Pound it out

January 9, 2021 § 12 Comments

A little sunrise poetry

Last night I finished memorizing “The Cook’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is the final poem in a set known as “Fragment I” of the Canterbury Tales, written in Middle English in the late 1300s. I’ve now memorized all five poems in Fragment I, a total of 4,424 lines, or about 39,816 words.

I do it because I like it. Every day I try to memorize ten new lines, though with skipped days and etcetera it actually comes out to about six lines a day over not-quite-two-years. My dream is that if the covids ever pack up and leave town and the world’s travel borders open, I will go to England, walk from the site of the Tabard Inn in Southwark to Canterbury, and recite the Canterbury Tales along the way. Maybe even do it by bike …

Memorization is hard but it is simple and fun once you have the thing pounded in. It may not make even the tiniest sliver in this pie chart of how Americans spend their leisure time, but so what? In a country where the overwhelming leisure activity is watching TV, you simply can’t expect Middle English poetry recitation to get much, uh, traction.

I look around and see a lot of people doing things that they don’t really appear to enjoy doing. Cyclists with Extreme Serious Face. Runners who look like they are dragging a log tied to a boulder attached to a sunken ship. Golfers with worry lines deeper than the Marianas Trench. Weekend gardeners who take weeds personally. And of course the bored visages of people staring at their phones.

Guess what? There’s nothing on your phone, and punching the little icons won’t change that.

One of the hardest things about a thing is admitting that you like it and not worrying about whether anyone else cares or thinks it’s weird. In fact, the weirder it seems to you, the more certainly there’s a group of people somewhere who like exactly the same thing.

I’m still looking for a Chaucer Middle English poetry recitation group. Will let you know when I find it.

In them meantime, here is a video of my poetry recitation so that you can see what you’re missing. The entire thing takes 6-7 hours depending on the speed, so I’m just posting a little snippet recitation of the General Prologue and part one of the Knight’s Tale, until the video memory runs out. I’m pretty nervous on camera and there are many glitches and fumbles … oh, well!

If you want to follow along you can visit this online transcription of the Canterbury Tales at the Harvard Chaucer web site.

General Prologue video
General Prologue continued video
General Prologue final and The Knight’s Tale Part I video
The Knight’s Tale Part I continued video


“In which he al the noble citee seigh”

Fear of poetry

July 7, 2020 § 6 Comments

If you want to scare people, tell them that you would like to recite a poem. It’s worse than telling them you’d like to sing them a song, or telling them you’d like to show them an album of your drawings.

Offering up something artistic or performancey uninvited is like an unattractive stranger saying “Hey, I’d like to take off my clothes and show you some stuff.” It’s almost criminal.

How did it get to be this way?

After (maybe) music, poems are the oldest form of art. In English, prose literature didn’t even come into being until, arguably, 1719, with the publication of Robinson Crusoe. Before that, the person who wrote about life and love was the poet.

Nowadays, of course, poets are strangely unfavorable people, never invited to the great feasts to recount an epic of love or war, never first (or even last) at the betrothal to speak a few stanzas from memory, rather they are oddball sorts somehow chained to an outdated thing called “poetry” that few understand, few read, fewer write, and fewest of all recite.

Yet poetry somehow soldiers on, clutching at the hearts and minds of people when they least expect it, like the time in a coffeeshop in Ventura when a cycling buddy recited a poem of Lord Byron’s that he’d learned by heart in high school. He claimed that he had learned it to “impress the girls,” but since I wasn’t a girl and since the days of being single were for him decades in the past, I was unconvinced, particularly as I listened to the cadence, inflection, and feeling with which he spoke.

In my own case, as I slowly close in on being able to recite the first 3,800 lines from the Canterbury Tales, it occurs to me that only two people have ever actually asked me to recite any of it. One is a friend; the other was a stranger who invited a recitation but made sure I knew that “just a minute or so” would be enough.

As Manslaughter put it, “Really looking forward to hearing something I can’t understand.” Which is a good point.

On the other hand, with poetry you don’t really know what you’re going to understand until you hear it. The things you might think are opaque can be brilliantly clear. The things you might think you know might be swirling, dark enigmas. This is in fact all, in my opinion, that poetry really is: Putting the best words to the right feelings.

