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“I do not know what you think of departments of English, but the good ones are not random collections of tedious pedants…”
So wrote Yvor Winters, who knew a tedious pedant when he saw one, to the father of an aspiring poet way back in 1954; he continued:
“[English departments] are rather carefully selected groups of historical scholars who work in fairly close collaboration with each other. Such a group, in two or three years of instruction, can save a student like [your son] (no matter what his genius) fifteen years of labor, simply by giving him a succinct outline of their own work in background materials and in historical outlines. And without these background materials and historical outlines, he will misunderstand at least in some measure, and often in a large measure, almost anything he may read; and if he is a poet, his development may be irremediably retarded… One’s scholarship improves one’s poetry; one’s poetry improves one’s scholarship. It is a unified life. Furthermore, like life in a law office, it is life; it is not an ivory tower. I have never really encountered an ivory tower, any more than I have encountered a unicorn or a sea serpent. And my acquaintance has not been limited: in my time, I have known Stock Exchange brokers (my father was one), Board of Trade brokers (my father was one), prize fighters (Leach Cross, for example), actors (Otis Skinner and a few others), coal miners (for two years I lived in a couple of coal camps in northern New Mexico), and so on. All of these people in retrospect impress me as having been more isolated from Real Life than I am. In fact they impress me as having been very severely isolated; I have seen a lot, and I talk daily with learned and brilliant men, most of whom have seen a lot. The only penalty one pays for this life is that one has to teach; but if one likes to teach—and I confess that teaching amuses me infinitely—it is no penalty. I find myself charmed by the intelligent young, just as I am charmed by beautiful puppies.”
You can read the whole remarkable letter, and another one as well, by clicking here.
Well, it’s August… almost back-to-school time, which causes me to reflect on the whole schools for (and schools of) poetry thing. There’s something quaint about the spectacle of Winters coaching would-be poets; and yet in some ways these fifty years later it seems as if not much has changed, beyond the sheer numbers of aspiring poets. Even so, I was surprised and fascinated to learn this weekend that Seth Abramson, a poet who has documented the phenomenon of writing programs in more depth than anybody around, has helped start up a consulting group – which you can read about here – to guide writing students to their educations. As he explains on his own blog:
“In making the decision to start ALC, I thought about all the poets I knew who did one-on-one tutorials and private workshops as side-jobs (for money). I thought of all the undergrads who pay thousands of dollars to take poetry courses during which their one-on-one time with the professor is limited to 2-3 hour-long meetings a semester. I thought of Kaplan. I thought of Sylvan. I thought of Princeton Review and BarBri, and the $1,000 I happily paid the latter (and would gladly pay again). I thought, too, of the exorbitant rates that educational consultants generally charge–$150/hour is a pretty typical figure–and how no one can afford to pay that much unless their parents are rich, given that most consultations span ten billable hours or more. I thought of all the doctors, lawyers, nurses, social workers, and journalists who’ve e-mailed me over the past few years saying–in so many words–that they don’t know any poets, that they write privately on their own time, and that they want to make a commitment to themselves as writers by applying to an MFA program (for the time to write, that is) but they don’t know the first steps to take toward that goal. I thought of the fact that MFA acceptance rates–which most programs had intentionally and systematically concealed from their applicants for nearly seventy years–had now been revealed, as a result of research, and that they indicated that (unbeknownst to applicants all these years) MFA programs were harder admits than medical schools…”
My own early education in poetry was pretty naive, by comparison. The first living poet I ever saw was Allen Ginsberg, when he came to Tennessee for a reading. He opened by chanting for a good long while; then he played the harmonium while singing Blake’s poems; then he read his own. In preparation for the reading, I’d bought a copy of Howl and Other Poems – no easy thing to do in a Southern town with about two bookstores in it at the time, and before Amazon was a gleam in its founder’s eye. The only poetry I’d ever known was the stuff you’re taught – and taught to ignore – in high school: harmless, syrupy anthology stuff, although even “Howl” is in anthologies for schoolkids these days. It took me a while to realize that there even were living poets, because I’d only been told of the dead ones! And once I smacked myself on the forehead and figured out that of course there were living poets, I imagined that they were all ghostly gray-bearded men, 3D images of, say, Whitman or John Greenleaf Whittier (I was not to meet a female poet until I was out of college). Well, Ginsberg had a beard, alright, but he was the liveliest most exciting man e’re I laid eyes upon. I fell in love with him like almost everybody else did in those days, and resolved to escape the South and go to New York – which I did, in due course, at the age of 17, partly at his invitation (literally: scrawled on a scrap of paper).
Long story short: libraries. I learned about poetry by reading my way through two small libraries while holding down shit jobs, which come to think of it, didn’t suck so bad if they afforded me access to books and time to sneak in the reading of poetry. I read widely and recklessly; it was fun. And because nobody ever checked out the poetry books, and as libraries used to get actual funding to buy them, I had some mighty fine resources at my disposal. When library funding was flush and books were cheap, man, those libraries bought everything! Full runs of Kayak! Lovely small press titles! Collected poems of everybody! After a while, I added books of criticism to my diet, and those turned out – again, by chance – to be by the likes of Winters – who shocked me as he turned against Hart Crane!, Hugh Kenner on the “Pound era,” and Donald Davie, on everybody. Davie appealed to me most, and so as a young sprout I imbibed his notions of modern poetry, which leaned toward poets I immediately came to treasure – and still do: Bunting, Niedecker, in particular were revelations. His qualified approval of Olson coincided with my inevitable discovery of Eliot, Pound, and Williams; it was a short leap from Ginsberg to O’Hara, Koch, and all the folks in The New American Poetry. For a while, I couldn’t get Paul Blackburn outta my thick head, and wrote poems with too many indents in them; I still get misty-eyed reading him. What was clearly missing from this diet was work by Yeats, Hardy, Frost, Larkin, Lowell – you know, the non open-ended guys. But it so happened that I’d stumbled upon the goofy 1945 edition of Auden’s collected poems, in which the poems were arranged alphabetically by title (some of the titles concocted only for this purpose). A library had withdrawn it in favor of a later version, so I got it for a handful of change at a book sale. It was the oldest book I’d ever owned, and with its faded blue boards and whiffy odor, it was a treasure. Nothing opens the young poet’s eyes like pre-fifties W.H.A.! Then… oh, snap – Byron & Keats & Hardy entered the picture bigtime. From then on, my two favorite poets were Auden and O’Hara, and I carried their books with me everywhere – earning me some funny looks, because poetry simply did… not… exist… among the people I encountered in my hometown, which brings me back full circle, to Seth’s description of hooking people up with educations.
Not having been an English major myself, I neither benefited from nor was harmed by a curriculum in poetry. Nobody encouraged me, but then no one told me what to read or like, or tried to convince me that there were “schools” or “kinds” of poetry; if anybody had, I’d probably have found the whole thing a torment, and I’d have gone (as was my plan) to broadcasting school as did my best friend, Mountain, who quit high-school to work in radio. Instead, a kink was put in me by verse, as Kavanagh calls it.
Yet people don’t want kinks, they want credentials and mentoring, which is understandable. So…
From whom do we do our learning? What is it we hope to learn??