Youth in Retreat: The Decameron in Quarantine

In which these most unprecedented times prove to have some precedent after all, and crisis invites us to re-imagine our conditions for living. 

By Jenny Lee 

So they gathered into groups and kept clear of everyone else, shutting themselves up in houses where no one was sick and where they could live comfortably … not speaking to anyone outside or hearing any news of the dead or sick, but enjoying music and what other pleasures they could muster. – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (trans. J. G. Nichols)

1348: As the Black Death ravages Florence, ten wealthy young people flee the city for the countryside, where they spend ten days telling stories, singing songs, napping, and flirting. This is the set-up for Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a framing narrative surrounding one hundred short stories about love, sex, trickery, and the vicissitudes of fortune.

I opened my copy of the Decameron in mid-March, as public buildings in the city shut their doors indefinitely. Having flown home from Spain via the UK a few days earlier and subsequently developed a dry cough, I was instructed to stay home and monitor my temperature, and made a plague-themed reading list to work through during what I naively hoped would be two weeks of isolation. As two weeks stretched into four, it was this framing narrative, not the stories themselves, that I kept turning back to.

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Breugel’s Triumph of Death, painted two centuries after the publication of the Decameron, underscores the cataclysmic effects of the recurrent plague outbreaks on the European psyche. In the corner, a couple grimly clings to love and music-making, stalked by death. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

Boccaccio opens with a harrowing description of the bubonic plague’s trail of destruction in Florence, including not only gruesome details of the dead and dying, but profound changes in the social fabric of the city: family members deserting each other, the breakdown of law and order, the disappearance of the labour force in the form of the servant class. Florence is a city without boundaries, where distinctions between sibling and stranger, sick and well, and rich and poor blur and then give way to abject chaos.

Even as the narrators of the Decameron try to avoid the pestilence – it’s rarely mentioned after this passage – they’re marked, or changed, by the collapse of the structures they’ve always known. (Half of the population of the city would die from the plague.) In and around their bawdy stories, we glimpse a new social order which this lost generation might dream into being; the microcosmic society they establish in exile is peaceful, leisurely, and gender-equitable.

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In John William Waterhouse’s 1911 painting A Tale from the Decameron, the exiles pass self-isolation in dreamy, pastoral splendour. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. 

The Decameron reads like a long-form negotiation of social and sexual mores, the kind of examination that we perform during a crisis. Boccaccio, writing in the early 1350s, muses that women were noticeably less chaste after the plague year, having dispensed with the taboo against showing their bodies to men. He explicitly critiques the customs which confined well-off women in their homes without recreation or socialization. His storytellers prize wit, quick thinking, and sexual freedom over rank and noble birth. The hypocrisy of priests (a recurring theme) is a worse moral crime for them than sleeping with a married woman.

Between chapters, on Instagram, I scrolled through the words rent strike and mutual aid networks and capitalism is the virus. The luckiest among us, in isolation at home, had time to watch the structures sold to us as natural and inevitable faltering in the face of immense – but predictable – upheaval. Like Boccaccio’s youth in retreat, we thought: there must be a better way we could do this.

On the tenth day, the youths return to Florence without much fanfare, go to church, and return to their homes. It is left for the reader to decide what they bring back with them, and what they have left behind.

All Spoken Word Poetry Sounds the Same and I Hate It

In which the forces of the market, the conventions of genre, and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm conspire to ruin poetry.

By Jenny Lee 

Consider: the hills you are willing to die on say more about you than any other aspect of your personality. In a long, compliant grade-school career, I refused to do two things outright, both times to preserve my dignity (which I prize jealously as a somewhat limited commodity).

The first was basketball. The second was writing and performing a slam poem, because I cannot bear to use Slam Poet Voice in the hearing of any living person.

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From the Poet Voice Hall of Fame: T.S. Eliot prepares to Intone. Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE

Slam Poet Voice, used in what seems like the vast majority of spoken word poetry, differs from Regular Poet Voice (also annoying, also ubiquitous) in its intensity: the Regular Poet intones weightily, while Slam Poet Voice is more of a yelp, delivered in a pitch slightly above normal speaking register and littered with dramatic but unnecessary pauses. Because slam poets perform without text in hand, they can also add baffling gestures. This … is … (sudden hand gesture) POETRY, says Slam Poet Voice, before rapidly listing eight vivid metaphors. Where did this voice come from and why do I hate it?

