Wednesday, April 19, 2006

His Speech to the Graduates

One of the perks, if you can call it that, of being a member of the Cornell English Department is that there are often copies of the AWP's magazine The Writer's Chronicle, lying around. Usually it's a case of the bland leading the bland, and this issue looked to be no exception. But then I turned to a piece called "The Words & the Bees: Advice for Graduating MFA Students in Writing," adapted by D.W. Fenza, the Executive Director of AWP, from a commencement speech he gave to the graduates of the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. (I don't remember even having a commencement for my MFA, but oh well.) Not a terribly promising title, nor on first glance is the article's conceit as described in the opening paragraph: "instead of grappling after literary wisdom, I will tell you a few things about honey bees and insects. I have nine suggestions for you, nine musings, couched in the world of the honeycomb and the hive. This way, if I fail to tell you anything new about your life as a writer, I might at least tell you something interesting about the life of a bee." Okay, that's a fair enough bargain. And for the first two sections, I found the piece to be rewarding. Part 1, "Embrace the Swarm," is a defense of the proliferation of MFA programs that compares the number of bees in a typical hive to the number of students who have earned MFA degrees in creative writing over the past ten years (that's between 20 and 30K, believe it or not). To Fenza, these hivelike numbers represent a good thing: "As a graduate with the MFA degree, you are part of a great democratic experiment in public access to higher education and the arts." That means diversity: "Our literature, finally, contains multitudes." Well and good, and better is this incisive critique of the American sense of history, or lack thereof:
There are many reasons for the current lack of consensus over who should be admitted to the pantheon of great authors. American lives in an eternal but shallow present; there is little progress, among members of the public, in the formulation of enduring opinions of any kind, especially opinions about books. The past is mostly a place where American seeks to be reassured by its nostalgia; it's not a place to exercise judgment and criticism. One year, in his State of the Union speech, the President declares we will be traveling to Mars. The next year, neither he nor the federal budget provide any mention or support for an expedition to Mars. The discontinuity goes mostly unnoticed. Last year has already disappeared. We live amid the mass-production of hyper-kinetic episodes of amnesia.
So far, so elitist—but it smacks of truth. All righty. The next section, "Describe the Hive Accurately," is a nearly inspiring paean to the power, and the task, of "the accurate description of society" that Fenza deems to be the primary responsibility of the writer—a responsibility that both aesthetically and morally requires the deferment of the politics of the present: "We are social animals, and as such we can't help but to be political, though politics must remain subordinate to a writer's efforts to describe our society accurately. An accurate description may have political efficacy that surpasses the politics of the day." Yeah, but it's not necessarily not effective in the present, is it? So far, so quietistic—but I'm inclined to give Fenza the benefit of the doubt for his rewriting of a Yeats quotation that reads as follows: "All literature created out of a conscious political aim in the long run creates weakness by creating a habit of unthinking obedience. Literature created for its own sake, for some eternal spiritual need, can be used for politics. Dante is said to have unified Italy. The more unconscious the creation, the more powerful." There's some sense and a lot of malarkey there. Here's how Fenza follows it up:
But liberty, certainly, may be understood to be "some eternal spiritual need." I would reformulate Yeats's pronouncement slightly: The more accurate a writer's creation, the more beautifully subversive it may become. Dante's description of Florence was accurate and comprehensive; its people, its Church, its corruption, its charity, its malevolence, and its idealism are all rendered there in The Divine Comedy. It is one of the books that made the Reformation inevitable. What America is now, the Holy Roman Catholic Church was then; yet Dante put the Church in its place. Now, that's real political subversion. That's beauty and power attained through accuracy and the sonic virtues of language.
There's much here that I find seductive, even though I mistrust the deferral of the present once again implied here. Plus maybe I don't fully understand it: is Fenza saying that Dante's Catholic catalogue damned what it meant to praise? It's a counter-intuitive understanding of epic, that's for sure. Still, though I'm hardly willing to endorse Yeats' "unconscious creation" (except as the kind of dodge that writers sometimes need to employ in order to preserve the autonomy of their work—I screened a documentary on Susan Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog with my students on Monday and Parks played just that sort of dodgem game, claiming that the play had no particular allegorical meaning—more malarkey, but necessary at times to prevent one's own writing from being drowned by one's own overdtermining remarks), I'm taken by the notion of "liberty" as the kind of spiritual need that can drive writing without over political content toward one or more political functions. Why, it's a downright theoretical approach, which made me very surprised to read part 3, "Beware the Ichneumonids." Say what?
Ichneumonids are parasites with peculiar habits of breeding. An ichneumonid wasp, for instance, uses her ovipositor to inject her egg into the back of a caterpillar. The poor caterpillar goes off to spin a cocoon; meanwhile, the larva of the wasp devours the caterpillar from the inside out. What will emerge from the cocoon will not be the lovely flutter of colorful wings, but the rasping escape of a newborn wasp.
Ichneumonid section 3 is as long as the other six sections put together—longer if you count the number of footnotes it produces. And who are the ichneumonids in this scenario, you may well ask? Who are the parasites injecting hapless literary caterpillars with their rasping progeny? Why, literary theorists, of course:
