by Brooke Allen
The obsession of academic critics with differentiating “major” writers from “minor” ones, and summarily dismissing the latter, serves the interest of no one but their fellow-academics and actively harms not only those authors they deem minor, but also that large majority of the public who reads novels and poems purely for pleasure, with no scholarly or careerist motives. Within the academy, “major,” at least since the heyday of Eliot and Pound, has tended to mean “difficult”—possibly because difficulty supposes a need for expert interpretation and therefore justifies the existence of professional explicators. Kipling and Trollope, for example, so popular during the Victorian era as to have become an integral part of England’s cultural fabric, are not only ignored in modern universities but actively denigrated.
This has also been true of postwar England’s bestselling poet, John Betjeman (1906–1984). The euphony of his words, the immediacy of his images, his mastery of traditional meter and rhyme schemes, in short the pure accessibility of his work has guaranteed its exclusion from “serious” studies of twentieth-century poetry. He simply did not fit into the modernist tradition, and his hugely successful career as a television personality and expert on the sort of architecture that had hitherto been considered pure kitsch did not raise his stock in academic circles. The 1993 edition of The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, for instance, made no mention of Betjeman in all of its 1,383 pages. Neither did the 626 pages of A Companion to Twentieth-Century Literature (2001).
Note to Roundhouse Poetry Circle members: Should we consider John Betjeman as a poet to be read and discussed in 2016?