Slam poetry took off in large American cities during the 1980s and 90s, drawing on hip-hop and spoken word conventions. It is a sport, where teams of poets compete for points awarded by judges. Button Poetry, a poetry production company, started uploading filmed slam poems to YouTube in 2011; you may know their viral recording of Neil Hilborn’s poem ‘OCD’.

It’s these two factors, the standardization imposed by competition and the tyranny of the Youtube algorithm, which make Slam Poet Voice so ubiquitous. As popular works in a genre (see above) are widely consumed, they become widely imitated, and those imitations get their own imitations. Tropes turn to clichés as poets’ idea of a successful poem becomes ossified. We learn to write and perform through imitating the works that made us want to create in the first place.

Slam poets are working within frameworks that literally reward conforming to certain genre standards with cash prizes, YouTube hits, and book deals. They are implicitly under pressure to produce deeply confessional, emotionally intense works, and to perform them like they’ve seen other people perform their own confessional poems, live and on YouTube. One way of performing a text becomes the only way of performing any text, because coming up with a new delivery is often the hardest part of interpretation (ask any actor who’s played Hamlet; there are a finite number of ways to say a given set of words).

‘OCD’ has 14 million hits on YouTube, which is about as good as it gets for a poetry recitation. It’s a lovely, wrenching poem, and also, it is delivered in an iconic Slam Poetry Voice. This is the tragedy of cliché: not that it makes works bad, but that it renders good work ever so slightly more mediocre. By rendering all texts alike, Slam Poetry Voice stands in between the listener and the reception of any individual text on its own merits.

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I didn’t want to put any one hard-working slam poet on blast, so please click through to see Tom Hanks deliver a pitch-perfect Slam Poet Voice about … Full House? on the Tonight Show. 

In summation: competition and capitalism ruin art, avoid mediocrity by consuming as widely as possible, and I was right about that grade 12 English project, sorry Mr. Wade!

Diversity, Dramaturgy, and Broadway Musicals

Revisiting the classics with diversity in mind isn’t just a moral and artistic imperative, but a strategy for giving them new life.

By Jenny Lee

Gentle reader, we are both on the internet in 2019, so I assume you too have absorbed a lot of essays about Why It Is Important to Have Representative Media. This is so true and  well-trodden that I must glide over it and write this essay about something else entirely.

I’ve been thinking about how diversity helps us reframe and reimagine older cultural works, written in even more exclusionary times and places, and also I have been thinking about the Stratford Festival’s 2018 production of The Music Man (directed by Donna Feore).  

If you’re not familiar with the plot of The Music Man and do not have a Theatre Kid™ in your life to explain it, I am here to help. It is a Broadway musical about a con man called Harold Hill who rocks up in River City, Iowa, intending to sell uniforms and equipment for a boys’ marching band before skipping town. Imagine Footloose, if Kevin Bacon wanted to sell you a tuba instead of spreading the joy of dance.

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Daren A. Herbert and company in The Music Man, Stratford Festival 2018. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

Harold promptly falls in love with the town’s librarian, Marian (I know!), which gives him a reason to stay in town – except that he lacks the requisite musical skill to teach River City’s new boys’ band to play, and the townspeople inevitably find him out.  

In the Stratford production, this was the moment at which the production rose from charmingly classic to vividly contemporary. As the people of River City discover the con and start grimly looking for tar and feathers with which to enact justice on a captive, terrified Harold Hill, played by Daren A. Herbert, you remember that The Music Man’s quaint Main Street U.S.A. set is a recreation of the American Midwest in 1912, and Herbert’s version of Hill – unlike, say, Matthew Broderick’s – is a black man explicitly living in a time and place where lynching is an extremely concrete reality.

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Matthew Broderick and his white privilege starring as Harold Hill in the 2003 TV version. Also, yes, every single production of this musical looks like this. Photo: AP Photo/ABC, Rafy

Suddenly, this anodyne mid-century musical has much higher stakes, and resonates more deeply with a 21st-century audience – and not a word of the script has been changed. It’s an absurdly effective dramaturgical decision, and it works because of, not in spite of, the diversity of the cast.

