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Who or what is a poet critic and why is the academy so up in Poetry’s face?

By Sina Queyras

What is a poet critic? Can a poet be “successful” outside of the academy? If not, why? Who, or what, is upholding the system that creates (or maintains) a hierarchy in the poetry community that sees the academic poet at the peak? Or is there really a peak? Is the latter simply an illusion that drives the MFA industry?

Where did the idea that to write poetry is to teach poetry arise?

Is a poet critic a hermetically sealed role or is there room for change?

What was TS Eliot’s relationship to the Academy? Or rather, the academies, because apparently his relationship to Cambridge was much different than his relationship to Oxford. Why did he not take that, by now mythical and much coveted teaching job? What difference would it have made in his career, to his poetry? To the poets of the early 20th century, and so on?

Is there a critic outside of poetry? Why do so many “innovative” women writers seem to have criticism embedded in their poetry? (Lisa Robertson, Erin Moure, Anne Carson…). Where are the critical women writers? Why are there so many non-poet women critical writers and so few women who are poets and critical writers? Or, is that a myth?

What do Wittgenstein, William Carlos Williams, Cotton Mather, Charlotte Mew, Fredric Jameson, French Theory, Fred Moten, Thylias Moss, and James Sherry have to do with each other, let alone the question of poet critic?

Greetings from Santa Cruz where I am attending a conference titled Re-imagining the Poet-Critic. Yesterday I listened to a dozen or more papers, several respondents, a lunch hour reading, responded to two papers myself, and then after a fabulous dinner listened to three poets, Kasey Mohammad, Craig Dworkin and Vanessa Place, read in the Felix Culpa gallery.

Kasey read some of his Shakespeare anagrams. He is making his way through the sonnets, using the jumbled letters of each to construct new poems. The remaining letters are used to make the titles which, as he notes, are usually the silliest part. Humour is the main note in Mohammed’s workings and later, over drinks, we found ourselves wondering what would happen if he explored different registers–he is a flarf poet so the dominant response is flarf. Here, by the way, is Virginia Woolf’s reading of flarf.

Dworkin read a write through of Wittgenstein’s On Certainty that was brilliant (you can find a review of that here). First time hearing him read, knowing his critical and editorial work more than his poetry. He also read a very funny and quite imaginative “translation” of Beowulf  that I would love to read.

Vanessa Place went last because as her introducer said, she tends to disturb. She read a reworking of Valerie Solinas SCUM Manifesto, her long piece comprised of the names for that place, you know, down there…and read a piece from her ongoing Statement of Facts project that did indeed disturb.

Today another dozen or so papers and respondents and tonight yours truly reads with David Lau and Juliana Spahr. I will try to add to this post tomorrow at some point when I can catch wireless in between San Francisco and Montreal. Until then, I’ll take notes…

Comments (33)

  • On March 13, 2010 at 3:32 pm Thom Donovan wrote:

    I’m so glad you’re covering the conference Sina. wish I cld be there!

  • On March 13, 2010 at 4:31 pm Brenda Schmidt wrote:

    I know of more and more multi-book authors who are going back for their MA or MFA. It seems like the thing to do now.

    • On March 15, 2010 at 8:54 am Sina Queyras wrote:

      Really? That’s true, Brenda? I guess no one is ready to give up the pursuit of the perfect poet’s life. Apparently that is with MFA in hand and a job leading a poetry workshop. It’s odd that poets seem to have little imagination where career paths are concerned.

      Jim Behrle is right.
      http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=238942

      More on that little fantasy to come.

      • On March 15, 2010 at 2:10 pm Brenda Schmidt wrote:

        “It’s odd that poets seem to have little imagination where career paths are concerned.”

        Sina, I’m curious to hear what you mean by this, especially given your own level of education and career path. Such degrees open doors to more than just teaching jobs, do they not? And how is that not a good thing?

        • On March 15, 2010 at 2:41 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

          Yes, teaching is one of the things I have done and do. What’s next? Who knows.

          I’m very much interested in alternate paths to poetry. Alternate paths to anything everything!

          • On March 15, 2010 at 3:01 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

            P.S. Brenda, not saying MFAs (or any advanced degrees) are a bad thing…rather trying to wrench open ideas of what a poetry “career” might look like.

    • On March 15, 2010 at 1:49 pm Zachariah Wells wrote:

      As one of the people Brenda’s referring to, I can’t speak to anyone else’s motivations, but here are mine:

      1) I’ve been laid off from my job (as a passenger train service attendant) since November 2008. I’ll probably get some work this summer, but possibly not enough to be recalled from layoff. The future in my industry is very uncertain.

      2) I’m an unskilled labourer in a city with very few decent-paying unskilled labour jobs.

      3) I’m 33 and will at some point in the not so distant future find it more physically difficult to do the sort of work I’ve been doing.

