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Singing Chaucer

Author Lola Haskins
Air Date 4/4/2007

Singing Chaucer Transcript

A few years ago, my writer-in-the-schools gig involved a middle school in a suburban neighborhood. My charges for that session were mostly kids who’d been bussed in from the poor side of town, whose teacher told me she hadn’t been able to do much poetry with them because they just weren’t interested, I’d see. I didn’t say anything, but I knew from experience THAT part was wrong and sure enough, by the end of the first week, the two-person exercises I presented to them as an ESP game had them hooting with delight, and, when they wrote alone, they fell completely silent as they bent over their notebooks. Sure they didn’t write grammatically, and sure they couldn’t spell, but for once, they were saying what THEY wanted to say and having a really good time in the process. And not only that, every once in a while they’d write lines that I, as a poet who’d been writing for many years, would have been proud to steal.

For some reason, I ran out of material a day early that session, so I decided just to recite some poems for the class and see what happened. I started out with things I was pretty sure they’d like. And they did. But my first ideas ran out in about twenty minutes. “Uh-oh,” I thought. But then it came to me–and I decided to try one of my personal favorites . . .Chaucer. So I told the kids, “You know how you don’t care what the words of a song are sometimes, you just like how it sounds? Well, this next one’s like that. Don’t worry about what it means, just lie back and shut your eyes.” Then I proceeded to recite the prologue, which I’d learned in high school, in my very best, probably mangled, middle English.

Surprisingly, the kids all listened intently. And I was surprised again afterwards, first by the silence, then by two urgently waving hands. I nodded at one of the hands. “What’s that mean?” the heavy boy in the back row demanded. “Oh good,” I thought. “You care.” “Well, let’s see if we can figure it out,” I said — which turned the class alive, even chaotic. Everyone wanted to guess at every word. And they were mostly right. Not only that, but they filed out talking about some Englishman who’d died centuries before they were born. And I also realized as I gathered up my papers, how much fun we’d all had with a poem that had no”relevance,” and no dumbing down to whatever vocabulary someone in curriculum thought these kids could understand. Just listen — doesn’t it make you want to sing?

Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures
soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-

Posted in Poetry