Poetry Oblivion Evito-Meter
Still Life with a Guitar, Juan Gris, 1913. Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art (cc)
From Poetry London:
What is your favourite lost poem? There’s a lot of material (not) out there to choose from, from the lost plays of Aeschylus to the discarded hospital poems of Anne Sexton and Ivan Blatný. Ezra Pound thought poetry was the news that stays news, but the comparison miscarries somewhat if the newspaper has been thrown away. Sappho’s work is famously moth-eaten by lacunae, but she’s not alone: Josephine Balmer’s Classical Women Poets struggles to find a single classical woman with a full set of strophes to her name. Sulpicia is represented by seven surviving poems, Praxilla by four, and Melinno by a solitary lyric (‘But time’s great span can topple us all; / life sways on one way, then another / you alone sail on fair winds of rule / and never alter course’). Expect the passing centuries to wreak their share of havoc with the physical, let alone critical, survival of modern poetry, though in truth the process of attrition is already well under way.
Beguiling as the pursuit of misplaced manuscripts may be, they are not the primary focus of this essay. I write in pursuit of the melancholy lostness achieved by most poetry, not by going missing but by sticking around. What is your favourite long poem of the once wildly popular Felicia Hemans’s – The Domestic Affection, Siege of Valencia, or maybe Records of Women? How about your favourite verse drama of cult Victorian aesthete Michael Field’s (aka Katherine Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper) –Brutus Ultor, Canute the Great, or Attila, My Attila!? No one who reads contemporary poetry can be unfamiliar with the terms in which poetry promotions tend to be couched: the new poetry, unlike the ponderous productions of the past, will be accessible, engaged, unpretentious, democratic. What, though, I wonder is the assigned destiny of poetry which, rightly or wrongly, appears to be none of these things? It was a nostrum of Dennis O’Driscoll’s that all poets live to see whatever reputation they achieve decline, but how much more precipitous that decline tends to be after death. Have you ever met anyone who has read Hardy’s The Dynasts? Herman Melville wrote one of the single longest poems of the nineteenth century, Clarel, an eighteen-thousand-line epic description of a pilgrimage to Palestine – never mind the common reader, how many PhDs in Melville have read it?
In my more Borgesian moments, I imagine inventing a Poetry Oblivion Evito-Meter (POEM), which would spark into action whenever a small triumph was recorded in the face of poetic forgetting. A library user has asked if there are any Melvin B Tolson books on the shelves (red light flashing), a young poet has made an allusion to the work of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (emits small siren noise)! The protocols of preservation and forgetting are, it must be said, well established. Readers of my vintage – I am 48 – may remember the cultural moment of Harold Bloom’sThe Western Canon (1994), when his proprietor’s audit of the literary canon slammed into a dawning awareness of the world beyond the bailiwick of an old male Yale professor, with ugly results (dark fantasies of the ‘school of resentment’). When I read Wallace Stevens on art, I always suspect he thinks that people who own paintings know more about art than people who don’t, and ownership is at the heart of Bloom’s thinking about the canon too. Once in the canonical crypt, you’re in for (after)life, but the excluded receive no burial rites, are owed no remembrance.