Chasing the Masters

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This is Friday and, like most Fridays in recent memory, there are things that I should do that have not yet materialized. These can range from washing dishes to finishing mini-projects around the house, or organizing the heaping pile of chaos that has consumed my bookshelves. Then there is the writing I have to do for a couple writing projects with incoming deadlines. Lists help keep all this (life) together. There never seems to be enough time to complete everything so I tend to do the most important first and what remains when I’m finished gets tacked on to day 2.

John Milton was the last English literary figure, I’ve heard, who during his lifetime managed to read every work of literature possible. Such a well read man; it baffles the mind. This could never happen today due to the incredible mass of work out there and one finds that, like housework, there are lists of books to read and to be ignored. I’ve spent too much time in recent years trying to come to terms with The Canon. What is important to read for a young poet who wants to read everything?

An university degree makes this question a little easier to answer (and what do we love more than being told what we must read?). The fact of the matter is that it’s probably the best way to read a wide selection of authors from various periods in history and to therefore gain a grounding in the literary world. The sad fact is that you still only scrape the surface, even after reading Atwood to Zwicky. (Aside: there was talk when I was completing my undergrad that Shakespeare’s time in the Canon of English literature might be numbered, meaning that people are actively considering and reconsidering what is actually the most important for students of literature to read. This topic alone could be the subject of many blog entries).

If you’re a fan of the internet (as you no doubt are, since you’re reading this), there are scores of sites and individuals recommending books and authors left, right, and centre. Each new year magazines and bloggers put out “best of [insert year]” lists which give you an idea of what is the latest in contemporary writing (This is why I think a strong critical culture in this country is essential if we are to understand our own writing and what, in fact, people can expect of our authors and publishers). If there’s one thing society is aiming towards in this century, it’s to think and do as little as possible yourself. The problem with these lists is that it can take as much time to sort through the preferences and biases of these list-makers as it can to actually sift through their recommendations.

But beyond all this there is interest. I enjoy some authors more than others, naturally, and why would I sacrifice stretching my reading enjoyment thin when I can find what I most like and specialize. I do not mean to become a closed-minded reader (that would be ridiculous), but without the ability to read everything I think it’s important to search for what’s best and most entertaining for the individual. In my case at the moment this happens to be Canadian and UK poetry (I’m currently reading Simon Armitage and about to start Nigel McLoughlin’s selected poems). It’s a matter  of specializing, which sounds oddly like the education industry, but is nonetheless true to an extent. None of this is to say I’ve read all UK or even Canadian poets, but I’m working on reading what I can in a way that serves me best. There’s something wonderful in the anticipation of the next great book that floors you, the search or chase involved. I think it would be sad indeed to be able to say you have read everything, like our friend Milton.

Discriminating taste seems to be the term of significance here and, of course, taste is something you can’t argue.

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