Good Old Flow
Well, life is short, time is short, we’re busy, we can’t do everything – I mean, come on! There’s the job, the commute, the gym, the spirituality seminar, the assertiveness refresher course, the holistic meditation group, the energy healing hour, there’s therapy, and shopping, and catching up on tv – does that leave a lot of time for reading? Get real! So shortcuts are always welcome. Shortcuts like reading fewer books by particular great writers – or like reading only selections from fewer books by particular great writers – or – oh the hell with it: to be perfectly frank, like not reading anything at all by any great writers whatsoever. Like reading two pages of one novel by one prize-winning contemporary novelist every night before falling asleep, that’s what. For five years or so we read The English Patient, and then when we finally read the last page of that, it was that Indian one, you know, the cover was grey…
Yes, shortcuts are handy. In the ’50s the shortcut was Leavis’ The Great Tradition, which breezily told us life was too short to read Tom Jones. Whew! That was a lot of pages taken off the menu. Now it’s those helpful caring multiculti types, who sweep away not just Tom Jones but the whole poxy old ‘canon’. It’s all just a disguised power-play, you know: away with it!
Or if we don’t like that excuse, there’s the Anxiety of Influence alibi. We don’t want to read Yeats or Wordsworth or Donne because they might upset us, by making it too obvious how exiguous our own talent is by comparison, so we just won’t read them! Then we can carry on blissfully writing and writing and writing, sublimely unaware of our predecessors or anyone else. Just as all of them are sublimely unaware of us, and rightly so.
Katha Pollitt is incisive on this point in her well-known essay ‘Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me…’
I, too, am appalled to think of students graduating from college not having read Homer, Plato, Virgil, Milton, Tolstoy – all writers, dead white Western men though they be, whose works have meant a great deal to me. As a teacher of literature and of writing, I too have seen at first hand how ill-educated many students are, and how little aware they are of this important fact about themselves. Last year I taught a graduate seminar in the writing of poetry. None of my students had read more than a smattering of poetry by anyone, male or female, published more than ten years ago. Robert Lowell was as far outside their frame of reference as Alexander Pope. When I gently suggested to one student that it might benefit her to read some poetry if she planned to spend her life writing it, she told me that yes, she knew she should read more but when she encountered a really good poem it only made her depressed.
Yes, I daresay it did.
Compare the haunting line Barney McClellan quoted in his article on this site:
i’m (sic) trying to get out there,/to make myself known,/ i dont (sic) read other poets/ afraid they’ll mess up my flow.
It all works out so well, really. We don’t have time to read long-dead writers, and fortunately we have discovered that they only depress us and mess up our flow, so we don’t need to! His eye is on the sparrow, know what I mean?