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Saturday 15 March 2008

The Roar of the Canon

The full phrase was "drowned out by the roar of the canon", used , if I remember correctly, by a correspondent to a local paper. He was having a rant about the difficulties encountered by young ("experimental"!) poets in their attempts to make their voices heard, about the "carve up" of so-called poetry competitions in which poets belonging to the exclusive club of those who have "made it" award each other prizes (I've heard that one a few times since), and about several other beefs, the natures of which escape me for the moment. He seemed, though, driven by the belief that we(e) poets who don't quite make it into the anthologies are poetry's equivalent of canon fodder. I was reminded of the article a week or so back by what struck me as something of a coincidence: The Guardian newspaper announced that it was to give away booklets on The Great Poets of the Twentieth Century and it was launching the said give-away with a plea to bring back the canon. Meanwhile, the Independent was announcing the launch of its free booklets on the great poets from Chaucer to Hardy. And how was it launching its bonanza? With a plea for the restoration of the canon!

The word canon comes to us, as does so much, from the Greeks. Their word kanon meant a measure or a rule. Our derivation of it was first applied to those books of the Bible that were accepted as authoritative. So Matthew, Mark, Luke and John became the canonical Gospels. Later, it came to be applied to an agreed body of work, say poetry, against which other such works could be measured. It had another benefit: any well-educated young person would grow up becoming familiar with the canon, and this would give him or her a way in to other, newer, works. Poets frequently borrow from other poets or allude to their works in their own poems, and the frequency with which a particular work is alluded to or borrowed from is one of the factors that may, or may not, see it included within the canon. So, any reasonably well-educated person reading in Eliot's The Waste Land

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man
You cannot say or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

would realise, at least in broad terms, that we are entering Biblical territory here, Ezekiel country to be precise; but still there is work to be done, for a poet may allude to works in order to disagree with them as readily as to enlist them to his cause. The Gospel according to Eliot equates Ezekiel with The Son of Man, but then states that the prophet knows nothing of the roots or branches that grow out of the "stony rubbish" because all he knows is a place where the "sun beats" and there is no relief. In the Bible the prophet is commanded by God to stand up and listen. Eliot marginalises God's listening prophet, saying that he knows nothing. God leads Ezekiel through a wasteland of bones. The reference is from Ecclesiastes 12 and is followed by another biblical allusion, "and the dry stone no sound of water", a reference to Moses in Exodus. So we have two images: the dead tree and the dry stone. Both speak of people being forsaken, of a place where there is no relief, no water. Eliot ignores the original meaning of Ecclesiastes 12 to make the point that even a prophet can not know the feelings of freedom introduced briefly near the end of the previous verse (In the mountains, there you feel free) because it is eclipsed by the place of no relief.

A poet writing today could not assume that his readers would have such familiarity with any book or poem, never mind the Bible, and would know that to rely so heavily upon allusion would be to render his work a closed book to most. Which, I suppose, is simply another way of saying that there is no agreed canon upon which the poet can rely for his allusions. Ask why that should be and you will receive a variety of answers. Some will say that Eliot rewrote the canon - or tried to. Others will put it to you that the canon fell into disuse because all the poets included in it were white males, and that the effort to redress the balance led to such an expansion that it became too all-inclusive, too unwieldy. Nearly everyone was in somehow or other! (Interesting that, seeing that between Chaucer and Hardy, The Independent could find only one woman, Emily Dickenson, whilst in its selection of Great Poets of the Twentieth Century, The Guardian also found only one woman, Sylvia Plath. And just don't ask how many non-whites!) Some might tell you that the canon does not exist today because it has never existed.

Obviously, the canon means different things to different people. A canon certainly did exist in the eighteenth century when Erasmus and other humanists demanded a universal knowledge. Later, it was put to good use by the universities. Some will say it was easier then, that the canon more or less chose itself. After all, how many classical works had come down to us ?
Similarly, the Elizabethan canon, in terms of poets, caused little controversy. Something like:
Edmund Spenser
Sir Philip Sidney,
Christopher Marlowe,
Wiliam Shakespeare,
Ben Jonson,
John Donne.

But still today academics refer to poems and write books on particular works or poets, and as, inevitably, their subjects and their quotations coincide or overlap, and as the same works become anthologised again and again (or don't), a sort of canon begins to emerge. So some will contend that, as each different purpose tends to produce its own canon, we end up with too many canons for them to be of any real use. A modern canon, for example, might select works in terms of traditional characteristics; the Alexandrians, to take a different example, chose works that displayed good grammatical usage; a canon could evolve that was socially or environmentally inspired; and so on, you could think of many more, I have no doubt.

So: there are many competing canons and there always will be; or there is no canon, never has been a canon and never will be a canon. It all depends upon your particular viewpoint, but what I truly cannot fathom is how one could bring back the canon! Who would do that, seeing that, as far as I am aware, no canon was ever created by someone sitting down and deciding what was in and what was out. Neither is it a matter for a committee. For many, particularly for those involved in teaching, The Norton Anthology (scroll to 15/11/07) is perhaps the nearest we have to a canon just now, but new voices being drowned-out by the roar of canon? I don't think so; more like some distant, sporadic musket fire! But what do others think?


Anonymous said...

I wish I had time during this kid-filled Sunday or during the GCSE/A-level-filled week beyond to do justice to an excellent and thought-provoking post, Dave. By and large, I'm with you in hearing little more than 'sporadic musket fire'.

Regarding the good works of The Independent and The Guardian/Observer, let us at least be grateful for a double-barreled attempt to raise the ante of poetry and to provide some historical continuity. Point taken, however, re the dearth of female poets. Hardly in the liberal tradition represented by those newspapers, is it?

Keep them coming, Dave!

Dave King said...

Thanks for the feedback, Dick. My sympathies (and envy) at your kid-filled days. I remember them well! And yes, we should be grateful to The Guardian and The Independent, as indeed I am. It wasn't my intention to knock them.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, I have had problems myself in fact where I've referenced or alluded to something in the Bible, something I've considered obvious, and I've had to explain myself. I had a poem rejected a few weeks back and the editor – unusually – explained that one of the reasons was that he didn't think his readers would get the biblical reference.

Interestingly I've found myself in a similar situation only today. I critiqued a poem by a young lady that made reference to things like 'CG liner' and 'razr' which I had to look up (they're brand names apparently) but which I suppose a youngster would connect with right away. Despite the numerous ads that I now realise I've seen for the Razr, I did not. To be totally honest, of the top of my head, I couldn't tell you what make my mobile it.

I have no intention of dumbing down my writing but I guess I have to realise that by digging my heels in I'm limiting my readership. You could think of it as a marketing ploy – the people who get what I'm about are my ideal demographic.

Dave King said...

I suppose with brand names we are almost getting back to jargon - but perhaps we'd better not get into that. The whole question of allusion, though, is an interesting one. If you read "The Waste Land" without getting the allusions, there is still enough there to be going on with. The question then is: how far can you expect a serious reader to dig and search out the allusions. That is much easier these days than even a decade or two back, thanks to Google. A serious reader will be prepared to work at it, I think - as long as s/he feels the poem is worth the effort.