The Importance of Canonization: A Response to Jay Ladin

By Gubar, Susan | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Canonization: A Response to Jay Ladin


Gubar, Susan, Michigan Quarterly Review


In Maxine Kumin's most recently published book of verse, Jack and Other New Poems (2005), Theodor Adorno's famous interdiction against writing poetry after Auschwitz is appended to a poem entitled "Women and Horses." Below the Adorno epigraph, the text begins with some odd punctuation that emphasizes the belated times in which we live:

It is an audacious opening stanza on two counts. First, despite the fact that the Shoah indubitably testified to the bankruptcy of Western civilization, Kumin quarrels with Adorno's now hegemonic dictum, rejecting any approach that would use the disaster to undermine the arts, in particular the art of poetry. Second, in disagreement with those prominent cultural critics who view the Holocaust as a singular catastrophe in twentieth-century history, Kumin links it to the devastation of subsequent wars, genocides, and terrorist acts.

Not equating the Vietnam War or 9/11 with the Shoah, Kumin nevertheless insists that we live "late in the life of our haplessly orbiting world," and thus in need of whatever remnants the imagination can salvage from "the still-smoldering dumps" of our past. Indeed, the rest of the poem goes on to pray or enjoin: "Let us have bluebirds insouciantly nesting elsewhere" and "Allow the able-bodied among us to have steamy sex." Despite or perhaps because of the "dark and degrading past," Kumin rebuts Adorno's axiom, but also advances the claim that the poet's job is to pluck and preserve scraps and moments of being that enable its readers to "see life again" in all its sometimes dreary but also sometimes delirious disarray.

As is often the case, Kumin's verse about the Holocaust appears in a book primarily concerned with other themes entirely: ecological mishaps, spiritual quandaries, Ulysses S. Grant's so-called Jew Order, the beloved animals she nurtures, historical instances of cannibalism, even "The Zen of Mowing." Hardly an uncommon phenomenon, a single Holocaust meditation frequently shows up in the corpus of a poet dedicated for the most part to other subjects. Given the title of Kumin's poem, a reader searching for poems about the Shoah would not be sent by Jack's table of contents to "Women and Horses"; nor would critics familiar with Kumin's attentiveness to our relationships with nonhuman lives necessarily assume that she wrote directly about the disaster. How many other poems about the Holocaust go unknown because tucked inside books we haven't thought to open? This is why I judge Jay Ladin's pronouncement-"Gubar's claim that '[a]uthors of Holocaust poetry create a unique tradition' is wrong"-either reckless or feckless. Reckless: if the various poems about the Shoah are not found, identified, collected, reprinted, and interpreted with respect to each other, they cannot be taught in classrooms or analyzed by scholars in terms of their distinctive subject as well as their diversity of forms and poetic practices. Feckless: would Jay Ladin ever have heard of the poems he discusses-verse by Jason Sommer, Jacqueline Osherow, Lily Brett, Miklós Radnóti, and Irena Klepfisz-if critical books like Poetry after Auschwitz and anthologies like Hilda Schiff's Holocaust Poetry didn't exist?

Scholars in critical race studies and in feminist criticism have proven how important it is to keep in mind the vagaries of canonization. Any canon excludes or marginalizes some authors or texts, operates with hidden ideological assumptions, privileges touchstone texts for various sometimes unacknowledged aesthetic principles or political priorities. Yet without canonization, literary traditions cannot be accredited, taught, preserved, or extended. The issue of canonization has material consequences regarding what and who is kept in print, what and who is considered crucially important to convey as part of the cultural literacy we want undergraduates and graduate students in the humanities to attain, the cultural literacy we want educated people to share in common. …

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