Give thanks for unseasonal birds: parrots!

Medieval hit of the week (132,153+ on YouTube) and spreading via Reddit and sim:

Does that parrot ring any bells?

[Yes it’s SKELTONMANIA again: comments thereon and musing inspired thereby; updated, revised, extended, expanded, bludgeoned gently, coaxed, cajoled, hugged gently around the middle where it needed consolation, direct references to certain grants removed because, really, there’s silly and then there’s suicidal, etc.]

Want more manuscript images of pre-Modern parrots? Well, on this here blog back in January, there were some more of Skelton’s feathered friend’s poetic family and friends, perky and pesky and sometimes profoundly sad, but usually loquatious. One such (featured in the aforementioned post) is a near-contemporary cousin, Jean Lemaire de Belge’s marvellous and touching parrot (1505; une merveille touchante / où tout chante, as I like to think Apollinaire would have had it), here is the 1512 edition via BNF Gallica:



I found out about the Skelton poem on FaceBook, as one does, thanks to friends and networks of friends’ friends and so on. It is, I hope you will agree, not only a great bit of YouTube video-ing and breathing life into old things and a good performance, but also a brilliant and hilarious poem.

Herewith some thoughts. They may be obvious or banal: this is the first time I’d met the poem, so I’m still in the “smitten kitten” of love: full of wonder and tunnel-vision focussed blindness, of gigglings and flutterings, of play with a new toy.

I don’t know enough anything at all, really about Skelton, but the many wonderful and witty things going on in his poem look to me like they might include some dealings with the French poem, at least via ideas in common (be they from a specific poem or in general circulation: these two poets are approximate contemporaries) and some nice satirical pokes at empty-headed scholarship. To my ear, mostly at a post-Medieval perception of stereotyped “gothic scholasticism” at its worst. Think of Gargantua’s moving letter to his son, and that generational shift; angry young men throwing out the baby with the bath-water, only to continue the old radical Paris tradition…

This is complicated by Skelton’s participation in the Grammarians’ War, on the side–correct me if I’m wrong or over-simplifying–of a grammar-first approach to teaching and learning Latin. Thus against a method of model citation-examples first, grammar later; hence comic effect of random ridiculous “parroted” sentences / sentenciae. Now, this is interesting if you’re asking what literature is and how we tell it apart from what it isn’t, via literary history and literary criticism, via what people at various times say about it. One venue for such discussions is poets writing and talking about poetry; and is is often while talking about how you do or make poetry, how you compose, the finer points in slow motion of that work. That will include reading other poets’ works, including the Dead Poets’ Society of Classical authors. That in turn means that anyone interested in reading, writing, and understanding poetry–interlinked activities–needs to learn certain other languages. Admittedly, schoolboys learning Latin around 1520 don’t necessarily all do so because they want to become poets. Their parents are even less likely to like the idea.

But what’s happening with this “war” in England in the period, the invectives flying around, the grammar-books at the heart of the debate, the new approaches of Erasmus that are a key factor behind the writing of a new sort of grammar: these are also part of two larger European literary histories. The first is a history of literary debates: my own favourites (see elsewhere on this blog) include those involving Occitan lyric poetry, mainly in the 13th century, expressed in poetic exchanges, some satirical; and the Querelle de la Rose, around a century before the Grammarians, started by Christine de Pisan in criticism of Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose. Jean’s work remains in the air a century later, in part thanks to Chaucer and his readers.

The second literary history is that of writing about composition, in treatises or grammars, for the purpose of teaching and learning. Again, it is a conjoined activity of reading, writing, and understanding. It is a learning by doing, with–as in the Grammarians’ War–various ways of working out whether to start first with examples or with abstracted rules, what sorts of examples to use, how exemplary they should be and in what way (see also: the “crisis of exemplarity”), and at what point learners start actually doing creative work themselves. Favourite examples: again in 13th-century Occitan, in grammars, treatises, razos on learning to compose (and appreciate) poetry in that language; and the wave of poetics treatises for French, in France, of the later 15th and mid-to-late 16th centuries: from the “Grands rhétoriqueurs” to the Pléiade. While the English grammars and debate are about the teaching of Latin, these Continental ones are about vernaculars that have acquired literary status. Once we are into the later period–15th to 16th centuries–they’re all also about nation, nationalism, national identity in a modern-feeling way.

