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29 June 2008


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The Colonel is right and T.V./the visual media is hugely to blame. The medium is simply hostile to reflective thought, including especially the critical, questioning kind.

Wasn't it about 10 years ago or so some Congressperson was asked by Spy magazine or some such outfit about his views on our relations with the country of "Freedonia," and the Boob went on at length about how important they were and how our general policies with regard to same ought to change and etc., etc. (Not realizing even that the very name was taken from a Marx Brothers' movie.)

And then there's Bush. Asked about why immunity for telecoms is so important the idiot said something along the lines of "because otherwise in the future they would hesitate to cooperate with the government again," literally meaning that gee, when we ask 'em to break the law in the future they might say no.

As Bugs Bunny used to say, what a maroon.


Patrick Lang

David W

This was in reference to Bob Dylan's value as a poet. I would not dispute that, but the question had to do with the possibility of a national epic poem for the US.


It seems that it does.


Come on... you know about the application of rhetoric in argument,


You would have to explain the score to me.

John in the Boro

I want to hear them sing it. pl


Today, outside the elites of a few universities, we have little in the way of intellectual life in this country. We have little in the way of political life.

While the U.S. intellectual landscape leaves much to be desired, there are still elements here that are fundamentally important to the life of the mind. One example is that so many intellectuals who are exiled from their home nations do find sanctuary here.

I recently had the singular opportunity of spending some time hoisting a few beers with Huang Xiang, a brilliant author who has been exiled from China for more than a decade. Few things can make one appreciate American intellectual and political life more than spending time with someone who has been censored, imprisoned and tortured in their homeland for such dangerous acts as "writing damned good poetry".

Leila Abu-Saba

Re: poetry - any kind, whether epic or not - depends upon a spoken culture, whether literate or not. Very few of us today sit around in groups talking to each other, except at business meetings. Perhaps because of TV, or the automobile, or both (internet makes it worse but this began happening much earlier, even during radio era but escalated with TV) - we no longer sit around and talk.

Therefore we no longer sit around and recite poetry.

In Lebanon (and Peru, Greece, and many other similar places, by report) people were still sitting around and talking within my memory, and I'm 45. The sitting around sometimes led to poetry competitions. Some poems were self-composed and of low-medium quality; often they were poems, ancient or contemporary, by great poets. Simple country people would memorize sections of epic national poetry to recite for the amusement of their friends and relations. Men (and women - see Lila Abu-Lughod's research on Bedouin women's poetry) competed with each other to recite poems, their own or others', which would move or impress or amaze.

My dad was a decent amateur poet in ARabic. I was always impressed at how the silliest, most materialistic country housewife would listen to his poetry with attention and offer intelligent comment. The fact that he wrote and recited poems made him worthy of attention and respect, and even people I thought were uneducated and uninterested in culture became alert and happy if Dad decided to recite. Whereas we Americans, including his ungrateful children, thought the whole business embarrassing and tiresome.

Did Applachian mountain people recite poetry to each other? I don't know, but they sang each other songs, which are *lyrics*.

I don't know about the Irish either but they have such a gift for gab and verse that I assume there must have been an Irish tradition of popular poetry.

Great epic poetry, or great poetry of many other genres, needs the fertile soil of a living poetic culture. It can't arise out of a sterile medium. It needs plenty of manure, bugs, worms and weeds around it in order to take root, flower and thrive. I say that popular poetry is the manure etc. The true critics among you can discuss whether Bob Dylan is manure, earthworm, cover crop (vetch? clover?) or the coveted flower itself.

Today there is a popular culture of the "poetry slam" among younger folk. People get together at a cafe or auditorium and read or recite their poems aloud, usually with lots of emphasis and pizazz, looking to wow the crowd. Whatever you may think of the poems arising from this movement, at least it's popular and it's poetry and it's face to face.

I believe a poem spoken aloud has greater power when heard in the presence of the speaker - the breath is spirit you know. Recordings give you a flavor but nothing beats being in a room with other human beings, listening to a poet (preferably acoustic, unmiked) recite.

