Thursday, April 02, 2009

April Fools Hoax + Poem: Geoffrey Chaucer

Before I post today's poem excerpt (because the original is one of the major long poems in English), I wanted to highlight this bit of outrageousness from Htmlgiant blog. Did you read it? That's right: as an April Fool's joke, the blogger posted a press release stating that Asian-American poet and fiction writer Tao Lin, whom I've written about before (I posted two of his poems last spring on the second day of Poetry Month) had won this upcoming year's Cave Canem First Book Prize, which is awarded annually to an African-American poet. (Previous winners include Pulitzer Prize-honoree Natasha Trethewey, Major Jackson, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo Wilson. In full disclosure, yours truly was a finalist the year that Tracy K. Smith won.) The fake PR claimed this year was Cave Canem faculty member, Pulitzer Prize-winner, and NYU professor Yusef Komunyakaa, and offered the following false quote: "After last year, when the judge declined to even award the prize, I thought it was time to shake things up. If Tao Lin had the courage to unironically enter a contest for which he was entirely unqualified at every conceivable level, then maybe we should try and reward that courage, as a message to other young African American writers out there."

I first heard about this today when poet Remica Bingham forwarded the notice to the CC listserve, and no one has posted on it there yet, but all it will take is a little Googling and webtrawling to find nodes of Lin's artistry, comprising a constellation of sites which Lin may or may not be directly involved in. It's only fitting, then, that Lin, a prolific young writer whose work veers close at times to Flarf and other new forms, was included in this bit of hookum. While the fake quotes attributed to Komunyakaa are indefensable, and the one I quote above is particularly contemptible as it takes a backhanded swipe at last year's CC First Book Prize submittees and black poets in general, I thought the overall joke was clever, as it trod the line between being too ridiculous to be believable and yet almost convincing in its rhetoric. It also fascinated me that Htmlgiant chose an Asian-American poet for this, though, as I say, given Lin's prodigiousness and ascent over the last few years in a portion of the US literary firmament* (New York Magazine profiled the wunderkind last year), it makes sense. I was surprised that the New Yorker didn't select him for its most recent poet profile instead of these two, but I imagine it's coming soon.

*I included Tao Lin's "Suburban Teenage Wasteland Blues," from his story collection Bed (Melville House, 2007), in my graduate MA/MFA fiction writing class this past fall. The responses were mixed.


Geoffrey ChaucerNow to today's poem excerpt, as I say, which needs little introduction, as nearly every English major, and many a non-major who took English classes in high school, will be familiar with it. I am talking about none other than the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), which mentions the very month we're now in. (Chaucer image from Liam's Pictures From Old Books site.) April is no stranger to poems, as John Masefield, T. S. Eliot, Sara Teasdale, Dorothy Parker, Claude McKay, Loss Pequeño Glazer, and quite a few other poets could attest, but Chaucer penned his tribute before any of them, noting as he did that this first full month of spring was also the month when England's weather cleared and thus the Medieval pilgrimages, in the case of his poem to Canterbury Cathedral, the site of St. Thomas à Becket's shrine and once one of the major Benedictine monasteries in England, began.

Chaucer's (1343-1400) greatest and truly remarkable poem is always worth citing and reading for numerous other reasons, not least its centrality to the development of vernacular English as a literary language and of English-language literature in particular. But I am reprinting the introductory portion here both because I love its music and because of its invocation of the arrival of spring in language that is as vivid and inimitable as you'll find in any poem written today. As a courtesy I'll print both the Middle English version and a contemporary version, to which I have made a few tiny changes. Enjoy!

General Prologue: Introduction to The Canterbury Tales

Here bygynneth the Book of the Tales of Caunterbury
(Here begins the Book of the Tales of Canterbury):

        Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15 And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.
Bifil that in that seson, on a day,
20 In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye
25 Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.
The chambres and the stables weren wyde,
And wel we weren esed atte beste;
30 And shortly, whan the sonne was to reste,
So hadde I spoken with hem everichon
That I was of hir felaweshipe anon,
And made forward erly for to ryse
To take our wey, ther as I yow devyse.
35 But nathelees, whil I have tyme and space,
Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun
To telle yow al the condicioun
Of ech of hem, so as it semed me,
40 And whiche they weren, and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne;
And at a knyght than wol I first bigynne.

And then the more contemporary version:

When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in such liquor
To generate therein and sire the flower;
5 When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
10 That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
15 And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury went,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak
It happened that, in that season, on a day
20 In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
To Canterbury, full devout at heart,
There came at nightfall to that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
25 Of sundry persons who had chanced to fall
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all
That toward Canterbury town would ride.
The rooms and stables spacious were and wide,
And well we there were eased, and of the best.
30 And briefly, when the sun had gone to rest,
So had I spoken with them, every one,
That I was of their fellowship anon,
And made agreement that we'd early rise
To take the road, as I will to you apprise.
But nonetheless, whilst I have time and space,
Before yet further in this tale I pace,
It seems to me in accord with reason
To describe to you the state of every one
Of each of them, as it appeared to me,
40 And who they were, and what was their degree,
And even what clothes they were dressed in;
And with a knight thus will I first begin.

Many thanks to, and do visit their site for more of the Canterbury Tales online.


  1. You know once upon a time I had that first stanza memorized!? Oh how I love that phrase 'goon on pilgrimages' LOL!

  2. Hey Reggie, I'm not surprised. When you read it aloud, it really does start to stick. (I have always loved "the droghte of March...roote / and bathed every veyne in swich licour...."). I have several colleagues who read Middle English aloud, and I love hearing one in particular give her readings of Chaucer and other writers of that era. I must add that reading him aloud also gives me a bit more patience when, as frequently happens these days, people pronounce the silent "e" in my last name, as if it were Italian or Portuguese. (Arrrgggh!) And you're really kind--I did catch the accidentally interpolated "modern" stanzas in the original version.