      4) I already had half an MA and have the makings of a thesis on the hard drive of my computer. I only need to take two courses (one of which would be a directed study) and finish/refine my ms. and I’m done.

      5) Since the fall, I’ve been making my living as a freelance writer and editor. This involves chasing down work. Having an MA would make it easier to catch what work there is, including the odd sessional job or residency.

      6) I have a young child and I figure I should do my best to support him as well as I can, while still maintaining the bourgehemian lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed.

      7) The university to which I applied offered me a very healthy sum of money to study there for a quite short period of time. Which is good. See 1)

      So no, it’s not that I’ve been unimaginative in my career path. It’s that my career path has led me, a la Alighieri, into the woods.

  • On March 13, 2010 at 4:34 pm John Oliver Simon wrote:

    Glad you’re covering the conference, Sina, glad I’m not there.

    I have found myself able to write extremely incisive critical reportage on the poetry scene in various Latin American countries (published over the years in such as Poetry Flash, Zzyzyva and APR) precisely because I am not from there. As a gringo fluent in Spanish, I have no dog in the fight between the Exterioristas and the Elephantes in Nicaragua, between the Objectivistas and the Neorrománticos in Argentina, between the children of Neruda and those of Parra in Chile, or between the Neobarrocos and the users of a sparer vocabulary across the continent. My observer’s status permits me to view fault-lines clearly.

    In contrast, I have never been anle to make published sense of the chaos of North American poetry. From below the Río Bravo, that’s what they call it, without much bothering to separate Canadian from Unitedstatesian. The point is that I’m just one fish in the sea In swim in. I like who I like, but can’t separate tides from currents.

    My perception is that most of those who write about our poetry from within are basically plumping for a home team. The various academics for their pals, the marvellous Ron Silliman for langpo, glib young Kenny G for flarf. That is also the case for poet-critics writing from within the various Latin American poetries. It’s not any failing of character; it’s structural.

  • On March 13, 2010 at 6:52 pm Joseph Hutchison wrote:

    I’m with you, John, and like your notion of a structural failing. In a way this ties Sina’s post to Thom’s on careerism: the mysterious structure is at the center. I don’t think it’s the MFA system per se, or academia per se. It seems bigger. A magic box that turns everything—art, relationships, food, science, religion, etc.—into commodities. Just walk down any aisle at your nearest supermarket and you’ll see the same chaos: brilliant colors, packages with all the required labeling, everything arranged to maximize sales—not taste, and certainly not nourishment. And I wonder if the structure isn’t crumbling under its own weight. If that isn’t what the chaos is about….

    • On March 14, 2010 at 12:59 pm Wendy Babiak wrote:

      Economies, like biological organisms, can adapt and change. Some of that is happening now. Here in Ithaca there are plenty of signs that serious thought is being given to nutrition, sustainability, and fair trade practices at not only the GreenStar Co-op, but also at the big (but not box) store, Wegman’s. And this is happening in all sectors, entrepreneurs who grasp the importance of taking the whole picture into account. In his book *Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning* Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi details some of the leaders of this movement and the changes they have made, and are making.

      The same kind of thing is bound to happen to the poetry world. A successful poet is going to mean one who writes poetry that people want to read and therefore buy, and they’ll want to read it because it not only makes them feel better (by providing both pleasure and hope), but helps them understand how to BE better.

  • On March 13, 2010 at 9:47 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    That’s not a magic box, Joseph. It’s called capitalism. What you seem so astonished at was analyzed pretty well a century & a half ago in a book called Capital. Anyone who’s read even just the section on the fetish character of the commodity is completely unsurprised by the phenomena you notice. Seems willfully strange for someone to seem to desire to understand these phenomena but refuse to read Marx.

    • On March 14, 2010 at 11:03 am Kent Johnson wrote:

      >Anyone who’s read even just the section on the fetish character of the commodity is completely unsurprised by the phenomena you notice.

      In fact, Marx liked to liken the simulacral show of the commodity to magic…

      “As anyone who’s read” Marx’s writings on the fetish character of the commodity knows.

      • On March 20, 2010 at 2:34 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

        Yeah, thanks for that, Kent—it’s always an honor to have you explain to me what I already know. If you’d been reading, you’d realize that the point of that passage is to explain how the operation of commodities appears, not what it is. Or do you think that maybe Marx really thought it was magic? My point, which was obvious to everyone not reading to score cheap points, was to suggest to Joseph that there might be available explanations for the “magic box.” Your point that those explanations themselves invoke the metaphor of magic is redundant, since of course it’s the very reason the Marxian critique suggested itself to me. You act as if Joseph had merely repeated Marx because he mentioned magic—but surely even you can see that the magic without the analysis is hocus-pocus.

