Dear Dispatches:

In her defense of the poet in the university, Jennifer Moxley inadvertently gives evidence against her own cause. Her use of Nathaniel Mackey’s point that university positions have supported and benefitted poets is clearly true, (no matter what those positions might be, thank you very much, Emily Post-Avant) and her entire essay is a meditation on how her position in the university system has affected her life as a poet. This seems to be mostly a beneficial one, albeit with a few annoying encounters with Walmarts and apathetic Midwestern graduate departments notwithstanding.

I was struck by how little Moxley talked about students, briefly mentioning them as wide-eyed naïfs dreaming of their own academic positions, or as “[p]aying customers …mak[ing] up some part of authentic ex-nihilo poetic genius.” Genius aside, she somewhat blithely expects those customers to fork over their dough so the prof can enjoy some health insurance. Here, we see the real problem of the poet in academia: not an allegiance to some arcane theory corrupting the poetic landscape but rather a sense of transactional entitlement. That the poet is not there to teach, not there to improve the lives of the “customers,” paying or non-paying, not to develop a community of readers of poetry, or for that matter better poets. It seems instead that the purpose of the university hiring a poet is to provide a “meaning-rich home life” in which the poet can write.

It is true: the job of a poet is to write poems. The job of a teacher is to teach. The former is really not a job at all, but an occupation, an endeavor, a calling (unless one is contracted by the king to write some couplets for state occasions or something.) The latter clearly is a job, and that job brings with it a responsibility to one’s students along with the health insurance.

There is no doubt that the two occupations can coexist; my own job as a high school teacher deeply informs my creative work, and I have been fortunate enough to make some of that work a part of my teaching. However, there is a great danger in conflating the two. Being a professor, or a librarian or having any job at a university affords a great opportunity to engage in one’s own creative work with some degree less anxiety than others who are not so fortunate. For many who achieve these positions, their creative work played a great role in securing that position in the first place, and going forward, producing work is part of the expectation those institutions hold for their faculty; but, that is not the work of the “poet in the academy.” Like the rest of us, academy poets have day jobs, and theirs is to teach their students. I do not doubt that Professor Moxley does a fine job of teaching her students, or that she takes that task seriously. I do, however question how easy it is to lose sight of that task when we all spend so much time considering what the academy does to/for the poet, and so little thinking about what the poet may/should have to teach others about poetry.

Making poems is difficult, important work. Like many difficult, important, even necessary things, the doing of them does not create a debit in the account book of the world at large. No one is ever owed anything for having written a poem: not a job, not a book deal or even a book report. Even imagining something as small as a thank you diminishes the dignity of the task and the authority of the poem.

The more we create a system in which poets think first about poetry as a means to the end of embellishing  an academic résumé, the more we create a culture in which the poet is dependent upon an institutional infrastructure, both for their health insurance as well as their exclusive readership. Professor Moxley has let slip, I think, how much this system has created an attitude of “What about me?” that has infected the landscape of poetry in general. Instead of thinking about what drives students to want to write, too many poet-professors can only think of poetry as something for them, that they do, the thing that has brought them to the place where students sit before them, daydreaming, as the poet-professor daydreams of those same students’ career jealousy. It’s no wonder so many take sabbaticals to talk about how irrelevant poetry is to the world at large.

Poets: if you have jobs, as professors, as janitors, as farmers, even as insurance salespersons—good for you! Do your jobs well. Bring your poetry into your jobs and your jobs into your poetry. Just remember, being a poet makes you more of a person: more aware, more involved, more vocal, just more. Being a good poet probably makes you a better janitor, or cop, or bus driver, or even professor. But, if you happen to be a professor and a poet, try and remind yourself once in a while that being a poet is not the same as being a professor, and just like the poet-janitor you see in the halls, you have some other things to do that cover the rent and take care of the old health insurance.

– John Rigney