December 16, 2004

Poet & Finder

Category: Literature,Music :: Permalink

Most medieval poetry is a reworking of older poems and stories and themes, and to many modern readers that sort of poetry might seem less than fully authentic or creative. Hearing that this poem by Chaucer is a rewrite of that story by Boccaccio sounds to our ears like someone saying that this movie is a remake of that one.

“Why don’t they come up with something new?” we might ask. “Why do a rehash of something that’s already been done — especially if it’s already been done well?” Would you want to watch a remake of Casablanca?

C. S. Lewis, commenting on the poetry of John Gower, responds:

Here, as everywhere in medieval literature, we must try to repress our modern conception of the poet as the sole source of his poetry: we must think more of the intrinsic and impersonal beauty or ugliness of matters, plots, and sentiments which retain their own living continuity as they pass from writer to writer. Trouvere as well as maker is the name for a poet (The Allegory of Love 209).

To put Lewis’s point another way (and without using the word “impersonal” which I don’t think gets it quite right): the medieval approach to the older poems and stories and themes was much like the approach jazz musicians take to the standards. There are probably hundreds of versions of “It Had To Be You” or “You Don’t Know What Love Is” or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”

But musicians keep doing those songs. Some versions are better than others, of course. Some sound very close to the original (which is not the same as saying that they are better); others are pretty far out (which is not the same as saying that they are worse). But all of them share the basic melody in common. All are recognizable as variations on the old original tune.

Does that make them mere rehashes of old stuff? If there’s already a good version of “When I Fall In Love,” do we need another one? Of course we do. It may even be better than the original.

There are jazz musicians who think it’s beneath them — a lack of authenticity or creativity — to play the standards. But they’re wrong.

And what is true of jazz is true also, Lewis claims, of poetry. Good stories are worth retelling. Good poets aren’t just poets who invent something new; a good poet may also be a trouvere, a troubadour, a finder who sings the old songs and who does so in a way that is beautiful, creative, and new.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:07 pm | Discuss (0)

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