De-canon, Irish Women Poets,and What I Do

Alice Milligan (not in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poetry)

 It's genuinely disheartening, after all these years, to see these canon battles recur over and over.  This time, it's The Cambridge Companion to Irish Poets, and their appalling lack of representation of women poets (and I would also say experimental and Irish-language poets).  Evidently, the editors go no further back than Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin whose first book was published in 1972, who is still very much with us and writing.  The problem, to state the obvious, is that the stature of Cambridge University Press and the paucity of such academic publications mean that this text becomes the controlling academic resource for Irish poetry.  Not only does it seem to go out of its way to restore the view of the good ol' Irish bardic poet as a cultural foundation, it equally holds that women are inconsequential to the foundations of Irish poetry. 

Fortunately, there is a groundswell reaction to this publication led by Christine Murray, and she has orchestrated Fired! and The Pledge, a movement to bring academics and poets together to commit to meaningful representation of women poets and critics, in festivals, literary events, anthologies, etc.  It reminds me of the work of Amy King and the VIDA counts in the United States, a nearly 10-year enterprise documenting the representation of women and queer and minority writers in reviews, literary magazines, and anthologies.

I cut my teeth in recovery work in the canon wars, from the early 1980s on.  My dissertation director was Susan Gubar, and my dissertation was a recovery work on Muriel Rukeyser, among the first dissertations committed to analyzing her work in total. And while any one anthology isn't the be-all or end-all to studying a genre, a historic period, a nationality, a gender, or an ethnic identity, they all end up being exclusionary by default, shaped by the politics and biases of the editors, and all inherently incomplete, partial, distorted.  

As a teacher, whether or for a creative writing or literature course, I simply do not use anthologies, just for these very reasons.  I also dislike anthologies because they amount to a goofy, disjointed "greatest hits," reifying the idea that a poem is singular, discrete, and denuded construct.  Most poems I know are in direct contact with the other works of the poet, finding some kind of home, some kind of deeper contextualization, in a book. Thus, I order individual books of poetry when I teach a class.

A literature syllabus is really not that much different than your typical anthology, but what I like about ordering individual books is that I end up covering fewer authors--this amplifies the absences, that my students understand that I'm casting a small, small net, and there's no pretense of being comprehensive. We also get a chance to study the works in relation to other poems in the book, explore the conversations between very good and not-so-very good poems (but where the "mediocre" poems may be more impactful).  We erase the editors of collections, the intermediaries, and all their credentials, all their impressive footnoting and bibliographies.

Of course, the limit to what I do is that it allows The Cambridge Companion to Whatever to do its defining, delineation, and exclusion--one errant syllabus is but a minor and inconsequential hiccup (though not to my students). This is where I genuinely admire Amy King and Christine Murray and their engagement and constancy and courage. Where I do take heart is in that there are so, so many ways to pose these challenges, whether by staging alternative festivals, creating one's own anthology, producing podcasts, whether they are collective or individual endeavors. 


Dave Bonta said…
I've always felt that way about anthologies too (as a reader; I don't teach). It's so easy to acquire them, too. As I only have so many bookshelves and can't seem to stop buying single-author collections, I think I may be donating a few boxes of anthologies to the local public library soon. As for print journals... well, let's just say that I think the intangibility and ephemerality of online journals, while sometimes frustrating, makes more sense for an ultimately disposable medium that so needs to be taken with a grain of salt.