Saturday, June 25, 2011

History of English Poetry, Chapter Seven: Burgling the Hoard

"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.


Linda Myers said...

Wow. I was an English major way back, and I read those old poets. The idea you presented, that there are more people alive than dead today, and how small the literary community was back then, and that contemporary stuff is just as good or better but there's so much of it we could never get to it all. Brand new thinking for me.

Thank you.

marly youmans said...

Although I just wrote a post the other day about shooting the Blakean arrow past time and space, I still agree with most of this. Foolish consistency really is the hobgoblin of little minds. And two contrary things can be held in the mind as each meaningful.

But I do think that all the arts at the moment suffer from a certain leveling tendency. In my little town (unusually full of visual artists), for example, it is hard for people to make any kind of distinction between the Sunday dabbler and a person who has a calling as an artist and devotes a goodly portion of her life to the work.

I recently attended a slightly-out-of-town exhibit of a serious painter from my town. I was one of two from my town who attended. (Well, there were a few tiny children and a husband.)

The internet tends in the same direction, an idea that has its good and its bad points, so I think starting with people you admire and like is a fine way to go.

Peter said...

Thought versus time. Most of what I know about Protestantism (and I'm sure other sects as well, sects I'm not nearly as familiar with) could be summarized by the struggle between time and thought. A lot of what we call insight, or the application of biblical truth, is what may (arrogantly, in one sense) also be called the victory of thought over time.

But time has time on its side. (I'm always amazed, reading the Bible, how little I know of it, even as I suspect that I have little idea of how it has shaped me.) Even my hard-won (maybe) perspective, my current point of view, seems so much to do with the physiology of being in my fifties, not to mention a thousand other influences from a sociological, psychological, and economic perspective? How much of what I credit to thought is really more attributable to time, who sits unobtrusively -- benignly or balefully or both -- in the corner?

I think the people my tradition is pleased to call Saints (with a capital S, we say) are people we would say have done an admirable job of escaping time. Though so many of them wear more than the average amount of time's trappings . . .

In the senses of thought and time I mean here, I guess it could be said that each has its role. But it's difficult, without reading history, attending funerals, or looking at the stars (and there are cultural forces that militate against all three (thinking of light pollution, and Waugh's The Loved One regarding the American funeral industry)) to keep a little humility about one. "No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you," saith Job (bitterly, as time, arguably, began to assert itself and separate him from his friends).

Just thinking out loud again here. Your posts frequently spark new thinking or advance or counter some old thinking. Or sometimes lay thinking a little more open to time.

Peter said...

I think my annual, quixotic "Solo Poem Month" is my way of throwing elbows in this roomful of Poets I Ought to Read. I wrote . . . let's see . . . eleven posts on one Robert Lowell poem this time around. I found it in a huge volume of Lowell's poetry called Selected Poems (not to be confused with an even larger volume of his work called Collected Poems). I have not gotten around to reading, in its entirety, one other Lowell poem. And I think the world of him. Maybe next year.

These are elbows that I must throw. Everyone has her own pair and her own room to throw them in.

(Sorry I keep populating your fields with the corpses of my comments' first drafts.)

Jean said...

Wow. Most of this amazing series comes from a place of knowledge and informed opinion that I cannot remotely identify with. But in your conclusion I'm entirely with you.

Dave said...

I go along with most of this -- not surprising given that we have both, I think, been heavily influenced by the anti-nationalism and anti-hierarchical thinking of the classical anarchists. Thanks for helping me crystalize my thinking about the uselessness of canons.

One thing I would add is that from at least the 1960s on, the English tradition hasn't really been the most dominant influence on what we now consider to be the leading American poets. 20th century Spanish-language and classical East Asian poetry in translation have together been more influential, I think. Look at the Copper Canyon Press catalog if you want to get a good sense where a typical contemporary American poetry reader's interests lie. I know for my own work, poets such as Neruda, Lorca, Jorge Guillen, Ryokan, Saigyo, Kabir and Transtromer have been way more important even than English-language poets I love, such as Dickinson, Blake and Donne.

marly youmans said...

Of course, look how long it took us to figure out Donne was really good, or even to find Edward Taylor...

Some of that is that tastes change and so somebody more akin to current tastes is revived or found and then remains with us even after the era of revival passes (as Donne, Melville.)

And another thing is that there are poems that meant a great deal to people in their own time that turn out to fade--to have somehow failed to capture and preserve the mysterious sense of life that keeps poems from fading with time.

Dale said...

Hey, thanks so much, everyone! No time to respond yet xo

tjpfau said...

Well . . .yes. "Burgling the Hoard" seems right, once the hoard is located. The location seems to be the "thing."

Six or seven billion people will produce a lot more of everything, from methane to art and I suspect that everyone of us has poetic insights.

