I’ve just been trying to say something intelligent (difficult in the best of times) about a new poem from an old poet, W. S. Merwin’s “Early One Morning,” published last year when he was about to turn 89. I have very much enjoyed that volume, Garden Time, and the previous one, The Moon before Morning, published two years earlier. That got me thinking about his contemporaries who lived and wrote well into old age, especially his Princeton roommate Galway Kinnell, along with Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich. I mentioned once before that very few poets, historically speaking, have seen the far side of seventy, much less written there. Theirs is the first generation to have so many writing into their eighties. What, then, might we learn from explorers of an almost-undiscovered poetry?
I once thought it would be interesting to do a group study of several poets first as young poets–not juvenilia, which is so juvenile, but as still-young poets who have arrived–then as poets in their prime (whenever that is) and finally as poets in old age. I’m not sure I have the energy or imaginative architecture to undertake such a project, but I wish someone would. And get a move on, would you?
A friend of mine sent me this link today of three guys rapping the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fc8XPv_qstA. It’s pretty great, although you’re getting that from someone who knows way more about Chaucer than rap. What’s interesting is how nicely the poem fits into the beat; these lads don’t seem to be straining at all, which reminds us of a couple of things. First, poetry and music have always been close cousins going all the way back to the early days of oral poetry. What we know from the oldest reports about poetry performance is that it was accompanied, in pretty much every culture, by music of some sort even if that was only percussion–you know, like rap. Or 1950s Beat poetry. Second, Chaucer himself belonged to the oral tradition of performance and was a part of the early era of English culture to marry that orality to written texts.
We do well to remember that Chaucer was a big fan of the new. He wrote in the vernacular, a trend which had only begun earlier in the century with Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320), and writing in the language of the people rather than in Latin was a radical departure. Beyond that, in one work he adapted Dante’s interlocking rhyme scheme, rather freely adapted, to English iambic pentameter for the first time. And he took the central concept of Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of people thrown together who share stories on disparate topics and themes, moving them from the hills above Florence during the Plague to the road to Canterbury during Lent. As another friend said, he would likely have had no problem with interjecting “Yo” in the manner of rappers. This friend also noted, however, that he would probably have inclined more toward poetry slams than rap per se. And since he is a medievalist, I defer to his greater wisdom in this matter.
So consider what Chaucer would have thought about rap music. Or Shakespeare or Spenser or Marlowe (although he was more of a punk, I think). Just remember, being dead and white and male is no impediment to being way cool.
Sixty years ago, on March 1, 1957, Random House released The Cat in the Hat and reading primers changed forever. Just not right away. I was about to turn five and therefore the target demographic for the book, but, there being a serious absence of bookstores in West Cornfield, it took a while for the Cat to make his appearance in the Foster household. So I learned to read elsewhere, but Seussism arrived in time for my younger brothers, and I was envious of their good fortune. Who says it’s good to be the eldest?
The Cat in the Hat‘s contribution to literacy can’t be overstated. Because of that book, there are adults walking around who never met Ted and Sally or Dick and Jane, never had to see Spot run. Because of the book, other primers had to give young readers actual stories that at least tried to be interesting. The only other book in American history to shake up children’s publishing that much (also via the novelty of being entertaining) came out in 1900; it involved a young girl and her little dog and a yellow brick road.