The Allusion and the Canonical

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.

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8 Comments »

  1. Janet Kenny said

    Quincy,
    I absolutely agree with your comments. The canon—the classics— should only be used when they are the only possible common reference. Most poets read too narrowly. Remember what it used to be like to read as a child? The excitement of it and the sheer relaxed entertainment of it. I have only recently rediscovered that sort of reading. We show off to ourselves. We read things to impress ourselves and to swank in the company of other poets. Certainly we must read the challenging stuff but that isn’t necessarily what will fire our imagination and keep the essential inner child alive. If we don’t also read with open mouths and feel a need to share a funny passage or to thrill with fear until the plot is resolved—we’ve been destroyed by ambition and will probably not write anything worth reading.

  2. Rose said

    Janet, you seem to be equating “canon” with “challenging stuff.” And you also seem to be assuming that the way in which “most poets read too narrowly” is that they spend too much time reading canonical literature and not enough time reading contemporary stuff (which, it follows, must be less challenging). I have so many doubts about all that, I’m not sure where to begin. So I think I’ll just leave it at that, and go make some cocoa-coffee.

  3. Rose,
    Instead of “classics” and the “canon” I should have said “officially respectable” stuff. Reading to keep up with the intellectual pack. An intellectual form of fashion victim-hood. Inspiration can come from anything. How many of us read good quality thrillers or admit to reading them? We go to such orthodox places. Poetry magazines edited by those whom we hope to please. I think we all want to read finely made writing of all kinds but I suspect that we end up spending too much time in rather arid places. I think we would benefit from reading a great deal of modern prose fiction from many cultures if we are to write with breadth and imagination. We have to go beyond the traditional boundaries. I don’t think that a poet necessarily finds inspiration in poetry or in traditional themes. But you know that already.

  4. I didn’t deal with “challenging stuff”. By that I meant really good and penetrating writing such as Nabokov”s “Palefire”. But to balance that we need to read something less self conscious. Something we read without noticing the act of reading. In my case, recently it has been the marvellous police thrillers of Andrea Camilleri in Stephen Sartarelli’s superb translations. I had forgotten that kind of reading. I think that poets would benefit from injecting something of that kind into their writing. (Sartarelli is a noted poet and it shows in his translations.)

  5. This is embarrassing, I keep forgetting to say stuff. Quincy was talking about conducting a dialogue with the past. Themes that cross time and connect us to human conversation. I think that must be through authentic content. That’s where the connection lies. (Quincy is there any hope of an editing facility in these posts?)

  6. Rose said

    LOL, I feel naked without an Edit button too, Janet. Anyway, as soon as you said “officially respectable stuff” I understood what you meant. Of course, what’s officially respectable varies depending on which group of assholes you ask.

  7. Joy said

    Interesting point Quincy. I find the way to get past all this is to write from the heart. That’s what I try to do.
    That’s the place to begin. For some, writing is a calling. What you describe is where all the pigeon-holing comes from. It’s somewhat expected that every writer can be compared to another writer, and there’s the rub.

  8. Very interesting post, Quincy and interesting discussion too.

    I read as widely as i can, poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction. I also love poetry readings so i can hear poetry. You are so right when you say that the canon is used too directly (and too clumsily almost I would say). Sometimes it feels like a showing off, sometimes it feels like laziness.

    Interesting blog you’ve got!

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