The Shame of Being Schooled
In communities of poets, one can sometimes perceive a faint hum of grumbling ambivalence about the fact that many of us fell in love with, were made smart about, and eventually came to earn our daily bread by means of poetry in colleges and universities. On occasion I have added my own dissatisfied voice to this communal grouse. Academia. Why need the word carry such a whiff of embarrassment about it? Is it the mortification of being part of “the program era” (to refer to a book about fiction MFAs, which though I have not read, I have seen the anxiety it produces in Master of Fine Arts graduates)? Where do the poet’s negative feelings about academia come from, and what fears, aspirations, aesthetic assumptions, or even privileges might they betray?
The collective grumble—as it has a tendency to do whenever poets gather together in the academy—briefly emerged last summer at the poetry of the 1990s conference we hosted at the University of Maine. After one panel session, some white poets devoted to the New American Poetry tradition agonized about the compromise we innovators face as a result of our academic imprisonment. Then, a voice of reason. An African American poet, also associated with the New American Poetry line, began to list off the many American Black poets whose creative work thrived precisely because they were able to secure university positions, and by so doing earn their living by meaningful rather than menial work: Robert Hayden (Fisk University), Sterling Brown (Howard University), Melvin B. Tolson (Wiley College; Langston University), Gwendolyn Brooks (U of Chicago, Columbia College, etc.) Audre Lorde (John Jay, Hunter College) and on and on and on. The list is mine, not Nathaniel Mackey’s. I was not present for his gentle corrective but heard tell of it from my husband, Steve Evans, who was. Though I had heard of it second hand, I immediately recognized Mackey’s comment to be one of those perspective-shifting insights that refresh the whole environment of your mind and save you from wasting any more time hand-wringing over false issues.
Can one comment sweep away a lifetime of listening to poets’ critiques of the university and of the teaching of creative writing in particular? It’s more than that. There is also the observation that whenever my students at the University of Maine say to me: “I would like to do what you do,” I understand. From where they sit—often first-generation college students filled with economic and ecological anxiety—my job looks pretty sweet. Yes, I have sat through mind-numbing meetings and sometimes have had to edit my true heart for professional reasons, but goodness gracious, in exchange I have health insurance, considerable autonomy, and I am paid to share what I love with others.
The “false promise” or exploitation critique of graduate degrees in writing may finally be, like most store-bought dreams, self-corrective. Never attend a graduate program that does not offer support. It’s good advice, but not always forthcoming or followed. Paying customers still make up some part of the population of MFAs. But not all who pay in part or whole are dupes. People have gone into debt for worse than the opportunity to do something meaningful for a few years. Buying time away from the labor pool can be healthful and enriching. What harm if a group of people sit in a classroom and provide support and encouragement for each other’s creative output, even if they don’t all become “famous poets” or secure university positions?
Despite my current state of equanimity, any smug assertion that I have never lost a thought to worry over whether my education had harmed my vocation, or hoped that, though I was in the academy I was not of it, would strain credulity. I worried over my legitimacy in spite of my education in part because I embraced assumptions held by my chosen poetic tradition of radical Modernism and the New American Poetry (which, let it be said, I was bottle fed at university). When Jack Spicer asserted in his first Vancouver lecture that “most poets from, say, nineteen to twenty-seven that I know, who are good . . . are really against education because they know that education is essentially going to fuck them up,” I understood what he meant. Spicer—a Doctor of Philosophy in Linguistics—knew that for some poets, too much “book learning” in the wrong context risked changing what he called “the furniture in the room,” meaning what you had to work with when the muse came calling. The risk was painfully evident when, in the 1990s, what I call “theory poems” started to appear like pedantic walk-ons in the photocopied pages of self-assertive little magazines. Poems whose entire purpose seemed to be a humorless display of their author’s knowledge of theory (Marxist, Feminist, Poststructuralist, what have you) often accompanied by political despair. I wrote a few such poems myself.
