Keith Tuma / After the Bubble / Chicago Review
There are several strands in Keith Tuma’s essay “After the Bubble” in Chicago Review, but one that he’s quite interested in drawing our attention to is the relationship between poets and universities. Below are a few of the relevant bits from his essay. I’m working up something on it this afternoon, but since I went through and pasted the bits together, I thought I might as well put them up without editorializing. I hear that Chicago Review is going to be publishing reactions to it in their next issue. The full essay can be found following the link.
If only because it is published by Norton, American Hybrid should turn out to be a widely read anthology, valuable to poets and readers who want to make the case for a new paradigm in American poetry in which partisanship is muted, and in which the old avant-garde, now at home in the university, morphs into the swarm of less uniformly and self-consciously oppositional poetries known as “post-avant.”
“Thriving center of alterity” also might work to describe the university at the time the anthology was imagined and assembled. One can’t call the poems in the anthology “academic poetry” because the term is beyond repair, as Swensen suggests, but most of the poets represented in the book teach creative writing at prestigious universities, with schools in California and the upper East Coast especially well represented. St. John teaches at USC, Swensen at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. From where I sit the anthology’s poets look like some of the most influential poets in the institutions currently most influential in shaping tastes, circulating opinion, and establishing value in poetry. If some of these institutions are thought to be better schools than others, or to offer easier access to forms of cultural capital, and if the university system is the most important site in American culture for defining poetic value, these poets are part of a hierarchy.
As the economy staggers, faculty and administrators in most American universities are obliged to cope with a reality where new resources are scarce and the organization of the university is under scrutiny. For the moment, MFA programs, which not long ago were growing like the real estate market, continue to crank out poets, but one wonders how long this can last. It might be that American Hybrid represents the end of an historical process that saw the poets and poetry of an avant-garde enter a university system that was itself expanding. One thing that the economic challenges confronting the university will surely do is pit the intellectual justifications for departments and their curricula against the realities of student demand and enrollment. At the moment, creative writing should be prouder of its success with enrollments than of its efforts to explain its value, while the opposite might be said of colleagues in literary and cultural studies. The little anecdotal information I have suggests that students increasingly view creative writing and literary study as distinct fields. That was not always the case. If they prefer creative writing, their reasons are various. Some have the idea that creative writing courses are more relevant to contemporary life because they study recent literature. Some students speak of what they take to be a greater focus on writing, which they see as a transferable skill. Fewer speak of the appeal of courses cultivating “creativity” as a complement to the analytical demands of other courses, fewer still of the pleasure of the text over and against the misery of historical and cultural criticism. GPAs in advance of graduate and professional school might figure too; it is easier to get an A in creative writing courses. In the future, creative writing could become part of a Department of Writing Studies, the cream on top of service courses in composition and upper-level courses in digital rhetoric, leaving literary studies behind. The Department of English could shrink to the size of the Department of Classics. Or maybe Media Studies will absorb literary studies as the location of a more pertinent, broader cultural analysis. Students just don’t read books anymore, I often hear; how long can the study of the book and literary history hold out? It is difficult to predict the outcome of the transformations now underway. But we can try to influence them.
Surging enrollments in creative writing surely contributed to the “bewildering precession of published titles” Craig Dworkin discusses in his introduction to The Consequences of Innovation: 21st Century Poetics, where he outlines options for the criticism of contemporary poetry. For Dworkin, critics faced with this much poetry can try to “graph and model the complex poetic ecosystem itself” in the way that Franco Moretti analyzed the novel in nineteenth-century Europe, or they can abandon “the dream of comprehensive knowledge altogether” in order to write about “isolated singularities” in a “local, focused, specialized, and ad hoc” criticism featuring “quick and rich descriptions of what it means for the text in question to be considered a poem” combined with “persuasive evaluation of its urgency.” St. John clearly recommends the latter as the proper path for criticism. The danger is losing sight of the institutions that shape poetic and critical practice. Giving up on the effort to characterize, however partially, the larger field, is exactly the wrong thing to do now, when the overproduction of poets combined with fewer good jobs in the university seems destined to change the map of the field.