Often, diverse casting has little effect on the interpretation of the text. Twelfth Night, for example, is set outside of real-world geography and history, and so a modern audience (ideally) shelves their ideas about race at the door, and this is fine. The Music Man is fixed in its time and setting and doesn’t have this luxury, but it has the advantage of a built-in context that much of its audience will understand. (This is why so many productions of Shakespeare are ‘set’ in 1942 Paris, 1920s New Orleans, or whatever: it’s an easy way to help your audience interpret what’s happening using pre-existing knowledge, and also justifies cool costumes.) The fear is heightened, but if you don’t know anything about Progressive-era race relations, the script still works as written. 

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You may have heard of this other musical which uses the racial diversity of its cast to underscore a historical and political point … Photo: Joan Marcus

These choices make worn-out texts feel more interesting, closer to reality, and ultimately better. Rather than rendering performers’ identities and experiences abstract, asking the audience to believe they don’t matter, thoughtful and diverse theatre-making can make race, gender, disability, or sexuality central to the audience’s understanding of an old cultural text, revealing secrets we never knew it was keeping.

Well-Read: On Breaking Up with the Great Books

As literary scholars, book lovers, and participants in popular culture, we are conditioned to become “well-read”. But what weight does the established canon really hold? What is the reward for pursuing literature that is widely lauded as a “great book”?

By Jenny Lee

If you are a sad, nerdy, self-serious reading person, you know about the Lists. The BBC has one, every liberal arts school has one, Harold Bloom had one that would require several lifetimes to finish. The Lists are there to tell you about the Great Books.

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The author’s copies of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, which is naught but a particularly large List of Great Books. Photo: Jennifer Lee.

The arguments against the Western literary canon are well-rehearsed. The Canon is dominated by the Dead White Male, with a smattering of token female authors, authors of colour, authors with disabilities. It’s a gatekeeper: people who aren’t familiar with the Canon are excluded from our cultural conversations, because they don’t really know about books. It trains us to extend endless sympathy to angry white men and none at all to … anyone else.

The Canon is the guy at the party who won’t stop talking about Dude Books, but has never read Pride and Prejudice (and yet has an argument about why it’s not a great literary work). The Canon makes you read everything he thought was good when he was fourteen, but leaves every book you lend him on his bedside table, untouched. Every time you struggle through one of his Dude Books, two more appear, like the heads of the Hydra. Admittedly, sometimes they’re good, but they’re not Zadie Smith good.

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Oh! It’s another book! That you want me to read! Thanks, I’m actually allergic to Salinger, it’s the weirdest thing, I get hives. Huge bummer but what can you do? Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Canon is inside my head, like the Phantom of the Opera, if the Phantom of the Opera did not offer singing advice but instead just exhorted you to read Dostoyevsky.

The Canon is a bad boyfriend, so why is it so hard to break up with it?

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“CHRISTINE! Did you finish Atlas Shrugged yet? I know it’s 1200 pages long, but it only took me four days once I got into it. I just feel like Rand was really prescient.” Photo: Matthew Murphy.

I know, intellectually, that these Lists are restrictive, limiting the stories we read and talk about and write, that they arise from power structures I don’t want to uphold. But letting go of the Great Books is more frightening than liberating. If I admit that I think Restoration drama is uniformly terrible* and will never like Wordsworth, then who will present me with a great big trophy and universal approbation for finally being a Well-Read Individual?

There are the stories in the Canon, and then there’s the story of the Canon: the lie that running on the hamster wheel of European thought makes you some kind of literary Ubermensch, that there is only one way to cultural competence and only one culture worth being competent in.

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It turns out you can just BUY THESE on the internet and no one even makes you take a quiz. Photo: Paper Pastries.

I know this, and yet a set of leatherbound classics still makes my pupils dilate in a Pavlovian reaction. There is no prize for being ‘well-read’, but so much of my early formation, as a reader, a critic, a person, was staked on the premise that there might be.

Is it enough to see the Canon for the arbitrary racket it is, to choose instead the company of authors I love, who speak to me? To catch myself before I ask someone else, with reflexive incredulity, “You haven’t read any Auden?” Or do I need to delete the Canon’s number from my phone and start again, building my own Great Books from scratch? Can I finally ghost on The Faerie Queene? 

*COME AT ME