Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Gift of Mediation / Poetry vs the Canon

From today's Poetry Daily:

The Gift of Mediation

Shadow warns shadow that you approach,
light warns light.
Frightened, a wild dove starts up. You are an obstacle,
not foreseen here between the loftiness of pines
and penal divisions of low grasses.

You are a foundling looking for a family,
a prodigal son who has fled
and returns to bear witness to the independence
of trees and thistles, quick butterflies and dying dragonflies.

It is through them this moment of peace comes to us,
they help grace descend on the wing
of an unknown bird
and it is their voices—an ermine's cry, moan of a dove,
complaint of an owl—that remind us
the hardship of solitude is measured out equally.

- Julia Hartwig (trans. from the Polish by John and Bogdana Carpenter)

Seriously, what is it with Poland?


Meanwhile, over at the Guardian there's the Great Poets of the Twentieth Century thing. I know one should be grateful anytime the mass media pays serious attention to poetry, but I can't help finding the whole exercise terribly stick-in-the-mud. Do we really need to be told that Eliot, Auden, Larkin, Hughes and Plath are Great Poets? Again? [1]

Sean O'Brien, in a companion piece to the series in this week's Guardian Review makes an argument for 'bringing back' the canon, citing a friend's daughter who dislikes Eliot and arguing that to ignore the canon in the name of difficulty or as a political reaction to the hegemony of dead white men, is to deprive ourselves of some of mankind's most delightful and rewarding artistic achievements.

It's a good argument, and as someone who loves the work of almost all the poets featured I'm certainly not going to argue with the idea that more people should be encouraged to read them. But I can't help feeling that an overemphasis on the canon, especially the canon as defined by these choices, obscures what is, to me, one of the chief qualities of modern poetry - its sheer range. Poetry is large, it contains multitudes, and that multiplicity of voices is something we need to celebrate, not only because it allows poetry to speak to wide range of constituencies but because each one of those voices exists in the context of the other, so that the combination makes (to quote Keats) "pleasing music, and not wild uproar". To attempt to impose a canon on such diversity is to either fall into the trap of being 'representative' or to end up championing (consciously / unconsciously) one set of voices over the others. And neither of those approaches is particularly useful.

The trouble with the Canon, and the privileging it leads to, is that it limits the experience of poetry for potential readers, and therefore limits the readership for poetry. By making poets part of the Canon we make them gatekeepers into what is, for many, the mystical land of poetry, and in the process end up driving many of them away. Every time someone tells me that "they don't get poetry" or "don't much care for it" I always want to ask them - what have you read? It usually turns out to be something from the Canon. People sample these 'great' works, often in a classroom setting under the tutelage of uninspiring and poorly informed teachers, and end up coming to the conclusion that all poetry (or at any rate all modern poetry) is like this, and since this is the 'best' work and they don't like it, it's hardly worth pursuing it further. But, of course, those of us who do pursue it further know that there is much more to poetry than what goes into the Canon. I would go so far as to say that it's entirely conceivable that you could love poetry without being particularly fond of M/s. Eliot, Auden, Larkin and Hughes. I wonder how many people never realize that.

What we need if we want to make a wider audience engage with poetry (and that, I assume, is the Guardian's purpose - it hardly seems worthwhile to tell a group of people who already love poetry that Eliot was a great poet) is not a canon, but a new set of gatekeepers. One that will help people discover the variety of poetry. One that will help them to find, as a first step, a voice or a set of voices that they can delight in, and which can then become their entry point into this exciting new realm [2]. The question to ask is not who the great poets of the last century are, but who are the poets you would recommend to someone who was unfamiliar with poetry and regarded it with suspicion.

Don't get me wrong. This is not an argument for dumbing poetry down or for trying to write poetry that is more 'accessible'. It is simply a call for recognizing that a) different people will relate to different styles / voices and that b) some poets may be easier to relate to than others. My own list of poets to get people started on includes Amichai, Szymborska, Frost, Yeats and Billy Collins - each a perfectly respectable poet in his / her own right, but for most people, I would argue, an easier place to get started than Heaney or Ashbery.

Nor is this an argument for ignoring 'difficult' poetry. It is simply an argument for recognizing that difficult poetry may, for some people, need to be grown into. John Donne writes: "That which in him was fair and delicate / Was but the milk, which in love's childish state / Did nurse it: who now is grown strong enough / To feed on that, which to disused tastes seems tough." Making sure we provide that milk, rather than stubbornly insisting on the primacy of the canon, is what greater public engagement with poetry demands.

