Wednesday, September 14, 2005

More on the Canon

Cinerati has an interesting post on the Canon, responding to my earlier post. He writes,

None of us thought we had a role in Canon formation. Why? I credit it to humility more than a failure of education (Nokes' hypothesis). We hadn't been exposed to enough literature, broadly speaking, to trust our own judgements.

I think the problem is not with the humility, but rather with how students perceive authority. Students in my world lit classes have so little authority to speak to the Canon as to have none in any practical sense. To these students I must say, "I speak with my authority as a professor. I speak for the ages. These books are great, and you must read them."

Once English majors start getting up into the upper levels, though, they ought to have read enough to start to have a glimmer of a thought about what it means to be literary. Does their authority equal mine? Well, of course not; I read more just for my qualifying exams than they have read for their entire lives. But this is not a binary -- it is a sliding scale of magnitude. On the one extreme are poets and English professors. On the other hand are the illiterate with no exposure to poetry. Most people are somewhere in the middle, being at least functionally literate. As an English major moves through her education, she slides up the scale, garnering more and more authority to speak to what is literary. Even if they defer to the authority of their betters (in terms of literary ethos, not necessarily moral betters), they should at least understand how they are bettering their own literary ethos.


  1. Why should poets, necessarily, be authorities on the Canon as a whole? The poetic part of the Canon, maybe, (though I certainly don't want a lot of poets I've read telling me what to read), but the prose? I'm not sure they're automatically qualified.

  2. I'm sorry ... I betray my misspent youth. When I was an undergrad, we used the word "poet" to refer to any literary writer, even of prose. Sometimes that usage still pops out of me.

    In this context, then, "poet" is a thoughtful writer. Actually, I can recall someone using it completely divorced from the idea of poetry vs. prose, and saying something like, "Well, he's a poet, but he's no poet," in reference to a person who wrote versified junk.

    The idea here is that writers who have studied the Canon and are consciously building upon it (in a T.S. Eliot sort of way) also have credentials in canon formation.

  3. Ah, I see, now. Never come across that use of the word "poet."