When the oil runs out and we have to turn to homemade amusements, we have a better chance of developing some national epic poem or another. Maybe in the future an anonymous Lebanese-Irish-Japanese-African-American bard in the camps of California will compose an epic poem about the wars of Iraq and Iran and the bloody trials of Americans therein.


I read the comment of SST with joy. However, I quickly recognize that most of my fellow readers are far too serious to indulge in reality TV. Recently there was a show called something like My Kid is a Star. In the course of making these children "stars" a Hollywood casting director informed their parents that they had to "brand" their child to get the "message" across as quickly and as telling as possible. We are a consumer culture. We are instructed to spend in time of war. Some of our greatest artist fled to Madison Avenue to promote the growth of the consumer culture. We do not have time for the epic. We must multi-taskize consumption to win the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. Wear your lapel pin proudly, show us who you are with a quick visual reference. I've got to go to the store. Viva la Brand. bs

David Habakkuk

Duncan Kinder

Your point about Homer and the author of Beowulf composing oral epic is thought-provoking.

But it is not clear that it is necessarily in tension with the remark made by Colonel Lang's classics professor. Is it necessarily the case that a high 'cultural level' in the sense he appears to mean, or indeed 'common values', are dependent on literacy?


Certainly Shakespeare was denounced as vulgar by people who thought themselves his betters. But it is misleading to treat the famous 'johannes factotum' quote as the product of the equivalent of a contemporary 'college professor' wringing his hands over the dreadful state of popular entertainment.

Its author, Robert Greene, denounced Shakespeare as 'an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shakescene in a country.'

The 'university wits' like Greene, and Thomas Nashe or the great Christopher Marlowe came from relatively humble social origins -- not dissimilar to Shakespeare's own. But the excellent grammar schools of the day -- their successors destroyed by post-war Labour governments -- meant that clever young men from humble backgrounds who swotted away at their Latin (in the best schools, also Greek) could go on scholarships to the universities.

What Greene and Nashe could not abide about Shakespeare was not his bawdy or his vulgarity -- which they could do quite as well themselves. They saw him as a jumped up actor, taking the bread out of the mouths of his betters by imitating them and becoming more successful than they were at doing the same kind of thing as they did.

And they were by no means simply wrong: Shakespeare started out as an imitator of Marlowe, and made matchless use of a style of vituperation he borrowed from Nashe.

Incidentally Stephen Greenblatt has suggested -- not implausibly -- that Greene was one of the models for Falstaff -- as he was 'famous for a life that combined drunken idleness and gluttony with energetic bursts of writing, famous too for his impecuniousness, his duplicity, his intimate knowledge of the underworld, his fleeting attempts at moral reform, and his inevitable backsliding.' The brother of his girlfriend was one Cutting Ball, the leader of a gang of thieves who was eventually hanged at Tyburn.


adapting to the post-print, electonic media has been an experience

now i think it is a step forward

i can read books and newspapers

i can see and hear candidates and their marketers

and i can read the opinions of independent thinkers and interact with others on blogs initiated by leaders like yourself

When the oil runs out and we have to turn to homemade amusements, we have a better chance of developing some national epic poem or another.

To which I would add - when we need to assemble in great rooms to get the benefit our fellow creatures' body heat.

What epic has ever been written about peace, prosperity, and well-being? They inspire idylls, pastorals, and satyr plays. We need an Aristophanes. Most of the Classical tragedies were based on 4-500 year old stories. Historians, and later, chroniclers** took over the role of the epic poets.

But in twenty years (optimistic projection) we will be ready for our Dante or our Milton. Depending on economic conditions, they might be novelists or playwrights.

** How is epic defined? oral transmission? poetic form? scale of work? subject matter? late scholarly compilations of folk material such as Mabinogion and Kalevala? Can Snorri's Heimskringla be counted as one? What about Yukio Mishima's Sea of Fertility quartet? Frank Norris' “Epic of the Wheat”? PL's trilogy?


