More Academic Bashing: The Kids Want More
I admire David Mason’s article “The Limits of the Literary Movement” in the December ’07 issue of AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle. Mr. Mason rightly calls our attention to the injustice of off-handedly lumping poets according to whatever school of poetics they practice or are historically associated.
I, like him, have shuddered at the indiscriminate and uncritical dismissal or celebration of writers by those vaguely familiar with the poet’s work or the tenets of the school or movement under question.
At one end of the school yard, the classically prepped-out New Formalists get teased for their suspenders, bow-ties, and hoop skirts; the ever unpopular nerdy L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets are taunted by everyone for their pen-holders and corduroy jackets; the Elliptical poets swoon in black leather mini-skirts and lace-up boots; while the deceased or aging Beats, like the big brother who keeps getting left back in school, remain somehow cool in beret, ascot, and Gauloise in hand and are feted everywhere for their perennial defiance and adolescent petulance. Distinction gets lost when we brusquely assign writers to their corner of the schoolyard.
What is regrettable, then, is the detection of Mr. Mason’s equally abhorrent anti-academic rhetoric which serves as the backdrop to his essay. Too bad such a finely argued article disappoints because it proceeds with its own laziness of categorization and misfirings, that in itself, is overly familiar, clichéd, unoriginal, done-to-death. Mr. Mason, like a modern-day Pre-Raphaelite (get it?), peppers his article with such utterances as:
1. Literary movements are trumped up to make careers or make life easier for professors.
2. The identification of the literary movement makes his job too easy, inviting smugness instead of criticism.
3. Nowadays, some academic critics run around proclaiming that narrative is dead, or at least uninteresting, but must we believe what they say?
3. They make for a tidy syllabus. But in the end they have precious little to do with poetry.
I often wonder about the intention and question the authority of those who can with such ease invoke suspicious remarks about such a lowly-figure in our society as the under-paid university professor. How can one attempt to discredit those who make wholesale comments by making one’s own wholesale comments? It does not pan-out. The professor in this country is that guy on the beach who gets sand kicked in his face, just for being near the ocean reading some “text,” (say Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations) that give most of us a headache at first glance of the opening paragraph.
This semester, I happen to teach 20th Century Poetry Movements, (Objectivists, Black Mountain, Black Arts, Ellipticians, Oppositional Poets, all) I do so not for the purpose of endowing my students with short-hand, neat criticism, as Mr. Mason suggests, but to introduce and acquaint them with the vibrant, philosophic questions of language, the cultural role and social position of poets and poetry, as well as the influential ideas around meaning and art-making as contained in manifestoes, essays, pioneering poems, and faux-documents written by some of the most interesting personages that have shaped contemporary poetry and debates today. My students most respond to the socio-political and aesthetic ferment of the last century which gave rise to the rich flourishing of poetry, worldwide. The battery of quizzes, reading assignments, exams, and group projects is designed to engage their imaginations and critical faculties, and to empower them to view language and poetry not as some boutique art-form practiced by the culturally privileged or society’s discontent, but as an important site where art, literature, and power are most contested between the generations and those passionate about all of the above.
I know Mr. Mason feels unfairly categorized as a New Formalist, as he plainly states, and comes to the defense of some important poets (including my fellow, fabulous blogger A.E. Stallings), but his carping seems once again another veiled attempt to supplant one ideology with another. His article would have been more persuasive, if he had avoided his camp’s, – who all convene, I think, at the West Chester Poetry Conference, as he tells us – (get it?) standard tactic of taking swipes at university professors, creative writing teachers, critics, and MFA programs. I am in agreement with Dan Chiasson in his response to David Orr’s review of Susan Stewart’s deservedly recognized and wonderful book Columbarium in Poetry (August 2004): "Can we stop arguing over modernism and post-modernism, the academic and the dopey, the raw and the cooked, etc., and please arrive at new questions, interesting and probing enough to fasten the judgments that result to their objects?"
Schoolyard fights are boring. The kids want more.
Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...