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Category Archives: Education

Teachers and Students and Killers

at sign AROBAZE

Yesterday, a colleague of mine received a disturbing email from a man who had been urgently interested in enrolling in UCF’s MFA program. In her role as advisor to our current MFA students, she’d been providing him information about our program and advice about applying to it. I had also exchanged a few emails with him, as he was determined to enroll in a course I’m teaching in the spring semester.

The issue is that this fellow wanted to take a graduate course in creative nonfiction this spring. We do sometimes allow “nondegree” students to take our grad courses when there is space in them and they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge and background to work at the graduate level.

However, this person had the odd idea that if he took one such course, he would somehow qualify to get a tenure-earning job in creative nonfiction writing that is currently open at an area college. Now, I’m not at that college, but I know a bit about how these things go, and, of course, that’s probably not going to happen no matter how brilliant this man might be. In fact, over at that college, a pile probably two feet high is already accumulating with applications from across the country—from people who already have MFAs and PhDs, publications in the field, even books, and time spent teaching writing at the college level. In spite of clearly being an intelligent man with two advanced degrees already, this guy has none of that. I told him that one graduate course would not likely qualify him for this job.

He also didn’t seem to fully understand what creative nonfiction is, needless to say a serious deterrent to gaining a job in the area. My colleague had given him a few copies of The Florida Review so he could read some examples, and when he emailed me to request entry into my course, he sent me a manuscript that seemed entirely fictional, though perhaps heavily autobiographical. When I noted this to him, he argued, and told me that if Tim O’Brien is considered to be writing creative nonfiction, then so is he. I responded that most of O’Brien’s work is considered fiction. Perhaps I should have added, “as is noted on the ISBN page of each of his recent books.”

Eventually, after numerous emails where he was told that a) a committee has to meet to make admissions decisions, b) we only consider applications in the spring term for admission in the fall, c) my course is full and we won’t crowd a class for a nondegree student, and d) we can’t make exceptions, even for him, he became enraged.

In the email he sent my colleague, he noted that he had made it “crystal clear” that he “needed to begin in Spring. … I told you that this was the passage to the teaching job at [x college]. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be caught dead in the creative writing program at UCF.” He went on to add, among other insults (“inconceivable lack of competence”) and threats (“letter for your permanent file”), that “I have had the benefit of more and better education than you or anyone in your department and I was treated like an ugly stepchild. So,” he added, “take your stupid MFA and shove it up your ass.”

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Amish schoolhouse, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting just a few days before, this man’s email gave me a gooey knot in the pit of my stomach. After I read it and tried to comfort my upset colleague via email, I went back into the living room where my husband was watching the latest Batman movie, and said, “Maybe you should give me a bullet-proof vest for Christmas.”

I don’t mean to accuse this particular man of murderous intentions. Perhaps, in fact, those who take advantage of language to vent their spleen are less likely to do it with weapons.

Maybe it made me queasy because I regularly teach Jo Ann Beard’s powerful essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” which chronicles the 1991 mass murder of five at the University of Iowa by a graduate student who felt he hadn’t been properly honored for his work. Perhaps it is because the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007 was a creative writing student. Or that in 1996, while I was a graduate student at Penn State, a rare female shooter (and not a student) set out to massacre as many as she could on campus; fortunately, she didn’t have an automatic weapon, and her having to pause to reload allowed a young man to disarm her before she could kill more than 1 and injure another.

There’s also the fact that in 1989 when Marc Lépine singled out and killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, just because they were women who dared to study engineering, I was beginning to contemplate a teaching career. And that, although I had never driven past the particular Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County where in 2006 a truck driver went in and lined up the girls (not the boys), shooting 11, killing 5, and leaving 1 severely disabled, I had frequently driven past several such schoolhouses on my trips back and forth between State College and Lewisburg in the couple of years before I moved to Florida.

It’s not that only teachers and professors or only females are targeted in these attacks, though often they are the focus of rage. Sometimes men and boys are killed, sometimes it is even disgruntled professors who do the killing, as in the cases of the University of Alabama in 2010 and Concordia University in 1992. It’s not even as though all such shootings happen at schools—they happen at movie theaters, at houses of worship, at other kinds of places of employment.

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Still, teachers at all levels from elementary school to university graduate programs sustain irrational and unhinged attacks of all kinds. Usually, we take this verbal kind with a grain of salt because it happens so frequently.

