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Why was the official response to these poems so intense?

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In this captivating book, Robert Darnton follows the poems as they passed through several media: copied on scraps of paper, dictated from one person to another, memorized and declaimed to an audience. But the most effective dispersal occurred through music, when poems were sung to familiar tunes. Lyrics often referred to current events or revealed popular attitudes toward the royal court.

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The poems are urban in construction, then: the participants assert their individual voices into the development and dissemination of dissent and then disappear into the multitude. The idea that poetry was having such an impact on social life is exciting for those of us who have been following the teachings of people like June Jordan pictured here , who suggests that poetry can be the people's voice e.

Barker on Darnton, 'Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris'

But Darnton is conscientious about avoiding any claims about the impact of poems exchanged clandestinely. In fact, he has a tendency to undo his own arguments in the book. For example, he takes pains to establish the influence such political poetry had on the king, but then he notes that the king never allowed any of that influence to determine his policy design.

In cases like this, Darnton is admirably desirous of historical accuracy, and the book's strength is certainly in its attention to the history of poetry rather than, say, in its close reading or analysis of those poems. Given all this energy, I found myself frustrated that Darnton refused to allow the poems to have the impact that he repeatedly suggests is possible and that the title of his book implies.

Today, Poetry and the Police is suggestive of Ice T , NWA , and other overt attempts of lyricists and poets to use poetry to make real changes to the ways that American police have interacted with inner-city people. Like the poems that Darnton looks at, rap- and hip-hop-related lyrics to songs like "Cop Killer" and "Fuck Tha Police" were subversive and probably exchanged primarily through memorization and underground "transcriptions" through dubbing and sharing. But just as hip-hop- and rap-related lyrics are given short shrift in many academic settings today, Darnton gives little if any attention to the poems themselves in Poetry and the Police.

While he repeatedly refers to the poems' rhyme schemes and other formal structures, for example, he rarely analyzes the poems' content or their modes of making arguments. Maybe this is because even Darnton dismisses their poetic or artistic "value," assuming that what they reveal about politics and eighteenth-century Paris is more important than what the phrases or lines of poetry itself can reveal.

Yet one of the most memorable moments in the book occurs when Darnton parses the double entendre in a poem's reference to the king's mistress giving out white flowers at a dinner party: the flowers suggest venereal disease! This is so scandalous that—ooh la la, right?

Poetry and the Police : Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris -

There must have been many more such references lost on a contemporary reader like me who neither reads French nor, zut alors , is fluent in eighteenth-century Parisian slang ; treating the poems he studies as worthy of at least some literary analysis would not only have set a good example for other scholars working on similar material, but it would have further sold me on the rich complexities of the era and phenomenon he writes about. Ultimately, then, Poetry and the Police hints at, rather than really develops, some of the ways that we can rethink poetic history.

The book suggests that poetry had real effects on society. Before the Beats warranted police attention, before the FBI started keeping files on American poets like Muriel Rukeyser download her FBI file here , before poets were called to report to the House Un-American Activities Committee , and before Common's visit to the White House was protested by law enforcement, poetry was already worthy of police surveillance in eighteenth-century France.

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The poems Darnton shares reveal that poetry, when most powerful, has rarely been as many contemporary readers expect: it was a social and participatory endeavor rather than a solitary one. This is the poetic history that Whitman invested in American poetry: this is urban poetics. Posted by Mike Chasar at PM 1 comment:. Labels: baudelaire , june jordan , kirsten bartholomew ortega , poetry and popular culture , poetry and the police , political poetry , robert darnton , walter benjamin. Newer Posts Older Posts Home. Subscribe to: Posts Atom. About Me Mike Chasar Salem, Oregon, United States Further thoughts on the intersection of poetry and popular culture: this being a record of one man's journey into good bad poetry, not-so-good poetry, commercial poetries, ordinary readers, puns, newspaper poetries, and other instances of poetic language or linguistic insight across multiple media in American culture primarily but not solely since the Civil War View my complete profile.

Now Available! Empowered by prodigious research and informed by thorough knowledge of the traditional poetry canon, Chasar's five chapters take us deep into the way poetry functioned in the lives of ordinary people. Chasar combines the painstaking, arduous archival methods of real historians with the close analyses that we expect from literary critics, applied to verse, to images, and to informative prose ephemera.

Even more than that, however, Chasar should get twenty-first-century readers to sit up and notice the uses that so many Americans, only a couple of generations ago, found for the poetry that they enjoyed. Lately, those ideas have led to a national outcry in favor of bringing poetry back into American public life. But in Everyday Reading, Mike Chasar shows us that if we can rethink our ideas about poets and poetry, we will find that poems have always been part and parcel of modern life.

The authorities uncovered a network of students and churchmen who, in this and similar verses, used poetry and songs to make critical comments on the affairs of the day, sharing new material in various settings, adding and amending lines as they and the turn of the news saw fit.

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Fourteen men were arrested and interrogated over this matter, with most if not all of them finding that their youthful indiscretion had lasting effects on their career prospects, although the original author was never identified. In Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris , Robert Darnton conducts his own investigation into L'Affaire des Quatorze, using the dossiers compiled by the police during their initial investigations. Darnton is interested in seeing how information moved between parties in an age of widespread illiteracy, crucially how the nebulous entity that would come to be known as "public opinion" both formed and manifested itself in prerevolutionary Paris.

L'Affaire des Quatorze, with its extensive supporting evidence, provides a wealth of material to achieve this. As Darnton does not limit himself to his detective story and its immediate repercussions, he can attempt to recreate the oral communication networks of eighteenth-century Paris. As befits the scholarly recreation of a burgeoning metropolis, the scope of the subjects touched on in the course of the work is vast, ranging from international politics in the wake of the War of the Austrian Succession to street music performance.

It is hardly surprising then that some aspects are perhaps a little truncated in their treatment in order to keep up the sweeping pace.

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The main text is only pages long, yet broken down into fifteen chapters, plus introduction and conclusion. For readers attuned to reading monographs where chapters might easily be built over twenty to thirty pages, the shift to capsule chapters of between five and fifteen small format pages might take a bit of getting used to. Where the reader might be expecting a prolonged intensification of an isolated point, here the chapter breaks and the narrative takes an unexpected turn.

At several points the close study of the particular case of the mystery poem is broken off, and we swoop from worm's-eye to bird's-eye views of French "enlightenment" society, as in chapter 8 when we are introduced to the wider context, in particular the repercussions of the War of the Austrian Succession, or in chapter 11 when we are given an overview of eighteenth-century street musical practice. This range does mean that the focus tends to shift, at points rather abruptly, and it must be noted that not all the joins are seamless.