In the end, I keep coming back to the daughter of O'Brien's friend. Is seeing Eliot feted as on the 'Great Poets of the Twentieth Century' in the Guardian going to convince her to give him another try? Or is it just going to confirm her bias against him - making him even more of an authority figure and therefore someone more passionately to be rebelled against? The worst thing that could happen here is that this girl's prejudice against Eliot gets transferred to twentieth century poetry more generally, so that she ends up disliking not just Eliot [2] but poetry itself, and become one of those people who go around saying they "don't much care for poetry". What we need to do is not so much convince her that Eliot is worth the effort (if we can keep her reading poetry she'll figure that out eventually, and even if she doesn't, does it really matter?) as find her some other poet she can champion in Eliot's place. That after all, is how art progresses - by the intense championing of the new and exciting against the hegemony of the old and established [4].


[1] Though admittedly, Siegfried Sassoon being one of the century's great poets is news to me. I'm looking forward to hearing what William Boyd has to say about that one.

[2] I'm tempted to draw parallels to Virgil leading Dante all the way to Paradise, but never mind.

[3] I have my own theories on why people dislike Eliot, but that's a whole other post.

[4] You could argue, of course, that by putting up this list the Guardian has created a set of establishment figures to be opposed, sparking a broader discussion on poetry in the name of telling them why they're wrong (witness, for instance, this post) but somehow I doubt that's what they had in mind.


Space Bar said...

What interests me most about this series is the complete absence of any contextualisation. No Canon- making is politically innocent and so far nothing I've seen in the Guardian Intros makes me think they're going to talk about why these and not other poets; why now; what of the poets' own influences. It makes it look like they were all Athenas arriving fully-formed on the literary scene.

Sean "Brien talks at one point about "a loss of liberty when the past is in effect closed down and the present becomes the measure of all things."

When has the past ever been viewed except through the present? Granted that the present needn't be the measure of the past but surely any understanding of poetry must be more nuanced than that kind of simplistic assertion?

Of course the reason he says all of this is because of how obscured poetry has become by the language of academia. But the Guardian's selection of seven poets from a richness of them in the 20th C seems just naive. Who will believe they don't have an agenda?

Space Bar said...

I meant Sean O'Brien.

And the footnote against Eliot in the main post should be 3. (how comforting it is to point out typos in others' posts!)

Cheshire Cat said...

*slavering* More list porn. Poets for starting out: Blake, Housman, cummings, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Larkin, James Tate.

I also have some thoughts about what you said, or rather, I foresee having thoughts. That's for later - making lists is easy, thinking is hard.

Ludwig said...

Poems on the Underground and Poetry in Motion are perhaps better as a way of getting people more interested in poetry. The only major disadvantage with this form is that you can't put up something like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in a bus...

Am attempting an interesting experiment in my building. A young man who lives on the 5th floor has expressed interest in poetry (I think he needs my help in writing a J2EE application for a final year project). So I've lent him this Panorama poetry book that the sibling used in her (ICSE) school days. It's decently non-canonical (or do they become canons by definition once you put them together in a book?), and I'm waiting to see what transpires.

Hard to make very strong statements about poetry, we find. As a famous blog I know says, whereof one cannot speak etc. etc.

Space Bar said...

Ludwig: And there I thought you were encouraging him to graffiti his poetry on the walls in exchange for help with application. There might even be time to read the Ancient Mariner while taking the elevator from the 5th floor down.

Falstaff said...

SB: Yes, that is annoying, isn't it?

I actually think I know where O'Brien is coming from. I suspect it's true that within the narrow circle of poetry academia the Canon often gets overlooked. Did you see the discussion on the Poetry blog a while back about whether Milton was too difficult to read? it really astonished me - I always assumed that being a serious reader / writer of poetry would mean at least some familiarity with Milton, but apparently that isn't true. But I hardly think a special issue in the Guardian is something poetry academics are going to pay much attention to.

Oh, and I see we managed to get you reading blogs and leaving long comments again.

cat: cummings, Larkin and Tate yes. Not sure about Housman, mostly because I've never warmed to him. And Blake, well, it depends on what we're talking about. Songs of Innocence / Experience, yes. Four Zoas not so much.

And it is an awesome list porn topic isn't it?

ludwig: Ah, good, good. Do let us know how the young man fares.

And Poetry in Motion / on the Underground absolutely. But even there, the real challenge is picking the right poets / poems no?

Cheshire Cat said...

I was also thinking of the role model aspect. Blake and Mrs. Blake walking around naked in the garden, now that's individualistic, as poetry should be. We really have an image problem here, don't you think? Insurance agents, bankers, librarians, it's sad to contemplate.

Space Bar said...

Cat; and war heroes. You forgot war heroes.