Aisha Farr reviews Chaucer: Modern Echoes, which took place on Thursday 10th April, 2014 at Southwark Cathedral….
As Southwark Cathedral filled up with Geoffrey Chaucer’s present-day pilgrims, I stood at the back of the building and absently recalled the prologue for The Canterbury Tales, one of the few passages of poetry I learnt growing up:
‘Wan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote…’
It was indeed April, but outside London Bridge was dry and warm, the sky blue and dusky, and the trains rattled evenly past the stained glass windows in glimpses. So the mixing of old and new began.
With the full congregation settled in their pews, Gail Ashton, the Chaucerian academic and biographer, set the scene with a lively introduction to Chaucer, in which she credited him with “giving us back our mother tongue” by boldly choosing to write in the vernacular at a time when French was still the official language, during the reign of Richard II.
She also highlighted the breadth of his influence. From Peter Ackroyd’s The Canterbury Tales retelling, the RSC’s performances in Middle English, to bumper stickers and movies such as the rom-com The Knight’s Tale, his writing has continued to echo forwards to us, an effect which the cathedral acoustics appropriately performed throughout the readings.
The event centered on some very recent work made under Chaucer’s influence; the new poetry collections A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde by Lavinia Greenlaw and Telling Tales (inspired by The Canterbury Tales) by Patience Agbabi.
Woven through the headline acts were readings from passages of Chaucer – in the original Middle English and then in modern translation – brought to life by Tom Deveson and Gabby Meadows’ voices. The readings were appropriately from the texts that had inspired the poets’ collections, namely Troilus and Creseyde and The Canterbury Tales, and I thought the specific selection of passages from these works were inspired. It was amazing how intense such small and fragmentary readings could be, and this surely gave the audience some understanding of what drove the two poets to rework his writing, to try and distil them to something modern in size and tone.
Lavinia Greenlaw’s introduction to her reading swept us across time from Homer, past Bocaccio, through to Chaucer, drawing our attention to the process of literary reception, and what happens each time a story or idea is versioned. She encapsulated the knack that poetry has for collapsing time, flattening all past and present to mutual contemporaneity, when she said of Homer that his verse, like Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyede was simply “about a man who dies young”. Chaucer, similarly, describes Troilus as ‘a dead image’.
In the same vein, her writing seeks to be timeless, shaking off any specifics that might tie the words down to place and context. But she is also drawn to complexities, activating, as she explained, our “ideas of love, and how feelings are a mesh of things”. Without pretension, the poems search for a kind of literary honesty that tries to transcend tradition in order to express something more directly human. Their content comes from moments in the lovers’ story, which Greenlaw has picked and planted, making room for them to grow into something lucid and new.
Her approach is humble too: the book exposes the poet clearly as a reader, who has unashamedly chosen the sections of Chaucer’s version which she loves and responds to most; her method is transparent and in this way confessional and personal. In her poem ‘Lime’, she spins her premise from a borrowed Boccacian image of love running through Troilus like ‘a bird over whom lime has been poured’, making her own lines from this: ‘As love spreads through him like lime through feathers/ And settles its weight’. In condensing the combination of previous versions, her writing becomes about this process as well as about love.
The collection pauses at points of Troilus and Criseyde, and at these places in the old text sheds light on parts that are shady or have gone partly unsaid. The moments she chooses are often ambiguous or ineffably rich, and so the poems can only capture some of this complexity; ‘so full, so light’. They also make use of repetition, most noticeably in the poem ‘In this heaven he starts to delight’. The anaphora of ‘a place… a place’ at the start of every line seems to reiterate her poetic process, her awareness of all the text’s possibilities as repetitions of ones before them.
There is a poetic form that has been inherited from Chaucer, a seven-line stanza called the ‘rhyme royal’ to which both poets referred during the evening’s event, Patience Agbabi calling it her ‘favourite form’. Its rhyme scheme – a-b-a-b-b-c-c – has an inherent oddness, giving an off-kilter, unsettling effect, which Chaucer first used in Troilus and Criseyde. Thomas Wyatt later employed it for his famous poem ‘They flee from me’, which makes use of the rhyme’s natural strangeness to echo the insidious subject matter. In fundamental ways, there was an underlying awe which both poets expressed for Chaucer’s inventiveness, the toolkit which he had left them, and the suppleness of his writing which seems to have invited so many others to create after him.
Patience Agbabi’s reading was a real contrast, with its spoken-word energy and life. The audience’s applause after her opening poem was hearty and full, responding now to the character in the voices she was writing in, as though – in The Canterbury Tales – she really was the storyteller taking her turn, and we were gratefully listening to pass the journey. Indeed she herself had described it as ‘a remix of The Canterbury Tales’. What was so striking about her work was how much recognisable character and life, like Chaucer, she had captured, and she even took Chaucer’s pointed use of the vernacular and in the same spirit deliberately used equivalent modern slang, like ‘hubby’. As Gail Ashton had declared at the event’s opening: “[Chaucer] truthfully explores the ways in which we live”.
In Telling Tales, she includes biographies of the characters she has created, like her ‘Harry ‘Bells’ Bailey’ the publord of the Tabbard Inn, who hosts a story-telling night at the pub, one of many details that got a big laugh. An audience often enjoys a well-drawn modern equivalent of a classic, and the wit and knowingness of hers won them over from the beginning. She also proved herself to be a fine spoken-word poet, and I couldn’t help but notice how much her rhyme sounded like The Canterbury Tales prologue at points, with the same skipping heart-beat cohesion that makes it so memorable and exciting. You can watch her perform her own version of the prologue here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U-ozgjZfjQ
“They are fools that think the poem lies only in the pages… it will talk back to you, in all its tongues.”
As I’ve often found to be the case in the past, having two poets read alongside each other, when they have taken quite different approaches, stimulates further thought about the meanings we each make when reading a poem, and the way in which the text offers up its layers so variously.Both poets’ readings were so wonderfully different, and in that way the evening ultimately felt like a communal celebration of ‘the reader’, and the way in which we all can find personal resonances in writing from any century. Through the act of reading we are all intuiting new meanings, finding slants and angles, and actually writing our own versions of a poem for ourselves.