Since the 1970s, academe has become home to a new breed of literary specialists. Literary theorists and cultural critics will happily use a novel as fodder to feed and propagate their own kind. They inject strange new messages into stories and poems to affirm revolutionary ideas—profoundly important ideas that, nonetheless, the theorists are always erasing, obscuring, and leaving in dissassembled heaps for newer ideas. They would tell you that accuracy in writing is a naive delusion. At the expense of storytellers and poets, theorists sustain a parasitic lifestyle with baffling extremes of sophistication. Of course, many departments of English are staffed with wonderful people who work generously to keep expertise alive inn various epochs in literature's long history; many cultural critics have provided us with startling re-readings of the Bible, myths, and neglected works of literature; many have helped to open the canon to many new voices; but a few theorists have dedicated themselves and their departments to the systematic humiliation of literature.
Note the unconvincing gesture toward the ecumenical—unconvincing, because if we're only talking about "a few theorists," why spend fourteen paragraphs warning the callow young graduates against their depredations? Now, it's not that Fenza's claims are entirely without accuracy: there are fashions in academe as there are in most other areas of human endeavor, and the discarding of last year's theory in favor of this year's model is no more edifying a spectacle than America's Top Model, and less colorful. But what working literary critic or theorist today seriously claims that "accuracy in writing is a naive delusion"? I've certainly been held to rigorous standards of evidence in my own scholarly writing. I'm guessing Fenza eagerly devoured David Lehman's excoriation of DeMania, Signs of the Times, but has never bothered to read any Derrida or DeMan himself—nor, what is more to the point in 2006, considered the work being done by those who have digested and critiqued DeMan as opposed to simply holding their noses. It's the last sentence that shows us where blood has been drawn: is it credible to say that "literature" is being systematically humiliated by theory? Moby Dick and company are doing just fine—it's not literature, not even contemporary literature, that's being humiliated by theory, but litterateurs—specifically, writers in the academy who are terrified at seeing their anti-intellectual prerogatives (established mostly I think in the 70s, in the heyday of deep image Blyviating) worn away by a new generation of writer-scholars who are as comfortable in the Adorno seminar as they are in the writing workshop. This is I think confirmed by the fourth and fifth paragraphs of Fenza's screed-within-a-speech:
Theorists perform these castigations of literary works in order to quicken the dawn of a revolution for social, political, and economic equity. If there ever was to be a revolution, however, the literary theorists have failed it. While the disparity between rich and poor in the US grew wider and more abysmal, while France and the rest of Europe created an underclass of Muslim immigrants, while the US became an empire and exported its industrial jobs to its de facto colonies, while the Christian right demonized homosexuals, while English departments grew yet more exploitative of its adjunct workers—wile all this happened, the tenured class studied Wittgenstein, Marx, Foucault, hooks, Fanon, Lacan, Spivak, Lyotard, Kristeva, Poulet, Butler, and Gertrude Stein and felt subversive.
    While intellectuals of the right engineered the conservative control of the House, Senate, White House, federal budget, tax codes, state courts, federal courts, news media, public opinion, and a few foreign nations, intellectuals of the left seized the Norton anthologies. Never before in the history of liberalism have so many words been spilled to accomplish so little.
Fenza's attack here fails to demonstrate how the anti-theoretical purehearted devotees of literature that represents have not also failed the revolution, if they were not in fact wholly indifferent to it; but that's not the real issue. This may look like a substantive critique, but the "Norton anthologies" line is a dead giveaway: it's precisely the seizure of cultural capital by left theorists that Fenza is choking on, not their failure to live up to their own ideals. If there's a Holy Roman Catholic Church being subverted by a writerly practice here, then Fenza is the Pope and the theorists are the Dantes, renovating and remaking the house of literature which has grown top-heavy with writer-teachers who hysterically reject not just Theory (aka French Theory, aka Antediluvian Marxism, et al—c.f. the "roll of honor" that ends the first paragraph above) but theoretical reflection in general: who refuse utterly the task of reflection except in the musty vocabularies of the biographical. We can see this in Fenza's fantasy about putting criticism—note his use of that word here rather than "theorists," it shows his hand—back in its place: "My little survey of literary politics here is only the view of a solitary reader, who believes an author's work should be of primary value, while criticism remains of third or fourth importance, after textual scholarship that seeks to preserve the author's best intentions, and after biographical and historical scholarship that animates an author's life, influences, times, and sensibility." Yes, it's definitely literary politics that most preoccupy Fenza here—whatever's legitimate in his criticisms of the theoretical left (pun intended) is obscured by the mounting hysteria of a man whose hegemonic cultural position is slipping—may have already slipped—into the residual rear-guard. Check out the William F. Buckley-ish locutions that take possession of Fenza's speech a little later in the same paragraph, when he starts addressing the most dangerous traitors to literature of all: "The Language poets would argue that theory, criticism, and poems all complement one another in an endlessly efflorescent and pomiferous symbiosis (and [sic] ecology that, to me, resembles the horror of a never-ending seminar in a PhD program that aims to incarcerate poetry in academentia forever." Phew! "Pomiferous" is actually kind of a neat word: it means "bearing pomes," and what are poems, according to "A fleshy fruit, such as an apple, pear, or quince, having several seed chambers and an outer fleshy part largely derived from the hypanthium. Also called false fruit." But honestly, I don't know what to make of this combination of ten-dollar words and blatant anti-intellectualism, especially from a man who's the executive director of an academic organization. I can only conclude that Fenza feels directly and personally threatened by this newfangled "ecology" of theory-criticism-poetry that is actually at least as old as Pope's Essay on Criticism:
