Wednesday, August 10, 2005

There's a lot of good sense in Ron's discussion of book prizes yesterday, and in the comments field too. I think Norman Finkelstein has a great point about how communities cannot simply be the opposite of an "administrative" function: how they tend to foster their own administrations and by so doing become institutions. "The New York School" is certainly an institution now, as is "Language poetry"; their texts are "classics" in the sense of being that which forms the background against which we write, a network that efficiently administers who should be included and excluded (actively resisting that administration is a vital component of much of the most interesting contemporary work). In that sense Ron himself is one of the most active and visible administrators, as today's post on Annie Finch seeks to "rescue" her from the camp of New Formalists and claim her for "our side." Of course poets are not pawns in the hands of such administrations: we can and do actively choose who we will be affiliated with. The question for a young poet is, do I seek my primary affiliation from my peers or from an elder? The MFA model seems to lean heavily on the latter, as does the contest judged by a "name." You can and do discover peers in an MFA program: for me that's been the most enduring benefit of my Montana experience (along with my discovery of a taste for scholarship—a discovery that still surprises me in retrospect). The contest model creates peers only in the most generalized way, as an administrative category with little love attached to it: I glanced into the New York Review of Books yesterday and saw an ad for some university press' "prize-winning poetry." But it is possible for a contest from a small press to both fund publication and foster community: that's certainly been my experience with Spineless Books (and let me refer you again to this lovely essay on the subject by Dirk Stratton).

Administration does have its uses for those of us seeking academic jobs: winning a prize or publishing with a larger press provides reassurance to those who don't have the time or perhaps the confidence to evaluate the work themselves. I think only one's personal integrity—something there is no certificate for—can guard against the degradation of one's writing to a commodity, a bullet-point on the c.v. And vice-versa: those who egocentrically exploit academia, who give short-shrift to their students and their own intellectual responsibilities, are guilty of the same crime of half-heartedness.

Gearing up now for the academic job search. And I've had an epiphany about my dissertation: it makes much more sense to focus on just the three major poets who have most preoccupied me (Pound, Zukofsky, Ronald Johnson) than it does to devote time to groups like the New York School (even though I was planning to focus on Schuyler) or that so-far vague entity of "contemporary negative pastoralists." Cleaner, more elegant, more scholarly—there will be time to expand into those other areas when it's time to turn it into a book. A DISSERTATION IS NOT A BOOK. This must be my mantra if I'm to get out of here alive.

And this decision means, glory of glories, that my dissertation is halfway done.

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