In this way, all cyclists are more or less poets because bicycling is putting the best actions to the right feelings. Whether you’re stomping out your aggression, lazily wending a happy and carefree way, thoughtfully threading a cross-country course, or necessarily pedaling to the grocery store to quell a hunger, cycling has always been described as poetry in motion, not because the motion is always graceful, but because the motion always seeks to match itself to the way you feel.

But don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to listen to my recitation the next time we cross paths on the bike simply because I’m a poet and you’re a poet. Unless, of course, you have five hours or so to spare …


Vanity project

March 7, 2020 § 17 Comments

When I got the invoice, Greg said, “It’s a bit pricey for a vanity project.”

Actually, it wasn’t. It was the bargain of the century. Greg Leibert had designed from scratch, then hand-drawn, then created with his own calligraphy, then integrated my text with his own artwork to make this amazingly wonderful brochure:

Of course the words lingered, “Vanity project.” Ouch! And it reminded of a dig that Patrick Brady once sent my way, “Sadder than a self-published book.” This was shortly after I’d … self-published a book.

But then I thought about it a bit, and this piece of wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastes popped into my head: “All is vanity.”

If you think about it, the rest of the passage sums up, well, everything:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.

King James Version

In other words, life is a vanity project, so I suppose the questions are 1) Is it meaningful to you? 2) Does it harm anyone?

If the answers are “Yes” and “No,” I figure you’re good, and if the artwork is great and the price is right, well, so much the better.


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Rate the app!

February 11, 2020 § 8 Comments

My phone blew up last week, which is to say I got three text messages over a period of four days. And! They were all about the same thing!

The “thing” was the release of the new Chaucer app, a little program that recites the General Prologue in Middle English, and provides extensive notes about the vocabulary and about the historical background of various characters. Somehow, people knew I was interested in Chaucer. Weird.

My first reaction to the app was that it doesn’t work. There is no way for me to actually hear the recitation, no matter how I fiddle with the volume or slam the device onto the edge of the desk, hard. “It’s like it was designed by a 10-year-old,” I fumed, before realizing that if it had been designed by a 10-year-old it would have worked flawlessly.

Instead it was designed by medievalists. I’m not sure that coding was in the curriculum back in those days, wedged in between Latin and Greek. In any event, the app’s most important feature doesn’t work, at least on my phone, which is the only one I care about. Your results may hopefully vary.

But broken app? So what?

The pointe is this, to speken shorte and pleyne, that someone has tried to take Chaucer and yank him out of the ivory tower and put him in the hands of the average swenker. Is that a good thing? Yes, a thousand times, yes!

If the app had worked properly, it would have followed along in the text of the general prologue with the recitation, so you could hear how the text was supposed to be pronounced in Middle English. Of course I say “supposed to be” because, as with virtually all dead languages, there is only a rough approximation of how Middle English really sounded.

Maybe you can download it and it will work for you. The notes are chock-full of interesting tidbits, and give you a sense of how dense Chaucer’s writing was. Most of all, hopefully it will make you want to read more.


What did you learn?

July 26, 2019 § 12 Comments

Yasuko and I were walking this evening. “From all your Chaucer reading … what did you learn?” she asked.

It was a good question!

On January 28 I started memorizing The Miller’s Tale and its prologue, in Middle English. The whole thing is 745 lines. After I got that more or less down pat, I started memorizing the General Prologue, which is 858 lines. It’s a lot harder to remember than The Miller’s Tale because it’s not one cohesive story, rather, it’s the introduction to all the characters, with a description of each.

A couple of days ago I finished it, and now I can recite both, all 1,603 lines. It takes about two hours at a normal pace, but if I hurry I can cram it into an hour forty.

Every day I’d get up, memorize a few lines, forget a few lines, recite a few lines, and then get on with my day. Not that there is any purpose to it. I mean, what do you do with 1,603 lines of Middle English? About the only thing I can think of is that you go ahead and start memorizing the entire Tales, which run about 17,000 lines.

Now there is a Race Across Middle English for you.

Maybe you could do it in five or six years, but more like ten. And then you’d literally be repeating from the moment you awoke to the moment you slept. People might think you had a problem. In fact, when I stroll the neighborhood, they already do, muttering to myself as I am in an incomprensible, metered jumble of mumble. In fact, reciting the whole Tales would take about 20-25 hours.

Which is kind of a long time, and might not all fit on Instagram.

But back to the question, “What did you learn?”

Well, at least this: Nothing has changed.


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