Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part III


“Socialization of culture devalues it as a form of social values which are then held to a standard and used as an admission price for exclusionary purposes.”

                                —Hannah Arendt

Nothing Metaphysical

When did poets become teachers/educators?  And specifically of poetry.  That’s an important question because the answer might provide a clue in determining the course of Anglo American poetry (i.e., poetry in American English henceforth referred to as Americano). What are they teaching, anyway?  From all indication it appears to be a soulless freeze dried hybrid academic product.  And just what is poetics?  Aristotle’s seminal treatise on the subject has been irretrievably lost with the exception of a section on tragedy, a word that originally meant “goat song” or perhaps more properly “kid bleat” (a love song?).  Poetics seems to imply that there is some kind of gauge, a metric or system by which poetry can be proved or verified and when applied will produce a poem or poems, as if it were a science experiment.  There is no science to poetry although there may be poetry in science.  In regard to scansion, rhyme, or technique, that’s merely an application of style.  Frank O’Hara, in his Personism “manifesto”, puts it succinctly: “As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.”

Some of the most significant poets of the Americano tradition are not, for the most part, teachers.  In fact, the Americano canon is a menagerie, a roadside yard sale, consisting of a self-employed self-promoting gallant, a Boston orphan, an epileptic closet cynic, an expat art collector, an Idaho huckster, a High Church bank clerk, a Jersey sticks baby doc, a shabby Atlantic aristocrat, an insurance company executive, a radical Wobblie autodidact, a Rock River island housewife, a museum curator, a Zen monk, a bookstore owner, an irascible postal worker, a New England Irish tough, and a California borderlands refugee among others of that ilk. Some of the more contemporary of these poets may have taught workshops or held residencies or brief untenured positions in universities or colleges more in recognition of their stature than their teaching expertise.  None are, per se, professional teachers of poetry.

That is not an education. It’s an initiation. Or a Ponzi scheme. As Tom McGuane was heard to quip “I’ve done some of bad things in my day, but teach creative writing is not one of them.”

One of the gravest threats to US literature is the misguided English major/ teacher/professor/poet cum poetry workshop professional cum arts bureaucrat whose pedagogic aim is to gentrify and curate the genuine. As poetry coaches, they are intent on making the poet socially acceptable.  Their familiarity with poetry outside the classroom and echo chamber of their own Uroborean self-reference is limited to cliques and mutual admiration social networks.  Nor are they truly conversant with the world of fully engaged independent creative individuals who do not fit into off-the-shelf categories of what constitutes poetry and poets.  The educrat in poet’s trappings contributes to the gentrification (as well as commodification, professionalizing, and politicization) of poetry through the ubiquitous workshop culture (pen and ink therapy), the socio-political determined installation of poets as laureates (elevation of the banal), and the inviolable poets in the schools programs (learn to hate poetry) by deconstructing the poetic imagination so that it might be replicated in assembly line fashion. Poetry can be learned, but can it be taught?

How It All Began

In the post war era, educational institutions, from elite universities to lowly Ag colleges, realized that the US Government funded GI Bill represented a steady source of revenue.  One of the biggest sticking points was curriculum, particularly in the humanities.  Students who had been in the military were mostly savvier and demanding of the courses offered than the pampered privileged youngsters who had matriculated directly from high school to college level learning. As a result administrators began designing courses that were more inclusive and tailored to students of a varied cultural and economic class with the aim of keeping them in school for the full length of their government funded allotment. One of those areas was liberal arts, literature in particular as in the case of creative writing programs and degrees—this policy was ramped up considerably post-Vietnam to accommodate a third generation of veterans.  The universities and colleges capitalized on the success of celebrity writers retreats such as Squaw Valley with the idea that a lot more people could be dunned out of their cash (tuition) by offering a loosely structured creative writing program that essentially stroked the enrollees’ egos.  Genius. That is not an education. It’s an initiation. Or a Ponzi scheme. As Tom McGuane was heard to quip “I’ve done some of bad things in my day, but teach creative writing is not one of them.”

