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ˇ How I Came To Love Chaucer's English

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How I Came to Love Chaucer's English

Becoming a Fan

I was in the ninth grade. My girlfriend, Jackie, was in seventh. One day Jackie said she had something serious to discuss with me. She asked me if I had ever heard of an old poet named Geoffrey Chaucer. I told her I hadn't.

Jackie thought that since I had two more years of English classes than she did, I might have information that could solve a problem for her. We found a quiet spot in the woods near where we lived and she told me the serious matter.

She had heard that this old poet, Chaucer, had used the word "fart" in one of his stories, which were called tales. Logically, we knew this could not be true. Jackie explained that Chaucer was even older than Shakespeare. Both Shakespeare and Chaucer, we knew from our English classes, lived way back when English was a pure, golden language. Authors were serious. They did not write about trivial matters, as contemporary authors did.

My English class had just read Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a serious play full of golden language. Nothing trivial about it and definitely, no jokes. We thought of modern literature as the books we found under Jackie's older brothers' mattresses — Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury, which even had a sex scene, and the soon to scandalize everyone Peyton Place, set in a small town like ours where everyone was doing everything we whispered about and weren't supposed to understand at all. No pure, golden language there! Spillane and Metalious might have written "fart." Shakespeare and Chaucer never could. What Jackie heard couldn't possibly be true. But all the same, we wanted to check it out.

On the way to the library, Jackie filled me in. She had heard that Chaucer said "fart" in a story called "The Miller's Tale" from a book called The Canterbury Tales. At the library, we headed straight for the card catalog. Dewey decimal number in hand, we made for the middle of the library past the librarians' desk, and went down a set of beautiful frosted glass stairs to the Literature Section in the basement. There we found The Canterbury Tales without trouble, saw "The Miller's Tale" in the Table of Contents, turned to the appropriate page, and started scanning.

There it was! Plain to see! The word "fart" right there in the text! Wow! We were excited!

Just as we were beginning to scan the text for the plot, the largest, sternest member of the library staff appeared at the top of the staircase. Dressed in basic black and speaking vociferously, she snatched the book out of our hands as soon as she got to the bottom of the stairs. With considerable drama, she pointed upward to a sign on a chain that was supposed to hang across the stairway to the Literature Section: NO ONE UNDER EIGHTEEN ALLOWED. She could not imagine why the chain dangled down from one ring only, though she did not blame us overtly for removing it. We'd never seen the chain at all. I thought to myself that probably a staff member with a heavy load of books to reshelve forgot about the stupid thing, but I said nothing.

My first lesson in Chaucer was thus ended. But I became a fan.

Six Years Later

I was a sophomore in college. Part of our literature survey class included excerpts from The Canterbury Tales. I was thrilled. We had a wonderful instructor, Winthrop Walker Piper III, called "Win" by his friends, and "Mr. Piper" by us. He taught enthusiastically and knew how to relate to students without condescension. Each meeting of his class was a delight, plus he and I were the only two people on campus to ride bicycles. To be stylish, you either walked — carrying your books in just such and such a way on one hip, or, if you were lucky, you got a ride in one of the "fraternity boys'" cars — a rarity, and especially cool if you got a ride in a convertible, an Edsel, or if you "stepped down into a Hudson."

Mr. Piper and I often waved to each other as we biked from home to classrooms or simply rode around town to be out in the fresh air.

I was fascinated by the structure of The Canterbury Tales and by the fact that, like the Ten Commandments, the number of Canterbury pilgrims stated in one place is not the same as stated in another. Some years before, I had checked the Bible out, having questions about a few of the commandments, and could not find the list of ten. I gave up, unaware that such a list does not exist!

But The Canterbury Tales were a lovely challenging adventure, not a dry set of DOs and DON'Ts. I dove in, making my own choices of which pilgrims were where when, and created an artwork showing a long procession including all of them. I used pen and ink on stiff board and colored the results as best I knew of Medieval European costume from Maxfield Parrish, N. C. Wyeth, and other romantic illustrators of my parents' generation. I gave the set to Mr. Piper. He was the one other person I knew who was enthusiastic about the subject.

A university course specifically about Chaucer was given every other year, but I was not able to fit it into my course schedule. Yet my quest continued.

Another Six Years Later

I was now living in San Francisco. One of my housemates went to San Francisco State. It was inexpensive, $45 a semester for part-time students, $96 a semester for full time. I knew I did not want to be a full time student. I needed time to explore the world. I'd spent a couple of years doing office work and found it deadening. I supported myself doing child care and housework. This covered my living expenses: $25 a month for my room in a six room flat at Ord and 17th Street, $5 a week into our household kitty for food — I did most of the shopping on Castro Street when it was called Eureka Valley, and the rest for art supplies and savings. We were brought up to save 25% of whatever came in and this worked beautifully for some decades.

There were two things I wanted very much to learn in the 1960s: Chaucer and weaving. I went to San Francisco State and took both. I totally lucked out on my teachers: master weaver Margery Livingston and folklorist/historical linguist Niel K. Snortum.

Five days a week for six weeks in Mr. Snortum's summer school class, we read Chaucer — at home and at school, silently and out loud. Prof. Snortum taught us how language changes, on what principles it changes. He gave us memorable etymologies, filled us in on plots and culture, and encouraged us to do our own digging into the past. I was hooked. This was the antithesis of humorless speech from a golden age of formality and stratospheric ideals. It was literature pulsing with the present, with humanity, wit, story telling, flowing rhyme, and lots of laughs.

