Canons of Welsh Poetry: Reacting to Aiken's Essay
Questions Concerning Canons
In reponse to: Aiken, Susan Hardy. ‘Women and the Question of Canonicity’. College English. Vol. 48 No. 3 (March 1986), 288 – 301.
English canons have often been seen to exclude women. See Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own where she describes her experience at Oxbridge of a ‘deprecating, kindly, silvery gentleman, who regretted in a low voice as he waved by back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College and furnished with a letter of introduction’, and she comments finally that the library sleeps ‘with all its treasures safe locked within its breast’. (7-8) Susan Aiken writes: ‘Like the library, the canon might well be read as a kind of metatext, a synecdoche of the Western academic literary tradition’. (289) How does this relate to Welsh literature (Cymraeg and Cymreig) and specifically to literature Cymraeg? For one thing literature Cymraeg is on the one hand like the English one, a literature of paper, tomes and libraries, and yet with the influence of the Eisteddfod it is also an oral literature. Does this mean that it creates more space for women or not? What could be a synecdoche for Welsh academic literary tradition?
And do we want an English style canon? In ‘Women and the Question of Canonicity’, Aiken warns that, ‘self regarding (en)closures are ultimately deadly: through their encrypted solipsism, their resistance to woman’s vital otherness, their rigid reiterations of the Law of the Same’. (289) However, later Aiken states that it is not so much the canon which is inherently flawed, but our view of it and what it does, because ‘any totalizing conceptions of the canon as a static, universal, inviolable collection of sacred texts – what Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said” – has always been a misprision.’ (290) Aiken argues that canons are made and remade by the exigencies of a particular moment and a particular era.
In her essay on canonicity, Aiken writes some damning criticism of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, because it does not present any women poets before the eighteenth century. Women who are included are introduced as ‘the sister of’, ‘the wife of’ etc. This is a pertinent question regarding Welsh anthologies; where women are not represented, was it simply that there were no women writing, was their work of a poor quality/designed to be read aloud or are the editors missing something? Aiken criticises canons in relation to the representation of women for a number of reasons:
•because they use a language of economics: ‘value’, property, ownership;
•because in figuring an Bloomian Oedipal struggle, a fantasy of inheritance in which women becomes a disturbing element seen in terms of barbarism (interesting in relation to poems like Parry William’s ‘Hon’;
•because the masculinist critic figure himself as a kind of priest whose rituals are disturbed by once silenced, emergent voices.
Aiken sums up:
These links between priestly authority, the implications of official “textuality”, and the exclusionary and hegemonic motives within canon-formation have obvious significance fro the question of women and canonicity. […] Woman, in both cases becomes a profanation, a heretical voice from the wilderness that threatens the patrius sermo – the orthodox, public, canonical Word – with the full force of another tongue – a mother tongue – the lingua maternal that for those still within the confines of the old order must remain the unspeakable. (297)
Aiken rejects old canonical forms and recommends polylogue, which she describes as ‘a kind of creative “barbarism” that would disrupt the monological, colonizing, centristic “drives” of civilisation – the closed library, the closed canon.’ (298) Are Welsh anthologies using this strategy or not?