A few of the Language poets and critics, such as Charles Bernstein and Marjorie Perloff, ooze with condescension, unless you talk their kind of theory-infused talk, which, of course, must interrogate the whole notion of talk and problematize the materiality of the text, as our lingua franca has been tainted by the commodifications of consumerism—francs, marks, yen, and dollars—devalued by capitalism, clouded over by the hormonal brainstorms of gender, and trivialized by "official verse culture," or any other culture that has not yet been disassembled by Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, and their peers, who will point out that "talking turkey" betrays the compromised origins of American vernacular as it was crushed under Plymouth Rock and then served up by the Puritans for subsequent Thanksgiving dinners (please pass the cranberry bog) because poetry may not aspire towards simple represenation or a puritanical accuracy of depiction, poetry must not be a product—no, no, no—but a PROCESS, liberated by the upheavals of its perpetual making and re-making and by the exhaustive extrapolations of trained specialists with PhDs in "radical" poetics.
Poets with PhDs! The sky is falling! Seriously, this is embarrassing: as a parody of the positions taken by Perloff and Bernstein it is woefully, utterly inaccurate (the man can't even grasp that the franc and mark have gone the way of the dodo). At least he cops to his own Puritanical leanings: to paraphrase the famous definition, Fenza is someone who is desperately afraid that somebody, somewhere might be having a good time thinking about writing. It's downright weird to lump Bernstein and Perloff together the way Fenza has done here, especially if he's as exercised as he claims to be about the ineffectiveness of the theoretical left (Perloff's politics are center-right, as closely as I can determine them; Bernstein's a Marxist but probably more Groucho than Karl), and then to attack them for launching "a critique that would throw a sack over each of the heads of so many authors to make them indistinguishable from one another in group denigration." Uh, pot? The kettle wants its black back. Anyway, it becomes clear once again that what really works Fenza into a lather is the academic success of Language poets and theorists and all their fellow travelers: "The Language poets have established a current of poetry that is now one of the main currents in the pluralism of American poetries, although the Language poets wear their badges of martyrdom, misrepresentation, outsider status, rebellion, and bleeding hearts (for bravery in the French campaigns) more ostentatiously than most poets." You mean they're whiners, D.W.? Fenza then grudgingly concedes that "Many theorists and postmodernist poets have opened possibilities for literature; they have elevated readers to the status of co-collaboration with authors. A few theorists have, by a few small increments, facilitated the great social changes of our time. They have made a new kind of beauty and its appreciation possible" Sorry, Mr. Fenza, but your ass is not covered: you've been tossing around the phrase "a few theorists" and "a few Language poets" for pages now without naming any names except for Bernstein and Perloff, and there you showed yourself to be woefully ignorant of what it is these writers actually have to say. (I would have been more persuaded, actually, by the denigration-of-a-group accusation if instead of Bernstein's name he had written Ron Silliman.) Why should we believe you now that you're suddenly willing to concede that some of these good-for-nothing theorists have in fact delivered on the social potential of their work? No, you'd better just put the broken record back on: "But other theorists and a few postcoherent poets stand among the greatest pretenders, hypocrites, and ineffectual advocates of liberalism, the humane virtues of literature, and aesthetic renewal. They have abused books and authors. They have tortured our poor mother tongue. And perhaps their abuse has contributed to the decline of the English major and audiences for literature." Poor Mother English! How WILL she survive those nasty poets and theorists and their language games—but it seems to me the real torture, of English and human beings, comes from the mouths of politicians and not from the academics who criticize hegemonic ways of speech (I am tempted here to call Fenza's generalized calumny an "extraordinary rendition" of the literary scene). The one claim we might take seriously comes in the final sentence, which is footnoted with a claim that the number of English majors has fallen "from 7% in the 1970s to slightly less that [sic] 4% today," and that "The decline of the English major coincides with the ascendancy of literary theory as well as higher education's growing specialization in vocational training for politics, law, public administration, communications, business, engineering, etc." This sounds a little like the kind of theorizing about the role of socioeconomic forces in the cultural field that you'd expect Fenza to be leery of, but in any case if you think about it for ten seconds you can't blame theory (much less "a few postcoherent poets") for the tendency of late capitalism to push its labor force toward ever-more refined modes of specialization. Which suggests that the crisis in reading leads us directly back to the crisis in our workplaces, our voting booths, our families—the continuum the postcoherent recognize as constituting our aesthetic, quotidian, and political life. But I forgot: only "a few theorists have, by a few small increments, facilitated the great social changes of our time." Gosh, that DOES sound bad—that's nothing I'd ever want to be a part of.

