Earle Birney

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How does the form of "Anglosaxon Street" mirror its subject?

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Earle Birney's "Anglosaxon Street" refers first to the "Anglo-Saxon," the merging of the Anglos and the Saxons. Historically, they are:

...Germanic settlers who came to Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries, including the Angles, Saxons, Frisians and Jutes.

Perhaps the Anglo-Saxons are portrayed as superior (or at least they perceive themselves as such) because they were in England "first." The sense of "ownership" comes to mind, perhaps aggravating and angering those who feel they have as much right to "own" England anyone else. After all, the "Anglo-Saxon" period ended with the invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. However, often human nature ignores such "trifles" and rewrites history as one sees fit.

The shape that I see of the poem is like a crack down a cement wall, showing a distinct separation of the things on either side of the demarcation. This is not to say that they are unrelated or opposites. In fact, it seems these things should not be separated, but intermingled. It may be that Birney is making this point as he saw it—as an "outsider" himself—coming from Canada. The division that may have been perceived by those who traced their line back to the Anglo-Saxons may well reflect the same kind of "notoriety" Americans enjoy if their ancestors "came over on the Mayflower."

The erratic breaks down the middle of the poem may well reflect a division within society.

Lines 10-12 show contradictions: the left seems to reflect the "pure" English heritage, and the right seems to criticize the fallacy of such prideful attitudes.

Cracks across windows    are welded with slogans

There’ll Always Be An England    enhances geraniums

and V’s for Victory    vanquish the housefly

The first image is of a cracked window (something broken) that is joined together with nothing but pithy phrases. Literally, the broken pieces are joined with "bumper stickers." The division within society never actually heals, but is held together by words: empty ones, at that. For what actually is the importance or comfort or meaning in something as ludicrous as "There'll Always Be An England"? This is probably as true if said of the U.S., Africa, China or India. We don't expect any of these to disappear. I would guess that Birney is really making the point of the uselessness of the words to do any good at all. Perhaps that kind of attitude has created the crack to begin with. And "V's for Victory" seems only as important to the author as "vanquishing" an insect.

…with climbing sun    march the bleached Beldame

festooned with shopping bags    farded flatarched

bigthewed Saxonwives stepping over buttrivers

waddling back wienerladen to suckle smallfry

Lines 13-16 speak of ugly women who return from shopping, with made-up faces, flat feet, muscular thighs who "waddle" home (laden with "weiners"—food) to feed their children ("smallfry"). My sense is that the author does not see anything admirable in the Anglo-Saxons to look at them; maybe he wonders what they see that makes them feel so superior?

By the end of the poem, Birney seems to have shaved down the essence of "Saxonry" to the mundane, the sameness that everyone in the world faces as each man ends his day and rests only to repeat the same on the morrow. History truly does not mean much to the author: being "here first" does not count for anything while people struggle with the "everyday."

Perceptions aren't facts, but they can divide people foolishly.

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