Perhaps our reluctance to talk about poetry and the university is a new form of an older reluctance to talk about art and money. Most poets have not felt it necessary, or have found it pedestrian, to justify creative writing’s—or, for that matter, poetry’s—place in the university, though of course there are ways they might. Charles Bernstein has argued that scholars of literature work against the “backdrop” of current literary production: contemporary practice informs commentary about the poetry of the past. This view should be attractive to creative writers who teach poetry writing beside the history of poetry or view practice as a mode of inquiry. At least Bernstein has thought about what creative writing might be doing and how it relates to literary or cultural studies. Bernstein rejects the distinction between creative writing and cultural studies in favor of the transdisciplinary field of poetics, the study of signifying practices: “Signifying practices have only art from which to copy.” He suggests that experimental writing provides models to help academic writing combat “frame lock,” calcified disciplinary and discursive conventions that limit thought and expression. In 1999, Bernstein thought creative writing programs were “locked” in a “counterproductive antagonism with English departments.” Eleven years later there is not much evidence that his influence, whatever his own profile, has changed that situation, either in creative writing or cultural studies. In American Hybrid, Swensen indicates that poets now wonder whether creative writing would be better off in the fine arts, which would mean abandoning the English department and the humanities and perhaps the dream of mutual influence Bernstein describes. She does not propose a destination for the creative writing program, and instead argues that the “inability to fit neatly into any department or school…will keep contemporary poetry from ever getting subsumed by the academy, thus guaranteeing it a sufficient degree of autonomy to follow its own course while also staying informed on the intellectual issues of the day, which are indispensable to that course.” Her remarks clearly predate the worst of recent news about university budgets. The important question now is not whether creative writing will be “subsumed” by the university but to what degree, and in what forms, it will be supported. Instead of worrying too much about what constitutes a sufficient degree of autonomy, poets who want to work in the university would do well to suggest what would represent an effective engagement with the discourses of the university.
Barrett Watten seems almost alone in his recognition of mutual influence between the academy and contemporary poetry. He dismisses the naïve, romantic idea that the professoriate has no role in shaping taste or poetic practice, and the idea that poets working as professors are not influenced by academic discourse. The university matters whether we like it or not, and many of us seem to like it, a lot. Discussing his own career and work in volume nine of The Grand Piano, Watten writes, “As a poet, I worked to achieve my professorship, and changed in the course of doing so. This took place in real time and space, in a sequence of stages.” Watten changed, or his work changed, because the “offer of legitimacy” attached to his professorship required him to take a position “within their discourse.” (It may not be surprising that the offer of legitimacy was tendered when it was—given the proximity between the foundations of Watten’s poetics and the dominant academic discourse of the 80s and 90s). And yet, for Watten, taking a position within the academy is not the same thing as fully accommodating its discourse. One always has the opportunity to resist its influence or try to redefine its terms. Watten directs a withering irony at the idea that “poet and philosopher are of superior rank, as opposed to the deficient status of the professor.” Being a poet and being a professor are “respective capacities,” he allows, and the “differential” between them serves both well. But in order for this differential to have value, one needs some account of where and how the interests and projects of poets and professors might diverge, as well as where they overlap, and therefore some account of what these interests are in the first place.
For Watten, the “legitimacy” of his professorship properly “stems from the moment of [an] encounter” with his students, an encounter that allows him to learn about “the world my students come from and the world I am in.” Similarly, “The origin of poetry is its encounter with the other, generalized as the othering of oneself.” The counter-example Watten mentions is Ron Silliman, whose “disclaimer of legitimacy” is evident in his nonhierarchical, inclusive practice as a poet, if not always in his remarks about poetry. But Watten notes that Silliman’s position on poetry and the university has changed. An earlier claim that “the MLA can’t read” and sense of an “unbridgeable gap” between poet and university has been replaced by a “more cautious account of hegemony from the multiple sites we struggle in, including the universities where many of us work.” Watten notes that Silliman also continues to argue that poetry is “accountable first to the public judgments of poets before those of canonizing institutions.”
Swensen’s understanding of the role of creative writing in the university is suggested by her citation of a modernist discourse about precision—the discourse of Mallarmé, Pound, Eliot, and others. Poets work on behalf of “the integrity of the language in the face of commercial and political misuse,” she writes. Poetry refines the “language of the tribe.” This line is a little thin by this point, and Swensen doesn’t say how studying poetry is better suited for such therapy than the writing of geographers or botanists. Nor is it obvious that a modernist cult of precision serves either poetry or politics all that well. I don’t have a better rationale for creative writing’s role in the university to offer and want for the moment only to note what appears to be weak interest in debating the issue.