Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A History of English Poetry, Chapter Three: The Big Battalions

On Facebook, in a comment thread about my last post, Miguel Arboleda wrote:
I think the thinking is a bit skewed here... none of the literature above were the "beginnings" of anything. The language and culture already existed and this literature was the >outcome< of that language and culture, not the other way around. Sometimes I think professors and poets think a little bit too highly of themselves!
I do take a “great poet” approach to literary history. I dislike “great man” theories of political or cultural history generally. I read Tolstoy at a tender age, and I've thought ever since that his picture of how history worked, with the great names simply chips thrown up momentarily to the top of the surf, was basically right, if a little exaggerated. And of course if you're a settled enemy to sexism and racism it makes you feel unhappy, or downright mutinous, to follow the “big battalions” of Western literary history, which is a long roll call of comfortable white guys in cultural capitals. Nevertheless, I think the most rewarding way to absorb a literature is to read its “greats” in roughly historical order. It makes most sense as a conversation, and there are touchstone works that everyone returns to over and over. You have to know those, they're the backdrop to everything else going on. Without them you're lost.

It's not fair. The Gawain-Poet, or Pearl-Poet, if you prefer – we don't know his or her name -- deserves on his or her own merits at least as much attention as Chaucer. But if I was writing a world literature syllabus, and I could put in only the Gawain-Poet or Chaucer, I would put in Chaucer without a moment's hesitation. Practically all the English poets of note who came after him read him, and practically nobody read the Gawain-Poet until scholars unearthed him or her in the 19th Century. You just get more understanding, more grounding in English and World literature, you get smarter about it faster, if you read Chaucer first.

And the fact is, that you can only shoehorn so many poets into any syllabus, or into any reading life. There seems amongst modern academics a curious inability to grasp this. Everything you push into a syllabus pushes something else out. It's that simple.

At this point I can hear Miguel interposing that it's not all about schools and syllabuses. And again this is a place where I run counter to form. I hate schools and certifications, I hate them as nests of self-satisfied authoritarianism. I think they waste huge amounts of kids' time. I cut my teeth on Ivan Illich (Deschooling Society). My anarchist leanings are pronounced.

Nevertheless – most people here first learn poetry in school – they first learn good poetry in school – and the things they learn in school stay with them the rest of their lives. And that's been true in the West for a very long time. Poetry in the West is very much something that incubates and is transmitted in schools. And that's not going to change any time soon.

And finally, a lifetime's assiduous reading has convinced me that actually literature is composed of “greats”: it's as true of literature as it is false of history, that it's mostly made by a few people who are much better at it than the people around them. Chaucer is not half-again as good as Gower. He's not twice as good as Gower. He's immeasurably better than Gower. His failures are far more interesting than Gower's successes. We're not on a linear scale, we're on an exponential one.

I don't have an argument for this. I don't even know how to start arguing it. But I think many people who read a lot, and read intensely, would agree with me. This is not to say that there isn't a huge amount of stuff worth reading, there is: and there's as much brilliant stuff moldering away unread as there is brilliant stuff that's recognized, especially in modern times. But still, to take a nearby instance, it's much more worth your while to read Emily Dickinson's poems than to read mine. Even after you've read Dickinson carefully for the first time, it's still more worth your while to read her again than to read me for the first time. And it's still true for the third, fourth, maybe fifth reading. Memorize her stuff. It's better, that's all. I'm not saying my stuff is worthless: I wouldn't inflict it on you if I thought that. But I know my place.

I say all this, because I'm about to unsay it in my next chapter. Stay tuned.


lucychili said...

interesting mix of thinking

Dale said...

Thanks! I trip over my shoelaces a lot, thinking about this stuff :-)

Lucy said...

I await these eagerly and gobble them up as if famished, but then feel timorous about commenting, at least about being the first to do so.

I think I tend to agree with you about great poets against the great men (sic, or perhaps non, was it Carlyle?), but I'm not sure it still applies - I think you've written along the those lines yourself, that the times of a few who were fortunate enough to have both talent and opportunity to become great have passed, everytihg is wider and more diverse and fragmented.

I'm not sure they were always exactly comfortable, not in their skins anyway, if they were materially. Yes they were white and male. Chaucer may not have ended very comfortably at all, they say.

I wondered in the previous post where Gawain/Pearl fitted in. To me, they are more mediaeval in the sense of happeing somewhere other, of existing somewhere else, where it's interesting to wander,but always elusive and remote. With Chaucer though I sometimes have difficulty remembering he was medieval at all, he seems so warm and solid and direct. But both have a playfulness, a merriment even, which the Anglo-Saxon lacked. Not much merrimeent in Langland either come to that.

Impressions though, sketchily informed and imperfectly remembered. Please keep these up.

Jayne said...

What strike me here is my curiosity about those poets and writers who haven't been heard, who never had the opportunity to be heard given the biases and cultural and social edicts of their time.
Lucy makes a good point--In this century, publishing can be immediate, talent can be found with the stroke of a hand. I wonder how many talens have been lost to history.
I know this, Dale, you are meant to be read.

Melanie said...

I fear I am about to sound like an idiot. I'm uneducated on literature.

But it makes a difference to me to be able to read someone and tell them a turn of phrase moved me deeply. When writers like Chaucer were writing for an audience of one, that interaction was present. I'm not knocking Emily, I haven't read her carefully enough to have a real opinion. But it has meant so much to me to be able to send you or a few others whose work I love a comment. It changes a dynamic of reading for me. It makes it less lonely.

Dale said...

Lucy, it's your encouragement that keeps me going!

Jayne, there's tens of thousands of them. We'll never know. It's a sobering thought.

Melanie, it makes a huge difference. It's what brought me to read contemporary poetry -- being able to converse with the poets.

Thanks all!

marly youmans said...

Dale, I have been wandering about in your history and enjoying it very much...

I find myself agreeing even where I disagree--or perhaps I mean questioning where I might agree.

One thing that always strikes me: there are all sorts of things that we can't really know with clarity. If you think about all those gentlemen who did many other things but wrote poetry as well in the Renaissance and seventeenth century, well, there must have been hordes of them who wrote the occasional poem but nothing now remains, either because it was not much good or because of mice or some other thing.

I mean, what if Chidiock Tichbourne hadn't had the bad luck to be hanged? Then we wouldn't have his pre-death poem, which is really the only thing we remember of his in the way of poetry...

Chaucer is perfectly wonderful, and one of the most fun things I ever did when teaching many eons ago was to read and translate Chaucer aloud with sophomores. But I have to say that the Gawain poet affected my imagination a great deal, and that I have a lot of poems that have some kind of genesis in the Green Knight or in some passage from that poem. And I can even think of a passage in one of my novels that is rooted in that poem. And I think the "fertility" of a poet is some measure of his importance... (And history plays a part--the whole idea of the green man is in resurgence.)

And of course "fertility" is part of what you're getting at with Dickinson. It is fruitful for us to encounter her. She has been good pollen for a long time, whereas we are still opening flowers in a mass of others.