Prose from Poetry Magazine

Creative Glut

by Karl Shapiro
I was not a pioneer in the teaching of Creative Writing, I am happy to say, although I have been at it non-stop for thirty years. This puts me in the class of a Spanish-American War veteran of Creative Writing. Having taught in all of its phases, or so I think, I feel competent to pronounce upon its uses and abuses. Let me say at the outset that all writers and poets use the term Creative Writing in quotation marks, not only because it is a barbarism but because it is meaningless. For example, one never hears the term Creative Painting or Creative Music. Music is good or bad along a sliding scale of value but is nevertheless music. What then is Creative Writing? It is nothing. . . .


Creative Writing and the teaching of the national language, which I believe to be English in this country, do not deteriorate in a vacuum. Their decline is closely related to the health of all other public processes and institutions and their ability to operate effectively and with authority. All of us in the academic world have witnessed at first hand the generalized breakdown of our public as well as our institutional processes and, if we are persons of good will, have been horrified at the situation. Creative Writing, of course, is neither a cause nor an effect of the breakdown but merely a characteristic of it. One writer has said that as far as the language situation in the United States is concerned, we are already a Third World country. The situation is most acute in higher education; we bear the brunt of the responsibility for language and the language arts. The politicalization of the university during the Sixties, and not only in the United States, very nearly brought about the destruction of higher education in all the Humanities. . .


We had entered what Rimbaud had called almost a century earlier the time of the assassins. It was the greater and lesser assassinations . . . that opened the door to that state of Normlessness, which is even today our ambience. With the heating up of the civil rights movement and the heating up of an old colonial war in the southeast Asia, the burning of American cities and the freezing of the educational process, old ideologies were dusted off and the demagogues mounted their platforms. It was called the New Left and one of the by-products it spawned was Mass Poetry. In one of its aspects Mass Poetry was big show-biz, involving the radical rich and the exploiters of youth cults; their art forms were the political folk ballad and electric guitar music. In another aspect poetry became a popular or mass art in the schools and out. It was declared that poetry like politics was a mass art, and that “drastic, radical, and revolutionary change is needed in our habits, attitudes, and practices in poetry. . .”


The modality of most separatist cultural movements is hatred, and one would think they would find it difficult or impossible to find magazines or publishers to disseminate their work. On the contrary; the more violent and outrageous the poetry—if you can call it that—the easier it is to place the manuscript, even with those publishers who once based their reputations on the literary quality of their books. Today it is frequently impossible to distinguish the poetry of the foremost publishing houses from classroom Creative Writing. Given the example of such inferior standards, how can the student not have a highly exaggerated opinion of his own work? Today the same publishers, all but a tiny few, exploit these separatist and populist tendencies in gorgeous and vulgar textbooks which are bought in the millions year after year by our schools. . .


Recently a book called The Little Magazine in America attracted a surprising amount of attention in the general press, possibly because of the common concern people have shown about government inroads in their lives. One of the contributors, an editor of a little magazine who refuses help from the National Endowment of the Arts for his publication, makes a connection between the little magazine, Creative Writing, teaching in the schools, and politics. “By now,” he says, ‘literally millions of dollars have been given to the magazines. There exists a monolithic automatic filtration system connecting the schools with CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act], PITS [this all-too-true acronym means Poetry in the Schools], and the Creative Writing Fellowships, still more and more millions of dollars . . . a vast chaos of poetry palaver, misnamed renaissance: a veritable space program for the arts that involves children, state arts councils, neighborhood betterment projects, new education plans . . .”


The entire governmental effort in this direction, regardless of its good will, seems directed toward the creation of a mass amateur audience, a leveling of esthetic sensibility with the hidden premise that the pool of assent will be politically useful when it is needed. . .


The underlying premise of the pedagogy of the universal creativity is that we are all creative, if not potential geniuses that the creative spirit “may be enticed from its hiding place.” Another writer advises Creative Writing as a technique for reducing guilts and clarifying desires. Admonitions against criticism are general. Under no circumstances must errors be pointed out, lest the creative spirit shrink back into its shell. And, to be sure, some of the directives lean toward the touchy-feely experience or urge the creation of poetry to the accompaniment of percussion instruments or to tape recordings of the sound of waves. One wonders what happened to the function of the imagination . . .


The fallacy of Creative Writing is the belief in universal talent and genius. This is the view that has brought us to our present absurd condition. At the other extreme is the view that there are no mute inglorious Miltons in the country churchyards or anywhere else. My own experience leads me towards the second view: talent is rare enough, let alone genius. Popular education can do no more than to introduce the young to the world of literature and the other arts. These students will later provide the civilized and sophisticated audiences of a given culture. Poets will appear but not from the assembly line . . .


Paradoxically the Humanities must be on guard against what is called Creativity, a word which in our time has taken on the meaning of fraud. The idea of the university as a public park is defunct. Secondary education must take care of itself on the outside, where to a great extent it seems to be a police action. The university is well aware that it must stiffen its defenses against its political benefactors, well-wishers, and exploiters, the culture bureaucrats. Whether the public university can say No to these forces, as some more fortunate private universities can, I do not know. In any case, we must reset our standards .
Originally Published: August 22, 2006


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This prose originally appeared in the October 1979 issue of Poetry magazine

October 1979


 Karl  Shapiro


Karl Shapiro’s poetry received early recognition, winning a number of major poetry awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, during the 1940s. Strongly influenced by the traditionalist poetry of W. H. Auden, Shapiro’s early work is “striking for its concrete but detached insights,” Alfred Kazin wrote in Contemporaries. “It is witty and exact in the way it catches the poet’s subtle and guarded impressions, and it is a poetry full of . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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