[Milton-L] Re: Books, documents and texts

Jesse Swan jesse.swan at uni.edu
Tue Dec 14 02:37:32 EST 2004

With regards to Peter's nicely humanistic response, which I do quite love, and concentrating on the concluding two sentences, which I will perversely latch onto in order to criticize myself in my love of the post much more than to criticize Peter, which I do not wish to do, I wonder if we should forbear censuring an expression just because some future critic might come to appreciate or even love the expression?

Margaret Atwood gives a deliciously keen indictment of such an impassive attitude, I believe, in the epilogue to her _The Handmaid's Tale_.  Manuel Puig gives a similar criticism of me in my hesitation to censure and/or in my erotic pleasures in new genres in his _The Kiss of the Spider Woman_.  In both of these works, I understand something of the Miltonic freedom advocated in _Areopagitica_, where Milton makes room for censures as much as he champions freedoms:  In freedom of publishing, "I mean not tolerated popery and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled."  Not a simple statement, if one thinks about it, but one that does provide for censure in a free, academic (to say nothing of a righteous, as Milton would hope for) society.

There are dangers, variously material and supernatural, in refusing to censure, even as there are very, very good reasons to wonder why one wishes to censure, as Milton seems to suggest, doesn't he?

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: Peter C. Herman 
  To: John Milton Discussion List 
  Sent: Monday, December 13, 2004 7:29 PM
  Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Re: Books, documents and texts

  I think at this point it might be useful to remind one and all that the texts that are so self-evidently wonderful (and amenable to critical analysis) were often not accepted as such at the time of their creation. SIr Thomas Bodley wrote to the "keeper" of his library that:

  I can see no good reason to alter my opinion for excluding such books as almanacs, plays, and an infinite number, that are daily printed, of very unworthy matters and handling . . . Haply some plays may be worthy the keeping, but hardly one in forty. . . . Were it so again, that some little profit might be reaped (which God knows is very little) out of some of our play-books, the benefit thereof will nothing never countervail the harm that the scandal will bring unto the Library, when it shall be given out that we stuff [it] full of baggage books . . . The more I think upon it, the more it doth distaste me that such kind of books should be vouchsafed a room in so noble a library.

  With apologies to Harold Bloom et al., it comes as something of a shock to realize that Bodley likely had in mind Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Dekker, et al., or at least, he did not exclude them by name. As for the issue of what our critics can do with them, as much of a fan as I am of Bob Dylan, I certainly did not have the imagination to see in Dylan's lyrics what Christopher Ricks sees in them. Nor, I would guess, did John Skelton's first readers (and I mention Skelton since his poetic technique seems to bear a significant resemblance to rap) think that his poems would be worth anything more than a quick read and a laugh.

  I can't say that I like rap or hip-hop. I can't say that I find in that genre the same emotional or intellectual resonance that I find in Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, or Bruce Springsteen, let alone Miles Davis or J.S. Bach. But with the exception of Bach, I know that everything that is said in dismissal of rap was said of the people listed above. Perhaps a certain forbearance is in order when faced with new genres we might not like at the moment. Future critics might find something in them very different than what we might expect.

  Peter C. Herman

  At 04:54 PM 12/13/2004, you wrote:


    Thank you for posting those comments.  Though they are refreshingly fair-minded, they are, it seems to me, still grounded on certain assumptions (both literary and social) which may be problematic.  For example:<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />


    "As individual texts for analysis, Snoop Dogg's "Doggy Style" or Wallace McRae's "The Cowboy Curmudgeon" offer a Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler little opportunity to display their critical chops."


    What, I wonder, is the true meaning of this statement?  Are we concerned with the texts themselves, or with the ease with which our favorite critics can digest them? Though rap "texts" may provide little opportunity for Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler, they are a virtually untapped resource for the critic patient enough to establish a systematic technique by which they may be assessed.


