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Post Boris Johnson Recites the Iliad: A Critique
Created by John Eipper on 10/03/19 3:12 PM

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Boris Johnson Recites the Iliad: A Critique (David Pike, France, 10/03/19 3:12 pm)

I passed Enrique Torner's post (October 3) on to the Senior Professor of Classics at The American University of Paris and received this assessment of Boris Johnson's recital:

To me this looks like typical Boris Johnson upper-class theatrics.

He does recite the correct words (the text is so famous that every decent classicist knows it more or less by heart), but there is no sign that he actually takes in what they mean. I would presume that as a trained classicist he can translate the passage; the question is whether the words that he understands on such an intellectual level actually speak to him. You see he makes a funny show of a narrative about destruction and countless pain, heroes killed, their dead bodies spread out to be eaten by dogs and birds. Picture that and listen to the recitation.

So, to me it sounds rather like: Look how educated I am. The "great classics" serve here, as they often do, as a status marker and a sign of elite identity.

In terms of pronunciation, not perfect, but OK, especially for an Anglophone. However, he doesn't care much about quantities and recites with the old-fashioned and anachronistic stress-accent hexameter. It is easier to do and sounds less strange to our modern ears, and that's probably how he learned it at Eton. So that's again not taking the poem seriously, but rather showing off.

JE comments:  Pass along our thanks to your colleague, David.  Was BoJo showing off?  Absolutely.  And do I prefer this cerebral brand of theatrics to the kind we get on this side of the Pond--a partially literate tweetstorm?  Absolutely.

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  • Enrique Torner, Declaimer Extraordinaire (Enrique Torner, USA 10/04/19 3:17 AM)

    I want to thank my friend David Pike (October 3rd) for passing my post to his colleague in the Classics Department: that was a compliment! I want to extend my appreciation to David's colleague as well. However, from the perspective of my 25 years of experience hosting international poetry recitals (where elementary language students to native speakers, even faculty and poets sometimes, with an average of 40 participants per year--about 1000 total, oh my goodness!), I would assess BoJo's performance among my top 5%.

    Yes, he would get deducted for showing passion when he should be expressing sadness or anger, but the easiness with which he recited by memory, his fluidity, and his passion are very hard to match, and I can guarantee his audience would roar at his recitation, despite the fact that our students are hard to get excited about anything.

    Regarding our dear editor's question about memorizing big chunks of poetry, that's a great question! While being raised by the Jesuits, we were required to memorize long passages of poetry and recite them in public for the families. I may have done that for hundreds when I was a kid. Here we get a much smaller audience, from 60 to 120. I have memorized lots of poems through my life, mostly in Spanish, but some in other languages. One some WAISers might know is "Fern Hill," by Dylan Thomas, which I learned when I was about 18 and spent one month improving my English in Canterbury. I still remember Big John and Little John, the names we students gave our teachers: one was short; the other... tall. Little John had a big voice and a great passion for poetry. Forty years later, I still owe him the learning of the recitation of this greatly melodic, fast-moving poem. Thank you, Little John! I re-memorized it some years ago, but the original rhythm never left me!

    I have memorized one new poem each of these 25 years. I have recited in
    Spanish, Catalan, French, Italian, German, Russian, and Náhuatl. This next event
    will be the first time I recite in Greek, a language I studied in high
    school and have been reviewing this past year during spare time in my
    sabbatical with a course from The Great Courses. I love Homer! However,
    I stopped requiring students to memorize their poems: it was too
    stressing for them, and one girl, years ago, started crying in the
    middle of her recitation out of panic from having forgotten her lines.
    From then on, I give them the option of bringing a copy of their poem
    and just reading it. Either way, Boris Johnson would not have received a
    pass in my recital, because, behind the presenter, there are two
    screens: on one we show the poem in its original language; on the other,
    the English translation. People would have noticed that his emotional
    state did not match the poem's!

    JE comments:  Outstanding, Enrique!  I'd love to know what Russian poet received the honor.  Pushkin is usually first and foremost, and is eminently memorizable because of his rhyme and meter.  As for Náhuatl, did you learn the verses of the Texcocan poet-king Nezahualcóyotl?

    Declaiming poetry has lost favor as a pedagogical tool.  Not only is it stressful, it's also not considered a "critical thinking" activity.  Perhaps we should tell the kids that poetry is exactly like rap, but without the infernal racket in the background?

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