Monday, July 25, 2011

Kirsten Bartholomew Ortega Reviews Robert Darnton's New Book, Poetry and the Police

Fresh off the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, Kirsten Bartholomew Ortega—an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and a new Poetry & Popular Culture correspondent—gives us her take on Robert Darnton's recent study Poetry and the Police: Communication Networks in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Harvard, 2010). Ortega, pictured here, is completing a book about the figure of the female flaneur in urban-based American poetry and has published articles on June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, and Gwendolyn Brooks. So what does a study of eighteenth-century French street poetry have to do with the writing and study of popular poetry today? More than you'd initially think. Read on to find out.

What difference can poetry really make in the world? W.H. Auden is oftentimes quoted in the way of an answer for his line "poetry makes nothing happen" (from "In Memory of W.B. Yeats"), but Robert Darnton's Poetry and the Police suggests that, for fourteen men in eighteenth-century Paris, at least, poetry made quite a lot happen. King Louis XV assigned a police investigation into the poems these men exchanged and—wait, it gets better—had the men arrested, imprisoned, and exiled from Paris as a result. Darnton's archival examination of the police records from this "Affair of the Fourteen" suggests that there is a long historical foundation to the popularity of poetry as political activism. Just as the role of politics is hotly debated in poetry discussions, though, Darnton's suggestion pushes uneasily against his reluctance to attribute too much historical impact to poetry. Certainly, the lives of fourteen men were ruined, but the king's social and economic policies—some of which inspired the offending poems—were not altered.

The disconnect between the impact of the poems on the individual versus society as a whole is a problem uniquely presented and exacerbated by city life. Darnton's investigation—he's a historian at Harvard and a towering figure in the field known as the History of the Book—reveals much about urban poetry and its persistent emphasis on the paradox of individuality in urban spaces filled with people. Typically, Baudelaire's nineteenth-century flaneur dominates the historical conversation about the influence of poetry from and of the streets of Paris. The image of Baudelaire's modern, urban stroller—especially as characterized by Walter Benjamin, who is primarily responsible for continuing discussions of flanerie in artistic and intellectual circles—is of the poet as part of the city crowd but not of the people. The flaneur was more akin to the dandy than a political activist.

What makes Baudelaire's poetry so compelling almost two centuries after it was written is his way of engaging with particularly modern city spaces. The flaneur provides a model for the urban perspective: aloof, invisible, capable of overwhelming attraction to other members of the crowd, and intoxicated by the possibilities of experience in the crowd. We continue to struggle with the effects of urban life on humanity in the twenty-first century (see Nicholas Lemann's recent review of new urban studies texts in the New Yorker). And poetry continues to play a significant role in the development of people's creative, political, intellectual, and emotional responses to city life. The surge of popularity of poetry in urban settings at the end of the twentieth-century in the forms of spoken word, slam, and hip-hop poetries—and their tendency to be political—is a testament to this.

Darnton's compelling story of the impact political poetry had in eighteenth-century Paris—nigh on a century before Baudelaire—complicates the image of the flaneur as the sole historical method of poetic response to urban life, though. Poetry and the Police implies that this history needs re-evaluation: whereas Baudelaire's flaneur was individualist, privately involved in public space, and wholly apolitical, the poems that Darnton uncovers in the police files of the "Affair of the Fourteen" are political, social, and have real public repercussions.

In Poetry and the Police, Darnton delves into the archives and discovers a detective story—one in which he is both detective and recorder of detective work. The book is a fast-paced read the way a good detective novel would be, yet Darnton manages to weave his analysis of eighteenth-century police records together with his discoveries and knowledge about oral history and culture, records of eighteenth-century popular songs, the developments of philosophies about "public opinion," and an investigation of how poetry moved through the strict eighteenth-century class structures of Paris.

The police records Darnton examines follow a campaign to stamp out political poems against the king (and against some members of his court, especially a certain despised mistress). As a particularly notorious case, the "Affair of the Fourteen" provided Darnton with extensive material, and his story reveals some surprises: the F.B.I.—I mean the police—kept extensive, detailed records of interviews of prisoners, even requiring prisoners to sign final documents to verify their accuracy; the men contacted the F.B.I.—I mean the police—freely after their exile to complain about the inability to make lives for themselves in the wake of the campaign; each of the men received exceptional punishment for behavior that was otherwise considered commonplace (none admitted to having written any of the original poems themselves, and the sharing of political poetry was apparently rampant); and, finally, the police retained copies of the poems they seized.

The poetry was insurgent, but also funny. It was valued most by how cleverly the poet could employ poetics: poor rhymes and stilted rhythms were snubbed. In one of his best moments, Darnton describes the poems as "a cacophony of sedition set to rhyme" (11). Most surprisingly for contemporary readers, though, is that the poetry was collective. Darnton explains "it was a case of collective creation": people added to and changed the poems as they were exchanged; some wrote them down; and others exclusively declaimed them publicly from memory. The people involved were rarely "poets"—they were law clerks, priests, students, and philosophers. Darnton also traces evidence that many of the poems originated as political tactics on the part of courtiers themselves, who, evidence suggests, passed their poems down to servants who then spread them beyond the court. 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.g., her Poetry for the People project at Berkeley). 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). Darnton not only includes multiple versions of the lyrics to songs/poems, but he went even further in the composition of this book and commissioned a singer to record versions of the songs which are available for listening on the Harvard University Press website. 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?—Darnton tells a whole secondary detective story about the dismissal of the court official implicated in the writing of that poem. 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. 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.