We are seen as—and sometimes actually are—the keepers of the keys. We give grades and report cards, we evaluate other human beings, we determine who passes to the next level and who has to try again, we decide sometimes that a child or an adult doesn’t merit a degree or a certification or a diploma. There’s room for a lot of resentment about that, even though most of us go into our careers in order to foster learning and help people make the most of their lives.

Most of the time, we do help people make the most of their lives. This man’s email juxtaposes itself against the backdrop of physical violence in Connecticut, but also against the background of my own preparations this week as I produce a binder to apply for a teaching award. In front of me I have all the notes of thanks, all the end-of-term reflections and finished projects that show how much my students have indeed learned, the list of my undergrads who have gone on to prestigious graduate programs elsewhere. That is good and satisfying. I hang on to that.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

Self-Esteem Shop photographed by Dave Hogg, Royal Oak, Michigan, 2005.

The experts say that there has been no significant rise in the number of such rampage killings in the past decade.

Yet, I do sense changes, if not in the threat of death, then in the general demeanor and respect of my students and others I encounter in my work world. It’s not that I didn’t ever encounter over-demanding or angry students at the beginning of my career. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older and wish I got concomitantly more respect. Or maybe it’s just that behavioral paradigms are shifting to something more casual. Or that people all around are stressed by the struggling economy. Maybe it’s also that in the world of writing (and so many other realms), we are now all expected to be hucksters and self-promoters as much as contemplators and wordsmiths (or whatever work we do). All of this might be tending to make people more aggressive. There’s a sea of mud between healthy self-assertion and self-aggrandizing aggression.

Maybe it has to do with the self-esteem movement introduced into our schools and our society with great intentions back in the 1960s and reaching a peak in the 1980s. Like so many perfectly legitimate ideas—that it was important to encourage children and support their dreams—perhaps the self-esteem movement filtered down in an over-simplified way and got twisted. It got twisted into crap like The Secret and the whole idea that if you just want it bad enough you can have it.

This kind of attitude is often prevalent with my students, even some of the wonderful ones. They are certainly never afraid to ask for what they want, to demand it even. No matter that my syllabus states that 8 absences will earn an F for my course, students expect to pass. No matter that the assignment requires 12 to 15 pages, and they only turned in 6—if they “tried hard” and it was “difficult for me to write about this,” they think their grade should be fine. I had one student this semester who had missed numerous classes, had turned in 1 out of 9 smaller homework assignments, had failed to participate in most of the workshops, and whose own writing had earned her Cs… who came up to me the last week and told me she hoped she could still earn a B.

I won’t even bore you with the web of negotiations between myself and a stunningly talented young man who nonetheless earned a C in my class due to his inability to complete work or manage his time. Flattery? Manipulation? Sincere desperation? Promises of improvement? It was all there, just not the work.

More recently, a graduate student, reportedly a hard-working and lovely person (I have only met her once myself), informed me that she only checks email every few days so that if I want to reach her on short notice, I should use Facebook or Twitter. Since when is it up to a student to define the method of communication between herself and her professor? Since when is it part of my job to explain such basics? This kind of control-taking is noticeably more common among my students today than it was more than twenty years ago when I began teaching as a youthful 30-year-old.

Fortunately, none of these students is threatening. But, still, something is not adding up.

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Unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that this all somehow correlates with the rise of fantasy genres and the amount of time people spend in fantasy worlds, whether they are in book, movie, video game, or Internet chat room variety, even the uber-cheerful Facebook presentations that people make of themselves. I have environmental concerns about this, which I plan to discuss in a later post, but I worry about human expectations these days, too. I worry that we are making a world that is in reality intolerable and so people turn more and more to fantasy.

My students tell me this repeatedly. They are bored and stressed at the same time. They prefer escape to self-examination. They prefer to spend some time in a world, no matter how evanescent, where they can be heroic and romantic and good-looking and successful, often things they don’t feel like they are in daily life. But I can’t help but believe that we are all affected by where and how and in what modes we spend our time. We come back from these virtual worlds, but I’m not sure our expectations come back with us. And the virtual worlds grow more and more convincing.