And that’s fine as far as it goes because most veterans are worldly wise enough to recognize bullshit when they hear it.  Eventually, once that vein was played out, the cash thirsty institutions began recruiting naive undergrads and grads into their much touted “prize winning” writing programs in the guise of offering a professional future.  Instead, perhaps as an unintended consequence, they fostered the professor-centric cult of undigested regurgitated credentialed superficiality. Why is it not common knowledge that you do not need a degree or any formal schooling whatsoever to be a poet? The caveat being once you self-nominate prepare to spend the rest of your life proving it to yourself.  Of course if you are a middle class poseur and you’re at a cocktail party or similar social mingling (less likely now) and you mention that you’re a poet, you might have to claim credentials to legitimize yourself as an educrat, a bubblegum Brahmin.  An MFA (aka Middle-class Fashion Accessory) in Creative Writing usually does the trick, a class pass for those who have yet to leave the confines of the institution.  It’s the middle-class comfort zone, professional to professional.

Many tricks of the trade are taught but hardly any emphasis is put on reading diversely in literature and other disciplines. On the other hand, it is likely workshop participants would view suggestions to read broadly and deeply as homework assignments.

What MFA writing programs produce is normal unthreatening psychobabble group think politically correct (a very slippery concept) party line monotony, the drone that controls the psyche, the consumerist lockstep mind meld that leads over the cliff. MFA poetry program Ponzi schemes are for those who can’t read or read with any discernment or are too locked into their view of themselves that they can’t make sense of anyone else. There are no jobs for poets as poets because being a poet is a job in itself.  That part is never mentioned.  Postgrad candidates are led to believe that writing poetry is an academic pursuit.  As Franz Wright once so vociferously stated, “MFA programs have turned poetry into an occupation, and a joke [and] have lowered the bar so far down anyone can trip over it and get a degree & consider themselves A MASTER OF THE ART OF POETRY.  [R]eal talent means nothing now—a business sense and niceness is all [that is required]. . .we now have more writers than readers of poetry—we have ACADEMIC POETS as THE GREAT ASPIRATION OF 21 YEAR OLD KNOW-NOTHINGS, the very enslavement real writers have been fleeing forever. . . .”  Writing programs administer the poetry dole and those fortunate enough to be employed as poets are essentially on welfare.  The subsequent proliferation of poetry pedagogues with degrees creates economic anxiety since there are hardly enough placements to accommodate even a small percentage seeking employment as poets. One of the few recourses to recouping what was invested in a creative writing degree (other than standing in line for politically apportioned fellowships such a Guggenheim, a MacArthur “genius” grant, or an NEA handout) is to replicate the process and teach others that there is perhaps economic and social value in being a poet.  “Not to belabor the point,” as Tom. Disch maintains, “The amount of money any writer earns is directly proportional to the number of readers who want to read his/her work and will buy the books.  Everything else is patronage, whether it takes the form of free vacations, university tenure at writing workshops, or Guggenheim or MacArthur awards.  There is nothing inherently wrong with patronage.  Patronage funded. . .some large percentage of all English poetry.  Now that the system has become bureaucratized, it isn’t even necessary for the poet to produce a servile dedication page; a mere acknowledgement will do.”   The carrot to this shtick is the assurance that once published alongside the utter tripe in the New Yorker or in Poetry Magazine (always a joke among the cognoscenti and now a joke with money) or in the company of the photogenic phenotypes of APR one has made their poetry bones.  As well there is the understanding that to be successful as a professional poet requires networking with likeminded professionals who meet at conferences and literary fests and share job opportunities or attend seminars on how to create those job opportunities.  There are associations to join, online chat groups, and even guilds, a rather quaint concept in this 21st century, but then poetry has always had that appeal of the antique—nostalgia for the quaint encourages the valorization of conventional modes of thought and beliefs. Thus credentialed and connected legions of earnest poetry drones flood the market with their undereducated outdated opinions. And as all those seminars had stressed, in the crowded job market of liberal arts the creation of a socially identifiable reputation delivering workshops and seminars, publishing (or self-publishing), public appearances, and social media is the path to garnering attention and making a name.  Hope is held out for a tenured position, but barring winning that lottery, there’s always teaching poetry workshops.

Can Poetry Be Taught?

