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Chaucer and the Problem With Poetry

When Chaucer’s bumbling narrator in the House of Fame dreams that he has been snatched up by a Dantean eagle, he supposes he is about to be carried bodily into heaven. “Thou demest of thyself amis,” the eagle assures him, deflating the narrator’s absurd mistake, which is born of fear and desire in equal measures. His error is that he confuses the poetic vision with both death and instant, miraculous fame. The error of the poet is always thus: he thinks his poetry is a matter of life and death rather than a somewhat silly dream, and he imagines that through his poetry he will be known and loved forever, when the opposite is much more likely. Poetry regularly practiced leads in general to a life of unwashed obscurity (Chaucer being the exception rather than the rule).

A typical poet relaxes in his chateau between sonnets.

A typical poet relaxes in his chateau between sonnets.

No matter. He has no choice but to have the vision. “Is this how I am going to die?” wonders the narrator. “Oh, Jove is nowhere about,” assures the eagle. Rather, in recompense for the narrator’s ‘devotion’ he is being granted a visit to the House of Fame, for amusement and for ‘gam.’   The eagle tells him that he has served Cupid long and diligently without reward, “And nevertheless have set your wit—although full little there is of it” to celebrate Love by writing poetry, “And you take pains to praise his art although in love you take no part.” The dream is not at all an act of the poet or a result of his life’s labors, only a kind of superfluous reward for those labors which would otherwise be vain ones. Poetry, then, is a game in which one may accidentally stumble upon something fairly true, though it is unlikely.

We can all, I think, relate to the odd and uncomfortable changes that occur to the normal human being between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. This unfortunate state is often accompanied by an attempt to poet. Youth is that time when all matters appear distorted, out of focus, and lacking in true proportion. A belief that mundane occurrences like meeting a girl or being picked up by a passing eagle are somehow imbued with unearthly, life-shattering significance is the result of the failure to see reality in its proper perspective—this failure is a hallmark of immaturity. This is why most people rightfully regard anyone who falls outside this general age-range attempting to poet with deep suspicion, if not downright aversion. As for the rest, it is the toleration of maturity that allows us to smile and nod and sagely opine that this too shall pass.

But much more insidiously, the narrator conflates two types of assumption. It should be startling to the reader of Chaucer to see biblical prophets Enoch and Elijah casually treated as the same type of character with the same fate as Ganymede (cup-bearer to the gods and boy-toy to Zeus) and Romulus (as blood-thirsty a fratricide as ever graced the heavens). But the narrator is the kind of poet who wishes to achieve fame through his words, and what is it to achieve fame but to be known by as many people as possible for as long as possible? It makes no difference to the narrator that Enoch and Elijah spoke the word of God; the point is that they gained undying fame and a kind of immortality as a result of doing so, or they would not be in the company of Ganymede and Romulus.

To shine in the heavens for all time and be known to all—an intoxicating vision. While the narrator is clearly afraid, his desire also trembles behind the question, “Lo, this was tho (his) fantasye:” is he or is he not on his way to constellation-hood? Why should he think that he, a mere poet, is being carried up into heaven? Merely because he wants it to be true. The desire to be known, not for one’s true self, but for the powerful sway of one’s words, is the distinct province, in fact, of the sociopath. It is a dazzling idea that one might become dazzling, blinding that one might blind. The charm of the outside form, fair, seductive words—thus the poet, and thus the man without conscience. This is the road across the chasm of death indeed, but not the road to heaven.

Look to the Nicomachean Ethics, my friends, look to thy ethics. Although it first appears as you read Aristotle that honor is the highest good, stay the course and see that the highest good by the end of the book actually requires—friendship. For a brief period, the gam of poeting might seem as harmless a pursuit as minesweeper, but ware the gam. Steady yourself—habit is all. Your true friends will cure you if you forget yourself in the dream. The cures of the poet are these two things: time and good friends. Use them both wisely.


Featured image: “GANYMEDE DETAIL” (photographed at the Thorvaldsen’s Museum)
by Flickr user RAYANDBEE , used under CC BY 2.0 // cropped

Fat lady watches homeless man sleeping at a bench
by flickr user Spaceshoe, used under CC BY 2.0 // cropped to exclude fat lady

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Beyond the New Sincerity: What is a Post-Post-Ironic Sensibility?

6809639345_2066dace4d_zIf you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you know that its tone is playful, self-deprecating, and whimsical. It has themes, but refuses to be ponderous about them. When the Master Builder Vitruvius states the moral message of the film in so many words (something along the lines of “You are special if you believe you are”), he follows up right away with a disclaimer: “I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”

Of course, this disclaimer draws a laugh if you happen to be thinking exactly that before he says it. But the joke is also supposed to be cathartic. If you’re given permission to laugh at the silliness of the theme, maybe you can move past derision and also accept the message.

What is it about a platitude that makes us gag? Do we just think it’s wrong? Then all we need is to be reminded that truisms are true, and the nausea will subside. But that isn’t enough, is it? We also need to be able to laugh it off. Because a platitude is worse than false–it’s ridiculous. Innocent of all worldly wisdom, radiating naïveté, it is a sitting duck for mockery.  If you are ever on the internet (apparently, you are), you’ve probably digested enough mockery that when you hear something high and empty sounding, you can already hear its ironic echoes resounding through the feeds and streams. It’s as inevitable as the closing bars of a song, that smug moral pronouncements will soon be reduced to sneering travesties.

Call it bathetic cadence.

Now if you want to repeat a platitude in an atmosphere like this, what do you do? You inoculate it, by mocking it yourself. There’s no satisfaction for mockers in taking you down if you’ve done it yourself in advance. Where I come from, we call that an “apotropaism.”


This is exactly what Vitruvius does when he delivers the message of the movie. (Frozen makes a similar move by having its moral not intoned by a weathered sage but casually dropped by a confirmed idiot.) Children don’t need such apologies, but their parents do, because we’ve grown up in an age of irony. If we want to share an earnest moment with our children, it has to be post-ironic. It has to give us permission to laugh it to scorn even as we take it in.

What do these post-ironic apotropaisms (consider this your take-away phrase to sound impressive when you are describing this article to your friends) mean? Calling them “post-“ironic implies that we’ve made some progress. Irony must have been a step in the right direction or we’d be trying to get back to the “pre-” ironic. Getting past irony must be even better.

But where have we gotten? A platitude in brackets is still a platitude. If receiving it from a self-deprecating source keeps us from rejecting it, maybe we were rejecting it for the wrong reasons. We should reject platitudes not because they are ridiculous or even because they are false, but because the problems they solve are always inconsequential. Wanting to feel special, for instance, is a distraction from actually doing something that matters, whether it gives you a sense of fulfillment or not. If we simply override our disgust at platitudes, then we are losing the benefit of an ironic sensibility that protects us from such self-satisfied affirmations.

What we need is a post-post-ironic sensibility that is not just a return to irony but an improvement on the whole fruitless back-and-forth between irony and sincerity. Irony can and should be charitable and edifying instead of cynical and destructive. Sincerity does not have to be naive and trite. It can be literate and profound.

Let me put it to you this way…/FEED ME” by  flickr user quinnanya, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 // text added

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.