The lament is familiar: poetry is now a subsidiary of the academy. The question is not whether to blame but whom. Creative writing majors? MFA programs? The New Criticism? Perhaps a pox on all their houses.
When I sit around a seminar table with a group of freshmen, I announce my ambition that the poems they study this semester will become friends they keep long after they leave school. And why? Because (I seem to believe) one cannot be in school forever! Because when in midlife they unlatch their memories of college, I want them to find among the other nourishment we packed for them, a Ziploc of poems. (“Hey kiddo, thought you might find these useful, when you stop to refresh yourself nel mezzo del cammin. Love ya! Dad.”) Implicit in these worthy sentiments is the assumption that, at commencement, life begins in earnest, and that these “well-rounded informed citizens,” these pure products of the Liberal Arts project, will fulfill their destinies elsewhere. Conversely, the logic goes, a culture of poetry that lingers in the corridors of academia must necessarily languish in captivity, a domesticated creature moribund in its complacency, dozing by its feed dish in the Creative Writing Department, pacing obsessively up and down the Survey of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, scraping itself scabrous and mangy against the rigors of the Low-Residency Degree Program. And if the art itself is moribund, so are its keepers. Yeats equates scholarship with pedantry; scholars, he says, “cough in ink”:
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,Old, learned, respectable bald headsEdit and annotate the linesThat young men, tossing on their beds,Rhymed out in love’s despairTo flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
Surely no scholar tossed on love’s bed, or if any did, he traded passion for impotent respectability. Surely the acid-free and unconsulted dissertation archive is where a sick art goes to die. Such half-life as lingers on in the backlist of academic publishers is a limbo, a gray market economy where publications are traded as tokens redeemable for the intangible goods of tenure, of “professional visibility.” In fact, we are told, poetry must vanquish study if it is to come into being at all: Sidney, longing “in verse [his] love to show” derides his studiousness in attempting to learn his art:
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,Oft turning others' leaves, to see if thence would flowSome fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.Invention, Nature's child, fled stepdame Study's blows;And others' feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
How diligently we must hustle innocent Invention, Mr. Natural, away from its wicked old stepdame, Study. “Fool,” says Sidney’s muse, “Look in thy heart, and write.”
But where is this unacademic Arcady, this poet’s republic where the scholars, for once, have been banished? What if the scholars, the workshops, the visiting writer gigs, the whole wheezing academic life-support system, is in fact symptomatic of no malady, no malaise, but an innate part of the organism itself?
I am less and less inclined to imagine a future for my students in which poetry has been restored to its rightful freedom as pure pleasure, pure passion. Perhaps this is because the man writing this is balding, beslippered, and ink-stained. Be that as it may, if I am honest about what I want for them in the future, it would be a room with a table, surrounded by friends, colleagues, interlocutors. I do not want for them a life with poetry liberated from the academy; I wish them instead the possibility of permanent school. Perhaps poems will continue to illuminate their solitudes, but best of all would be if poems occasioned a greater endeavor, that of sitting around and trying to figure something out together. It is the scholar who, “coughing in ink,” annoys us by pointing out that “study” derives from the Latin studia, or eagerness. This eagerness demands nothing other than a table, a book, and a lamp to gather around. Life itself can be counted on to furnish the solitude and longing in excess. What I wish for my students, as yet strangers to their own deepest eagerness, is what I wish more and more for myself, the lamp, the table, the curious company, and most of all, the conversation that opens our own ignorant ear.