        • On March 21, 2010 at 5:38 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

          Michael R. wrote:

          >If you’d been reading, you’d realize that the point of that passage is to explain how the operation of commodities appears, not what it is. Or do you think that maybe Marx really thought it was magic?

          MR, I just got back from five days in Indiana and Kentucky, lots of driving, so just seeing your comment here.

          But hey, in regards to what you say– Young man, it’s YOU who seems to not be reading!

          Here’s what I wrote: “In fact, Marx liked to liken the simulacral show of the commodity to magic…” ["simulacral show of the commodity," see?]

          But all of this is sort of dumb, isn’t it.

          Let’s all get real and have an Art Strike. That’ll show ‘em…

  • On March 13, 2010 at 11:22 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    @Sina:

    Can a poet be “successful” outside of the academy?

    Sure. Just write children’s poetry. Dr. Seuss was the biggest selling author of the last century. There’s also the greeting card industry, I suppose. And, of course, there’s lyric writing.

    Beyond that, the situation is bleak. IIRC, Bukowski was the last person to eke out a living selling [what some mistook for] poetry. Before that we had Dylan Thomas. Clearly, the days of Robert Service making $500,000 from one poem are gone.

    Still, I believe an innovative poet could make a living today if able to combine poetry with another art form, as Shakespeare, YouTubers and some film makers and songwriters have done (with widely varying degrees of commercial success).

    Who, or what, is upholding the system that creates (or maintains) a hierarchy in the poetry community that sees the academic poet at the peak? Or is there really a peak? Is the latter simply an illusion that drives the MFA industry?

    It’s not so much a peak as a molehill on a prairie. The collapse has occurred on the commercial, not the literary, side. Taken together, the poets of the last half century have contributed an unprecedented grand total of zero phrases to the common culture.

    As for “the MFA industry”, I suspect that it would explode if there were even a handful of poets earning a comfortable living from their verse.

    Where did the idea that to write poetry is to teach poetry arise?

    From the aforementioned disintegration of the popular market, most notably its disappearance from newspapers and [non-literary] magazines. We still have the coaches and scorekeepers but with no one in the stands…

    To the poets of the early 20th century, and so on?

    As the last to write complex verse and among the first to write intricate free verse, Eliot was pivotal. The fear–and for some the theory–is that he set the bar too high. Versers since have preferred simpler structures. As for the rest, we’ve slipped to a point where anyone with an ENTER key is calling their text “free verse”. Note the steady decline in dramatic poetry after Shakespeare. It’s the artistic version of the macheide: “The perfection of an endeavour destroys it,” sometimes expressed as “Do you really want to follow that act?!”

    Why do so many “innovative” women writers seem to have criticism embedded in their poetry?

    Are these women writers more involved in peer workshopping than their male counterparts? If so, there’s your answer.

    …tonight yours truly reads with David Lau and Juliana Spahr.

    Knock ‘em dead, Sina!

    Best regards,

    Colin

  • On March 14, 2010 at 4:34 pm John Oliver SImon wrote:

    @Colin: “I believe an innovative poet could make a living today if able to combine poetry with another art form, as Shakespeare, YouTubers and some film makers and songwriters have done (with widely varying degrees of commercial success).”

    Thirty years ago, selling books of my own poetry on Telegraph Avenue (with a very modest degree of commercial success), I angered the distinguiehed Peter Dale Scott and Charles Muscatine with my insistence that the best poets of my generation were Bob Dylan and John Lennon.

    “You’d set up a hierarchy,” queried PDS, “with Dylan ranked ahead of Brautigan?” I assented without a qualm.

    Dylan and Lennon did exactly what Shakespeare did: insert the wild gene of poetry into a “lower,” commercial genre. How many phrases, between them, have they contributed to the common culture? Dozens, hundreds.

    But to live outside the law you must be honest. Let it be.

    • On March 20, 2010 at 8:25 am Peter Dale Scott wrote:

      Dear John,

      I don’t remember saying this, but probably would have at the time.

      Today I would agree with you and put Dylan ahead of Brautigan.

      Best wishes,

      Peter Dale Scott

  • On March 15, 2010 at 9:08 am Jordan wrote:

    Academia? Fooey. The real question is, what was T.S. Eliot’s relation to the Times? I am hoping the forthcoming multivolume collected prose will answer it.

    • On March 15, 2010 at 9:11 am Don Share wrote:

      That’s easy! As he says in “Prufrock,” he was “Almost, at times, the Fool.”

      • On March 17, 2010 at 8:24 pm Henry Gould wrote:

        But in ye olden ShakespeHearean days, the King NEEDED the Fool. & the Fool needed the King. Why? Because the King & the Fool BOTH needed the POPE. & the Pope… the Pope needed ‘NOTHER Fool… (suddenly see mental flash of Fellini’s wife… what was that film? – Sound & the Fury?)

