Chaucer and the avant-garde

I have been working for the past couple of years on a new book that brings together, finally, my disparate interests in premodern English poetry and contemporary American avant-garde poetry. I was a poet before I was a medievalist. I used to be defensive about the non-relation between these interests. I wanted to make sure everyone knew the poetry I was writing and reading wasn’t medievalizing or nostalgic. On the contrary. Having studied with Elizabeth Willis in college, my map of contemporary poetry centered on the kinds of avant-garde poetry made after the confessional poetry movement and after the heyday of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine. There’s no agreed-upon name for this strand of contemporary poetry, the strand most often being reproduced in prestigious MFA programs these days. It is easier to convey what is meant by listing some poets you may have heard of: Ben Lerner, Claudia Rankine, Prageeta Sharma, Juliana Spahr, Willis. They were born in the 1960s and 1970s. Anthony Reed’s term post-lyric, which he applies specifically to Rankine, could apply to all of them. So usefully, Reed stresses that the post– doesn’t mean lyric has been superseded but that it has grown belated and ashamed of itself, like the –racial in post-racial.

This is going to be my longest book! It takes a while to flesh out the critical terms I need to make the leap from the fourteenth century to the twenty-first. Terms like author, lyric, meter, and source.

Two of the last chapters of the book that I’ve been working on lately compare Chaucer to Rankine and to Willis. These are unexpected, difficult pairings. There’s no historical connection in either case. Rankine’s poetry and prose poetry, while conscious of their place in a history of violent race making, are determinedly presentist, so presentist that one page of Citizen underwent gut-wrenching expansion in subsequent printings to include names of further Black people murdered by police in 2014. Willis does think historically but focuses on the pre-Raphaelites, the subject of her dissertation.

Instead, I pursue a formal homology. Chaucer shares with Rankine on one side and with Willis on the other forms of what I am calling apophatic effects. With Rankine (and many other avant-garde poets), Chaucer shares a sense of lyric poetry as missing, absent, already erased, unavailable. That chapter centers on Chaucer’s Death of Blanche the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls, and the short lyric Fortune, and on Rankine’s 2004-2020 Graywolf Press trilogy Don’t Let Me Be LonelyCitizenJust Us. With Willis, Chaucer shares a propensity to stage moments of unrecognizable allusions, as when the dreamer of the Death of Blanche the Duchess alludes to a never-identified “phisycien” who can “heale” him (39-40). This chapter is still in progress but likely will touch on Chaucer’s House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Fortune again, and on Willis’s last three books, Meteoric Flowers (2006), Address (2011), and Alive: New and Selected Poems (2015). (Chaucer’s dream visions and lyrics I find easier to like than the Canterbury Tales, which makes me weird.)

Juxtaposing Chaucer and the avant-garde is mutually illuminating. Rankine helps me see the whiteness of Chaucer’s lyric subject, and Willis helps me see the radical nature of Chaucer’s spectral citationality. Chaucer in turn grounds avant-garde poetics in a much longer history of verse craft. His example suggests that some paradoxes of poetic making aren’t new.

Further reading

Reed, Anthony. “The Erotics of Mourning in Recent Experimental Black Poetry.The Black Scholar 47 (2017): 23-37.

virtual exhibits

My second monograph, Meter and Modernity in English Verse, 1350-1650, currently appears in three virtual conference exhibits, each carrying a discount code for 40% off:

  1. Shakespeare Association of America (code SHAKES40-FM)
  2. Renaissance Society of America (code RSA40-FM)
  3. Medieval Academy of America (code MAA40-FM)

Some highlights of the book: it’s organized by metrical history rather than clock time; Lord Byron flits in and out of the book; new readings of Langland and Chaucer and their sixteenth- and seventeenth-century reception; a sociopolitical argument about the formation of an “English literary tradition”; George Gascoigne is an unexpected star; some of the first readings of the metrical forms of English political prophecy.

Gower and political prophecy

[Update 2021: I was indeed able to find a previously overlooked connection between Visio Anglie and Bridlington’s Prophecy, now published in Notes and Queries.]

I’ve been reading John Gower alongside Geoffrey Chaucer this semester with my students. As I had previously only read Gower in small doses, it’s been great fun. Gower wrote thousands of lines of poetry in all three major literary languages of fourteenth-century England: English, French, and Latin. We’re sampling this gigantic output, focusing on the English Confessio Amantis, a wild tale collection with a conscience, and the Latin Visio Anglie, an even wilder dream vision composed in the wake of the 1381 uprising.

