Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

One way to get experience is to seek it through the directed travel of a pilgrimage. Many religious traditions include the idea of a such journeys, and one side-effect of a shared destination is the mingling of travelers from diverse setting-off points along the trail.

In the Middle Ages, in England, one pilgrimage had the greatest potential to bring a diverse group together, the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Canterbury where the sainted Thomas Becket had been assassinated. A series of stories ostensibly told by various tellers together for this trip became the great early work of English literature: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

April is National Poetry Month in the US, and though this celebration’s founders give no exact reason for April being chosen, two widely known poems explicitly start in April, and whether it’s cause or effect, I think of these poems when I think of April and National Poetry Month. The oldest of these, is today’s post “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”  which begins:

“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote”

Now I know I’ve let slip too many typos in these notes before today, but that’s not a particularly bad day at the keyboard—instead, it’s Chaucer’s version of English as spoken in the 15th Century. It’s a challenge to read this in the original pronunciation, though I once was delighted when a skilled classical music DJ mic checked at 5:45 AM one morning with a perfect rendition of this Prologue in Middle English. I’m not going to attempt the same; today’s episode uses a modern English version for clarity, and in consideration of my thicker tongue.

Musically I’m not in the Middle Ages or in Canterbury for this piece either. I’m going to use the 12-string guitar once more. There is no shrine here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, but for some reason three of best players of this troublesome priest of an instrument came to prominence here: “Spider John” Koerner, Leo Kottke, and Steve Tibbetts. For this episode, the 12 String’s musical tale is told in the character of Steve Tibbetts—or rather a modest imitation on my part using Tibbetts’ distinct stringing of the 12 string, which uses octave strings only on the two lowest courses of the 12 string with unison string pairs on the rest.

Cortez 12 string Tibbetts Stringing Closeup

More thick strings, fewer skinny ones, setting up a 12-string Tibbetts-style

 

To hear the 12 string strung that way, and to hear about the English April in Chaucer’s report, use the player that appears below.

Theater of the Seasons

Monday night here in Minnesota it snowed. As I took my pre-teen son to school in the morning, he looked at the inch of fresh snow on the spring ground and said “Mother Nature is drunk. Shut her down!”

I rode my winter bike to breakfast that morning, and the trees overhanging the street were shedding overnight ice chunks that their budding branches were rejecting in the morning. As this shrugging hail fell on my ski helmet, it bounced off with a “ping!” like marbles or ping pong balls, and popped onto the icy street like broken ornaments.  A few hours later, in the late afternoon, I rode again to the grocery store in considerable sunlight. The streets were dry and I was in shorts and a T shirt.

studded tires and slush on the patio tables

Plenty of patio seating available for Tuesday breakfast

 

Minnesotans have a well-worn phrase for our edition of the book of nature. It’s not a hand-bound collection of poems like our New Englander Emily Dickinson’s, but a play script. “The Theater of the Seasons” we call it. Famously, we try to hide emotions here, but we sure do enjoy a little drama with our weather forecasts, keeping an eye peeled for news of storms that can kill or injure you. Sitting in the upper Midwest we can receive weather sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico or dropping down from the Northwest Territories. So, particularly in Spring and Fall, the Theater of the Seasons plays in repertory here in Minnesota.

Today’s audio piece is short, less than 2 minutes long, and it’s called“Theater of the Seasons,”  expanding on that phrase a bit. I think you’ll enjoy it. The player gadget appears at the end of the post, as usual.

As part of this blog’s participation in National Poetry Month, we’re trying to provide even more audio pieces like this that you can stream. If you know someone who might enjoy words combined with music like this, why not take this month to let them know about us and our Parlando Project, or share this or another favorite on your own blog or chosen social media site.

Spring View

I’m often attracted to Chinese poetry, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the deceptive simplicity to the images, that hardly seem like images at all if one expects the showy metaphors used by many western poets. The concision of many of the most admired Chinese poems can be shocking. And to me there seems to be a radically flat broadness to the way some of the poets consider society and politics. Like a lot of my favorite UK folk songs, the tales of royalty and servants, peasants and generals, saints and drunkards seem to treat them all with the same even diction and consideration.

From what I read, Du Fu is highly regarded as poet in Chinese culture. He wrote in the 8th Century, about the time someone in Europe was compiling Beowulf  between long drinks of mead out of cups made from skulls. Du Fu’s time was a chaotic one, with the Chinese kingdom falling into rebellion and civil war. “Spring View”  is his response after his side had lost the battle and he was in disgrace.

Du Fu

Du Fu:  the red trucker cap or the pink pussy hat?

 

In translating Du Fu’s “Spring View,”  I thought of our own times, particularly here in the United States, three months now into some kind of change. Alas for Du Fu, I became so enamored of seeing our own current events in his lament that halfway through I started to get more “free” with my translation, until by the time I reached the final line, I chose to conclude on a different thought altogether from the original. Consider it a theme and variation composition.

I do not read Chinese, but here is Du Fu’s “Spring View”  as written:

春望

国破山河在
城春草木深
感时花溅泪
恨别鸟惊心
烽火连三月
家书抵万金
白头搔更短
浑欲不胜簪

Musically this piece uses 12 string acoustic guitar, an instrument I love to struggle with. The overtones and extra harmonics of the 12 strings are the attraction, and the danger too, as they can clash a bit. Some musicians work very hard to try to even out the intonation of those notes to minimize this, leading to one of my favorite music jokes. Question: how long does it take to tune a 12 string guitar? Answer: Nobody knows.

JF30-12

“Every politician should be issued a 12 string, because you never really tune it, you just negotiate with it.”

 

My approximate ear has come to embrace the somewhat woozy sound of the 12 string for much the same reason that loud electric musicians may choose to welcome feedback or that electronic musicians select the detuned effects of things like ring modulators.

To hear Spring View (after Du Fu)  use the player below.

 

This House Is 100 Years Old

This one isn’t quite as old as yesterday’s post. American poet Dave Moore wrote this only a few years ago.

Americans have a history, but for most of us it’s not a long one. And Dave lives in Minnesota, which was only widely settled by Europeans less than 200 years ago. Even given this short history, people sometimes like to research the history of their homes, and to find out who the former owners and occupants were. I don’t know if Dave did this with his house, but he didn’t, he imagined it well.

I set this to short acoustic guitar tune, and I am again the reader of this piece. Although it may take a moment to load and appear, the player should appear just below this and allow you to hear it.