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Sacred cow shooting

October 26, 2011

I was just re-reading that great iconic biography by Richard Holmes, The Pursuit. It’s his story of Shelley, the one where he (Holmes) reviles Mary (which he had to apologize for semi-recently), and he has entire chapters, yes, chapters on Shelley’s poems. All of which I devoured. But I am unusual.

But then, as I write this, I imagine that you who are reading this might be as unusual as I am, which means that we might not be that unusual — I suppose. It’s just that I am unusual in my particular environment. My students keep me humble. They remind me over and over again that the things I think are fascinating are not intrinsically so. It takes me entire semesters to convince them that Elizabeth Bishop might be worth reading. And sometimes I fail entirely, and they win, as I find myself thinking that maybe Elizabeth Bishop is fading away. I thought she was a Donne or a Tennyson — someone who would be read forever, or, at least for many generations.

Then, yesterday, my students told me that Seamus Heaney is “weird” — and not in a good way. At first, I was shocked. But to my students, nothing is holy, not even Nobel prize winning poets who taught their professors, and it occurred to me that he and Bishop could well be turning into those writers who crop up in anthologies with introductions that say things like: “Blah was considered one of the finest writers of his generation, but is little read today.”

My students shoot my sacred cows everyday and I suppose this is good for me, as it does make me wonder what I really think. Do I admire the poets I do because I was taught to? Or because I really like them? I am aware that the assumptions of an age always pass, always seem dated and strange to next generations. But it is unsettling to live through this myself.

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