Since I read lots of political prophecy (think Merlin and dragons) for my second book, I’ve been noticing when Gower draws on that tradition. He assumes his readers know it. I hope to write an article on this eventually, but in order to do that I’ll need to read more Gower to scout out passages for comment. I believe this is an underappreciated aspect of Gower’s poetics. (A search for “prophecy” in the Gower bibliography turns up just nine results, most relating to biblical prophecy.) Three places in Gower’s Latin writings have been recognized as drawing on the insular political prophecy tradition as it developed from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain onward. These are the animal symbolism in Visio Anglie (Cornelius 51n73) and Cronica tripertita (Taylor 131) and the short coronation poem “H. aquile pullus” (see the notes). As far as I can tell, not much has been written on even these three texts in relation to political prophecy.

Fonzo’s dissertation shows how seriously Gower takes the role of “public prophet” in all his major poems. However, while Fonzo focuses on political prophecy in reading William Langland’s Piers Plowman, biblical prophecy takes center stage in the Gower chapter and the article derived from it. I think it would be possible to show that both kinds of prophecy are ingredients in Gower’s modus operandi.

In addition to the animal allegory in Visio Anglie, I’d point to the surreal moment later in the same poem when the Tower of London/storm-tossed ship carries the dreamer and the English nobility ashore to a foreign land that is revealed to be Britain but must be explicated as if unknown (Carlson 1955-63):

Ad portum veniens de naui concito litus
   Egressus pecii, turbaque magna michi
Plebis in occursum iam venerat, ex quibus vnum
   Pre reliquis dignum contigit esse virum,
A quo quesiui, ‘Dic, insula qualis, et vnde
   Tantus adest populus, quis <sit> et inde modus?’
Ecce senex ille, portu qui stabat in illo,
   Reddidit ista meis horrida verba sonis:

‘Exulis hec dici nuper solet Insula Bruti. . .’

(“In port I quickly disembarked and sought
The shore; a crowd of folk by then had come
To meet me, and of these it chanced that one
Appeared a worthy man, above the rest;
I asked: ‘This island, what’s it like, and whence
So many folk? And how do they behave?’
That aged man, who stood there in that port,
To my remarks returned these fearful words:

‘Its name is now “the Isle of Exiled Brut”. . .'”)

It’s an uncanny and dramatic moment, pointed by Gower’s having withheld the keyword Bruti until the end of line 1963. Literally, of course, Gower and the noblemen are already in Britain, but the poem, following through on its Ovidian exile motif, washes them ashore there as if for the first time. Unlooked-for discovery of actually existing conditions from within a self-consciously fictional world is just what political prophecy is for, I think. And the representation of Britain as “Insula Bruti” emanates from a historiographical tradition that Geoffrey of Monmouth also initiated. I read the aged man (senex) as a projection, into the poem, of Gower’s self-appointed role as exponent of prophecy. In this scene, Gower in effect reads prophecy to himself.

I suspect the Visio Anglie shows the influence of the mid fourteenth-century Latin Prophecy ascribed to John of Bridlington, as Anne Middleton suggested (Justice 213n74). This was a widely disseminated topical poem, rarely read these days. It traveled with a Latin commentary, a textual form that clearly appealed to Gower, who wrote many Latin glosses, headnotes, and colophons to guide interpretation of his own poetry. Bridlington’s Prophecy and Gower’s Visio Anglie both feature a disturbed visionary narrator, animal symbolism, and pessimism about national politics. More sleuthing is needed.

further reading

Cornelius, Ian. “Gower and the Peasants’ Revolt.” Representations 131 (2015): 22-51.

Fonzo, Kimberly. “Late Medieval Authorship and the Prophetic Tradition.” Diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013.

Fonzo, Kimberly. “Richard II’s Publicly Prophesied Deposition in Gower’s Confessio Amantis.” Modern Philology 114 (2016): 1-17.

Gower, John, and David R. Carlson, ed., and A. G. Rigg, trans. Poems on Contemporary Events. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2011.

Justice, Steven. Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Taylor, Rupert. The Political Prophecy in England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1911.