"I'm sure it reflects great credit on your grandfather, but you cannot pretend you ever made the vast extent of his wealth clear to me. I should want hundreds of years to bring it all up, if I was fifty times as big, and Smaug as tame as a rabbit."
So this post is really what this silly business of “A History of English Poetry” was aiming at.
Literature, and especially poetry, has been (in the West at least) a nationalist project, a government-funded attempt to replace Classical literature with a great-power vernacular literature. Building a prestigious canon is what the powers that funded poetry cared about. The carrot dangled in front of the poets was eternal fame, “Fame that all seek after in their lives,” as Shakespeare matter-of-factly said, so sure of his proposition that he saw no need to argue it. So people contend for the top slots, and after a few centuries of this, people get lulled into thinking this is normal, this is the way it will be forever. This is natural. You always want to back up and make sure you've got a spare ammo clip when people think something is natural. It usually means they're willing to kill about it.
I've heard that there are more people alive now than dead. Not sure if I believe that, but I'm quite sure there are more living English writers and readers alive today than all the dead English writers and readers that ever lived. And – as I've argued before – at a certain point, numbers really matter. The game changes.
It's one thing to think about stuffing a few more lyrics into the Norton Anthology. It's quite another to think about doubling it in size. You can't double it in size – it's already too big for undergraduates to master. You've got to throw half of it away, and replace it with new stuff. We're not talking now about trimming a poem of Gray's here and an essay of Emerson's there. We're talking about dropping major poets. Leaving out, say, Herrick and Marlowe and Whitman, and replacing them, with – Oh, I don't know. Dick Jones and Luisa Igloria and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Whoever. Put your own favorites in there. Hell, put me in there, I'd love to sit there in the Norton Anthology, preening my feathers.
But the thing is: it doesn't make sense. It doesn't make sense for the undergraduates, it doesn't make sense for English poetry, and it doesn't make sense for us. It's all come apart.
This is emphatically not because there is not poetry as good as Herrick's being written. It's largely because the present anthology is already good enough. Nobody's going to write love lyrics that are better than Herrick's. They're just not. They may write ones that you happen to like better. I, for instance, think Stephen Dunn has some killer love lyrics, they do more for me than Herrick ever will. But I'm not about to tear Herrick out and install Dunn. I know that this is a local, intimate connection between two turn-of-the-millenium mixed-up men. And for Christ's sake, aren't there already enough white male adulterers musing their way through the canon?
Further, there is no sieve of centuries to screen all the poetry that's been written in the past hundred years, and it's hard to imagine that there ever will be. Who would do it, and why? I'm reasonably confident that I've read every extant 14th Century poet worth reading. But that's because 14th Century literary England was a tiny, tiny place. No sensible person will ever be confident that she's read every 20th Century poet worth reading: the idea's preposterous. And the flood of poetry that has been made public on the internet in the 21st Century probably already dwarfs everything that made it into print in the 20th. If you think all that stuff is bad, you haven't looked very carefully. There are brilliant poems pouring into the public domain, every day.
To put it bluntly – great English poetry has now no scarcity value whatsoever. Schemes to assign it an artificial scarcity value will fare in the market as such schemes always do. Canute had a better chance of success.
So back up. Scarcity value isn't the only kind of value. And was it ever really such a grand thing to aspire to, to be the lapdog of kings and the ornament of empires? To lord it over the mute illiterate mob, and end your career as a marble bust over a library door?
Maybe it's time we grew up. Maybe it's time we accepted that we're going to die, that our nations are going to die, that our beloved English language is going to die, and that our poetry is going to die. Maybe it's time to love poetry because it's mortal, written by mortals: maybe it's time to stop adoring movie stars and love the girl next door instead.
About a year ago, I took on the project of reading poetry in English after Yeats. I asked my blog readers for suggestions, to name off a few of their favorite 20th and 21st Century poets. The names rolled in, inexorably: some I'd heard of, some I hadn't. It wasn't long before I had a reading list that would have kept me busy for several centuries. I am not easily daunted, as a reader, but that daunted me. Even if I had Dave Bonta's iron stomach, munching a poetry book every day for poetry month – and I don't – it was a reading list that no fifty-something man with a living to make could ever expect to take sizable bite out of. And if that wasn't bad enough, being a statistically-minded man, I understood what the scarcity of repeated names meant. It meant that there were plenty more out there where those came from. My counterpart blogger in South Carolina or the South Island, whom I've never met, could have polled his poetry-minded readers and come up with a list just as big, and composed mostly of different names. Sure, I dove in and took up some of the oft-repeated names. And they're terrific poets, ones you could easily spend years reading and studying. But I knew, within a week or two, that my idea that I could get a handle on contemporary poetry was pure delusion, even if I'd been willing never to read anything but contemporary English poetry ever again. Which I'm not. I know several languages, and I'd like to know something about what those folks are writing too. I like to read a novel every once in a while. And there are other arts.
So how am I going to read contemporary English poetry? It does, after all, have a special place in my heart. A poet who grew up in the same world I grew up in has a special connection with me. My blogging community has made me into a reader of contemporary poetry, for which I'm very grateful. It's even turned me into a occasional writer of poetry, which may or may not be a good thing: I'm not really sure if my gifts lie that way. But anyway, I've got the bug now. I'm not going to stop. But how am I going to read? How do I choose? I'm like Bilbo tasked with burgling the hoard of Thror.
The answer to impossible questions is given by time, not by thinking. I know what I'm going to do, now. I'm going to read my friends, and their friends. I'm going to start with the shiniest treasure within reach, just because it is within reach. I'm not going to try to master this hoard, or even survey it. There's no way, there's no time, and there's no need.
I have friends who write marvelous poetry and who have wonderful taste. One treasure will lead to another. And anyway Smaug is not as tame as a rabbit. Great poetry doesn't leave you unmolested. I will have to write answers, or live answers, to everything I read. Even assuming I run over my three score and ten, that really gives me plenty to do.