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

Dan Knauss daniel.knauss at mu.edu
Tue Dec 14 09:36:31 EST 2004

FYI Alexandra Halasz begins her book on pamphlets & early print culture with
an interesting discussion of Bodley's remarks that Professor Herman quoted.

-----Original Message-----
From: milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu
[mailto:milton-l-bounces at lists.richmond.edu] On Behalf Of Peter C. Herman
Sent: Monday, December 13, 2004 7:30 PM
To: John Milton Discussion List
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

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

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

From: HYPERLINK "mailto:BlevinsJake at aol.com"BlevinsJake at aol.com 

"mailto:milton-l at lists.richmond.edu"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:





"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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