    Though I am not familiar with the current scholarship on hip hop, I get the impression that rap lyrics--considered not as social artifacts, but as poetic ones--fall into a kind of blindspot.  Perhaps once this problem has been tackled, we can begin to properly assess the significance of these "texts."

      ----- Original Message ----- 

      From: BlevinsJake at aol.com 

      To: milton-l at lists.richmond.edu 

      Sent: Monday, December 13, 2004 7:24 PM

      Subject: Re: [Milton-L] Re: Books, documents and texts

      I would agree that the only proper analysis of rap's significance would come through a thorough knowledge of it. In case it is of interest to anyone, I have pasted a few paragraphs below by Dana Gioia (poet, critic, opera writer, and the current Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts), who offers some interesting observations. The essay, "Disappearing Ink: Poetry at the End of Print Culture," is from the 55th anniversary addition of The Hudson Review; the entire essay can be accessed at this web address: http://www.poems.com/essagioi.htm


      "Without doubt the most surprising and significant development in recent American poetry has been the wide-scale and unexpected reemergence of popular poetry - namely rap, cowboy poetry, poetry slams, and certain overtly accessible types of what was once a defiantly avant-garde genre, performance poetry. These new forms of popular verse have seemingly come out of nowhere to become significant forces in American culture. Rap especially has become ubiquitous in our society - not only filling concert halls and radio programming but also heard and seen in films, television, and live theater. Although far less commercial, the other forms have also shown enormous vitality. And all these new poetic forms have thrived without the support of the university or the literary establishment. 

      In a literary culture that during most of the twentieth century declared verse a dying technique, no one would have predicted this vastly popular revival. In ways that Edmund Wilson could never have foreseen, verse has changed into a growth industry, though its rehabilitation has happened mostly off the printed page. Whatever one thinks of the artistic quality of these new poetic forms, one must concede that at the very least they reassuringly demonstrate the abiding human need for poetry. Please note that while admiring the energy of the revival, I do not maintain that these new forms of popular verse represent the best new poetry of the period. Individually considered as works of literary art, most of this work is undistinguished or worse, though some of it is smart and lively. Collectively, however, the work has enormous implications for the future of poetry. Not only does it call into question many contemporary assumptions about the current state of poetry; the new popular poetry also reflects the broad cultural forces that are now reshaping all the literary arts.

      While the new popular poetry has received immense coverage from the electronic media and general press, it has garnered relatively little attention from intellectuals and virtually none from established poetry critics. One can understand the reluctance of academic critics. If they have noticed the new popular poetry at all, they immediately see how little it has in common with the kinds of poetry they have been trained to consider worthy of study. It does not grow out of the long esteemed and meticulously studied high-art traditions of Classicism, Romanticism, Modernism, or Postmodernism that inform most literary scholarship. In fact, in general terms it hardly seems to connect to any conventional academic notion of literary poetry. What is a conscientious critic supposed to do with an Eminem or Jay-Z? As individual texts for analysis, Snoop Dogg's "Doggy Style" or Wallace McRae's "The Cowboy Curmudgeon" offer a Harold Bloom or Helen Vendler little opportunity to display their critical chops.

      Meanwhile, mass media coverage of the new popular poetry has focused on what it usually does - celebrities, their astonishing triumphs, their regrettable falls, and their eye-popping annual incomes. In the electronic media, all stories tend to be reduced to personality and human drama - to the people, that is, who can actually be shown or heard on the air. The limited commentary on the new popular poetry provided in the mass media by intellectuals has habitually focused on ideological issues, especially in the case of rap, which has been examined almost entirely for its subject matter or sociological significance.

      From a poet's perspective, however, both the mass media and the culture critics miss the most interesting aspects of the new popular poetry, which is not the extravagant personalities of its creators or the sociological nature of its contents; rather, it is the unusual mixture of radical innovation and unorthodox traditionalism in the structure of the work itself and the modes of its performance, transmission, and reception. These aspects reveal deep and influential changes in American literary culture that show more about the current situation of poetry than any number of more academically fashionable subjects."

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