This leads to open-ended decisions but regarding our locations more than our choices. We can only choose between things we share locations with.

I stumbled onto this spot from an association with a friend who I stumbled onto from a search about a particular place that would have had no interest for me at all had not another friend wandered into a calling there.

We wander and stumble in geometric connections our ancestoral lines could not conceive of. They would have been too busy conceiving those lines.

I'm glad I found this place. That was an interesting read. It changed the way I think about some things.

This is a nice location. It has fresh air and an interesting view.
I know some of the pieces of the hoard I'd like to find.

Maybe I'll see a few from here.


Lucy said...

I'd have you in my Golden Treasury in a heartbeat Dale!

I'm not sure Marly's altogether right about the regrettable levelling. I think that within the microcosms created in on-line writing, excellence does become evident: no one would consider that someone like me, who just gets lucky occasionally and enjoys trying, but doesn't have what it takes to sustain it, is on a level with someone like Marly, say. Whorls within fractal whorls, perhaps. The wonderful thing is that people like you and she, and what you do, are directly open and accessible to me in a way not previously possible. 0iyhhhhhhh88885.

The above typographic oddity was occasioned by Molly leaping onto the keyboard of the laptop where I had left it on the sofa. I left it in as a matter of serendipitous interest, and to make the possibly pertinent suggestion that, given an infinite number of Mollies...

This post also reminded me of another article, to be found at

which I found similarly heartening.

Dale said...

@Linda, welcome, and thanks!

@Marly, yes, there is certainly an evolution of the "canon," and ought to be. I think the amount of "stickiness" these days is really pretty much right. But I do feel that it's a little misleading when they treat the 20th Century & after as if all the same rules applied. And I think encouraging modern poets to think the same way about "entering the pantheon" is rather cruel. The leveling tendency -- it's an enormously complex question, and it's very difficult to make sure you're comparing like to like. Of course if you compare a typical blog to the Spectator it looks like the literary world has gone to hell in a handbasket. The chaff has certainly kept up with the fruit :-)

Dale said...

@Peter, I'll lug the guts into the neighbor room :-) These are wonderful comments & reflections -- I'm so honored to have your meditations here.

I loved your subversion of the poetry month orgy of excess, by the way :-)

@Jean, I think your modesty is completely unwarranted. Just for the record.

@Dave, now I find myself wanting to play fast and loose, like the people who say Beowulf belongs in the English syllabus :-) I think the English tradition informs modern poetry more than some people think. If I weren't so lazy I'd start counting instances of irregular modern poems that come to a close with a perfect iambic pentameter couplet -- Shakespeare's voice echoing in the hall. But I'm anxious to read your forbears, too. World enough and time! That's what I need.

Dale said...

@tjpfau,welcome! I'm always so happy to see people arriving from new places. You're right, the geometry now is intricate and bewildering.

@Lucy, I am impervious to flattery, so I'm not wriggling with delight. Just so you know.

marly youmans said...

Well, that was an interesting succession of comments! As usual, I find myself agreeing with a great deal, even things that I didn't agree with a moment before--I must be a top in nature. I suppose it's that most angles of vision have some merit... Either that or I am a featherbrain, blown by the winds. Or perhaps I am the queen of negative capability.

Yes, the world that belonged to Keats and company is utterly gone. However, I am very grateful that he wanted so deeply to be in the pantheon that he gave over much of his life to that effort. Because I enjoy living in his world.

Lucy, I would tell you that you are being too modest except that I really like modesty... (But I do love your expeditions with camera and words, and always enjoy 'Box Elder.')

Jayne said...

Dale- I stayed away from poetry in school, feeling intimidated by the sophisticated verse, and, what I sensed to be, the academic snobbery surrounding it.
As I mature (AARP card and all) I am drawn to poetry. To the old and new.
The old informs the new, so to begin reading contemporary poems without the benefit of reading the masters, well, it seems it would be confusing.
I liken it to literature, one won't understand certain references made in modern works, unless they've read the classics. But we can't read it all, as you said, now can we?
Your poetry is beautiful. Follow what takes you there, and enjoy it. Your readers certainly do. :)

Dale said...

@Jayne, I'd certainly start out reading the old stuff -- I reckon anything that's remained a favorite for centuries is bound to be worth reading.

We both had the misfortune of going to school at a time when the motto for poetry seemed to be, "the the denser and more obscure, the better!" Ezra Pound's Cantos and T.S. Eliot's Waste Land, that sort of thing. (I like both Pound and Eliot, but they're hardly the only kids on the block) I think that phase is passing, mercifully.

If I were going to jump into poetry now, from scratch, I'd pick up one of the standard anthologies -- Golden Treasury, the Norton -- and just flip around till I hit something I liked, and go from there.

It so much fun. And so much faster than reading a novel :-)