I don't advocate for the banishment of these authors; I'm not looking to label anyone "trash" or "canceled," two words I've seen applied with (understandable) anger by others. But I definitely believe that anyone choosing to teach the work has to take on the responsibility for teaching the work in context--and I'd question why any one author would ever be irreplaceable when putting together a multi-era, multi-genre syllabus. That suggests, to me, a certain lack of imagination or research on the part of the professor.
Fifteen years ago, would I have argued to preserve these hallowed syllabi? In 2003, did I think that you have to separate the artist from the art? Perhaps. Then again, the me of fifteen years ago wasn't quick to see the urgency of aligning herself with feminism, either. I might have been 90% of the way through my formal schooling, but I've learned a hell of a lot in the fifteen years since. The authors I looked up to, back then? Some I still admire, more than ever in fact. Some I've set aside. Some now have the connotations that I imagine people attach to the funkiest cheese--an embrace of the mold and stink, not without value, but not something you'd turn to on a daily basis or give to a friend. And maybe that's making light of something that I can't really bear to make light of. I'm still learning more, day by day.
In hindsight, I realize how fortunate I was to be exposed to terrific and relatively varied voices in the classroom. At the University of Virginia, Scott Saul's syllabi were racially inclusive and edgy in their politics. At American University, Myra Sklarew made sure we understood poetry as a conversation within the world, not just the United States. That said, I was still fumbling my way toward understanding the biases and machinations of the "canon" as it had been handed to me (credit Grant Snider's great cartoon, above); and I was a long way towards understanding that I could do something to change it. Because that's an empowering thing: we can change the canon. We can do it when we write smart critical essays centering the work of African-American poets, of disabled and D/deaf fiction writers, of Appalachian memoirists. If you're Dr. Emily Wilson, you can do it by translating The Odyssey.
Earlier today, I opened the latest issue of a magazine to which I subscribe and have published in. When I spotted an essay on political poetry, I flipped ahead. Maybe this would be something I could share with students. I then, with disbelief, tallied those cited on the first page: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mark Edmundson, David Orr, David Biespiel, Ezra Pound, Hart Crane, Dana Gioia, W.H. Auden. When presenting critical thoughts on the political poem, in this day and age, I'm genuinely surprised that someone would open with eight Caucasian cis-male writers and not think, Huh, maybe I need to widen the lens a little.
Ultimately, five women are mentioned: Anna Akhmatova, who is presented in (literal) parenthesis; an exploration of the journals of Etty Hillesum, killed at Auschwitz in 1943; Deborah Garrison, whose poem is reproduced and given a close reading, immediately following the same treatment for a poem by Bob Hicok; Simone Weil's arguments regarding The Iliad; and Eavon Boland's take on a poem by Yeats.
Women surface but, by the numbers, the waters are presented as masculine. At almost every turn, their voices are presented as counterbalance, subjugate, accessory. The one cited most, Hillesum, is also the relative novice of the group; she died at 29, her diaries published only posthumously. Here's one example of how the analysis handles her:
Considering Etty Hillesum's statement, "I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes," we might consider the expression of individual style--well-written, conscientiously crafted--as the literary equivalent of this individual act of seeing, as an embodiment, a framing, of this recognition as suffering that is also the second, active meaning to suffer. Style, individuality brings us into the act. Often, too, the difficulty of expression is part of what needs to be expressed. Homer states the difficulty outright; Merrill renders it with stylistic complexity.
There's a subtle hierarchy being reinforced here. Hillesum's talent is positioned as naive and experiential witness, "conscientious" in her craft of witness (a backhanded compliment if there ever was one). She is a vessel. Homer, Merrill--they are agents. The irony is that this essay earnestly and sincerely wishes to wrangle with the issue of who is ignored, and why, and the legacy of poets as "legislators" of our collective spirit. The author wants to interrogate our impulses toward memory and history-making. He should begin with questioning why this essay cites who it does, and in what proportion. The rhetoric of the essay wants to claim a middle ground between "traditionalists arguing for a consensus poetry" and "an avant-garge arguing of a destabilizing poetics." But when your endnotes consists almost entirely of the hegemony, that is just as loud a rhetorical statement as the body text.
My point is not to drag any one author, especially a poet whose work I admire, and one who is making time for the under-compensated track of literary scholarship. My point is that these approaches to writing about craft are endemic and entrenched. This is not a matter of the teachers who are "woke" or not "woke." This is a process of not only wakening, but questioning the conditions of your previous slumber, and wondering what you can do to respect and engage those who were never asleep to begin with. That's why I'm wary of anyone determined to enshrine a syllabus that features a particular contemporary author ("a genius!"). You're telling me, on some level, that your mind is already made up on who the next generation of the canon should feature. That's still changing. That's in our hands. Ready; aim; fire.