To add a bit to the recent discussion between Rose and myself… Given that this is a literary blog, certain truths we may hold to be self-evident. Most of us read a lot. Most of us read a lot of literature. Most of us read a lot of literature by authors who were born before 1900. The same can be said if I specify 1800, 1700, etc. That is, we are, relative to the general run of humanity, a pretty canon-savvy bunch. We can rattle off a few lines of Shakespeare, know the name of Petrarch’s unrequited love, and so forth.
But the point really isn’t how smart everyone is (you’re welcome, though). No, it’s that American formalists often don’t show much imagination when interacting with the great works of imagination from the past. As T. S. Eliot put it in “The Sacred Wood,” “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” Too often, when reading the formalist journals, one feels the need to add something to the “bad poets” norm, the “unimaginative poets”–or, to be a bit more precise, the unimaginative poem. That is to say, the frequent “update” poem, in which, say, the Furies become rather stereotypically shallow and vindictive mall rats mocking the (poet-surrogate at a younger age) four-eyed narrator, is probably a bad poem, draining the Furies of their terror while the remaining mythical residue around them prevents the story being told to resonate in its own right. But then there’s the unimaginative poem, where the myth is not complicated or really explored, save for filling what the Spinal Tap album cover sleeve refers to as a “much-needed void.” If you’re Tom Stoppard, you can look at Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even as they remain very much Stoppard’s characters. but do we need a sonnet to tell us what Ophelia was thinking, when Shakespeare does a damn fine job of it himself?
The canon, in contemporary metrical poetry, is far too often simply inert, with authors appreciated, myths revered or burlesquely bowdlerized, and blah, blah, blah. Boring. One lacks a sense of the dialectic of allusion, the way in which, done properly, the past and present communicate with one another, the way that Agamemnon comments on the tawdriness of Sweeney’s dinner companions, how Athenian history is harnessed to Mauberley’s lament about the devolution of modern life, the way Shakespeare hovers around Berryman. We need to be more subtle with this stuff, more imaginative than we are now. Far too often, the canon is used as a substitute for the actual alchemy of inspiration.