It makes me think, perhaps not oddly at all, about literary canons. Someone whom I can't bother to look up distinguished between the "canon" – that always hegemonic, nasty-bad list of great dead men – a canon which no-one has really believed in since the early 1970s, so far as I'm concerned – and the "available canon," the pieces of writing which are more or less easily accessible for reading & teaching (canon-perpetuating?) practices. Which is to say that literary works end up on our syllabi (speaking as a professor, now) do so in large part because they're available in affordable anothologies, online, or in paperbacks we can in good conscience make our students buy. Lyn Hejinian's My Life is probably a canonical text to a lot of readers of this blog; but when I went to teach it this past semester, I found that it was in some "not out of print but unavailable indefinitely" limbo. (Get your finger out, Doug!) I'd have no such problem with Gulliver's Travels, or The Awakening, or Three Lives, all of which are available in a variety of editions, ranging from cheap Dover Thrift editions to lavishly annotated scholarly things.
So I was thinking about (was it) Milton, the last writer for whom it was possible to have read everything – every significant text in Western literature. (And who said that? And of course it's not really true – he couldn't have read all of those early modern plays, even the ones that managed to get published, or the whole of the Church Fathers...) But the range of books he had available to him was so unimaginably more curtailed than what we have today, even in the most dreary Waldenbooks suburb. And my iPod, with its 13,000 songs – does that represent more music, of a wider range, than Mozart (or Robert Johnson) heard over the course of his life?
I'm feeling, that is, overwhelmed by riches, to the point of being at a loss. I have probably a couple thousand volumes of poetry, most of it American, most of it published over the last 30 years, on my shelves & in stacks on my floor; and several hundred of those volumes I haven't yet read. As with my "unplayed" iPod playlist, I'm assiduously trying to work my way thru it all, trying to sift the gems from the – well, from everything else. But sometimes it seems like sheer volume of cultural production works to dull the ear & eye. When I listen thru the Pogues box set, for instance, I hear live versions & demo versions of songs that are interestingly different from the versions with which I'm familiar; but those differences don't register with the same impact they would have when I was in my early 20s, & played every new album four times over as soon as I got it out of the shrink-wrap. Too many books of poetry in a row & the genre itself seems to hover into a blur of disjunction, image, & musical line. When I bought my hot-off-the-press copy of Leslie Scalapino's that they were at the beach back in 1985, I read it till the spine broke. Now, even the most impressive new book is hard-pressed to provoke more than a 2nd or 3rd reading.
Perhaps the cure is to restrict one's reading, one's listening, for a while. There's something to be said for Christopher Ricks's Bob Dylan fixation (in conversation, it becomes pretty abundantly clear that Ricksie isn't particularly interested in rock music, or in popular songwriting in general – he just loves, & knows in microcopic detail, Dylan). But I'm not ready to cut back my reading list just yet. Perhaps I just need a season of slow reading.
Looks like I'll be teaching, come next Spring, a grad seminar in Postwar American Poetry. But golly, I'm disinclined to put together a syllabus of 13 or 14 volumes by people I like. I'd rather do something that tries to give a sense of the shapes & directions of American poetry since 1945, a bit of – for want of a better word – literary history. Anybody got any suggestions for useful anthologies, histories, approaches, etc.?
[Professional arse-covering: Of course, anything you suggest, I'll already be familiar with (wink wink, nudge nudge); I just need – er – reminding.]