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.


K. Silem Mohammad said...

I love me some academic poetry. The best possible poem would be one that actually has the author's CV embedded directly in the text.

Drunk driving roolz!

But seriously, there's an older sense of "academic poetry" that has pretty much gone by the wayside: that is, poetry that by its style, allusions, form, etc. points to and partly mimics the canonical tradition of largely British and Classical literature to which mostly academics have full access.

So by this definition, John Crowe Ransom or Yvor Winters would be academic poets, but Pound not so much, as he fulfills the first but not the second part of the above formula (he points to the tradition, but does not mimic it, unless you count the pseudo-epic language of the Cantos, or the Browning imitations of his early work).

I don't know that we have any major poets now who work seriously in this mode. The New Formalists try to, but their verse lacks the density of conspicuous erudition--and basic prosodic competence--that you find in, say, Conrad Aiken.

If we redefine academic poetry as any poetry written by academics, it seems to me to stop describing any coherent aesthetic and instead be simply about a social phenomenon. A real phenomenon, of course, but not one that can be attached to any specific style.

editor galaxy said...

this is a very odd entry, and it may be that anyone who does not read it as tongue and cheek will be considered to be a stuffed shirt, i.e., the sort of person who would be called an academic.

after all, the term "academic poet" completely unravels over the course of mark's entry.

the idea that being academic is to be removed from real life is as absurd as declaring anyone removed from real life. any high school philosopher could suss out the problem with that idea.

but it is an idea many seem to have. largely, I guess, it's an idea based on the fantasy people have about university life. a fantasy well illustrated by the photo mark chose for this entry.

academic meaning, "conforming to the traditions or rules of a school/ conventional" certainly does have negative connotations. The academy rejects the impressionists, for example. But, in this day and age, do professors not get tenure because their poetry is avant-garde? maybe.

in opposition to academic, tho not exactly its opposite, is anti-intellectualism. a snobism that demands disinterest in learning not obviously immediately applicable to what one wants/is doing.

anti-intellectualism, by the way, is rampant in graduate programs, in part because people are so deathly afraid of seeming academic (people also hate "doing stuff that is hard"). And, anti-intellectualism relates to a previous entry of yours: "Absent Magazine and the Youth of Today."

Joseph said...

I remember a conversation I had one time with a poetry student at UC Santa Cruz. I asked him about the courses he was taking with Peter Gizzi and Nathaniel Mackey. The young poet said that the teachers were great...but that their poetry was terrible because it was "too academic." I was puzzled because I had never thought either of those poets as particularly "academic poets."

Elisa Gabbert said...

"tongue and cheek"?

Stan Apps said...

This is a great essay Mark. I've never read anything quite so hilarious about this topic.

I suppose (as you suggest) my years of adjuncting and being outside the class of "real" (i.e. tenure-track) academics has allowed me to view my work as non-academic. And with impunity no less! I may not be paid well, but at least I get impunity as a fringe benefit! (my only one, sadly)

Paul Naylor said...

This is a wonderful post, Mark, to which I have three comments.

First, I too am against bad poetry, unless I've written it.

Second, I've found that the best job for a poet is Trophy Spouse. Personal experience tells me this is the best possible job for a poet.

Third, your description of academic poets assumes that all poets in academia teach creative writing. The whole issue of whether one would write brand x or brand y of poetry to get tenure assumes that all poets in academia are using their poetry to get tenure. In fact, most of the avant-garde poets I emulated, and most of the avant-garde poets of my generation, were "awarded" tenure based on their scholarly work, not on their poetry. Michael Davidson, Nathaniel Mackey, Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, etc all were promoted because of their scholarship, not their "creative writing." The same is true in my case. My poetry wasn't at all considered when I was "granted" tenure at the U of Memphis -- only my critical work was on the table.

I bring this up because it presents a case for a different kind of pressure in academia. For me, the issue wasn't whether to write brand x or brand y of poetry -- but whether to write poetry at all. More than one of my senior colleagues told me that I shouldn't "waste" my time writing poetry because only critical articles and books would "count" toward promotion. So poetry became a kind of "second job," one I took up at my leisure and peril.

I do think it's different now. In my day, no avant-garde poet got a job as a "creative writing" professor. Now, it's become fairly common. But many of us got tenure almost by hiding the fact that we wrote poetry, so there was no pressure to write a certain kind of poetry at all.