I don't think Pope Fenza will be launching any Counter-Reformations with this speech, nor will the other six parts of his advice (brief and exhausted exhortations for new MFAs to write reviews and essays, write a little each day, cultivate a sense of wonder, leave enough space between projects, read dead writers, and break away from the community of the MFA program [this last implying the rejection of literary community as such in favor of "your own separate enterprise"—community is for sissies, I mean for students]). But I do worry that this kind of thing will reinforce the estrangement of writers and intellectuals in the academy (the target audience of this strangely anti-academic speech). Not every writer need read literary theory or Language poetry; not every writer should or can be an intellectual. But to come down this hard, before a relatively young audience, on the frutiful cross-pollination of writing and theory in the academy will I think only contribute further to the decline of the prestige of the MFA degree as providing insufficient training in the habits of critical reflection that a university ought to demand from its faculty. We don't necessarily need more poets with PhDs, though I for one welcome the proliferation of such (and maybe that's what's got Fenza mad at Perloff: though the subtitle of a 1999 article she wrote in Boston Review suggests that they ought to be natural allies, calling as it does to put the literature back in literary studies, it also suggests that the academic future belongs to poets with PhDs—not because we're soldiers for theory but because we tend to be literary scholars with a real interest in literature). But we do need MFA students, and MFA programs, that don't take pride in know-nothingism, and who are willing to stretch their comfort zones, and who criticize what needs criticizing from a position of knowledge rather than ignorance and fear of the new.


