Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Canon fodder

"Lyric poetry is a domain where talent is discovered early, burns brightly, and then peters out at an early age." -- Howard Gardner

A few years ago, an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson decided to find out whether this assumption about creativity was true. He looked through forty-seven major poetry anthologies published since 1980 and counted the poems that appear most frequently.

Some people, of course, would quarrel with the notion that literary merit can be quantified. But Galenson simply wanted to poll a broad cross-section of literary scholars about which poems they felt were the most important in the American canon. The top eleven are, in order, T. S. Eliot's "Prufrock," Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour," Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," William Carlos Williams's "Red Wheelbarrow," Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish," Ezra Pound's "The River Merchant's Wife," Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," Pound's "In a Station of the Metro," Frost's "Mending Wall," Wallace Stevens's "The Snow Man," and Williams's "The Dance."

Those eleven were composed at the ages of twenty-three, forty-one, forty-eight, forty, twenty-nine, thirty, thirty, twenty-eight, thirty-eight, forty-two, and fifty-nine, respectively. There is no evidence, Galenson concluded, for the notion that lyric poetry is a young person's game. Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of Frost's anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For Williams, it's forty-four per cent. For Stevens, it's forty-nine per cent.

-- Malcolm Gladwell, "Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?"

When you start searching for ‘pure elements’ in literature you will find that literature has been created by the following classes of persons:

1 Inventors. Men who found a new process, or whose extant work gives us the first known example of a process.

2 The masters. Men who combined a number of such processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.

3 The diluters. Men who came after the first two kinds of writer, and couldn’t do the job quite as well.

4 Good writers without salient qualities. Men who are fortunate enough to be born when the literature of a given country is in good working order, or when some particular branch of writing is ‘healthy’. ...

5 Writers of belles-lettres. That is, men who didn’t really invent anything, but who specialized in some particular part of writing, who couldn’t be considered as ‘great men’ or as authors who were trying to give a complete presentation of life, or of their epoch.

6 The starters of crazes.

Until the reader knows the first two categories he will never be able ‘to see the wood for the trees.’ He may know what he ‘likes’. He may be a ‘compleat book-lover’, with a large library ... but he will never be able to sort out what he knows or to estimate the value of one book in relation to others, and he will be more confused and even less able to make up his mind about a book where a new author is ‘breaking with convention’ than to form an opinion about a book eighty or a hundred years old.

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading -
Bill Benzon at The Valve asks for revisions!

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