Sunday, September 30, 2007
Poetry Needs To Be More Academic
Did you think I meant that, what I wrote above? Maybe just for an instant, feeling a flush of annoyance come over your face, one that was half a pleasant sense of moral superiority and half baffled outrage? Or were you sure that I couldn’t possibly mean it? And therefore picked up instantly that the next sentence would provide a twist?
Did you wonder for a second what kind of writer could actually want poetry to be more academic? I mean, I would wonder, and I am. I’m trying to imagine right now what sort of writer could want such a thing.
Being a Poet Against Academic Poetry (PAAP) is like being a Mother Against Drunk Driving (MADD), if you recall that organization from the 80s. I always remembered thinking about MADD, why do they have to declare it? To distinguish themselves from those mothers who are for drunk driving? My bet is that if you polled them, even mothers who drive drunk would declare themselves against drunk driving. What other stance could a mother take? “The more drunk drivers we have, the better mothers will feel.” No, probably no one holds that position.
In the same way, I would guess that poets are almost by definition against Academic Poetry, and that almost certainly includes a number of poets who other poets would accuse of writing Academic Poetry.
Thus to declare yourself against Academic Poetry is to declare yourself against a group that no one would acknowledge being part of.
What a relief to be against something that nobody really is for. You get to be angry and have everybody on your side simultaneously. Unless of course you start pointing fingers—and it’s only then, I suppose, that the game really gets interesting. Or maybe not. Accuse somebody of something like this and you give them only two choices: to deny it or ignore you. And since in the routinely sensationalized, scandal-loving present moment, denying something is more or less the same as admitting it, the usual result is a lot of silence.
But let’s say, for a second, that some of us might be Academic Poets without knowing it, in which case we would be against ourselves without knowing it. We would be at this moment denouncing the enemy in our midst without knowing we ourselves are the enemy. It’s like we’re in a Philip Dick novel. Here I am, glaring at myself across an alley strewn with administrative junkies, ready to shoot myself down.
The question would then be: how do we recognize an Academic Poet when we see one, especially when that Academic Poet might be us and is almost certain to deny it or to ignore the accusation?
Of course, when I say us here, I don’t really mean me. What I mean is, how do we recognize that somebody else is guilty? Especially when no one thinks they are.
One possible definition: Academic Poets are simply academics who write poetry. We would therefore be declaring ourselves against the idea that college professors can write poetry. It would have to be something about the university environment that made people unfit to write. Universities, and university departments where poetry is studied, would be the one kind of institution in the world in which people who worked there couldn’t possibly be good poets. Unless we start listing other professions and saying people who do that for a living couldn’t be good poets either. It makes me wonder what are the good jobs to have for writing poetry. Anybody out there have a good job for writing poetry?
Still, examining the university environment would lead to another perhaps more nuanced definition: working as an academic implies professional caution and also professional ambition. In other words, the poem plays it safe because it imagines itself up for tenure review. The poem is written because the author wants tenure, and maybe the writer didn’t even want to write it, or only wanted to because academic success would follow. And therefore the poem is written to conform to current academic standards, whatever will get the poet ahead, rather than for some more genuine reason of the poet’s soul or love of language or social outrage.
Is there a university class bias here, by the way? In other words, can adjuncts write Academic Poetry, perhaps under the illusion that the university they work for gives a shit about them? Can they write something that is not Academic Poetry, because of their second class status?
Of course, as the concept of the Ivory Tower implies, academic = the opposite of the real. Even academics know this. Academic Poetry in this conception speaks only to other academics, who are not real or in the real world, while Real Poetry speaks about the Real World. Academic Poetry is not Real Poetry.
I’m against Real Poetry.
Now come on. You didn’t really think I would say that and mean it. I’m very much in favor of poetry when it’s real.
Combining all the above definitions, we have the following: Academic Poetry is a bland cautious poem written mainly or only for tenure review, real or imaginary, a poem eager to conform to current academic standards and indifferent towards the rest of the world.
Interestingly, it’s hard to push the above definition to any clearer aesthetic definition. Obviously, a poem written solely for tenure when Charles Bernstein is on your tenure review committee and a poem written solely for tenure when Tony Hoagland is on your tenure review committee have nothing aesthetically in common.
My apologies to Charles and Tony, both of whom are, I’m sure, opposed to Academic Poetry, and rightly so.
I mean, a poet writing such a poem would have an ulterior motive for everything the poem said. The poem would be nothing more than a power maneuver.
I’m definitely against that. Except in those instances when power maneuvers are fascinating. But maybe that’s an issue for another time.
What almost all poets are truly opposed to, I would finally conclude, are the straitjackets of professionalism, the way they insidiously corrupt and limit our freedom of speech and action, and worse, can do so without our always being aware of it, so that we sometimes participate in our own corruption.
Yep, I’m definitely against that. It’s a real problem, the way all of us are connected to institutions in so many ways, and how those institutions really can shape and change what we think and do.
What MADD was finally about, of course, was organizing mothers to take practical steps against drunk drivers. This is what PAAP will also be about: we will organize and ferret out Academic Poets wherever we find them.
Who’s with me?
And after we’re done, we won’t stop there. Our next step will be to ferret out bad poetry.
But maybe that won’t work. Maybe there aren’t enough poets against bad poetry. Are you against bad poetry? Let your voice be heard.