In an alternate universe, debates about class and poetry and form in poetry would have been put to rest by the Jem Casey/Sweeney/Mister Storybook sections of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, but no. Flann O'Brien is not admired by the theorist, who draws the line at Joyce and Beckett, and lacks a sense of humor. And the ambitious among us are likely to know about Heaney's Sweeney, and not O'Brien's, which is genuinely paradoxical. Also, it's a novel, so maybe that disqualifies it from our discourse.
If we're going to have at it, then, let's take pause from the late Agha Shahid Ali's reflection (wonderfully articulated in his essay, "A Darkly Defense of Dead White Males," to be found in the recent volume, Poet's Work, Poet's Play) that - quoting Rustom Barucha -"a colonized language can be freed from its own tyrannies."
Ali muses, "No wonder I have no vested interest in the free verse versus formalism debate that often goes on in the United States - among, let me add, largely White poets - a debate that seems particularly petty when one knows the world is going to pieces."
For him, that freedom from tyranny is not only the result of working within the narrow confines of language and its subjects, but through the actual "translation" of people: "... the secret business of art gets done according to mysterious rules of its own. In this larger context, ideology simply doesn't function as it is supposed to when, indeed, it isn't directly threatening the work of art by trivializing it and trivializing as well as the importance of the ideas it seeks to dramatize."
And so when it comes to the so-called canon - "all literary cultures claim some figures as their greats" - he says, "When many of my fellow writers of a piercing brownness - ravishing shades of brown - here in the United States (the ones in India really don't say this) say that these so-called standards have been IMPOSED on us, I ask them to distinguish between tastes and standards. Further, I ask: tell me what are the criteria, if not standards, according to which you consider a work worthwhile as literature? What are your literary criteria? And how have these criteria evolved and been maintained over centuries. After all, there were many dead white males, writers, many of them courtiers, so truly privileged, whose work is not celebrated, who wrote sonnets all the time. Even if there was a homogeneous, monolithic conspiracy among the whites - the English, I mean - against us, why did they CHOOSE those white writers and not others? And, even among the individual writers, why do we call one work of theirs superior to another one? After all, Queen Elizabeth I wrote poems: do we discuss those? She was certainly a privileged white MALE, if I may! ... let's assume for a minute that there was a highly conscious ruling-class male conspiracy going on regarding the privileging of dead white males. Well, there are many dead white males. The question to be asked: why these and not others?"
The corollary is to examine the literary canons of other cultures, which he does in some detail. A kind of sanity is thereby returned, he says, to the discussion. "Because of the histories of British colonialism and American imperialism, we who write in English are often in a bind of anger that we take out on Shakespeare and others... But we must historicize and not see the past as a monolithic arrangement. And as writers we must be on guard in particular against some brands of white liberalism that will, out of condescension, encourage elements of artistic carelessness in us."
Nations, as Rushdie points out, co-opt or destroy their greatest writers; "whatever the argument," Ali hastens to add, "sooner or later a writer will talk about the best, the great, and so on... they don't often spell out [the criteria for this] when they are caught in frontiers." If somebody's touchstones exclude some wonderful writers, he says, "let's include them by all means. But let's not throw out the best in the service of a program to correct past wrongs."
Naturally, this entails separating one's politics from one's aesthetics, which we do all the time. "We must enlarge our sympathies, historicize simplicities and complexities, and learn even from - dare I say it? - fascists such as Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Eliot."
(You knew I'd veer back to modernism sooner or later!)
Ali highlights the haunting fact that English literature was taught in India a half-century before it became part of the curriculum in England, where only Greek and Latin texts were taught: "That should teach us four or five things and certainly make us strip ourselves of that easy sort of hallow that overcomes us when we talk of literature and feel it saves mankind and thus should be taught."
More importantly, Ali concludes that politics ought not to be a mere convenience: "If we are politically engaged, as I always am, let's make sure we deepen those concerns with content. Otherwise, with an ideology stripped of true artistic committment, we might find we have the air of poetry and none or almost none of its weight."
As always, I quote things that give me pause, that seem connected to larger debates - which is not to say that I don't have reservations. But Ali's remarks are characterized by a kind of sympathy and generosity that is lacking from some versions of these debates. When epic Sweeney falls out of his tree in O'Brien's novel, the two cowboys Shorty and Slug, the Pooka (with the Good Fairy in his pocket), and Jem Casey (the Working Man's Poet, the Poet of the Pick and Bard of Booterstown!) patch him back together and carry him to a better (and more poetical) place; befeathered and pricked by thistles and thorns, he is attended to, despite their vast difference in class and culture, by Casey, "a bard unthorning a fellow bard."