28 may. 2011

Why Poetry is not Literature

After seeing someone's recommendation on Facebook, I just read an article by my Kansas colleague Joe Harrington on "Why American Poetry is Not American Literature," in American Literary History (1996), written before i even met Joe. Though I woudn't approach the question exactly in the same way, I think he does a good job at explaining the separation between an "Americanist" conception of literature that consists of almost entirely prose fiction, and a separate subfield of "American poetry" with its own set of concerns. Only Whitman, of poets, gets included in the first conception of American literature.

It made me think a lot about my own field. I could write (and probably will) an article called "Why Spanish Poetry is not 'Spanish Literature.'" The reasons for the Spanish case might be somewhat different, but not entirely. The poets I study don't even think of poetry as subcategory of "literature." They's be more likely to see the novel as genre to be studied by poetics in the larger Aristotelian sense. The split is quite profound, in that people studying poetry often seen to have little interest in prose fiction. I'm a case in point: I might go three months without reading a novel if I am not teaching one. My novels of choice are either written by poets or experimental novels that have little to do with the mainstream realism of our time.

I remember one dissertation student we had earnestly explaining that a certain poet was "not only a poet, but also a writer." In other words, a writer means a writer of prose. There are no canonical poets after Miguel Hernández in Spain: no poet who you would expect any Hispanist (not a specialist in contemporary Spain) to know.

13 comentarios:

Sarang dijo...

I wonder who the last canonical poet in English is: Auden perhaps? Bishop? Certainly no one later than Bishop... The Eliot-Joyce-Pound nexus is probably the most recent case in which you can't treat poetry and fiction separately, but maybe that's not a necessary condition for poets to be canonical.

Clarissa dijo...

Don't you think that this attitude serves to marginalize the study of poetry even further? Nobody is likely to start opening separate departments for poetry. People will just prefer not to offer any courses on poetry at all if a case can be made that it isn't part of literature and has no place at the departments of literature.

It's hard enough as it is to find anybody who does any research on poetry.

Jonathan dijo...

Yes, it does marginalize poetry, but I am trying to think myself out of that box.

Amateur Reader dijo...

Could one apply a similar argument and come up with articles titled "American Plays Are Not American Literature"? Or "American Films Are Not American Literature"? The motivation or world of theater and film writers is less obviously "literary" than that of poets.

The existence of separate theater and film departments might change the argument. Yet plays are mostly and films often taught in literature departments.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Jonathan, a while back you discussed how many literature professors apparently don't like poetry, didn't you?

Professors who teach contemporary fiction expect those who study poetry to know stuff about all of today's fiction writers, but they would be surprised to be told that they should know something about today's poets.

Jonathan dijo...

That's similar to the relation between French and Spanish, say. I would be embarrassed if I didn't know René Char, for example, but I don't know whether a professor of French would know an equivalent Spanish poet.

The split between poetry and fiction really hurts fiction more, I think. Joe H. contends that experimental fiction also doesn't get to be "American Literature" in quite the same way. I'd take even a poet I don't like that much, like Robert Duncan, over John Barth.

Professor Zero dijo...

I would be very interested in the article.

Luis Monguio once told me he only read poetry and nonfiction, and I was intensely gratified that a literature professor would feel this way.

Andrew Shields dijo...

"The split between poetry and fiction really hurts fiction more": that feels right to me, even though I can't quite put my finger on why it should be true.

Perhaps it's related to my frequent recent preference for verse novels over prose novels.

Jonathan dijo...

in the divorce poetry got to keep the good stuff, anti-commerciailsm, language, aesthetics, a deep engagement with the literary past. Can you imagine a novelist doing something like Duncan's H.D. book?

Fiction got contemporary relevance, Oprah's book club, and a lot of popular subgenres, mysteries, thrillers, young adult fiction. Vastly more readers but of lower average quality.

(Ok. That's too simplistic, I know. Poetry also has the awful poetry popularizers.)

Andrew Shields dijo...

Reminds me of Archambeau's discussion a few months ago:

http://samizdatblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/ts-eliot-on-metra-urban-alienation-and.html

Simplistic version: Poetry once told people how to live and also had an aestheticist streak, but that ended for various non-poetic reasons in the late 19th century. Since then, poetry is too aestheticist for most people to be interested in it.

My comment now: some see that as a bad thing; I am increasingly seeing it as a good thing.

Jonathan dijo...

Archambeau's position is not too far from Harrington's. I hate all that nostalgia for Victorian moralism.

Andrew Shields dijo...

Was RA being nostalgic? It didn't strike me that way, but maybe I need to look at it again myself!

Jonathan dijo...

I was too cryptic. I wasn't saying he was nostalgic in particular, but that there is a kind of nostalgia for that that I hate.