Poetry workshops are a mire of compromise. The instructor, no matter how altruistic or well intentioned, faces a common conundrum in treading carefully through the minefield of expectations in offering constructive criticism while not offending the neophyte’s fragile ego.  The obvious solution is to stick to the neutral fare of technique, exercises in arcane poetic forms, writing drills so rudimentary as to be insulting, and inane prompts. Flash fiction is a development of a workshop exercise. Not to mention the misappropriated haiku and other poorly understood Japanese verse forms. It could just as well be paint-by-numbers. Most workshop instructors know better than to offer a critique beyond technique. Participants who have succeeded in following the rules are rewarded with appropriately ambiguous literary appraisals. And see you next week. Sign up for the next session. Many tricks of the trade are taught but hardly any emphasis is put on reading diversely in literature and other disciplines. On the other hand, it is likely workshop participants would view suggestions to read broadly and deeply as homework assignments. There is also the understanding that workshop attendees (knowingly or unknowingly) are there largely for the self-affirmation and positive feedback provided by therapeutic encounters. Technique, to reiterate, is all about making sure your pants fit tight and if that’s a good look for you. It defines you in the social literary hierarchy. Not to imply that from such creatively ambiguous terrain there won’t arise a few, bold and bright eyed, who will defy the conventions of group think. “The one good thing about poetry workshops,” Ted Berrigan once said, “is that you might meet someone who dislikes workshops as much as you do.”

The best workshops are the works of other writers, classical or contemporary, preferably both, given deep and dogged consideration.

What is missing perhaps is the understanding that it is up to the poet to self-educate. Aldous Huxley asserted that to be a poet one must know everything. And by “everything” the assumption is that he meant everything, not just poetry but philosophy, science, both physical and social, mythology/history/religion, the arts, and anything else that might prompt curiosity and lead to poetic discovery.  To believe a course of study or workshop techniques or theoretic conjectures learned under tutelage are sufficient in providing the requisite education is mistaken.  While what might have been provided as an education has met a standard of excellence, at best it is a signpost that indicates a steep trail ahead with the exhortation “Start Reading!”

The accrual of reading always pays dividends.  And thrills.  Parallel processing occurs during fluent reading.  There’s the automaticity of reading and the superimposed cognition that reading triggers which is the sum of all experience and somewhat akin to flying.  In a recent article on deep literacy published in the journal National Interest, Adam Garfinkle points out “The deep-reading brain excels at making connections among analogical, inferential, and empathetic modes of reasoning, and knows how to associate them all with accumulated background knowledge.” Reading inspires the formulation of concepts, the recognition of associative relationships, and presents the reader with complex intellectual assemblages as holographic abstractions requiring a certain literate and mental agility to comprehend. “If you do not deep read, you will not cultivate a capacity to think, imagine, and create,” says Garfinkle. As well, the more you read the more widely you will read, acquiring vocabularies and the concepts associated with varied and challenging disciplines beyond the ken of literature.  This is the kind of work involved in getting to know Huxley’s everything.

Reading is nothing without writing as writing is obviously nothing without a reader. The best workshops are the works of other writers, classical or contemporary, preferably both, given deep and dogged consideration. It involves questioning and critique (emotionally intellectually), consulting the opinions of others (reviews critical essays), plumbing the differences and how they might be applicable to creating a cogent poem, yet at the same time remaining skeptical and unconvinced of all conclusions. This practice allows for a continual tilling and reseeding of the intellect through deep reading within or outside of the discipline.  If that sounds like the recipe for autodidactism, it is. But it’s not really as bad as it sounds even if Bourdieu contends that autodidactism is illegal (a kind of trespassing on the reserve of the academic), essentially an unlicensed practice.  He also claims that the autodidact is a danger to society.  An outlaw.  That sounds remarkably close to Baudelaire’s definition of poet.

The Local Laureate

In some cultures the title of Poet Laureate was once conferred upon a poet as recognition of a lifetime of accomplishment in the literary arts not as a seal of approval from the Chamber of Commerce or some other provincial body of self-promoting do-gooders.  Often laureates held a position in the royal court, called upon to commemorate with praise song notable ancestors or victories in battle.  Once appointed, poet laureates retained the title for the rest of their days.  Depending on the age of the poet designated at the time of the honor, the term of office could last a few years or a few decades.  The nomination eventually became a national honor, designed to draw attention to the excellence of its literary acumen.  Years might pass after the death of a reigning laureate before another candidate was put forward such was the seriousness and gravity of the position.  In the US, the position is Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress and the term is for one year.  As Poet Laureate, Robert Frost read a poem at Kennedy’s Inauguration.  Maya Angelou at Clinton’s.  Cassandra should have spoken at Trump’s.

To echo Rexroth, children don’t need or necessarily want poetry. They want real world experience, driving lessons and sex education.

