Skald, Ian Crockatt
Arc Publications, 2020 £7.00
Evoking the Vikings
Subtitled ‘Sword & Sea Cloud’, Skald is an oddity. Its twenty-five poems (mostly) consist of eight-line stanzas, a mode which Crockatt, in an afterword, says ‘is derived from a highly wrought form developed by the Skalds, professional poets employed by the kings and earls of the Viking courts of the 9th-13th centuries’. This form (‘called dróttkvaett’ meaning ‘suitable for reciting at court’ ) contains ‘dense patterns of syllabic internal rhyme and half-rhyme, alliteration and pronounced rhythms’.
Crockatt’s stated aim is
to replicate the complex features of the dróttkvaett form while maintaining an approachable and immediate experience for the modern English-speaking reader.
The poems, he says, constitute ‘a quasi Viking tale’ set in northern Scotland and Iceland. And they do largely conjure up a world lost to time, longships and all. For example, Sea-rider, in ‘Cuil Sound’, stalks the red
throat of dawn, sheer-bowed boat
heaving the west-bound waves
North, South of her. Wet-mouthed
cold Cuil Sound flings sea-cloud,
hails salt-scales, harries her,
hisses, hoards sore kisses
for the heart-wood of her.
The poems provide rich evidence of Crockatt’s love of language and the sounds it can make — the poet tells us that when he first encountered the form, he, ‘loved the intense physicality of the music’. Here are the Viking clichés of ‘brandished blades’, ‘berserkers’ and ‘stone-encrusted crosses / grabbed from Christ-cold abbeys’, but also, to varying degrees, of hard, everyday existence:
Now that a thin sleet-smirr
sogs the horse’s coat, force-
feeds itself through door-slats
and loose-thatched straw-patched roofs,
we’re anyone’s; wolves, skalds, elves
crossed monks, weirds, berserks, lost
gods — bastards all — enthral
us. Child, welcome to hell.
In bridging a millennium’s distance, however, the poems occasionally seem to me to be exercises in resurrecting the form simply for the sake of it. That sense is augmented by occasional anachronisms such as ‘testosterone’ and ‘thousand-watt’; but these aren’t time-travelling reinventions like Mercian Hymns, or even Highlander.
Nevertheless, from compound nouns like ‘soul-bells’, ‘blood-pools’ and ‘axe-scars’, and the plethora of verbs he deploys, it’s obvious that Crockatt took considerable pleasure in writing these poems. When viewed in the light of his ‘quasi Viking tale’ description, they successfully (re-)create their own world.