Canon Fight! or What Became of the Epic Poem

20 Sep

I’m more than a bit tardy to the literary canon back-and-forth between young Zeitlin and Mike Meginnis, but I was busy with things associated with a graduate program focused on literature and writing (he said knowingly, suggesting actual expertise–for once).

A couple quick points about literary forms to set the stage, suggest some problems, then onto my central argument. First, it’s interesting that both discuss the evolution of the novel next to the largely defunct epic poem. The biggest factor in the demise of the latter was the introduction of the former; as literature progressed, people became more accepting of “mere prose” as a literary genre. Realistic novels began to supplant poetry as the medium for communicating narratives, as the Romantic tradition pushed poetry to the more introspective lyric mode, a mode which tends to dominate poetry today. We don’t read epic poems today because we’ve made a greater distinction between poetry and prose than was made in the past.

From the Greeks we received the idea of poetry as the essential mode of literature–prose was for newspapers and pamphlets. But this turn is as much cultural and aesthetic as it utilitarian; I don’t want to belabor the invention of the novel as an “evolutionary” step in narrative. Strictly speaking, one can write a narrative as easily understood in poetry as one could in prose (it just wouldn’t rhyme as much and would be less recognizable to readers today). The complicated category of prose-poetry comes to mind here, and demonstrates how hard it can be at times to list criteria that makes a work “definitely a poem” or “definitely prose.” But I don’t want to stray too far the core debate.

In a move that may be against my intellectual self-interest (or at least my professional self-interest), I’ll agree with Zeitlin that survey courses designed to impart the intellectual history of Western literature rather than an admiration of literature as Art are what most college freshman (and high school students) should be taking–as an introductory course. There are two reasons for this: one, if you’re not going to be an English major, it would help to know the Greatest Hits of Western Literature (though I admit this sidesteps the crux of the cannon debate itself, but will return to it shortly). Secondly, students already tend to be ahistorical in their studies, and a survey literature course can be a history of Western thought and cultural development along side a focus on the work itself. It’s important to realize, however, that this sort of course ends up being less a “literature” course than a “history of literature,” which, for the most part, is fine. In the same way an economic history course might teach you Adam Smith, Marx, Marshall, Veblen, Keynes, Hayek, Schumpeter, Samuelson, and Friedman (how’s that for off the top of my head?), you wouldn’t want to mistake that for the final word in Economics. You’d miss all sort of interesting discussions like bounded-rationality and experimental economics.

Now that I’ve situated myself in the context of the debate, onto the core points of contention, which are in the ways Mike and Matt both define the “evolution” of literature and its historical context. I think Mike’s metaphor of the “evolution of literature” which manifests progressive ideas like racial and sexual equality, in the terms he defines it, commits the sin of presentism. I’ll agree that characters that are exceedingly one dimensional (usually depictions of women) are less compelling because they don’t seem to represent real people, but rather dull approximations of the author’s prejudice. If mimesis is one of the classically accepted aims of art, then caricature (presented as a faithful rendering rather than purposeful distortion) misses the literary mark. But the great works of art are complex and full renderings in spite of the ethical and social vices of their creators. Shakespeare’s “villainous Jew” Shylock is more complex and sympathetic than some of the “heroes” in The Merchant of Venice; likewise Othello the Moor isn’t just a figure to be cuckolded and ridiculed for the entertainment of the audience.

Nor should the metaphor of evolution necessarily imply that the past has been sloughed off and forgotten, like some prehensile tail. As T.S. Eliot noted, to write a poetry that will live past our own age, a poet must possess “in the first place, [an] historical sense”, developing a “mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the the rock drawing of Magdalenian draughtsmen”. A writer can’t escape the age in which she lives, so great works don’t transcend history, but rather in the words of the German poet Paul Celan,”A poem is not timeless. Certainly, it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time–through, not above and beyond it.”

For this same reason, I think Matt Zeitlin’s conception of the canon neglects the cultural contingency of our aesthetic judgments. This, in the classic Bloomian, Western Cannon sense, is how the poet (yes, another one of those) Mark Doty described it:

Bloom wants to place the aesthetic in a kind of pure realm, free of social or historical pressures–in paradise, as it were, where perennial, indelible values rule: harmony, order, the subtle, infinitely pleasing,endlessly varied shadings of meaning made by the artful arrangement of words.

But of course, this is ahistorical in its own way, imagining an art made in a vacuum. Doty explained why this won’t do:

To suggest that their [Crane, Bishop, Swenson, and Merrill’s] work has no social context or content-that it is not a response to ‘the pressure of reality’-is not to elevate them but to diminish them, to relegate poems which embody profound struggles to a kind of mere beauty devoid of the scarring (and deepening) intrusions of Hell.

To suggest that literature is running into “diminishing returns” on literary greats is to ignore how the canon is formed in the first place, and remove an important historical context. Shakespeare and Homer, though I would argue great works, were taught because an intellectual elite thought that best, at the exclusion of other sorts of work. With the democratization of education (but not necessarily talent), we should expect to see more “marginalized” voices entering the canon. We should also expect a relaxing of canonical strictures, as we admit that, despite the fondest wishes of the New Critics, our interpretation of texts changes over time, and what was once literary (or social) taboo comes to be accepted as status quo. As Celan observed, a work is hopelessly ensconced in the age in which it was created. The great works of literature are a dialectic between the era in which they were written and the time in which they are read. To pretend otherwise is to assume some sort of Platonic ideal of Art or Beauty out there, which these works somehow embody. But that isn’t so.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have papers to grade and subjects outside my area of expertise (*cough*eighty percent of this blog*cough*) on which to opine.

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3 Responses to “Canon Fight! or What Became of the Epic Poem”

  1. schildan September 21, 2007 at 12:58 am #

    Excellent essay! You are right: modern literature needs to be understood in the context of literature of the past. Without comparison, students don’t really know what they’re being taught.

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