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Monday, March 13, 2017

Anxious gatekeeping

Analogous to nervous cluelessness is something we might call “anxious gatekeeping.”  This is desire to police the borders of poetry, or of “good poetry,” or to decide on the direction in which poetry has to go in the future. It is evident in the anxiety of not knowing what poets of the present or recent past will pass into the canon. (Not surprisingly, Harold Bloom, a proponent of theories of anxiety, is also the classical case of the anxious gatekeeper, eager to establish the eternal validity of his own judgments.) There are limits, of course, to what we can imagine calling poetry. But those are the limits of our own imagination, not of poetry itself, and we cannot know in advance where they might lie, and how they might shift for future generations. An eighteenth century poet like Alexander Pope would not have accepted most twentieth and twenty-first century poetry, and might have had problems even with Wordworth and Coleridge.  

We can follow Matthew Arnold, and insist on the value of touchstones, privileged examples of “the best of what has been thought and said,” without committing ourselves to Arnold’s own canon, or that of Pope, Bloom, or anyone else. In reality, nobody has the power to enforce any personal set of preferences, or impose them on others, except through the coercion of institutional power. The anxiety of gatekeeping is kept alive precisely because not even the gatekeepers can come to any agreement among themselves, let alone force their preferences on anyone else.     

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