Friday, July 30, 2010

It's Over: We Won

I think that in six centuries we've done a pretty solid job: that English literature is tolerably complete. The canon is built. We don't have to worry about it any more. There is English verse for all occasions: plaintive, soulful, boasting, seductive, spiteful, weary. We have epic, tragedy, satire and romance to fill every corner of the soul. We have the most justly famous playwright in the world. We have enough terrific novels to absorb a thousand beach vacations. The game is over. We won.

This is not to say that there is nothing new to write. Of course there is: there is always something new. And every new generation will have its own cares and concerns. There are still a few odd niches for new works to perch on. And I think there are writers now as good as any in the past. Yes, people as good as Shakespeare. But the thing is, that even if you write a tragedy as good as Macbeth – something I think entirely possible – it won't displace Macbeth, and it shouldn't, because our literary culture is built around Macbeth. I say, Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and you automatically say

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

And that's as it should be. To displace Macbeth you would need to write not just something as good: you need to write something significantly better. And I tell you honestly, much as I admire your work, my dear friend, you're not going to do it.

It's not just a function of age. Six centuries is really rather young (I count from Chaucer, as the earliest English most people can read without much linguistic instruction.) But we here in the English-speaking world have been at the center of the global information explosion. The classics of dozens of traditions have long been translated brilliantly into English. Anyone from Rumi to Li Po to Homer to Gabriel García Márquez. It's all here.

Does anyone actually have a hard time finding something to read, in English? Someone who finds herself saying, “man, I'd sure like to read a sonnet, or a novel, or an introspective conversation poem, but there's just nothing out there”? I don't think so.

Now, this is a grand thing. It's not a problem. It's something to celebrate, to delight in. But it means that we live in a different literary world. The canon-building days are over. We are latecomers, and if we are writing, we're writing either ephemera or oddities. There's nothing wrong with that. But it means that, as writers, it's time to stop taking ourselves so seriously, to kick off our solemnities and party a bit. Forget about genius and making a name. That lionized novelist of our generation is not going to be the new Shakespeare, two hundred years from now. He's going to be a footnote. The work has been done: it's time to play, now.

There's one thing that's genuinely new and exciting about our generation: what the internet has done for us. We can watch literature being built in real time. We can watch a brilliant poem or novel or play being born. As writers and readers we can interact and converse – any of us – as only the luckiest of writers and readers could in the past. Ben Jonson paying his penny to see Shakespeare's latest, Coleridge leaping the fence and running to greet Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Pound settling down to edit “Prufrock” -- we're all in that position now, if we care to be. What could be more wonderful?

Take this ode to little rock. I know so much about where it comes from. I don't just have the great privilege of knowing Peter online, having read his book, and knowing something about how deeply the story and meaning of his name resonates for him. I have context reaching every which way. I know the Big Tent prompt he was writing to. I know the koan Dave Bonta set (“is half a stone still a whole stone”?), and have been pondering it myself. I know of Peter's fondness for the radically short lines of Robert Lax. I'm even cursorily acquainted with Braque because of the same posts, even though I don't remember whose posts they were or what they said. It makes my reading of the poem wonderfully alive. It gives the sort of depth that footnotes in classics try to, but can never quite, give.

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