Chaucer Stirs Things Up
by Anita Sullivan
Welcome to the first of a four-part series on the physicality of language. Writing from direct experience with sharp, sly, and sometimes ham-fisted words, poet and essayist Anita Sullivan will speculate on some of the ways language may have worked in early societies as a part of the biological human toolkit – and how that has changed.
One evening I sat in the audience at a poetry reading, waiting for it to start. Other people were talking quietly, but I wasn’t conversing or paying attention to individual words, only aware of the general hum. Then from directly behind me a voice began to speak slowly in a hoarse whisper:
Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour … .
The first three lines from the “Prologue” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was recited in such beautiful dialect, that I felt as if a black hole had opened briefly and accidentally into another room some 600 years earlier.
Immediately my body began to shake beyond my control and my eyes filled with tears. I could hardly breathe. This was a very different reaction from the one I would soon be having when I listened to two poets read their contemporary lines.
I didn’t turn around to see who was behind me. The uncanny whisper ended abruptly after these three lines and never resumed for the rest of the evening. But I was stunned by the simple, almost brutal physicality of my response, as if I had been actually touched by these words, and I felt a need to think about the experience after I got home.
In what way can words alone become so physical? Daily we exercise our human capacity to emit, absorb and shape a variety of sounds with our ears, mouths, chests, stomachs; we are physically involved in regularly altering air. Words themselves are not objects. Yet listening to three lines of Chaucer at that particular moment was for me the same as being struck in the solar plexus by a stone. It was like being rubbed down all over my body, inside and out, with something uniquely rough and prickly. I had a physical reaction to something about those words that did not come from their meaning, nor from some passing resemblance to noises of predators, weapons or the mesmerizing rhythms of drum beats. Several persistent questions refused to go away:
Was this just a fluke brought about by an odd combination of circumstances?
Did this used to happen quite often? And if so, where, when, why?
Why doesn’t it happen any more?
Mine was not a secondary reaction, first processed by the conscious mind; it had little or nothing to do with meaning, rhythm, meter, assonance, alliteration, rhyme. This felt much farther down the brain stem ladder towards the visceral – and yet more refined at the same time – than that.
I had been unaccountably catapulted into some kind of earlier human relationship with language. And it was neither a simple nor an unmindful one.
Chaucer’s words had to do with spring. Therefore my response may have been pre-conditioned to be stronger than if he had been talking about a divorce or a fishing trip. Nevertheless, some combination of meaning, sound, rhythm and the particular situation had conjured for me an original emotional experience, not simply evoked the memory of a previous one.
Speaking as a poet, I have come to recognize that raw emotions are like rare natural resources: They must be actively mined through some extraction process with tools. They do not obey ordinary verbal commands or cues any more than volcanoes and hurricanes do and, like weather gods, their powers should not be fooled around with. Not surprisingly, humans seem to be constructed much like Earth itself: We have a seething central core, well insulated from the surface by various levels of relatively opaque matter (our brains, for example!). But there are vents through which the steam is regularly allowed to come up. I believe the ritual of oral storytelling and poetry was one of those vents, and one of poetry’s original functions. It is a function now basically obsolete.
And yes, my brief experience with the first few words in Chaucer’s amazing poem was related to spring, and, through the propelling ‘juice’ of this season, I came into the rhetorical space that ancient poetry used to carve out for itself whenever people gathered for important rites and ceremonies. I could feel a seething in his words; I could feel the ancient, collective urgency and “riddlic fire”* moving through his lines. I was connecting with the enormous tradition in ancient myth and story in which words, under the right conditions, can have actual power to bring up new matter into the world, rather than simply serving as a stamp of identification and approval afterwards.
So, the first thing I settled in my mind was that my physical reaction was not because I was re-membering some event in my own past, one that the words had almost brutally yanked from my poor quivering unconscious mind. Poetry can do that too. But this was not about me – this was much older, like the language of original naming.
But what does “original” mean when you talk about the enormous subject of language? This is the can of worms I intend to foolishly rush into next. Stay tuned.
*From Craig Williamson’s introduction to A Feast of Creatures (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), a wonderful book on Anglo-Saxon-Riddle-Songs.
Anita Sullivan wanted to major in anthropology in college but ended up with an MFA in Poetry. Her career as a piano tuner allowed time to indulge in a narrow but (to her mind) related set of avocations: archaeology, folklore, oral tradition, translation, early keyboard temperaments and religious studies. She has published two essay collections: The Seventh Dragon (piano tuning) and Ikaria (Greek travel). She has a chapbook of poetry, The Middle Window, and a full-length collection, Garden of Beasts. She is a founding member of the poetry publishing collective Airlie Press in Monmouth, Oregon. Find her at www.seventhdragon.com.