Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christopher Cannon's: The Grounds of English Literature

This is an extraordinary book.

Its excellence operates on two levels: there is a general argument about literature, literary history, and the way texts are read and valued, which is of interest to anyone who wants to think about those things and detailed readings of a group of Early Middle English texts which illustrate and support that argument and which are original and thought provoking about those texts. Anything that tempts me to reread Ancrene Wisse has to be extraordinary.

The texts Cannon reads so well may be too obscure to attract many readers, but that’s a pity because the detailed readings support the general argument and the general argument shouldn’t be lost because you could probably fit all the people who’ve willingly reread Laȝamon’s Brut on a bus and take them to Arely Regis for the day.

Put into modern terms, and shifting from Cannon’s interest in ‘Literature’ to my interest in ‘Poetry’, ‘Poetry’ exists as an idea which is greater than the total sum of all the texts identified as ‘poems’. Texts gain in value by drawing on the excess meaning the term ‘Poetry’ has. The authority of ‘Poetry’ as an idea is not undermined or even dented by the fact that there is no satisfactory definition of ‘Poetry’, or that arguments about what Poetry does are rarely if ever supported by specific examples, or that no poem does all the things Poetry is supposed to be able to do.

The same is true of the term ‘poem’. Sir Phillip Sidney knew Poesy, what we’d call fictive literature, could be easily divided into Verse and Prose. The distinction was obvious. It wasn’t obvious in the centuries before Chaucer of which he probably knew very little. Today the baffling range of texts published as ‘poems’ means such a distinction is once again no longer tenable. A poem is simply any text recognised as a poem by those with the authority and power to do so.

But because there is an aggregate of ‘poemness’, something most people would recognise as ‘having the characteristics of a poem’ even if the liminal cases are problematic, calling something a poem draws on the excess of value the term has. A ‘poem’ is an indefinable but special type of text, with a long history and a great deal of residual cultural capital which relies on a vaguely misunderstood past, rather than any present reality.  In itself ‘poem’ is drawing on the greater bank which is ‘Poetry’. (whether Literature stands above Poetry or below it in this ‘economic’ model is an interesting question.)

I wake up. I open my eyes. The world is still there. You are not.

Fifteen common words carrying a commonplace thought. Chopped into lines:

I wake up.
I open my eyes.
The world is still there
You are not.


posted to Instagram and tagged as poetry, it claims the ‘status of poem’, and if enough people ‘like’ it, the writer can claim the title of ‘poet’. Poet is another word with excess value carrying a great deal of residual cultural capital that has nothing to do with the pragmatic role of writers of texts but which can be drawn on if you want to strut.  

These two points: Poetry is an idea which exceeds the sum total of all poems ever written, but which cannot be adequately defined and ‘Poem’ is the name given to a text as the result of a learnt reading practice which recognise a text as a poem and associates it with ‘Poetry’, have implications for both the way critics and readers approach the reception of texts and how writers go about producing them.

Most, I suspect, would rather ignore the implications because they cut the ground away from so many unexamined assumptions. Or at least can force a confrontation with those assumptions. It becomes difficult to operate as critics if we start to try and take each text on its own terms because that's not the way we became 'competent readers'. But unless we do that, claims to value original or unique texts ring hollow. What passes for ‘experimental’ in modern poetry is really the repetition of characteristics that are currently recognised by those in the know as 'experimental'.  

Claiming something is ‘ground breaking’ is an easy, thoughtless critical commonplace for blurbs: proving how or why something is groundbreaking is a very different matter.

As a modern example: Thomas Dilworth, in his work on David Jones, is emphatic that although written in prose In Parenthesis is poetry. (He makes this claim in Reading David Jones and then more recently in his biography of Jones.)

The question that goes begging in the claim is what is gained by shoe horning that remarkable text into any category? If you claim the text is poetry, then you’re also saying that the learnt reading practice you developed to read ‘poems’ can be applied here. But in saying A is like B, you’re inevitably distorting A, and while you can now focus on the things that are common and familiar, you’re tending to lose sight of what makes A not B.

What shoe horning the text does is reveal the way we read. We assimilate to the familiar and in doing so reduce the threat the genuinely strange provides to our comfortable assumptions.  And Cannon’s suggestion, if I’m not wrong, is that the solidifying of this process can be seen in the period between the Conquest and the development of ‘Romance’ as a recognisable category in the 13th Century.

In that strange period dubbed ‘Early Middle English’ it’s possible to argue these reading processes were not at work.  The text types are so different that there is no ‘aggregate’ that allows them to be lumped together as ‘Literature’ and draw on the added value that term could give them. You cannot read ‘The Owl and the Nightingale’ with the same expectations you’d read Laȝamon’s Brut. The two texts are preserved in the same manuscript. One is written out in continual lines, the other  recognisable as ‘poetry’ in its lay out.  Today they are both called ‘poems’ but if they are both ‘poems’ they are so different that the term is already so stretched as to seem useless.

Cannon argues that this is not a failure of the texts, rather, each text has to be taken on its own terms, and in doing that readers and critics become aware of how we don’t usually read in this way and how claims that the original and the unique are valued are implicitly false. 

And so that’s the general point, probably slightly distorted.  Enthusiastic discussion of specific argument to follow.  

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