Emily Bernhard Jackson begins her 2015 review of Emily Harrington’s Second Person Singular: Late Victorian Poets and the Bonds of Verse and Elizabeth Ludlow’s Christina Rossetti and the Bible with the refreshing sentence “There is, it should be admitted, such a thing as a justly forgotten poet.” I applaud the desire to rescue good writers who have fallen into obscurity, but that generous impulse can easily go too far; I like very much this paragraph in which Jackson explains the kind of problem it can cause:
One queries Harrington’s decision to include a chapter on Dollie Radford, for example. Several times in the course of her discussion, she herself confesses that Radford at least appears to be a minor poet, and the verse she includes does nothing to suggest otherwise. There seems no reason to anticipate a renaissance in Radford studies, and one cannot help feeling that this chapter might have been removed with little lost overall. Perhaps, in fact, the space opened up by removing the Radford chapter might have been used to lengthen the others, for the book’s other flaw is the brevity of its study of each poet. Granting only a chapter each to a group of smaller poets results in their continuing to seem small; these women might gain greater weight in the canon if each had been the subject of a longer, individually focused study.
Incidentally, on the next page of that issue of the TLS Claire Lowdon reviews James Wood’s The Nearest Thing to Life (which I wrote about here) and complains about his “fatal tidying instinct … the desire to gather up several disparate concepts into a single neat theory”; she says “Wood seems to feel the need to defend literature against charges of slightness. The result is obfuscation.” That seemed to shed some light on something that startled me in an interview with Wood I heard this morning, in which he confessed (or boasted, depending on how you take it) that he never reads genre literature, even though he’s happy to watch junk TV and read car magazines (so it’s not just a matter of not wanting to waste precious time). I suspect it’s the need, perhaps based somehow on his intensely religious upbringing, to have literature be Serious. That’s not a good basis for criticism, though it’s not incompatible with good criticism (obviously, since we’re talking about Wood); it’s all too reminiscent of the pomposity that infected the generation that came to prominence in the 1950s, Lionel Trilling et al. Literature — worthwhile literature, at least — is not made by high-minded creatures with ichor in their veins, and it’s a bad idea to approach it that way.