Sean O’Brien defends the canon in yesterday’s Guardian. I don’t quite know what to make of it. On the one hand his call to read serious poetry is right; and I agree that it’s important to see oneself as ‘part of a continuum, a community extending across history’. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that beneath the polished prose this is just another subtle, indirect attack on the avant-garde, the innovative – whatever you call it.
For a start, whilst O’Brien readily namechecks the canonical poets he seeks to defend, he doesn’t offer any specifics at all on the kind of poetry he would like to see less of. A clever ploy, because it makes his case a tricky one to argue against.
Autonomy and seriousness come under threat because they represent an obstacle to the progress of the kind of ignorance that prefers to suppose that everything can be consumed, excreted and replaced, that one thing is much like another, and that anyway nobody cares or has time to make their own distinctions. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Walcott and Plath and all the others suggest otherwise. Who would we rather believe? Who would we rather spend our time with? The choice is ours, for the moment.
Is the choice really ours? The pool from which we draw expands and contracts according to the tastes of the age. And taste is driven – by people like O’Brien for instance. One of his other major bugbears is the marketing of poetry† (‘consumed, excreted and replaced’ is partly a nod to that), but this article is itself marketing par excellence. If he bothered to mention some of the poetry he doesn’t want us to read, then we could make some kind of choice. But of course he won’t. Because this whole thing is an exercise in drawing in, tightening, closing up.
O’Brien says, ‘poetry’s subject is life in all its manifestations’. A true thing. But poetry itself is manifested in innumerable ways, inside, outside and on the fringes of authorised/notional imagined canons. It’s a diverse artform and I want access to as much of the good stuff as possible – whatever camp it’s in. Luckily for those with Catholic tastes this first decade of the twenty-first century promises a new diversity of poetries, a breaking away from the centre ground held by certain ‘important’ writers and critics.
I’m sorry to denounce Sean O’Brien so strongly – I know this is just a thought-piece to promote The Guardian‘s new series on ‘Great Poets’. Besides, he has his ground to protect, as do all who are involved in this precarious business of poetry. And I guess we should be grateful someone with knowledge and passion is standing up for any kind of poetry at all in the broadsheets.
† O’Brien publicly, though not on the record, attacked my book / touring project Generation Txt for this reason. I don’t think he’s read the book, mind. I’d be happy to send him a copy of course!