Finally, I think the biggest danger to poets in academia is the committee meeting. I believe a malevolent being implants a parasite into your imagination every time you attend a committee meeting, and that parasite begins a slow but irrevocable chewing away at your imagination. Top Scientists have proven that you will lose 28 to 35 lines of poetry for every meeting you attend.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for all these comments, everybody.

Kasey wins points for immediate mention of John Crowe Ransom--and that's his picture up there, in case anybody is wondering. One thing I would say though is that even the Ransome/Winters/R.P. Blackmur etc crowd would hardly have considered themselves to be writing "academic poetry," even though they have often been described as such after the fact. Even with them, the term is a putdown. They themselves tended to believe that although they were also critics, they were writing a poetry committed to "the best that had been thought and said," in Matthew Arnold's phrase. They probably would have been against the notion of academic poetry. After all, I.A. Richards once walked out of a temporary classroom at Harvard saying, "These are not haunts fit for Apollo." Apollo, I guarantee, is not in favor of Academic Poetry.

Stan's comment to a previous post points out that it's maybe only the writers of the French Academie Francaise (and the painters of the Academic de Peinture) who would have associated their art with the name "Academy"--and, you know, it's 150 years ago that Baudelaire's nomination caused such a controversy. But very few pleasures top that of beating a dead horse...

Paul, I think I was talking about Academic Poetry as opposed to academic poets--and obviously, the two concepts are connected but not exactly equivalent. If you stop writing poetry and start writing criticism only, then you can't be writing Academic Poetry anymore, if for some reason you were writing it before.

Interestingly perhaps, I don't think that many poets who consider themselves connected to avant-garde literature even now have jobs in creative writing in the United States. I still think it's as you describe, that such people mainly have jobs as critics. There are a couple of exceptions within the last ten years, and I'm one of them, but it's really hard to name more than about a dozen poets with avant garde leanings who have been hired in the field of creative writing as such.

As to meetings, well, yes, ahem, what to say? If you can escape them, more power to you. Of course they're not just an academic problem per se, but a basic feature of almost all institutional life. The first meetings I ever attended were in Sunday School.

Ryan W. said...

I didn't think for even an instant that you meant the title of the post.

I have a reasonably good job for a poet. freelance web consultant. it's no guarantee of writing good poetry on a consistent basis, as it turns out, but I can't blame my job.

I wonder if the quantity of reading that academics do tends to help or hinder their poetry. of course academics don't often get to choose what they read, day-to-day, because of the demands of their profession. right? maybe I'm wrong about that. I just wonder how that kind of enforced reading would affect the practice of writing poetry. maybe something for another blog post at some point.

mark wallace said...

Well, since you know me, Ryan, you would know that I didn't mean it. But if a writer you didn't know had written it, is there any chance you would have believed that person either? Maybe, I guess, but probably not, maybe even certainly not, since it's almost impossible to imagine that a poet could think it.

I don't know about other professors, but the amount of reading of literature I do for my job isn't burdensome at all. I spend many more work hours reading student papers, work e-mails, and administrative reports than I do reading literature or criticism. That's a function of the nature of my particular job, of course, but it's probably not that out of the ordinary for anyone who's not teaching at an elite university.

Ryan W. said...

if not for the guy with the pipe, I might have believed the heading was sincere if I read it on someone else's blog. the guy with the pipe is a giveaway.

mark wallace said...

I'm still wondering if there's any single poet who anybody knows who would say that they want poetry to be more academic. There definitely has to be one, doesn't there? Maybe not?

tmorange said...

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.

and we know why this is the case: university employment affords poets a comfortable middle-class existence such that they drift away from their true bohemian existence where the truely great poems are written.

just ask dana gioia, he'll tell you: Today poetry is a modestly upwardly mobile, middle-class profession—not as lucrative as waste management or dermatology but several big steps above the squalor of bohemia. Only a philistine would romanticize the blissfully banished artistic poverty of yesteryear. But a clear-eyed observer must also recognize that by opening the poet's trade to all applicants and by employing writers to do something other than write, institutions have changed the social and economic identity of the poet from artist to educator. In social terms the identification of poet with teacher is now complete. The first question one poet now asks another upon being introduced is "Where do you teach?" The problem is not that poets teach. The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It's just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.

it's amazing how much truth and nonsense are intermingled in this paragraph.

makes me wonder if it's only the academic poets that need to be ferreted out: how about rich poets?

not to play gioia's "philistine [who] would romanticize the blissfully banished artistic poverty of yesteryear," but have there ever been any good poets out there who are independently wealthy?