David Habakkuk,

My own personal upstart crow theory is that Greene resents Shakespeare because Shakespeare ridicules him in the Henry VI plays. There are lines in the plays I call Greene-isms. They are SO jarring and incongruous they jump off the page or out of the performance.
Two examples:

H6-2 Act I Scene II Eleanor speaks to Duke Humphrey

Why droops my lord, like over-ripen'd corn,
Hanging the head at Ceres' plenteous load?

H6-3 Act II scene II Richard of Gloucester says (completely out of character)

See how the morning opes her golden gates
And takes her farewell of the glorious sun.
How well resembles it the prime of youth,
Trimm'd like a younker prancing to his love!

As Greene says "beautified with our feathers" he may not have realized these lines were a send-up.

Of course these could be later interpolations but I prefer to think of them as mischief. This could be pure projection.

But I really am not qualified to have this opinion.

Ripping off Pandosto had to have happened after Greene was dead in 1594, so that can't possibly the basis for the accusation of plagiarism.

Ken J.

Are you familiar with David Letterman's recurring sketch "Great Moments In Presidential Speeches?" Most nights, the bit starts with two known historic speeches -- Roosevelt, Kennedy, Reagan's "Tear down this wall!"-- and the third clip is Bush fumbling and bobbling, or else spouting nonsense.

Clifford Kiracofe

The issue for the imperial faction, which controls both political parties, is how best to manipulate mass public opinion to produce the desired effect and results.

A lot of thought has gone into this since the 1930s and the Fascist era. Modern technology such as radio, then television, as well as mass circulation newspapers and magazines facilitates the process.

In the US, I think the rule of thumb for politicians today is to dumb things down to the 5th grade level and work in soundbites and simple slogans. That is what I noted in the 1980s on Capitol Hill and things seem to have gone down hill since then.


I don't think there is any dumbing down of our people. The doctors are excellent, the lawyers are terrifying, the engineers first rate and so on. I realize that strawberry pickers do not enjoy Sophocles, that common people are happy with their races and beers. What I find terrible is the loss of religious points of reference because nothing of value can be understood if the religious substratum is absent. How can you understand or at least ponder about Parsifal? Paradiso is for many people the most boring piece of writing except if you have a strong Catholic background and then you prefer it to everything else.

different clue

Well...parodying an epic for satirical purposes is not the same as writing or composing an original epic. Still...someone would have to know an epic to be able to parody that epic. And someone would have to think that enough other people would know enough of the epic being parodied, as well
as the current target being satirized; to undertake the labor of writing a satirical
epic parody.

And it appears that someone did, several years ago. Behold! The Bushiad.
And the Idyossey.

David Habakkuk


"What epic has ever been written about peace, prosperity, and well-being? They inspire idylls, pastorals, and satyr plays. We need an Aristophanes."

Perhaps a variant on the old Chinese curse would be apt -- not 'may you live in interesting times', but 'may you live in times fit for epics'.


The national discourse has devolved into the "campaign" as Pat's graphic so aptly shows. Its all about process and the horse race. Who screams louder on TV? Who looks "right"? How the attire and lighting played?

For the corporate media its all about ratings and ad dollars and how the country club boys and girls feel about it and of course for the controlling interests its more than money its about their control of the frame.

What these folks are not paying much credence to is how below the surface the people are communicating and debating and getting more restless. They know however that they need to also control the tubes and have the sole monopoly on information distribution. Net neutrality will be the next battle just like dragnet style vacuuming of all communications that the Bushie's have done illegally for years and Congress is working to make legal.

Sic Semper Tyrannis! Indeed.

Spider Rider

Once the government, the military, even , begins to demand more of it's people, there will be a shift toward greater intellectualism, again, in the media, and elsewhere.

So goes the Pentagon, so goes the country, (and some very good things have come from the Pentagon, as well as the bad, sadly).


Fascinating exchange!

I can't think of a blog where I read more good sense focused on issues that matter than right here.

Thank you all.

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