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Saturday, February 18, 2017

On Evaluating Poetry, and Dead White Men's Pre-Eminence in it

Abstract: Two independent but highly correlated measures of permanent fame and a measure of contemporary fame were investigated for a sample of 50 eminent poets. The greater the permanent fame of the poets, the more they avoided references to concepts and emotions and the more they focused upon concrete images. Permanent fame was related to estimated intelligence but unrelated to wealth or social class. Contemporary fame was found to be unrelated to permanent fame and could not be predicted by the variables investigated. It is apparently based upon different criteria in different epochs. For neither permanent nor contemporary fame was there any evidence that rich white men have any advantage in becoming famous.

Article: There has recently been controversy about the canon of great works ofWestern literature. It has been argued that one must be a rich, preferably dead, white man in order to gain admittance. This argument is rather fatuous. Some poor white men such as Robert Burns somehow got admitted. Some women such as Jane Austen also managed to get in. Even Phyllis Wheatley, a black woman, has been in the canon of American poetry for several hundred years. It certainly does help to be a dead white man to be included in the canon, but examples such as those cited above show that this is not a necessary condition. It is most certainly not a sufficient condition to be a dead white man. The vast majority of dead white men who tried their hand at literature have been justly consigned to oblivion. If they ever were in the canon, their names have been expunged.

Another criticism of the canon has been that one’s works must uphold the status quo in order to be admitted. If I understand Marxism, Feminism, and the New Historicism, the main business of society is to oppress poor people, women, and people of colour. It has also been held that we want to oppress ‘the other’. Because it is nevermade very clear who ‘the other’ is, I would guess that these are rather difficult people to find, let alone oppress. Herrnstein Smith (1988) argues that canon formation is a political process. One must say what the ruling class wants to hear or he or she will have no chance of being admitted to the canon.We are left to wonder how a poet such as Ezra Pound made his way into the canon. He certainly didn’t say anything that the American ruling class wanted to hear. Van Peer (1996, see also Chapter 1 in this volume) compared versions of the Romeo and Juliet story by Shakespeare and Arthur Brooke. Shakespeare’s version went against the mores of the ruling class, whereas Brooke’s version conformed with them. Why is Shakespeare in the canon and Brooke forgotten? One imagines that the reason has to do with literary quality.

In the past, the ruling class may have taken some interest in literature. At least in Western Europe and North America, this has not been the case for quite a while. They are too busy making money to have the slightest interest in literature. To take the most extreme case, no one at all reads contemporary poetry with the exception of other poets and teachers of literature (Auden 1948). Canon formation may be political, but it is academic politics. Like much in academia, arguments as to who should or should not be in the canon are pointless, as the canon is literally cast in concrete. Martindale (1995) did a study of how many books the Harvard University libraries have about the 602 poets listed in the various Oxford Book of English Verse. Shakespeare came in first with 9,118 books about him. Milton was a distant second with 1,280 books devoted to him. At the other end of the scale, no books at all were devoted to 134 of the poets. The top 25 poets accounted for 64.8% of the books. These are certainly canonical authors, and nothing is going to change that. Even the relative ordering is unlikely to change. ForMilton to surpass Shakespeare, 78 books about Milton would have to be written in each of the next 100 years. This seems quite unlikely.

One could certainly argue that if no one reads the books about Shakespeare and Milton, then the numbers I have cited count for nothing. However, we shall see below that contemporary fame is a fleeting thing unrelated to permanent fame. The canon refers to permanent fame. How does one obtain permanent fame? One supposes by the literary quality of his or her works. The beauty of one’s poetry is not in the colour or one’s skin or one’s social class but in the quality of what he or she has produced. Beauty is most certainly not in the eye of the beholder. I have done dozens of studies in which people were asked to rate works of art or literature. The most relevant is Martindale and Dailey (1995). We replicated I.A. Richards’s (1929) experiment and used statistical methods to measure agreement amongst subjects. Richards was simply wrong. People agree perfectly well as to the meanings of poems. The only way to explain this is to postulate that there is something in the poems that people perceive in the same way. It is well to recall Hume’s (1757) comment: “Whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton...would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Tenerife, or a pond as extensive as the ocean.”

One would suppose that literary quality is determined by the way an author puts together words. However, a moment’s thought reveals that which words are combined is also important. A sonnet sequence on the joys of trading pork bellies on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange would not be well received. Computers are not very good at determining a well turned phrase, but they have no trouble in tallying words or classes of words. A few computer studies concerning the difference between good and bad literature have been carried out...

Contrary to the views of the layperson, poetry has not dealtwith the expression of emotion for several centuries (Martindale 1997). Contemporary British and American poetry by eminent poets contains about the same amount of emotional content as is found on the front page of the New York Times (Martindale 1990)"

--- Some correlates of literary eminence / Colin Martindale in The Quality of Literature: Linguistic Studies in Literary Evaluation / ed Willie van Peer
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