Richard said...

This is probably the most thoughtful post I've read on a literary blog in a while, and I just wanted to tell you that reading it was exhilirating. I wouldn't want to respond after just having taken it in -- I'm not sure I have the intellectual equipment to respond -- but it's something I will think about. Thanks.

(Of course, the practical lawyer/high school teacher/bureaucrat that I am instinctively makes me want to respond in a totally anti-intellectual thoughtless way: What becomes of most Cornell MFA grads anyway? If what I know about most MFA grads since I was one 30 years ago is accurate, most of them will not be a part of this discussion -- or want to be -- within five years. Sorry. I couldn't resist.)

Sheryl said...

I wish I had time to re-read this more carefully but I don't. It is fascinating. I agree that MFA's have created more diversity in the po-world, but I still believe there is a back-lash and a lot of hostility against minority poets, especially those without proper pedigree and connections, but this is true for every poet. Who do you know? Where did you go to school?Oh, and we're going to measure your blood. These questions usurp the poetry. Recently people were dissing the Pulitzer winner and in the same breath saying, "I have never heard of her." Huh? Language poets have been around for some time. But it seems "post-avants" or self-proclaimed ones get attention online, and yes, it seems they are more respected than someone with an MFA from UTEP. But I'm sure many of them feel frustrated too. Money seems most
important. One can write crappy poems and get certain things and openly be more concerned about publicity than poetry. It does unfortunately work. I can only hope in the end, the poems matter.
The MFA or PhD "program" attended is more important than the poetry or the writing. And if one doesn't have money or the proper background, it doesn't matter if one has the PhD. You're out! Poof!
Everyone is screaming foul. I do not agree theorists are ruining poetry, but I do think they often are hypocrites when it comes to poor poets and hiring decisions. What matters more often is what's on the surface despite all the talk about equality and all the liberal talk. I've heard a bunch of crap both online and off about minorities. People who openly diss people they haven't read online seem foolish, and I hope in the end the poems matter. But poetry is about pleasure and leisure, of this I am certain. Struggle and disenfranchisement are often ignored. People in ivory towers usually don't wnat to hear it, unless of course it has a "brand name".

Anonymous said...


Printing out to read with more care. But your concluding remark, that the future belongs to poet- Ph.D.s because they are "literary scholars with a real interest in literature" can't go without immediate comment! It wasn't so long ago, after all, when one could be a literary scholar with a real interest in literature without a Ph.D., no? Actually, I think it probably still is the case that one can! I'm not even sure a B.A. is an absolute requirement. Maybe that a thoughtful writer such as you would even make such a statement (or slip) is an indication that some of this guy's argument on the new elite-academic status of Language-y poetry is worth considering? Hmm. But gotta read it more.

On a completely other note, here on the eve of the big Grand Opening Premiere of Flarf, has anyone ever thought of the whole thing as something like the cento hooked up to a modem?


Unknown said...

Sheryl, I think it's obvious that Fenza's celebration of the new diversity and democracy in American writing ignores some basic facts about race and more particularly class. Even middle-class students can go into serious, life-altering debt pursuing graduate degrees—how much higher the barrier must be for those without that socioeconomic framework to help prop them up. Obviously this is a bigger problem than MFA programs. As for your complaints about who you know being more important than what you write, well, that's just the same problem turned on its head: class insiders tend to get drawn more deeply inside, while outsiders become ever more frustrated and bitter (or afflicted by guilt and ambivalence once they've made it "inside"). I don't have a solution to this, except to say that plenty of poets are doing it for themselves entirely outside of academia. Those of us who are inside academia have a responsibility, I believe, to build bridges to those worlds, and do whatever we can to muddy the deep waters between town and gown.

Which takes me to Kent's comments. Obviously you don't need any sort of degree to study literature and increase our knowledge of it. But since we're talking about a speech to new MFAs here, my discussion necessarily centers on the place of poetry and theory within the academy. I'm all for independent scholarship, but there's a class that has to be even more bereft and disorganized than anti-academic poets. Is there some kind of organization or association for students of literature who choose not to be formally disciplined as students? Or would that be oxymoronic?

Privilege isn't going away. Fenza wants to conserve his; so too no doubt do the postcoherents he abhors (assuming they actually exist). The problem, as always, is how those of us with privileges can use them for the benefit of others—for some sort of contribution to the collectivity. You can never be in without being in some way of, but you can try and get your priorities straight. Or bent, better say.

