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Questioning the Canon is a new feature in which I hope to bring to light lesser-known books about a certain issue, which can be read alongside or instead of infamous ‘classics’.
The canon is defined as ‘a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study’, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms which is effortfully pulling me through the endless terminology of my literature degree!
“Canon: a body of writings especially approved by critics or anthologists and deemed suitable for academic study”
Essentially, you can think of the canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts. These songs are the most frequently listened to, but fans of obscure alternative groups have been questioning since the dawn of time – well, since the NOW CDs came out – whether they actually represent the best quality music. How often do you hear the phrase ‘that’s so mainstream’ used as a dismissal?
“You can think of the literary canon as equivalent to the Top 40 music charts!”
Recently the same phenomenon is taking place in literature. People are starting to discuss whether the authors we hold up as cultural icons – Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth – should be accompanied by previously marginalised writers. Our idea of what constitutes ‘great literature’ is becoming broader.
This can only be a good thing, as it means more diversity and social representation in what we read!
The Canon: T.S. Eliot
Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 50,724
Synopsis: The modernist verse of T.S. Eliot is rich with literary tradition, but marked with the poet’s own unique style that startlingly expresses our alienation in a modern world.
The Questioner: Adrienne Rich
Number of reads (based on Goodreads ratings): 7,627 (15%)
Synopsis: Rich’s poetry charts her journey to becoming one of the keynote poets of 20th century radical feminism.
From the deeply romantic to the no-holds-barred furious, her work is a multi-faceted portrayal of what it means to be a woman and a writer.
Questions Asked: Now, I’m not going to knock T.S. Eliot, as some of his poems (especially The Waste Land and The Hollow Men) make it onto my list of all-time favourites. Having said that, I’ll be the first to admit that he did have a pretentious streak!
“This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.”
While maintaining their depth and richness, Rich’s poems feel much more accessible and down-to-earth. When you don’t need another volume of notes to accompany them, that’s always a good sign!
My particular favourites are ’21 Love Poems’ and ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’. She also wrote amazing essays (trust me on this) that explore women’s lives, specifically women writers, in a radical, empowering way.
“Lying is done with words, and also with silence.”
I love that Rich challenges the male-centred canon which poets such as Eliot draw on. Her poem ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law’ references tons of female writers, from Emily Dickinson to Mary Shelley!
Recommendation: My recommendation for these two depends on how familiar you are with Modernist and post-Modernist poetry. If you’re a beginner, I would probably start with Rich as she’s much less obscure!
However, if you’ve read Modernist poetry before (and likely encountered some of T.S. Eliot’s work in the process!) then it’s good to encounter Adrienne Rich afterwards, as you can appreciate how she has upended traditions.
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You may also like Questioning the Canon: William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton.
Have you read either of these poets? Have an under-rated book that you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear from you!