Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Rigor of Poetry and the Pleasures of Theory

There's been a lot of discussion recently of creative writing pedagogy, an extension of sorts of the conversation I began on the two cultures of AWP. Kasey Mohammed's incisive "Breaking the Self-Affirmation Barrier" has been followed up by Reginald Shepherd's "More on Creative Writing Pedagogy" and "A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom." [CORRECTION, 3/25/07: The original post on this topic was from Reginald: "What Is Creative Writing For?" Kasey's post, and mine, followed from that.] I think it's worth recapitulating here the four "minimal requisites" that Kasey proposed for a creative writing program that would not "perpetuate the whole predatory pedagogical system":
1. Some degree of grounding in various historical and intellectual contexts for the production and reception of poetry
2. Some degree of immersion in contemporary poetic theory, as well as relevant political and philosophical studies
3. Some degree of engagement with the social and communal aspects of the poetic life, especially insofar as this involves stepping out of the institutional framework and looking critically at what it means to be within it in the first place, and what it means for other writers to be outside it
4. Some degree of consideration of what lies beyond "craft" as defined above: under what conditions might vagueness be considered a "style" worth taking seriously? when do the protocols of "precision, concision, and avoidance of cliché" fall short, and what might be the value of deliberate unwieldiness, ugliness, or banality in certain contexts? and what else is out there?
Kasey's ginger touch with the word "craft" (note the scare quotes) points to the history of that word's being used as an ideological bludgeon, and I think his stipulations in general reframe the conflict that Reginald's first post puts in professional terms (scholar-academics vs. poet-academics) as "craft" vs. "theory." It ought to be obvious what a false distinction this is, and yet the two words are routinely used to represent opposed positions that grind exceeding small back and forth, giving and losing meager amounts of ground, flung like mortar shells into the trenches and foxholes of English departments all over this land. The participants in this battle get the mud of pettiness and spleen all over themselves and their positions, though very occasionally it is transported to a more elevated plane: I'm thinking here of the famous confrontation between Robert Duncan (here standing for "craft" in its most occult aspects) and Barrett Watten (ditto for "theory") at a memorial for Louis Zukofsky at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1978. (You can find an account of the conflict by Nils Ya here; scroll almost all the way to the bottom.) Duncan, aggrieved enough to respond aggressively to Watten's aggressively cerebral approach to Zukofsky, is supposed to have said at one point, "Can't we just have fun?" To which Watten replied, "But Robert, this is how some of us get our fun." At which point the debate collapses into de gustibus non disputandum—and yet I am amazed how often those who turn "craft" into an ideological position attack scholars and theoretically minded writers for being puritan killjoys blind, deaf, and dumb to the pleasures of the text. The possibility of taking intense pleasure in reflective and critical activity doesn't seem to occur to them—more pernicious still is the belief that taking pleasure in critical thought somehow dulls one's senses to the kinetic and lingual pleasures of poetry.

There's no craft, or any practice of any art, without theory: the only question is whether or not one is conscious of the theory of poetry that you've adopted, or that's adopted you. Reginald's second post is an account of the difficulties of getting beginning writing students to accept even the most basic theory of creative writing: namely, that one has an audience in mind. The students come to a creative writing class with a romantic theory of spontaneous self-expression that must be gruelingly unlearned for them to get at the next level of sophistication, the theory of craft. The strength and weakness of this theory lies in its vagueness: the impoverished critical vocabulary of the "earned" ending, the image that "works," etc., can force the more persistent and inspired student into inventing his or her own critical idiom. At best, it steers the student clear of overdetermining vocabularies; at worst it itself overdetermines a complacent response to aesthetic givens. The theory of craft can be reified into an ideology with a Procrustean tendency to fit poems into whatever categories are most fashionable in a given academic community; without active and adventurous questioning on the part of the instructor or students, poems end up being measured against an imaginary normative given, and get either stretched or chopped so they fit.

A theory of craft is essential to any poet: it's the cognitive leap from a belief in one's own natural expertise to a respect for language as a material that offers up considerable resistance to expression. The next step—and this I think is what Kasey's program tries to address, since even most graduate programs don't address this level of thinking—is the crafting of theory, the cultivation of the skills necessary to articulate one's own poetics and place them in some kind of active relation with the numerous other poetics that are out there. Among other things this requires a sense of history, which means doing a lot more reading and a lot more work. It requires, above all, an instructor who is thinking and working on this level—but there are still many creative writing teachers out there, some of them in prestigious programs, who reject the very idea of theory, and instead instill a more-or-less rigid ideology of craft in their students. Of course the smartest or most stubborn students will react appropriately to this dogmatism, but if one of the goals of creative writing instruction is the promotion of critical and imaginative skills—if we believe that the study of creative writing should be an asset to the majority of students who will not go on to become professional writers—then we have to work to promote this more critical-theoretical model of pedagogy, and fight against the laziness and anti-intellectualism that characterizes so much of our culture, inside the academy and out.

It seems to me that the best teachers (and students) approach craft seriously and simultaneously with questions that belong properly to the realm of theory: what are different sorts of poems for, what effects are possible, what histories of poetic discourse are we bearing in mind, how can language be made responsive to identity and vice-versa. At the same time, I think the ideal poet's education would include megadoses of the canon (or canons—I certainly wish my own education had required me to study the poetry of another language, for example), the study and practice of traditional-closed and experimental-open prosodies, study of the history and practice of poetic distribution (small presses, little magazines), and the encouragement to follow an ultimately self-directed path through the contemporary scene. This poet's education can and does work in harmony with what I'd term an intellectual's education, defining as "intellectual" the preoccupation with analysis of the given (in literature, in politics, etc.). Although potentially synergistic, they are two very different practices: as practitioners of poiesis—as makers—poets challenge the given with very different tools than intellectuals. They stand somehow between the philosopher who seeks to understand the world and the activist who seeks to change it.

It is not truly necessary for a poet to be an intellectual, but I have a strong inclination toward those who embrace the "and" of my title, though they might emphasize one more than the other at times. The antagonism between the two falls away, I think, if one embraces the real rigor of poetry and turns away from the thoughtless model that equates poetry with pleasurable spontaneity and intellectualism with puritan drudgery. Which is not to say the conflict can be totally wished away, especially when it's internal. As someone who participates in any number of awkward hyphenates (MFA-PhD, poet-scholar, writer-critic) I sometimes myself am caught up in the trap of participating in a restricted economy in which the resources allocated to one dimension of work are stolen from the other. For most of my experience, though, they've actually enlarged each other. When I was at the University of Montana some of my fellow students in the MFA program bemoaned its rather minimal academic requirements: "I just want time to write!" they said. Meanwhile, I was finding that the literature seminars to be as stimulating as the workshops, sometimes more so. There was a real synergy between the two kinds of thinking, the two strategies of knowing: making and analysis, craft and theory. It's still true for me now, though the intellectual labor of a PhD program demands considerably more of my energy and time, and I do find myself wishing for pure "time to write."

Well, I see I've lapsed into personal anecdote and I don't expect such to be especially persuasive to anyone not similarly inclined. But I do believe in the rigor of poetry and the dignity and pleasure to be taken in intellectual work, and I think they ought to be put in productive relationships with each other. I believe in a limitless general economy of thought, and I would like to share that sense of abundance and possibility with my students, however I can.

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