In all cases–13th or 16th century, England or France–we’re dealing with matters of teaching and learning, and with language politics. Our discussants are asking questions about the point and purpose of learning a language, and how “alive” that language and its use can be. Should one learn all about a language before one may be permitted to put it into practice? Should one be allowed to play with it, enjoy it, have fun? May one play around with it, get one’s hands dirty, mess up something with special (and, for most of the languages concerned, sacred) status? What is a language being used for? Is it dead or alive, active or passive, used or abused through different kinds of usage? Uses: reading, reuse as Authoritative Material for Impressive Citation and other rhetorical use, translation, adaptation into another language (ex. Latinate lexis, syntax, and rhetorical tropes in English or French), composition of certain very formulaic fixed rigid (dead) types, free compositional use including for regular communication, poetry: and of what form, how formal, when does the formal become formulaic, is that good or bad,…

The debates continue: in the last century, the removal of the obligation to take Anglo-Saxon/Old English in order to obtain a degree in English at Cambridge; teaching Old French and its grammar through texts, rather than after a year of historical morphology (and pure dislocated grammar); in what some of my colleagues and I do when teaching language, in trying to combine grammar, and examples (of varous sorts), and practical use, and (we hope) that enjoyment that makes learning engaging and alive (by making you and your brain feel more alive) and that keeps that which is being learned (a language, any other field of knowledge, and learning itself) alive. Preservation, continuation, dissemination.

Composition continues to be taught, for good or for ill. Here at UBC, there is good: some of the creative writing courses, the fine and imaginative work of colleagues in French, the main university writing centre for English, and writing centres attached to my own department and to History. All too often, though, there is bad; oft in courses on “academic writing.” It is, my students report, as it sounds: like the kind of drear dry work that people do in a Balzac novel before breaking free from art school and becoming a proper artist, starving in a garrett and madly in love with someone desperately inappropriate and, if we’re really in luck, inappropriately desperate. What every painter worth his salt from Turner onwards revolts against. Why there was a Salon des refusés, and think where the visual arts would be if we hadn’t had it, or where the literary arts would be had Baudelaire not reviewed earier Salons and championed the non-formulaic and lively.

Yes, it’s that bad and then some, all too often, alas, hai las mors mi. Cookie-cutters and rubber stamps are applied, for different kinds of writing (“genres” if you must; in the sense of producing “generic” end results from a same mould) as appropriate and proper to different kinds of academic area and subject-matter. The end result, as far as I can ascertain, is bad writing. Ugly. Incomprehensible. Random collections of buzzwords and jargon vaguely strung together and meaning nothing, devoid of any content. Speaking parrot. Language is rendered down into the purely functional and then applied mechanically: this is as impoverishing and dehumanising as Victorian education to produce competent industrial machinists. Bad writing becomes a culture of bad writing, institutionalised machines of bad writing and Kafkaesque institutions built on and structured by it.

The worst of its “academic” nature can be seen this week in live action: if you are in Canada, keep a look-out for harrassed-looking university academics. Thanksgiving here is also, perversely, grant-application season. Grant paperasserie is the highest expression of bad academic writing, veritable zenith and glorious high apogee to which the whole bad-composition-course machine leads. (Besides, of course, moulding cookie-cutter bad citizens, good corporate clones, and stellar unthinking unquestioning consumers.) Sensitive people who care about words and ideas–for whom words and ideas are their work, their life, their living breath–these poor souls are made to suffer the most heinous offences against the English and French languages through horrific paperwork, the incomprehensible, the senseless, the absurd and irrational. To be charitable, if one tries very hard to understand and to be understanding, there is some sense in the process and its verbiage. It’s hazing for hazing’s sake. Adding injury to insult, in a gross affront to basic dignity academics suffer public humiliation when they themselves are forced to use bad language in bad writing.

