Jun 4, 2009

There They are -- Some Olympians!

For decades, writers and critics have been bashing or dismissing Yvor Winters for trying to make a new canon, at least when they pay attention to him at all. Even those who have strong interests in or affinities with his critical work are so vexed by -- perhaps even ashamed of -- his classical canon-making that they refuse even to acknowledge that evaluation and revising or renewing the canon stand at the center of his critical thinking. As you certainly know if you read this blog, I harp on about this compilation I call the Winters Canon and the philosophy of canon-making to counter this refusal. Yet recently, I came across yet another suggestive indication of the importance of canon-making in the general literary culture. It came in an issue of The American Scholar, the Winter 2009 issue, in which some writer I’ve never heard of entitled an essay:

“Lunching on Olympus”

Well, there you go. That’s what the the making of canons is all about: deciding who the "Olympians" are, those artists wose works are so well written and so important that they are literary gods. The essay can be found at:


The title, and the essay that follows, reveal, by implication, that the author believes (and, by deeper implication, that we all should believe) that among the "gods" of modern literature reign W. H. Auden, E. M. Forster, Philip Larkin, and William Empson, for these are the four authors he writes of lunching with "on Olympus." The essay is a casual one, offering no discussion or assessment or even praise of the four writers' work. In fact, the essay is a simple recounting of four mundane conversations, almost in the manner of an old Esquire bio-essay. The essayist treats the four writers mostly as celebrities, not overtly as "gods." But the implication is clear: by giving these writers this kind of rapt attention, by implying that their humdrum lunchtime quips and quotes are worth laying out in detail, by giving all that title, we are meant to see these men as four of the Olympians, Gods of literature!

Now, what does this symbolism of Olympus mean? The essayist wishes or expects us to see these four writers as canonical -- that is, the writers whose work we should pay attention to, read often, ponder frequently, write and read criticism about, teach in class, expect educated people to know of, consider the best. Again, the choice of the word "Olympus" and the tone of the casual essay make the view plain and clear.

None of these poets, in my judgment, qualifies as an “Olympian” in this sense (though, I should note, John Fraser includes poems by Auden and Larkin in his New Book of Verse, which has led me to reassess my evaluation of their work). But many people will no doubt continue to read these writers in part because of what the author of this American Scholar essay -- and most other critics -- say about them, that these writers are worth paying the closest attention to, as though their artworks were nearly scripture or revelation. (I say "most other critics" with the probable exception of Empson, whom few writers consider one of the greats of literature as well as I am able to determine.)

That, my readers, is what making canons is for: declaring whose work should be read, which of their works should get the most attention, which should get the highest praise, which should serve as models and standards, which should be considered as supremely important -- and studied and contemplated as such. Should we pay more attention toi T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or to Elizabeth Daryush's "Still-Life"? To discover the Olympians, and to delineate how we can and should identify them, that is almost exactly what Yvor Winters was trying to achieve in making what I call the Winters Canon, those lists of greatest poems (and the anthology Quest for Reality) that so embarrass even those who have affinities with Winters's work nowadays. (The photo is of a sculpture depicting a fight among the Olympic gods.) Yet Winters realized, wisely, that evaluation stands at the heart of the work of criticism -- even among those who deny its centrality. In the "Forward" to In Defense of Reason (1947) he explained the matter wisely and succinctly:

The professor of English Literature, who believes that taste is relative, yet who endeavors to convince his students that Hamlet is more worthy of their attention than some currently popular novel, is in a serious predicament, a predicament which is moral, intellectual, and in the narrowest sense professional, though he commonly has not the wit to realize the fact.

Our professors identify or accept designated Olympians. Much of the very loose and vague system of canon-making in the general literary culture is built on, importantly, selecting what will be taught in class, but also on what will be written about in journals and, perhaps most importantly in our day, what will be said about particular literary works and authors in popular magazines and web sites. One example of the large role of popular media is Ron Rosenbaum's short essay on Slate last year claiming that Keats's "Ode to Autumn" is the greatest poem in English, a matter which I have already discussed on this blog and on Slate.

Hence, don’t listen or cower the next time someone bashes or dismisses Yvor Winters for canon-making. Writers and critics and even readers of all stripes practice it -- mostly implicitly, but occasionally explicitly as well, as shown in this essay about lunching on Olympus.