I went on to study Old English with Prof. Snortum and to study other medieval English writers with his colleague, John Gardner, who was soon to tell the world he was a novelist as well as a Medievalist.

I gave papers at professional meetings, read my own poetry inspired by work of Chaucer's time, and created many hand lettered texts inspired by styles from Medieval Europe.

My interest in Chaucer and his contemporaries remained strong.

Into the New Millennium

Many years of living in San Francisco were followed by exploring the warm outdoors feel of a cottage in Oakland's Dimond District (yes, that's Dimond without an "a"). When I moved from Oakland to Emeryville in 1996, I pared down my possessions. I would be sharing a house with my sweetheart and other housemates. We needed space for all. Something had to go. The Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts (SCRAP) in San Francisco and the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse got many potential art materials I had saved for good, but nebulous, future projects.

People's Park got clothes. I could not believe that giving away clothes would be difficult. One agency wanted things only for babies and toddlers. Another only took next-to-new. Almost nothing I had was new enough to be next-to-new. An agency in Berkeley that took clothes for homeless women would not take my skirts. A staff member, wearing a skirt of swirling taffeta, told me, with an air like the librarian who marched Jackie and me out of the Literature Section of my childhood hometown library, "They don't wear skirts." So the clothes I wanted to give away went to People's Park and were quickly accepted.

I exchanged books for credit at Moe's Books in Berkeley. I filled my home garbage can every week for a month. I told myself that anything I would take with me to Emeryville was a project I was going to finish.

One such project had to do with Middle English. My library of books on Chaucer, The Gawain Poet, the Pearl Poet, and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing stayed with me.

In 2007 I met Robin Goodfellow, music teacher extraordinaire. Robin taught piano and recorder. She had a recital coming up and invited me to read a little Middle English to go with the recorder music. My audience was composed of students from six years old to adulthood, with many parents and grandparents in attendance. To relax performers before the recital, Robin had collage materials set out. Cards and wall pieces came into being almost instantly. We all had a fine time.

I read stanzas from The Pearl in a mix of modern and Middle English, while a tray of gems was passed around — gems that are part of a Medieval poetic dream landscape: silver leaves, indigo tree trunks, paths of crushed pearl, bright colored gems in a rushing brook, and many more. The children stayed interested because they could handle the rocks and metals being passed around.

Over refreshments after the performance, grandparents recited their favorite stanzas from Chaucer. True to principles of historical linguistics I learned from Niel Snortum, many of us had developed our own far flung dialects of Middle English and needed to listen carefully to comprehend one another's Chaucer. Smiles were everywhere and the poetry goes on.

In 2009 I joined Pinole Artisans in mural-friendly, artistically dynamic, peaceable Pinole Old Town. Invited to join by virtual poet laureate Claire J. Baker, I exhibited paintings in a spring group show. Preparing for a second group exhibit, gallery director Joan Landis suggested I display some poetry. Claire has exhibited framed poems on fine papers in Pinole and Berkeley. I decided on short poems, lettered and drawn by hand. The show went up July 9, 2009. The reception was on July 11.

The short version of this story is on my website: "This is the first time since the 1960s that an exhibition facility has been forward looking enough and interdisciplinary enough to show Tanya's work of this kind."

And there is a backstory. At San Francisco State in the 1960s, photographer Frances Rodgers and I designed a year long series of exhibits for the library titled "Language in a Visual Setting." Niel Snortum, Wilder Bentley, Sr., and other professors wrote letters of recommendation for our project. We created display space with sculpture, textiles, and plants, so that guests to the exhibit walked through meaningfully arranged space, not simply a sterile interior. On the walls were both paintings and lettered texts. I did the lettered texts adapted from Medieval models. I wanted readable, visually interesting compositions with prose and poetry from Chaucer's time to the trendy Beatles, including some of my own writing as well.

In connection with the exhibits, artists Barbara Hammett, Poe Potter, Sheila Sullivan and I put on outdoor performances of plays by John Lennon, bringing varieties of English into the present moment. In the Gallery Lounge we presented a workshop on free style lettering, based on Medieval manuscripts and modern alphabets designed to provide one symbol for one sound (for example, there would be different A forms for the A in "at" and the A in "ate").

Frances and I took a binder about our series to a prominent museum where we had been given an introduction to the head curator. The curator told us the museum had no interest in the type of thing we were doing. A few months later, the same museum mounted its "first ever" exhibit of illuminated Islamic manuscripts combined in an interesting physical environment with textiles, photographs, and ceramics.

In the 1970s, Alfred Frankenstein reviewed a San Francisco solo exhibit in which I had paintings and text. Frankenstein was, at the time, the chief art and music critic in the City. He was also a noted art historian. His review praised my painting technique as "brilliant," but said the text accompanying the paintings had to go. Words with paintings were considered a "crutch." Mark Linenthal, head of the Creative Writing section of San Francisco State's English Department had told me the same thing. With a gorgeous page from an illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales behind him, Linenthal told me that visual images with words were "a crutch."

The 1980s were encouraging on many grounds, but not where combining words and images is concerned. Soon after I moved my studio to The Point in San Francisco's Hunters Point Shipyard, I hired a recommended art consultant to help me with the business of art. He told me my "poetic" painting titles had to go. No more quotes from Wallace Stevens or e. e. cummings. Painting titles such as "Number Three" were what was wanted.

It would be twenty more years before my Chaucer-based painted poetry would hang on the walls of another gallery — in The Pinole Art Center exhibit, "The Magic of Color," July 9 through September 10, 2009.

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