So: this approach to composition results, eventually, in dreadful abuse.

Often, such courses are taught from manuals that are more antiquated in content and approach than anything from the period of the Grammarians’ War (let alone the funky fun of Occitan poetics); rigid, tyrannically doctrinaire, doctrinally orthodox, formulaic, fun-killing, soul-destroying, dull, lifeless; and prone to kill reading, writing, and any intelligent questioning creative thought or pleasure in life–or life itself. They and their introductions read like the prelude to dystopian totalitarian science fiction, a horrible doom for humankind via university compulsory writing courses. The rise of the machines? Bring it on. AI / The Machines offer more hope for poetry, beauty, pleasure, and life.

I am not, I regret to say, a friend of the “preserve it in aspic” school of thought either. That way leads to fossilisation, fossils, and fossils crumbling into dust.

I also happen to like grammar and other people’s bon mots: I enjoy them and would like others to have the opportunity at least to find out for themselves if they, too, find them amusing and reviving, a source of happiness in life, of getting to the end of a day and knowing that one has changed and gained something from it.

Matters of language and liveliness permeate some of the differences between our English and French parrots. There is less in the Skelton poem than in Jean in comment on true love: including shadings and shiftings over the preceding millennium and a half or so, across distinct periods of cultural differences, the latter a point of keen contemporary intellectual interest; through true love, on goodness, nobility, and other ethical values; and exploring how ethics and poetics intersect and interplay. All of these are enabled by the word “vert”: green, true, glass, fancy fur, young, alive, inexperienced and naive, the worms of the grave, poetry itself via “vers” as a line or a poem (Lat. verso – vertere), plus revers, subversion, perversion, diversion, etc. Bref: a delicious homophonic pun, of more than one meaning, that semantic multiplicity enhanced by extended meanings (green = young, alive, bringing back to life in the spring/ Renaissance, etc.), one of the most-used rhyme-words in medieval French poetry (and in other related languages where the equivalent word works similarly), and those other poetic uses then contributing further to the word’s allusive associations via citation. On which topic, see further: Adrian Armstrong and Sarah Kay.

Let’s be fair to Skelton’s parrot: the main / frame-language in the poem is English, and all that is good and beautiful and marvellous about “vert” just can’t really work. Verdant and verdure will sound a bit Latinate, maybe Italienate, adding foreignness and fanciness, changing the sense again; though they would keep the Renaissance/liveliness sense:

Maybe one just can’t “love truly” or be a “true lover” in English, in the way in which one can in French, Occitan, Italian, etc. Love is different in these different languages: is it the language that makes the culture different, or the other way around? How does the idea of love in a specific culture relate to any abstracted idea of Love with a capital L (or truth, or “vers”-and-everything-that-is-associated-with-it): does the former derive from the latter, or vice versa, or do they exist independently of one another: separate distinct things that–for some people, in some places, at some times–occasionally happen to appear to coincide?

Might there be some comments on French humanism? Or rather: on its perception in certain English circles, its reception, and the added meaning given by historical and cultural distance? By the time of Skelton’s poem (a least 1520 if it ties in with the Grammarians’ War), continental humanism (of the 15th- to 16th- century, post-Italian, etc. sort) is into at least a second phase, the Collège de France is up and running, and the political and intellectual matters and persons of 1504-05 and Jean’s activities and associations of the time have moved on (Paris, Lyon, Margaret of Savoy). Jean has moved from Margaret and Habsburg service to Anne of Brittany and the French court. Where a king has had troubles with the Church and its singular authority, a messy divorce, and a marriage to the wife of a deceased relative. This king has another connection to Skelton’s king, by marriage to Mary Tudor. Our French king has died in 1515 (just after the first publication of the Amant Vert, and no connection I am sure. Nor to the contemporary writings of Erasmus, More, etc.).

Our poet dies around 1525. So does Skelton: our two poets’ lives overlap, as do their readings and influences, and as may some contacts and travels. If I were doing some research on this–I mean, properly, not just a rapid-response piece like this–I would be looking into such historical facts of the matter next: all known writings; biography; evidence for biblio-biography via education and readings and known associates; correspondence; records of books bought, borrowed, lent, bequeathed; work, commissions, patrons, and their circles; immediate and later reception, publication history, circulation, reading, commentary.