  • On March 15, 2010 at 9:22 am vanessa place wrote:

    I love the smell of aplomb in the morning

    • On March 15, 2010 at 10:00 am Don Share wrote:

      … delicious
      so sweet
      and so cold

      • On March 15, 2010 at 10:06 am Wendy Babiak wrote:

        Am currently reading a special APR section on Williams, and it starts out with a piece by him on his practice of medicine. While teachers definitely take part in the human experience, if that’s the only facet of it being represented in our poetry, it seems incomplete.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 10:14 am Mark wrote:

    As far as poets making a living from their work is concerned, two awful writers always get left out of the discussion… Rod McKuen’s LISTEN TO THE WARM was the 20th century’s best-selling book of poetry in English, and James Kavanaugh also sold millions and millions of books. So, writing the right kind of garbage can also work.

  • On March 15, 2010 at 11:03 am Sina Queyras wrote:

    Someone just leaned over to me and said, the problem with poetry is no one wants to be the audience…

  • On March 17, 2010 at 11:35 am Don Share wrote:

    Here’s how some other writers have paid their bills:

    http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/visual/charts-graphs/day-jobs.php

    Dunno about the gutter scenario Jim paints, but I like the idea of playing Mah Jongg a la Wm. Faulkner.

  • On March 17, 2010 at 12:28 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

    Yes, and we haven’t even begun to list all the moms….

  • On March 17, 2010 at 6:59 pm Mark Wallace wrote:

    Sina, one of the things I like about poetry is that no one wants to be the audience.

  • On March 17, 2010 at 9:03 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    In order to have great poetry, there must be great audiences, said Walt Whitman, or something to that effect.

    As I understand this, he means we need :
    1) decent schools
    2) a world whose “economy” is not a constant source of conflict & anxiety

    Where do MFA programs & the “poetry world” fit into this? I have no C=C-Conceptual idea.

    There are ears, out there…. listening. Poets are born, not made. Ears. (& it’s not about being transgressive, radical, engaged, political, cool, hip, French, Spanish, Swedish, Chinese, Afro-American, MFA, Phd., multicultural, young, old, identified, marginal, victimized, edgy, formalist, textual, working-class, native, immigrant, multi, bi, bubble, postmodern, pre-modern, neo-, endo-, exo-, left, right, blue, red, purple or green. Or yellow.).

    • On March 18, 2010 at 10:07 am sassjemleon wrote:

      henry, honestly, when you really think about it, the whitman quote is almost gibberish. it means very little. in fact, whitman was a professional bullshitter who could work a lengthy rhythm and a room. audience, in fact, is irrelevant to the quality of anything. nothing usually begins with an actual audience around. much like the chicken that came before the egg, the art came before the audience. art and audience are not related as much as you may think; or, if they are, it’s only a cause and effect relationship. and the notion of greatness, in the whitmanic sense, is a myth. the learning processes and products are always more important than the audience.

      also, think of this, if the sports and entertainment industries–industries which currently harbor the largest audiences all over the world–really gave a rip about their audiences, why would they charge so much for people to attend? furthermore, if atheletes and performers actually cared about their audiences, why would they allow the price-gouging behavior to occur on a regular basis? well, the answer is this: they provide wealth for themselves, and jobs for those they employ in their athletic and artistic wakes. nothing nobler than that, ever….

      poetry–because of it’s oral traditions, has remained largely and mostly immune to all of the blatant capitalism–is not concerned about greatness. poetry audiences are concerned about poetry. always have been. greatness does not enter into the equation. greatness only enters in the completely subordinate thoughts of critics, scholars, and other barstool philosphers.

      and henry, poets, like any other person, are influenced by a combination of fate (genes) and environment (pscyho-socio-economics), which means they are neither born nor made: they come into being, some earlier than others, and at myriad levels of talent combined with coaching.

  • On March 20, 2010 at 2:38 pm Robbins wrote:

    >>poetry–because of it’s oral traditions, has remained largely and mostly immune to all of the blatant capitalism–is not concerned about greatness.

    When I get done laughing my ass off—this is the single most ignorant sentence I’ve read in months—we’ll talk about how to spell possessive pronouns.

    • On March 20, 2010 at 3:03 pm Sina Queyras wrote:

      Mr. Robbins! You’re back.

      That was my exclamation mark quota for the year.

    • On March 20, 2010 at 4:02 pm sassjemleon wrote:

      mr robbins, if i’ve made you laugh, mission accomplished. as for the typo/spelling error, keep in mind i work for a living, and i’m usually on somebody else’s clock; blog comments–from me–are usually fast, unedited, and, in the case of harriet, physically incapable of being edited–once posted–and posted without the benefit of a preview screen.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, March 13th, 2010 by Sina Queyras.