Friday, July 30, 2004

Trying to graft key pieces of my A-exam into the introductory chapter of my dissertation. It's ticklish work. Right now the form of it feels more like the vase (or cardboard box) into which I dump all my thinking about Adorno, Virgil, Benjamin, Agamben, Pound, Oppen, etc. I hope it will feel more organic as I get further into it—more the model of the tree-form than the vase-form.

Tony over at Geneva Convention is having a crisis of PhD faith, which makes me think of other friends and acquaintances who have gone through such crises. One of my dearest friends from college had a terrible time at Rutgers; she finished the PhD but then decided to leave academia for good (she's now writing an epic fantasy novel and happier than she's been in years). So it's clearly not for everybody. I think it would be very hard, probably impossible, to write something on the scale of a dissertation if you were unable to care about it as a piece of writing (or at least as a piece of thinking); the other jumping-through-hoops stuff is fakeable, but not the dissertation. Or maybe it is, but I imagine it would cost a huge chunk of one's soul. At the same time, I find I've so far been able to play the game of academia without permanent damage because I do see it as a game. A challenging game, a serious game, a sometimes frustrating game, but a game for all that, with discernible if sometimes obscure rules. The most crucial decision I made in my career as a grad student was giving up my specialization in Renaissance drama and instead choosing to write about the same subject that imbricates the rest of my life: contemporary poetry (though I have found a little historical distance by grounding my studies in Modernism). That made it possible for me to use more or less the same head (and heart) I use in writing poems for writing academic essays. My writing, really my entire life, is animated by the same core group of concerns and fascinations: the materiality of language, fragments of theology, aesthetic knowledge, political economy, and the utopian imagination. I've been very fortunate, I know. No one has bullied me into taking a more limited or utilitarian view of scholarship; I haven't been as harshly exploited as a teacher as many grad students are; and I haven't yet become bored with academic discourse or convinced that it's impossible to talk about stuff that matters in that language. If that last were to occur, I'd have to seriously question the academic life, because for me its entire promise (so far kept) has been to make it possible to talk about fundamental concerns regarding poetry and the world with increasing richness and depth. That's largely why I moved into the PhD realm from the MFA realm: because I felt the typical MFA language for talking about poetry (and the culture and society that generates it and that it generates) was an impoverished one.

It seems to me that Tony's problem is really everyone's problem, in the sense that we are all nowadays called upon to become more and more narrow specialists in whatever field; we are all forced to discipline ourselves. I think I'm lucky because I think I've found a discipline that doesn't require my to cut off all circulation to my other interests; I have a shot at being more whole than many others because academia suits me so well. But many people aren't so lucky. So you have a choice: to find a discipline that doesn't require the pruning of vital limbs, or the much harder choice of resisting discipline, period, in favor of a permanent amateur status (amateur from amat, to love). Though I have accepted the yoke of professionalization (which is not to say I'm not chafed by it), I dream of a revolution in consciousness that would make it possible for us all to be amateurs. Wishing alone won't make it so... but it's a start. Poetry for me is that sort of wishing; as I've said before, it's the creation, in language, of an imaginary wholeness. (Yes, I've been reading Schiller.) The more clearly we can visualize it in poetry, the more likely we are to find a path to real wholeness (or at least to see concretely the obstacles to that wholeness); not just for ourselves, but for all those with whom we feel solidarity. Which is another thing I get from poetry, and that's not nothing.

Hang in there, Tony. Listen to yourself. You're fighting for your life.

No comments:

Popular Posts