Poet John Gould Fletcher’s description of Ezra Pound as a “queer combination of an international Bohemian and of an American college professor out of a job” aggregates the bizarre pastiche of popinjay and pretense that, broadly speaking, outlines one character-type of the New American Poetry. Poets both too hip and too learned to be part of the “square” conformity of New Critical professors in the academy, clutching their dreaded “keys” to the formal puzzle of morally rectifying verses, most of which were written by or in imitation of T. S. Eliot. There is also a tacit assumption that real “mastery”—of the ancient bard sort—would be undermined by a university position, as if the poet would be yoked and castrated by submitting to (there is no other relationship) an institution. Indeed, as I wrote on Harriet a year ago, prizes are “for moms and deans,” acknowledging that the very election that may earn one tenure may damage a reputation among “real” poets. Real poets. Those who feel distrustful of school and superior to the manners of the middle class, as if an amalgam of arbitrary aristocrat and temperamental artist—the two sides of the quondam patronage system—had joined together. Real poets have no masters and—with a wink at Ted Berrigan—reject any form of degree-granted mastery. Make certain your work isn’t lauded by the wrong champion or you may end up like Edwin Arlington Robinson, scorned by his contemporaries after Teddy Roosevelt gave the penurious poet a sinecure in the form of a Custom House job on Wall Street. Decidedly a death knell to the possibility of penning any future poems of note.
And if you must enter the academy, try to avoid “creative writing.” James Wright’s 1960 complaint to Robert and Carol Bly that “having sweat my guts out over a PhD. dissertation on Dickins . . . I was not, and did not intend to be, a teacher of poetry, or, ‘creative writing,’ as it is called,” could have been penned by one of my contemporaries in the 1990s. Were we all grappling with the fear that to be a poet in the academy was somehow to give up the compelling mythos of the self-educated intellectually rigorous yet authentic ex-nihilo poetic genius. Someone like Susan Howe; or Charles Bernstein, who famously did not go to graduate school; or Robert Creeley, who gamed the system when Charles Olson handed him a degree from Black Mountain College so he could teach at Buffalo; or Robert Kelly, one of the most learned men I have ever met, who chose poetry over finishing his graduate degree at Columbia, etc. All poets in the academy, all decidedly not academic poets.
There’s more to think about here. Meaningfulness. That addictive magic that got most of us into this poetic racket in the first place. Somewhere along the way—in a classroom, a library, a theatre, a bar, or lying in the sun of an open field—a poem opened up a world of meaningfulness in our minds so seductive we fell under a spell. When the magic evaporated we went looking to recreate the experience. Could it be found in the university? Unlike many realms of American culture, which are boastfully anti-intellectual and openly hostile to things poetic, the university seems to promise a utopian company for those seeking a life of the mind.
But, what’s this? Shallow-mindedness in the academy? Middlebrow seekers of safe havens with no particular interest in matters philosophical or poetic? How very dispiriting to accept that yes, there are anti-intellectuals and people who care not a whit for poems in the university as well. There are bureaucrats and do-gooders, the thoughtless and the thoughtful, utilitarians, libertarians, gurus and poetasters. And there is also a library filled with books, helpful librarians, internet access, and—at least as long as we keep “campus carry” at bay—a relatively safe and warm place to sit and read. Spicer again (Second Vancouver lecture): “As far as the business of reading—education—I think that unfortunately the universities hinder it rather than help it usually because they make reading and education a chore rather than something that you enjoy doing.” Do they? Are all poets like cats, happier with the moldy morsel found by chance than the fresh dish sat down by those who have your well-being in mind?
I was lucky in graduate school to have Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop as mentors. They provided a compelling example of how to be happily and productively in an institution: it needn’t wholly define you, neither need you incessantly kick against its strictures. Poets working in the university have jobs which give them access to unique resources—students primarily—they otherwise wouldn’t have. The living room and the classroom are continuous, but not identical, spaces with the potential to allow for real conversation. I remember the shock of the autonomy of mind and depth of reading such an approach expected of students, it was far more demanding than any traditional classroom but the meaningfulness was palpable and life-changing.
But too often academic institutions, despite having resources, a population presumably dedicated to study, and plenty of books to hand, fail to reproduce that addictive magic unleashed by the poem. Why? A bedeviling question which would much preoccupy me had I ever had such a soul-crushing experience as the guest of a university that I would contemplate a future in which I refused to ever give a reading at a university again!