However now it seems that every municipality or county jurisdiction has its own local laureate and they are cycled through as regularly as an elected office.  County Boards of Supervisors rubber stamp a proclamation, or the mayor announces the appointment in a public session.  The sponsors of the candidate are usually associations of allied interests in promoting the arts as a mark of local culture achievement.  Those put forward represent a median of accomplishment, not dragon breath arrogants or flamboyant exhibitionists or even renowned practitioners, but genteel wordsmiths whose goal is to render the savage breast into a politically correct coma.  They are of that class of poetry technocrats—technocrats of the profane.  This provides yet another indication that the indie generation of poets is being paved over by the workshop generation.  Poetry’s authenticity is steadily undermined by zealots and the disingenuous who regard adherence to their banal party line as the enforcement of social values.  The position also serves as an ideal platform for arts administrators and the socially ambitious in the guise of poets who want to hold the reins of trend.  The fashion of cardboard cutout poetry figures represents a further gentrification of Americano poetry.

Poets In The Schools

Poets In The Schools began as a government funded make work program for unemployable English majors and has over its long tenure reinvented itself in an institutional role as the source of poetry orthodoxy and, unfortunately in some cases, represents the worst tendencies in US poetry.  Poets In The Schools is unassailable and sacrosanct.  Who would think of bad mouthing the teaching of poetry to children?  The program is virtually its own industry, aka The Poets Employment Bureau. Naturally, beside its pedagogic mission, its charge is to keep poets (real or assumed) working, in effect usurping the primary teacher’s prerogative (but who welcomes the break) and encompasses a large demographic of self-esteem do-gooder educrats. Some years back, in the early eighties, Kenneth Rexroth spoke to an educational conference up in Black Bart Country where he expressed doubt about the effectiveness of exposing children to poetry to an audience of educators and was soundly excoriated.  He was right but the self-righteousness of vested interests has its own truth.

The avant-garde has been erased, the revolution will be televised, and the genius of the poète maudit demoted to a romantic modernist eccentricity.

But why would anyone want to say bad stuff about poets in the schools? They are the many, scores upon scores of dedicated individuals, messengers of the poetry good vibe. Not all are, strictly speaking, good poets, although they are considered good enough poets in the consensus of their association. Their devotion to poetry is uncontested as are their good intentions.  However, the road to bad poetry is paved with good intentions. To echo Rexroth, children don’t need or necessarily want poetry. They want real world experience, driving lessons and sex education. If they are taught to write a convincing sentence, organize a reasoned argument or expression through language, and, most importantly, read, all of which is under the primary teacher’s purview, they will write poetry if they are so inclined and when they get around to it. Word play with the poetry lady or man can only serve to further gentrify the essence of poetry and caricature the poet.  Poetry is not a spelling bee or display of forensic argument or even an entry in the talent show. There must be a special place in Dante’s Inferno for those who teach children bad poetry.

Poetry Americano

The Americano canon is thin, padded by a captive Anglo American literary establishment obliged to an alien topography of the psyche.  That musty mind set dominates the curriculum.  And that hegemony is what enraged Williams so about Eliot’s capitulation.  It is what is being taught and written and promoted and sanctioned as US literature while genuine Americano voices are viewed as oddities and rustic outliers appreciated best when they’ve been dead a century or so.  Americano writers, poets in particular, present an awkward challenge.  They can’t be taught. How do you teach Dickinson or Whitman or Stein using outmoded mindsets and concepts?  Each Americano poet requires a unique approach to sidestep the overarching domination of the imperial glot. As Poe presciently observed almost two hundred years ago, the Brits may have lost the war (1812), but they will try to maintain their hegemony through the common language.  “Hegemonic culture propagates its own values and norms so that they become the “common sense” values of all and thus maintain the status quo,” Antonio Gramsci emphasized in a different context but one that surely applies to the gentrification of US poetry, “Hegemonic power is therefore used to maintain consent to the capitalist order, rather than coercive power using force to maintain order. This cultural hegemony is produced and reproduced by the dominant class through the institutions that form the superstructure.”

Poetry must resist commodification but by doing so makes itself all the more attractive as an object of desire.

