Discussing the canon in Edinburgh

How far can it be said that the literary canon is shaped by the books and authors studied at school? To what extent does a poet’s canonical status rely on readers engaging with her/his works rather than on statues, museums, documentary films dedicated to the poet? How might poets’ work reflect their own concern with establishing a place for themselves in the canon? These were some of the questions to which participants in the second project workshop found themselves returning over two days of discussion.

Natalia Karakulina discovered that while texts by Vladimir Maiakovskii studied in post-Soviet Russian schools have changed, and interpretations of the poet’s life and work have shifted, his personality and life story remain central. Aaron Hodgson considered how others have contributed to Joseph Brodsky’s inscription into the canon, in the US, Britain, and particularly in Russia, where there has been a proliferation of commemorative internet sites, a focus on personal recollections of the poet by his contemporaries, and engagement with his poetry. Denis Akhapkin looked both at how Joseph Brodsky’s work has been presented in schools, before turning to ways in which it shows the poet at work on his own canonisation.

Emily Lygo, contrasting the cult that has built up around the controversial poet Viktor Sosnora with recent criticism of Aleksandr Kushner for not having lived ‘the life of a poet’, asked how far canonisation relies on conformity to the model of the Romantic poet’s life. Alexandra Smith discussed the ways in which perceptions of Marina Tsvetaeva have been transformed since the early 1990s, with the poet attaining cult status as a symbol of Russian identity that reaches beyond geographical boundaries.

Alexandra Harrington showed how Anna Akhmatova’s poetry demonstrates the poet’s concern with her own canonisation as a survivor from the Silver Age of early twentieth-century Russian culture. Maria Rubins addressed the question of how the canon could be reconfigured to encompass poetry written in emigration in the interwar years, given that its reception by readers in Russia had been delayed for decades.

Katharine Hodgson explored how perceptions of the work of Boris Slutskii may change when it is no longer viewed against the background of ‘official’ Soviet poetry, but in the context of Futurist and later experimental writing. Ol′ga Sobolev examined the way in which scholars’ perceptions of Aleksandr Blok’s poetry changed during the Soviet period and afterwards, in relation to ideological and cultural shifts of emphasis.

Josephine von Zitzewitz considered how Elena Shvarts, a poet who began writing in the literary underground of the 1960s and 1970s, came to be recognised as a major late twentieth-century poet, rather than solely as an underground poet, as has been the case with many of her contemporaries. Joanne Shelton examined ways in which Ivan Bunin’s poetry has come to feature in the school curriculum, exploring possible reasons for his inclusion, and then comparing the extent of his canonisation as a poet, rather than a prose writer, in other publications.

The creation of a canon in the present, and what it means to study the canon as it is in the process of emerging, was the question addressed by Stephanie Sandler, who considered the effects of people and texts moving across geographic borders, the blending of different art forms, and the fact that poetry no longer occupies a place at the top of the cultural hierarchy.

The third project workshop will take place in January 2013 in Exeter, and a volume of articles based on contributions will be prepared for publication in 2014.

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