but one of a democratic community.
Instead, he went straight over their heads
and used St. Hilda and the good folks at Whitby Abbess
to club the prole art circle, like the Clash
siding with CBS against their mates who used to get in for free
(the nerve of Dylan going electric!),
But more profoundly, since Caedmon set the tone,
broke the ring, changed history, or was bent on it,
and history (as in tribute) now uses him to justify its existence.
The ring was never the same, is now "prehistoric."
Cry, citizens, cry!
For Caedmon was the first Madonna;
God his marketing device.
The first lipsyncher (poor Milli Vanilli).
He ate the apple and the apple was God
and eventually the circle of reindeer faces--
who only laughed and called him names in his own head--
got their revenge on him by making him a star.
They gladly robbed from themselves to do so.
Either there's a sucker born every minute
or he sang so well it didn't matter
that his words were not even as good as "Eleanor Rigby"
(which used to be anthologized as poetry
but which seems to lack the staying power of his hymn).
The music is best lost to us
practically forcing us to make our own,
and buy fourtracks and managers,
and leave the circle behind
even if we don't go so far as to go solo.
And Caedmon sang his songs everywhere--
As he was consistently voted
best singer of 672AD, 673 AD,
some began to resist. They too were "bashful"
or sick of the goody-goody Pete Seegers
and their whitebread songs of solidarity,
and found barns of their own, laboratories in dreams
in which to conjure God and appeal to a creation
that could only happen once, and in the past.
A whole new race had begun, their (secret) motto:
"I'm better than Caedmon because I'm just like him
Sure, he might have been the first singer
to call heaven a roof, god as the barn in drag,
but it was the fruit that caused the fall. Cry, citizens, cry!
Even then, Christianity was capitalism in disguise,
at least from the scant records we have.
Sad world of bare outlines,
of not enough distance between people
at least by contemporary standards."
Caedmon brought distance, found God in solitude
and brought it back to those who never needed it,
who already had it within, or made it like love
without having to masturbate.
But that time is gone now.
"What's he doing in that barn?"
were the last words that community ever uttered in unison.
I'll tell you what he's doing.
No, he's not wishing he were in Scotland fishing tonight.
No, he's out to prove y'all wrong, out to see evil in your peace.
Out to become everyman, get you down in the hole
that he was only in until he got you there.
This is the only democracy he feels he knows.
He'll even act as if he's giving you shelter
against harshness in see-through song.
But the song remains a thing too,
and as such another harshness.
uncomfortable in a circle unless it’s the only center.
He's solo-ing it in the barn when the caterpillar
becomes a butterfly even though it's been a moth, a leaf, all along.
"Get down on your knees and listen"
is one of those revenge fantasies.
I, too, got brass in pocket
for the desire to want to check
the fame game acceleration nozzle
is, in today's society, a denial of life and joy.
The only true murderer's a killjoy
and I wouldn't say Caedmon murdered
anything worthwhile by doing tricks for you,
if I felt his hymn brought me joy
as it presumably does to the medievalist
the academy makes more room for than for the lyricist.
And I would be more forgiving of him
if his songs were available on LP and Cassette
as I would probably be a bigger fan of Duncan's
had I gotten to partake in one of his intense conversations
now lost, when only the writing remains
I'd be more forgiving, too, if Bede could be proved wrong,
if the high human community he painted
was really more like that to be found
in the roughly contemporaneous Beowulf (658-680AD)
that certainly would ostracize a mere lyricist
as a mama's boy, lacking epic ambitions
and there is nothing to disprove this in Bede's account.
So hail Caedmon, and the necessary barn.
Hail the angel or beast that tells us
that competition is not necessarily capitalism,
there's no expression but artistic expression.
Hail the middlemen brought in to keep us from getting too close.
They don't have to be used as psychologists
you go to to complain about the stress of the job
you have to take to be able to afford them,
nor marriage counselors
that prevent some from making love
ever since Caedmon could not prove a lover
and was determined to play professional
or at least use heaven as a middleman to get to earth.
(first published in Combo, 2001; Scratch Vocals, 2002)