Friday, January 23, 2004

Nonetheless it appears that I am pushing a program—just look at the texts I've chosen to provide readings for the upcoming semester, the Postmodern American Fiction and Postmodern American Poetry anthologies, both from that most postmodern of textbook publishers, W.W. Norton. Not that I hold any brief for postmodernism: I love John Berryman too, and have a sneaking admiration for the early Lowell too. (Roethke I could never get into for some reason, but his buddy Richard Hugo had enough mojo going on to drag me all the way to Montana for my MFA, while he was dead, even). If there's any particular bandwagon that I can claim to be aboard, it's probably good old fashioned Modernism proper, a tent big enough to contain D.H. Lawrence and Gertrude Stein (if you stretch the canvas a little) and descendants as diverse as Ronald Johnson, Fanny Howe, Kathleen Fraser, and Cole Swensen. I'd like to hold a brief for Tony's "WHOLE HOG," and I'm no more interested in he is in meaningless pluralism. But these things are situational. The creative writing powers-that-be at Cornell are on the conservative side, aesthetically speaking, so I feel obligated to provide a counterforce in my teaching. I try not to indulge in polemics, nor do I encourage my students to burn Billy Collins in effigy. But I do what I can to open their eyes to what I think of as the still-concealed soul of twentieth century American poetry that the Hoover anthology offers us a peek at. Opening is the primary metaphor for what I want to do as a teacher. If someone were to enroll in my class who was conversant in Language poetry but had never bothered to read Plath and Wilbur, I'd send them in that direction. But for now that just doesn't seem too damn likely.

If and when I get to the point that I'm leading MFA workshops, I will have to consider different strategies. I don't want to be a mouthpiece for the avant garde, or even for the mongrels if they ever assume the dignity of a school. Knowledge is the only thing I can speak for without ambivalence is, which is why I heartily second Tony's suggested reading material. The poets I respect the most are the ones who are thinking through unavoidable because historical questions (even the sublime is historical), which means you've gotta know your history. All of it. Gee, I guess I am getting on the WHOLE HOG bandwagon. It's just that I think passionate advocacy of the work you love and think is important (including, of course, your own) is likelier to be amplified by such global knowledge rather than decreased. Not that I myself am close to having such global knowledge. But I will when I'm finished with this exam! You betcha.

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