Dear Emily Post-Avant,
I was wondering if you’d seen the Harriet post by Jennifer Moxley, published on April 23rd, I believe it was. The piece doesn’t mention Dispatches from the Poetry Wars, but it’s clearly directed at people who constantly gripe about the new “careerism” and “professionalization” of poetry, like you and your friends do.
Here are the first couple of paragraphs from Moxley’s essay:
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.
OK, that’s it. I’d say Moxley makes a pretty tight point, no? Since you seem to be a know-it-all, I look forward to your reply.
–A Tenured Teacher in Tulsa
Dear A Tenured Teacher in Tulsa,
DPW or anyone associated with it wouldn’t be mentioned in Moxley’s article, obviously. The article appears at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog.
And hey, Okie dumpling, come on, do I really come off like a know-it-all? OK, so maybe a little. But how can one be a personal advice columnist for poets and not come off a little bit like a know-it-all? You know? (By the way, did you notice that the Paris Review has ripped me off with their new “Poetry RX” series? Now those youngsters are examples of pretentious know-it-alls, I have to say. Not quite as much yet as the admittedly brilliant Anthony Madrid, with his fluorescent codpiece, but almost.)
Anyway, Nathaniel Mackey is one of the giant living poets of the United States. He has also contributed to Dispatches from the Poetry Wars on a few occasions. He was instrumental in helping gather contributors for our massive anti-Trumpist anthology, Resist Much, Obey Little. Frankly, I much doubt his general view on the matter of poetry and its deepening institutionalization is at all the same as that of Jennifer Moxley’s.
The first thing I’ll say is that it’s a really big stretch to propose these writers were creatively or poetically “saved” by their employment, full or part-time, in Academia. The question is somewhat begged: How do we figure the countless great poets throughout history who produced their work with no connection to the Bursar’s Office in Old Main? Add them up and you are talking of at least 95% of the canon. Was the MLA the enabling cradle of the Harlem Renaissance? Was the Black Arts Movement energized by sabbaticals? Was the Academy the stimulating habitus of the New American poets? On and on.
Actually, it’s just as easy to answer Moxley’s anxious exercise in self-exculpation with some specific facts: None of the writers she mentions (with the exception of Brown) spent most of their life in school (unlike most folks in the U.S. poetry field today). They lived and worked and organized in an unprotected world full of triggers with no warnings, and their poetry came out of those sources of life. Even Brown came from a family recently liberated from slavery, so if he wants to go to school, more power to him, I say.
You see, the real issue, actually, is not whether a poet has a university job, or not. It’s whether or not a poet’s experience of the world has largely taken place inside the walls of schools. That’s why Amiri Baraka, for example, who taught at a few colleges for some years as visiting writer, could never be called an “academic” poet. Same with Charles Olson. Or Anne Waldman.
Gwendolyn Brooks: After her early educational experiences, Brooks never pursued a four-year college degree because she knew she wanted to be a writer and considered it unnecessary. “I am not a scholar,” she later said. “I’m just a writer who loves to write and will always write.” She worked as a typist to support herself while she pursued her career. Hardly your typical academic poet.
Robert Hayden: He attended Detroit City College, later called Wayne State University, with a major in Spanish and minor in English. He left in 1936 during the Great Depression, one credit short of finishing his degree, to go to work for the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers’ Project, where he researched black history and folk culture. Hardly your typical academic poet.
Audre Lorde: Her job was as a librarian in Public Libraries. She continued writing, and became an active participant in the gay culture of Greenwich Village. She furthered her education at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree in library science in 1961. Hardly your typical academic poet.
Melvin Tolson: He entered local politics and served three terms as mayor of Langston from 1954 to 1960. In 1947, Tolson was accused of having been active in organizing farm laborers and tenant farmers during the late 1930s (though the nature of his activities is unclear) and of having radical leftist associations. Hardly your typical academic poet.
OK, this know-it-all is signing off for now. I’m off to the hills, to hunt for morels!