Unknown said...

Curt, we cross-commented: I think some of your objections were answered or at least addressed by what I wrote in response to Sheryl and Kent. And I agree that doctrinal rigidity is never good. But I'll take passionate and open advocacy for one mode or another over a pluralistic "it's all good" shrug any day of the week—or, what's more common, the soft bullying of unexamined expectations. Give Fenza his props: he's putting his position, his hostility, and his discomfort out in the open rather than pretending that he and his institution speak for capital-P Poetry. The hegemon is out of the bag.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Josh. And I don't object to anyone getting a Ph.D. But what I got from your post (correct me if wrong, please!) was the drift that a Ph. D. program is the preferred, the best site for becoming a poet-scholar. And I'm not sure at all this is true.

Think of the great poet-scholars of the century who didn't have MFA's or Ph.D.'s--in fact, think of the many great poet-scholars of this century who arguably opened new poetic thought and possibility *because* they didn't spend their time pursuing a graduate degree!

Of course, poetry these days, especially the "avant" kind, is largely tied to the academy--I understand that. We are in a kind of New-New Criticism era... But now we have to try to see some ways out of it. Finding the way out of this current academic climate is more important than finding your way in to a Ph.D. program, I would argue. We need another New American Poetry.


Anonymous said...

You know, I think the notion is (to use a term I learned long ago in grad school) heuristically useful enough to repeat:

Our avant period is a period of New-New Criticism. We require a New-New American Poetry.


Jonathan said...

There will tremendous diversity among 20,000 MFA students simply because they are 20,000 unique individuals. Institutionally, however, many programs have promulgated anti-intellectualism and 70s Blyivating (gotta love that word). These unique individuals, as a group, no longer seem so diverse, though I'm sure the 500 most interesting of them are really, really interesting.

Perloff doesn't even like "theory," in the way that it's practiced today.

I took Josh to be saying, not that PhDs were the future of poetry, but the future of the academic study of poetry. That is, he's thinking the model of the poet/professor competent in literary critcism in theory is better than the model of the poet-cum-MFA without "ideas about poetry." That's not to say that poetry cannot exist outside the academy too.

Jonathan said...

Gotta love that phrase "the soft bullying of unexamined expectations." Classic Josh Coreyism. I think I know exactly what he means but I'll let him explain it.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan (Mayhew, I believe) said:

"I took Josh to be saying, not that PhDs were the future of poetry, but the future of the academic study of poetry. That is, he's thinking the model of the poet/professor competent in literary critcism in theory is better than the model of the poet-cum-MFA without "ideas about poetry." That's not to say that poetry cannot exist outside the academy too."

Yes, that's fine. But the problem is confusing "academic" with "scholarly." There are paths of scholarship, of poetic apprenticeship and labor, that are not sanctioned by academic conventions and discourse. The history of poetry (the record of its most significant developments, in fact) speaks to this.

The problem, as I said before, is that the so-called post-avant is overly imbricated (another term I learned in grad school) with the academy. This is something that has had bad consequences. And those consequences are just recently becoming manifest. We're in the opening stages of a New-New Criticism. We need a New-New American Poetry.


Anonymous said...

On a trivial note, I did have a commencement for my MFA, and my hood was babyshit brown. Which turned out to be a metaphor for the value of my degree in most cases.

shanna said...

i would be interested in some statistics about, say five yrs after graduation, how many MFA graduates are still writing, how many teaching, how many publishing criticism, and how many just got the degree & peetered out.

20K MFA students doesn't equal 20K writers or teachers or critics. i'm just guessing, but it's why i don't take arguments about how the proliferation of the programs is polluting literature. (even if i did believe mfa programs teach everybody to write the same way, which i do not.)

shanna said...

ack. i'm gagging on typos. sorry.

C. Dale said...

The classic rule of MFA's post graduation is that 20% will continue to write and even publish occasionally for 5-10 years. 5% typically publish a book within 10 years of graduation, and only 2% will continue to publish books. Of course, this was based on the marketplace of ten years ago. Not sure what it is now.

shanna said...

hmm. thanks, c. dale.

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