Dead White Males, and Other Truish Stereotypes of Canon

by Jim Danger Coppoc

I’m writing this blog on Columbus Day. Because I am an American of Euro and Indian heritage, this is not one of those days I can ignore race.

I actually think about race quite a bit these days. Because I teach both literature and creative writing, from both mainstream and American Indian Studies perspectives, and because—after the basic bits I gather from Gardner and Bloom—I draw most of my teaching theory from the realm of Critical Pedagogy, I am always teaching race.

Let’s start with a few basic facts. A couple years ago, a student had a question I couldn’t answer in class. How do you know the canon is a bunch of dead white males? Everybody says this, but nobody ever proves it.

Every part of my political self wanted to scream at this student because it just is!, but for once, I was able to step back, and give my critical self some space to enter the conversation. I told the student I’d get back to him.

So I went to the capital-C Canon, and I dove deep into my own weird fascination with statistics-as-truth. After some consideration, I chose four primary stakeholders in the Canon: the government, the literary establishment, the education establishment, and mainstream America. I looked for consensus from the four main stakeholders by choosing representative groups of poets from each, comparing these groups side by side, and building a list of poets who appear all four places.

To represent the government, I chose the poets listed for the National Endowment for the Art’s “Poetry Out Loud” program. To represent the literary establishment, I chose the poets listed on the Academy of American Poets website at www.poets.org. To represent the educational establishment, I chose the Norton Anthology of Poetry. To represent mainstream America, I chose Wikipedia’s “List of Poets from the United States,” to which anyone can at any time add entries. Of the hundreds of poets listed in these groupings, exactly 75 were listed by all four.

Once I had uncovered the 75 poets who by process of consensus seemed to best represent The List of Canonical American Poets (hereafter referred to as “The List”), I decided to evaluate it in several dimensions to see if the stereotypes about canonical poets held true.

First, I wanted to know if The List really was populated by Dead White Males. The List is definitely white (85.33%, compared to 65.4% in the general U.S. population) and even more male (74.66%, compared to 48.5% in the general U.S. population). Surprisingly, though, The List wasn’t very dead. Of the 75 poets to make The List, 21 of them (28%) were still alive. Even those who were dead hadn’t been dead very long. A startling 67 poets, or 89.33%, were alive during the 20th century, with 35 of them, or almost 47%, alive during the past 20 years.

After establishing that the Canon of American Poetry is 1.3 times whiter than America itself, I began to wonder how many other races were represented. The answer, to any degree of statistical significance, is one. Of the 11 non-white poets on the List, 10 are African American. One, Li-Young Lee, is Asian American. With the possible exception of William Carlos Williams, there are no Latinos. With the possible exception of Langston Hughes, there are no American Indians. No other race is represented.

While it is a sign of progress that African Americans are proportionately represented (13.33% of the List, compared to 12.4% of the U.S. population), it is clear at least that no agreement has been reached about leading voices among other races. At best, this represents an unfortunate underrepresentation mixed with inevitable problems in the sampling process. At worst, this is institutional racism.

Although it’s difficult to pin down through statistics, one possible explanation for the racially imbalanced canon could be class. As I researched the biographies of these 75 poets, I was struck over and over again by the wealth and privilege that seemed to accompany the poets’ lives. Numbers aren’t available for each poet’s family income, but it is very revealing that 36 of them (48%) attended Ivy League schools with 21 (28%) at Harvard alone. Bio after bio revealed old families from New York and Boston, world leaders and captains of industry in direct lineage, and the sort of independent wealth that allowed for travel, education, networking, and other seeming prerequisites for the canonical poet’s life.

More than just economics, though, are the social connections these poets share. Thirty-seven of them (49.33%) lived in New York City at some point in life, and most of the rest came from other East Coast states. Thirty-eight of them (50.67%) taught at major universities, giving them access to each other and to the many book and journal editors supported by the American academic system. The Yale Younger Poets Series alone published the first books of more than ten percent of the poets on The List, 8 poets (10.66%) are Columbia grads, and 6 of the poets (8%) are graduates of the Writer’s Workshop.

The last dimension I evaluated The List for was a hodgepodge category of traditional stereotypes. As it turns out, most are true. Poets on the list are 5 times as likely as the general public to self identify as homosexual or bisexual, 3-4 times as likely to suffer from alcoholism, nearly 3 times as likely to suffer from depression, and more than 2.5 times as likely to commit suicide.

Conclusions? Well, all I really have to offer are the numbers. How America came to be this way is a mystery too deep for me, and too deep for any one blog post. The Canon is what it is, and my job, as I see it, is to give my students what they need to raise the right questions to build something better in the next generation.

As for the student who started me on this research project—let’s just say his participation grade was secure for the rest of the semester.

For those who are interested, I’ve pasted in The List below. Please feel free to use your own criteria and repeat the experiment as often as necessary. I’d be interested to see what you come up with on your own terms.

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A.R. Ammons, John Ashberry, Amiri Baraka, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Bly, Louise Bogan, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gregory Corso, Hart Crane, Robert Creeley, Countee Cullen, E.E. Cummings, James Dickey, Emily Dickinson, Rita Dove, Paul Laurence Dunbar, T.S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Barbara Guest, Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Robert E. Hayden, John Hollander, Langston Hughes, Richard Hugo, Randall Jarrell, Robinson Jeffers, Donald Justice, Galway Kinnell, Kenneth Koch, Yusef Komunyakaa, Stanley Kunitz, Li-Young Lee, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Audre Lorde, Robert Lowell, Amy Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Herman Melville, William Meredith, James Merrill, W.S. Merwin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Howard Nemerov, Frank O’Hara, Dorothy Parker, Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allen Poe, John Crowe Ransom, Adrienne Rich, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Theodore Roethke, Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, Charles Simic, W.D. Snodgrass, Gary Snyder, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, May Swenson, Phillis Wheatley, Walt Whitman, John Greenleaf Whittier, Richard Wilbur, William Carlos Williams, James Wright

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