The world of poetry is divided by factionalism, regionalism, and provincialism. The social fragmentation into fractal specializations defining schools and ideologies is the background noise against which it operates. The art of letters has essentially become one of movements rather than of solitary literary accomplishment. The exclusive group’s purpose is to marginalize everyone else through social strictures and put forward their own self-righteous brand.  As well, there are warring camps of faux decadent know nothings.  Although the friction of competing dogmas is characterized as vituperative conflicts such as the Language School against everyone else or animosity against the “self-aggrandizing” New York Poets or Conceptualists shooting themselves in the foot (a kind of parodic flagellation) or the New Formalists or the New Old Formalists or the Anti-Formalism Formalists or any and all institutions and organizations such as the Poetry Foundation (shudder),  they are hardly more than risible snits, historical (and hysterical) footnotes to a comedy of egos.  For those who take it seriously, it is as Michael Boughn put it in a seminal piece from the soon to be shuttered Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, “The war is about resistance to the displacement of becoming-with(in)-poetry by being-over-poetry, a change that quantifies it, turns it into a product that, if it meets certain understood standards and regulations, can be exchanged for a variety of rewards.”

There has always been a push to make poetry all tidy and neat and palatable to the undereducated, a consecrated mediocrity as a necessary social privilege making the case for what Arendt claims as exclusionary values. As Boughn points out “the forces leveling the world through the cultural economy of general equivalence and universal commodification successfully reoccupied poetry’s upper social orders in the US and integrated them into its institutional structure.”  The avant-garde has been erased (or co-opted), the revolution will be televised, and the genius of the poète maudit demoted to a romantic modernist eccentricity.  And who cares? Apparently no one, as a quote that stirred up the same entrenched place holders about a decade ago stated, “Poetry in America is widely perceived as useless, even by poets themselves. It is barely commodifiable.  Nonproductive, degenerate.  Bilge and dregs, poetry is the excrement of civic life.”

Because poetry is viewed as a standard of ultimate cultural achievement, or as George Steiner put it, “in some ways the highest human accomplishment, the one most imitative of the original enigma of creation,” there is the belief that it can be brought to bear as some kind of cudgel or silver bullet to vanquish our worst human tendencies from a moral high ground.  The public face of poetry is too often rhetoric in disguise.  The poem itself is an ineffectual chimera that can be as intangible and as disturbing as a dream.  It does not outrage our sense of justice so much as it leaves an indelible otherworldly impression on our psyche.  Poetry must resist commodification but by doing so makes itself all the more attractive as an object of desire. As far as being nonproductive and degenerate, the question has to be for whom and in what context?  And that poetry is the excrement of civic life, Jack Kerouac and Jean Genet, both said it long ago, “poetry is shit.”

Language as poetry is niche determining.  It is a metaphoric process in which the comfort of perfected stasis tries to maintain balance in the face of unexpected revelation at the turn of a phrase. How language is represented has always been a point of departure in its dissemination.  The shift from oral to written encountered a whole new universe.  Surface impressions of ink or paint as symbols depicting thought or consciousness have been digitized for instant evaluation and approval.  The universality of the social dimensions of that media dwarfs everything ever conceived in the transmission of information as it plugs into the cosmic wave function.  In times of enforced isolation, the grid (nodes) will determine the literary narrative.  Diluted and commonplace poetry will have to find new ways of becoming original.

All of this comes full circle, however, that even the most sophisticated can be provincial in their cultural appraisals. It is up to the membership to determine if this lengthy three part report is a legitimate gripe or a fit of pique. Yet here it is, and to paraphrase the caution once proffered to the editors of Life Of Crime (the precursor to this blog) by the late great Ted Berrigan, “Post this and duck!”

Submitted to the Membership
by the Parole Officer

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2 Responses to Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part III

  1. Pingback: Provincialism and the Gentrification of Anglo-American Poetry, Part III [link] | Dispatches Poetry Wars

  2. Gorse says:

    Has the author read Anis Shivani’s “Against The Workshop”?
    Also an old collection of mostly Canadian verse: “The Blasted Pine: An Anthology of Satire, Invective and Disrespectful Verse.”
    Both touch on many of the same subjects you bring up in your three part essay.
    I recently dipped my toes into my local poetry scene as I’ve been a lifelong hobbyist writer and reader and was looking for some new energy from my community, to put it baldly ha ha.
    Then I remembered why I never connected with the crowd: it was award season so of course everything is about MFAers winning an award and any media that is about the nomination and or win. Sigh. And social media accounts of poets who apparently watch more TV than read . . . all in all a disheartening experience.
    I also recently read a Facebook exchange between two poets I admire and their insensible political correctness shocked me.
    I believe strong writing and strong minds can still prevail and could connect with people again but it would take rather remarkable folk and where are they gonna come from?

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