Canon law

Sean O’Brien defends the canon in yesterday’s Guardian. I don’t quite know what to make of it. On the one hand his call to read serious poetry is right; and I agree that it’s important to see oneself as ‘part of a continuum, a community extending across history’. On the other hand, I can’t help but think that beneath the polished prose this is just another subtle, indirect attack on the avant-garde, the innovative – whatever you call it.

For a start, whilst O’Brien readily namechecks the canonical poets he seeks to defend, he doesn’t offer any specifics at all on the kind of poetry he would like to see less of. A clever ploy, because it makes his case a tricky one to argue against.

Autonomy and seriousness come under threat because they represent an obstacle to the progress of the kind of ignorance that prefers to suppose that everything can be consumed, excreted and replaced, that one thing is much like another, and that anyway nobody cares or has time to make their own distinctions. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Walcott and Plath and all the others suggest otherwise. Who would we rather believe? Who would we rather spend our time with? The choice is ours, for the moment.

Is the choice really ours? The pool from which we draw expands and contracts according to the tastes of the age. And taste is driven – by people like O’Brien for instance. One of his other major bugbears is the marketing of poetry (‘consumed, excreted and replaced’ is partly a nod to that), but this article is itself marketing par excellence. If he bothered to mention some of the poetry he doesn’t want us to read, then we could make some kind of choice. But of course he won’t. Because this whole thing is an exercise in drawing in, tightening, closing up.

O’Brien says, ‘poetry’s subject is life in all its manifestations’. A true thing. But poetry itself is manifested in innumerable ways, inside, outside and on the fringes of authorised/notional imagined canons. It’s a diverse artform and I want access to as much of the good stuff as possible – whatever camp it’s in. Luckily for those with Catholic tastes this first decade of the twenty-first century promises a new diversity of poetries, a breaking away from the centre ground held by certain ‘important’ writers and critics.

I’m sorry to denounce Sean O’Brien so strongly – I know this is just a thought-piece to promote The Guardian‘s new series on ‘Great Poets’. Besides, he has his ground to protect, as do all who are involved in this precarious business of poetry. And I guess we should be grateful someone with knowledge and passion is standing up for any kind of poetry at all in the broadsheets.


† O’Brien publicly, though not on the record, attacked my book / touring project Generation Txt for this reason. I don’t think he’s read the book, mind. I’d be happy to send him a copy of course!


  1. Neil Dawn says:

    Hey Tom, a fellow hail and seanie the purple headed dino-man wan, care about o’brien as one does exctreting dye from the tube of hair coomb buy arh innit nice, deep, difficultly simple, sincere, a man worth spending on, talking in hushed tones, being a reverend john doe in the upper echelon of his parish verse, hieretic, talking of what lit is and does, why it is important, but not to any particular shared inclusional scheme, more re-iterating a dogma all lyric poets have, especially once they go mainstream, which is a state of mind, but there has not been any exciting poets coming through unaided for so long, that we are due a return and it is happening.

    More interestingly was to see how he fared under pressure, immediately after winning the eliot, he rattled of 50 or so names, a list and little else, as though george bush had flown in to deliver a dictat and is shuttled in and out with no connection at source, though a great game talked, but essentially a plethora of platitudes about water being the source of memory and life, but no definable poetic, no lore apart from his take on whatever amount of poetic myth seanie boy has to draw and build with, any long term simple two or three point surmation of it all, poetry, the slippery wee fing wheez all after nailing, and no one has really, or seems to be doing it for honourable reasons, for the love of words alone and so take no notice of o’brien, he is lost in the realm of his own making, and our will alone can build a global nation tom, c’mon pardnoar, i wunt yer ass to shake and get itself selling books, making a dollar man, get real, be neal astley’s heir and imitator, f*** ’em and just do it, be the best you can and ask, do i send out a message of hope? It is that simple, a balance of doom and hope in equal measure, affirming within, not needing neil or chris or mick schmidt to be real in our own minds, coz we are all equal and o’brien, larking summed it up:

    “it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the poet has gained the happy position wherein he can praise his own poetry in the press and explain it in the class-room, the reader has been bullied into giving up the consumer’s power to say ‘I don’t like this, bring me something different.'”

    Fair play, and the sensible option is to take the long view, that our aim as a poet is to write one piece which gets known, one prayer left behind which gives others hope, and build a career on this, by inventing our own standards and learning to operate as a poet, which really, only instinct can lead us to do, as the essence of poetry is randomness, collision of chance and accident with a will, intelligence, forward moving water sort of movement, which is rooted in the Segias Well myth in bardic manuscript and basically o’brien is swimming in the right state, as water is the primary element and motiff in bardic poetry, the cuisle of it, the source beat is this pool and lab of self and reflection of self in print and vice versa, or rather the longer you go on, the more impenetrable one’s gobble dee consciousness, fortget him and think of me, des, your mate, janes mate, our gang Tom, c’mon, cull the duffers taking up our space at the trough..

  2. jane Holland says:

    I didn’t read O’Brien’s piece as yet another dig against innovations in poetry, mainly because it doesn’t appear to be slanted towards the poet-reader but towards the reader in general, i.e. someone who doesn’t necessarily make that sort of distinction.

    I read it as a plea to the general reader to take poetry more seriously, to make the time to locate and read it more regularly and deeply, in spite of poetry’s ‘difficulty’ in comparison with, say, the popular novel or most films coming out of Hollywood. You could be right, of course. But that wasn’t the impression I came away with.

  3. TNP says:

    I don’t get the idea that O’Brien is out to stifle innovation in poetry so much as critique the way that readers (and specifically students of literature) are educated in today’s academy. My take on it here.

  4. permanenttourist says:

    Des, thanks for your inspiring post slash rallying call. You hit the proverbial nail’s head…

    But Jane and TNP also right, in other ways. O’Brien treads a fine line, no?

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