K. Lorraine Graham said...

Gertrude Stein. She wasn't an academic, though. I suppose she could afford to walk out of her exam in William James' class and not worry about it.

VP said...

And Baudelaire, though he squandered, shamelessly, and Coleridge, though he caged, and Byron, Lord, and, well, Bishop was pretty cozy, and wrote some good stuff, and Lowell was set up nice and solid, and it's not like Dickinson was clipping coupons or taking in wash, still, there's the question of what makes Academy poetry in the today, or what gives it that odor of what -- money?

Ian Keenan said...




Anonymous said...

I'm still wondering if there's any single poet who anybody knows who would say that they want poetry to be more academic. There definitely has to be one, doesn't there? Maybe not?

Hi. I'm from the internet, and I'm here to help.

I think poetry needs to be more ambitious intellectually. The traditional conservative criticism of the avant garde is that we're all bloodless machine operators. That's true, but actually we're quite upset about it, and angry with our machines, and generally when we write badly it's because all this bitter sadness spills up from our bile-run veins.

I was talking recently with someone, about Sarah Manguso, a poet I think is really good, and I said something along the lines of "I hope she gets a big idea."

And academics are smart people who hang out with big ideas all the time. Go team!

PS: in the main, adjuncts write better than the tenured.

David Michael Wolach said...

I, for one, would like to see more academic poetry (as founder of: M.A.P). It would be nice to put face to blame. But, as you point out, Mark, this is an empty set. Yet, to clarify, and expand on remarks about the life of the poet with a university post: since the vast majority of us are adjuncts, I think that the set of poets going before tenure review boards is nearly empty as well. Which might indicate something about what some mean when they say "academic poetry."

This is to say that there is something to the notion of the academic poet, however, beyond simple anti-intellectualism or the wish for a boogyman. I think it has to do with class and access, mistaking the poetry for the writer of the poetry, the writer with the institution that employs poet. There is also something yucky about the academic institution writ-large (and I'm speaking especially about private colleges and universities). As a writer who has taught at one of these behemoths, I often felt like I was working at Nike's headquarters. When in positions of power (a rarity for most of us), I think that students and colleagues alike, and maybe those outside the iron gates, sense that we hang loose with our writing, radicalize small cabals with our criticism, and yet sit passively on any number of committees as regressive decisions about education, workplace fairness, and the like, are made--which do permeate our work, potentially, in ways we don't notice. So, yes, your post (extremely funny Mark, and I think it's "Tongue 'N' Cheek" - like the fast food chain) is spot on in its analysis that we're talking ourselves right into fiat land when it comes to "academic poetry," (although I do sometimes dream of sonnets with heavy footnoting showing up in journals like "Opera Quarterly"). Yet, the underlying dig goes beyond a) the reactionary and/or b) the desire to pigeonhole certain writers one may not like. There's something to this that, despite this long post, and despite writing a great deal about conservatism in academia, I can't quite put my finger on.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for all these comments, everyone.

David, where I think I end up in my post is with the suggestion that the problem is based in distrust of professionalism and of large scale corporate or public institutions, which seems to be the direction you're going also. That is, the issue has a little to do with poetry (not nothing--but how much is hard to determine) and a lot to do with the issue of working for a living, and where and how you work for that living, and how that's related to the idea of writing poetry. What Mr. Orange's comments suggest to me, for instance, is the oddity of criticizing poets who work at jobs so much more than poets who don't have to work because they inherited money. What that implies, I think, is that there are a lot of dangers in holding others up to a standard in which any involvement in (often corrupt) institutions adds up to a dismissal of their writing. Probably almost everyone is wrapped up with large scale institutions in one way or another.

I remember, during my dozen years as an adjunct, once being told by someone that the only ethical thing for me to do was quit, because in working without benefits and at low wages, I was enabling the oppressive power of the institution I worked for. And on some level I had to agree, although I had no better ideas at that time about how to make any money at all.