Imagine that I was invited to be a visiting writer at a public university—not unlike the University of Maine where I teach—in another rural and mostly white region of the country. Imagine that upon receiving this invitation I felt chosen and privileged and special and valued. A rewarding experience awaited! How fun to be the visiting poet, for, as I observed in my June 2016 blog post “The Poet’s Two Bodies,” one often does not get to play the poet at home to the same satisfying measure as when a guest at another institution.
Should I have known it would go poorly after being collected at the airport by a graduate student who blasted music and barely spoke to me through the course of a two-hour drive? Should I have felt worried when the student dumped me at an AmericInn in the middle of nowhere and, when I inquired about food, pointed toward a large Walmart in the distance? And what if this wasn’t a disheartening prelude to an otherwise pleasant academic junket but predictive of the entire visit? What if it seemed to me that no one really knew why I was there or what to do with me, and consequently I spent most of the week sitting by myself in a coffee shop? Late nights I went seeking comfort at that distant Walmart, buying bags of Smart Food and bottles of wine to take back to my grim room? And what if I took surreal pleasure in wandering incognito among the quasi-diverse population haunting the store’s brutalist aisles?
Had I had such an experience, what would anger me most about it would be how meaningless it was. A great deal of money and jet fuel would have been expended in order to bring me into the presence of other poets so that we might discuss the art, and yet no one genuinely cared to have that conversation. I would have resented being taken out of my meaning-rich home life to cool my heels in forced purposelessness. Some details would only serve to throw the emptiness of such an experience into grotesque relief: a reading scheduled in a 100+ capacity room attended by five or six people, a sumptuous buffet wasted. A lovely home-cooked potluck before a workshop in which the visiting poet’s presence was barely acknowledged, her work never discussed.
I would have found the violation of the guest-host relationship unforgivable if it weren’t for the fact that everyone I met that week seemed so aggrieved and preoccupied with their own dissatisfaction at being in an MFA program that it seemed tantamount to cruelty to ask them to be kind. It was almost as if the entire community had collectively decided on the refusal of meaning. Meaning was elsewhere. Outside the institution. The institution was sick with prejudice and could not be trusted. But nor could it be refused. It offered funding, funding cynically accepted and then resented. The environment was toxic. But as I imagine it, there is always one kind soul. Probably, in this case, not a poet, but . . . yes, a Technical and Professional writer. She would approach me and say something like: “has anyone offered to show you around?” “Why no!” She would take a morning off to drive me into the desert to see an astonishing and magical land formation. She would give me a memory worth keeping.
Yes, universities can always do better. Yes, they can fall short when it comes to things that matter to most poets: mystery, diversity, equality, our beautiful planet. But at least they are on the whole places where we can still have conversations about these important issues. That the reactionary forces who currently have our country in thrall loathe public education is sign enough of its power to give people the tools they need to resist beliefs that are known to be harmful to all living things.
It’s good to remember that meaninglessness is not exclusively the province of universities or MFA programs: meaninglessness can happen at Walmart, at a family reunion, in airports, at weddings, in hospitals, even, dare I say it, in books of poems, should they be penned in cynicism. Like inertia, meaninglessness is always lurking. It must be recognized and actively resisted. It depends upon conformity and expands lethargy. It is selfish and sad. Its vectors can be difficult to isolate and are often unrecognized. Paranoia and resentment keep company with it. I used to think poetry alone could vanquish meaninglessness, but I’ve experienced too many poetic communities—both as student and professor—mysteriously caught in its web to believe this any longer. Well-meaning people can be powerless against it and sometimes must simply wait it out. Meaninglessness can turn a poetry workshop into a closed field of resentment, disseminate discord among the fair-minded in the name of justice, and sow ambivalence in an entire community to appease a single, suspicious soul. It disenchants. It is the opposite of poetry. So much so that when the lassitude of meaninglessness settles, rattles, and shreds communities of poets—be they in universities and colleges or not—it is, indeed, shameful.
Poet and editor Jennifer Moxley was born and raised in San Diego. She studied at University of California, San Diego; the University of Rhode Island, where she completed her BA; and Brown University, where she earned an MFA. Moxley’s poems combine lyric and innovative looks at daily life while interrogating societal...