And that’s just a start, continuing a direct reading into a networked reading of other primary texts. A rapid search (Google scholar, Google books, Google plain and simple) already brings up several secondary works that look like the obvious next things to read. Resemblances and affiliations between the poems have been observed by others, starting with the very obvious fact that they fit into a tradition of parrots. Over the last thirty years or so, they would speak to scholarship on the monstrous and marginal, and on go-between and liminal figures (as contrasted with Major Players and The Great Self vs. anonymous masses of objectified others). I would expect to see a lot more recently, as parrot-poetry dovetails nicely with recent trends (and political and very practical necessary interest) in eco-criticism; as expressed through newer approaches to texts and intertextuality (borrowing from anthropology, biology, environmental studies, and the study of systems), looking at textual relationships as dynamic familial groups and networks; and as expressed through newer approaches to anthropomorphism, looking at human/animal relations, humans as animals, and posthuman beings and being posthuman (or: we have always been pre-modern and post-human).

Back to The Text; revenons (de nos perroquets) à nos moutons.

Maybe there are also, to varying extents, references via the languages “parroted” to some of the earlier, Medieval parrot-corpus? For ex. a Middle Dutch parrot (see: Keith Busby; not himself a parrot) which could make sense re. circulation and reception in England?

The Skelton parrot’s comments on languages and linguists, and on parrots as cunning linguists, would be part of the usual topic of the role of go-betweens, court jesters and clowns, and other diplomats. Heralds as diplomats and as mouth-pieces, oracular. That brings us back to poetry via oracles voicing muses, gods, and other higher powers.

There may, I said earlier, be pokes at French humanism.

Via humanism, or via anti-caricature-medievalism, there may be mockery of these funny foreigners with all their languages, untrustworthy, possibly Jewish; at best, earnest and irrelevant quote-spouting egg-heads. Being a non-English person who is somewhat familiar with England and the English, I’d be inclined to see there some anti-intellectualism, xenophobia, and anti-semitism.

But remember, it’s satire and it’s a parrot speaking: whose words are these, what are we actually to think of the original speaker, and should there not of course be some titillating ambiguities there? It is, after all, a poem and a rather good one at that. (This is not my field, I am not an English literary scholar, but by the criteria of the fields I know a bit more about: it’s good.) And it’s fun and funny as hell. Let the ambiguities be, and do their thing, and titillate. Don’t resist and try to wrestle it into flattened submission, you’ll just kill it. If you must resist something of a literary persuasion, resist  convention-ridden composition courses.

Let the poem stay fun and have its fun with you: relax and go with it. Let it fly and fly with it.

That is what Sebastian Sobecki and the Skelton Society video performers did. This is poetry. It’s performed, creative, alive. Jewel-studded with commentating images: the poem played with, added to, enriched, translated to 2014. May such YouTube renditions become more commonplace, and a standard way to cite; jewel-embedded miniature-style in essays, commenaries, discussions of all forms. Compostions that should themselves so clearly be in electronic form, translated to 2014 and to the liberties offered by digital media, freedom to breathe and to live. The poem has now  been “read” by more people, I would bet, than have read the poem and works on and around it in the last year. Or in the current century? Whatever these readers do with it next, they have been touched by it, flown with it, and it’s become part of them.

Here’s the Skelton Project‘s introductory promotional video, with appropriate heavy serious dramatic music:

(I was tempted to end this with one of the classic “Red Bull Gives You Wings” ads. I might still do so in a later addition. I’m also trying to remember the title of an excellent MC Solaar track that had a nice use of a “vers” rhyme-scheme.)

Yes, here we go: dedicated to all those who suffer indignities in everyday life, and especially to those suffering from the brutal application of grants to their sensitive psyches. I am lucky: I have no contractual obligation to apply for the nasty man-eating big state grants, though I am not immune from such things thanks to a certain UBC internal scheme…

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