Is it a coincidence when an article bemoaning the disintegration of the poetic canon names only white male poets? Perhaps, in the case of this piece written by Sean Bishop, it is; he does, after all, manage more diversity when it comes to fiction and pop music.

Let us, however, consider it at the very least an illustrative coincidence. Canons often leave out whole populations for reasons that have nothing to do with the worthiness of the work they produce, and when a canon is supposed to function as the common core for an entire nation, then citizens of that nation who find that they have been left out because of their gender, race, or any other such factor must come to identify not merely with but actually as what they are not. As Judith Fetterley noted in The Resisting Reader,

To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness—not simply the powerlessness which derives from not seeing one’s experience articulated, clarified, and legitimized in art, but more significantly the powerlessness which results from the endless division of self against self.

Fetterley argued specifically that with American fiction’s canon being coded male, despite certain exceptions, women reading that canon have to identify as male while, simultaneously, being reminded that they are not. VIDA’s count reveals that any canon of poetry formed today would almost certainly have the same kind of effect. Even if a conscious effort to avoid the exclusion of women writer were successful, certainly other groups would be excluded. This is because canon formation is a political process.

There are worse things for “common ground” to be than a “trash heap.”

Oven baked fries

Not a Poetic Canon

What Bishop fears from the death of the canon is the loss of that common ground (whether or not it smells of mildewed french fries), or perhaps more precisely, the loss of a common language. He asks:

is there even one collection of poetry published in the last twenty-five years that most poets have read, and could discuss with one another, unprompted?

But I am unclear as to why it is so important that any random selection of poets should be able to discuss a particular collection. How much more exciting it would be for a random selection of poets (and other readers of poetry) to engage in conversation by reading each others’ favorite texts! How much more we could learn from each other if we taught each other the language we use to talk about our schools and our work—even if that mean engaging in the poetics equivalent of a Berlitz lesson (and why not? the realia would be right there in the form of the poetic work that should be the center of such discussion anyway).

In that space, there would be the equivalent of  a canon, yes, but it would be provisional and temporary. Its arbitrariness would be recognized.

We do not need homogeneity, or a single might canon, to talk to each other.

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