In the past week, there has been plenty of talk about “evil.” Even President Obama evoked evil when speaking of the shooting in Connecticut. Yet, I don’t believe that shooter was evil, even if his act was. He suffered from some deep mental illness and desperation, the likes of which we see over and over in these cases.

Plenty of others have already written about the need for better gun control laws—assault weapons simply have no rationale for being readily available except for crime and gun-industry profits. While it is true that we will never prevent people from rampaging if they are determined to do so, the difference between a knife or a manually loaded rifle, on the one hand, and, on the other, an automatic assault weapon is huge in terms of the amount of death someone can inflict.

Plenty of others have written about the need for a better armed and better prepared set of first responders. We certainly have that, increasingly, and it has had little effect. It’s too late by the time they arrive. Here in Orlando, the nightly news has been filled with discussion of appointing an armed security guard at each and every school. I consider that a terrible idea for many reasons—the atmosphere for students, the inculcation of constant fear, the dangerous presence of potentially misused weapons, the need for that money to be spent on instruction, and pure ineffectuality.

Plenty of others have argued passionately that we need to care for our mentally ill better—we need to remove stigmas for early care, be watchful for early signs, provide the financial resources for such care, and provide facilities other than prisons for the mentally ill. Here, here. This is a massively complex issue, of course—de-institutionalization began as part of the Civil Rights era when it was recognized that this broad category of people didn’t always deserve to be locked up out of sight, that we might need to learn to deal with some kinds of mental difference. But support services for the mentally ill certainly need more attention, and families living with those who are showing signs of violence and major disturbance need better options.

Some have even written that we need to work against the culture of violence we have in the United States. How to do that is the question. Do we ban violence in our books, TV shows, movies, video games? Do we try to educate children about the consequences? Do we try to change our own behaviors when we speak with others? There’s a lot of blame that goes around for the culture of violence.

But this is what I have to add: It is violence in the context of fantasy that is the problem (maybe even only certain kinds of disconnected fantasy). I’m not even saying that we should ban these video games, absolutely not—I am not offering prescriptions or proscriptions—but when children and adults spend so much time shooting others, massacring others, without the consequences, and when they spend time communicating at so much further than arm’s length even with the real people they know or sorta know, then I believe something comes loose in the minds of those people. Some depictions of violence actually sensitize people to its effects. But not if those depictions exist in a fairyland where dead people return to life, where humans are monsters and monsters are human, where we spend the bulk of our time with characters and in scenarios that are designed to fulfill our most childish egotistical desires. Too often, when that is the frame of reference, disappointments in the real world then become a devastating source of rage.

I question myself on this—after all, I would never say that reading Alice in Wonderland or The Hundred and One Dalmatians or Tolkien ruined my sense of reality. And plenty of perfectly peaceable people have been fantasizing for a long, long time. In fact, I’m a great supporter of the imagination and love it in all its many varied forms. I believe that humans can work out significant issues in the realm of fantasy. Also, I have no evidence that any of the killers mentioned here deeply embedded themselves in fantasy worlds, and their type has been around since long before the electronic versions of such fantasies.

So, what the heck do I mean? Maybe it has to do with the fact that reality and fantasy are merging. I’m not really sure. I always hope that you, my readers, can help me reflect on such things. It’s just that I have a creeping sensation that a whole host of unrealistic expectations contribute to a culture in which psychic violence and aggression seem to me to be on the rise even if physical massacre is not. And I believe strongly that this is about culture as much as it is about mentally ill individuals.

Really, I’m on tenuous ground here, and I admit it. I’m only at the stage of associations crisscrossing my mind. What do you think? What images, memories, associations, and seemingly free-floating concerns have been on your mind since December 14?

L'ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

L’ange de mort, 1919, by Carlos Schwabe.

Lia Lee: The Spirit Catches You

Lia Lee at age 4, from the cover of Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.

The news reached me over the weekend that Lia Lee has passed away. I responded, as I’m sure many others did, with mixed feelings. Lia Lee had been in a vegetative state since 1986, and the bulk of the tragedy associated with her was in some ways already long over. Yet, as this Sacramento Bee obituary notes, her mother nonetheless wept and expressed sorrow over her absence since her death on August 31.

Lia Lee and her family are best known for forcing a radical re-thinking of the value of severely disabled people’s lives and the need for Western medical personnel to deal better with other cultural beliefs during treatment. Hmong immigrants from Laos, the Lees brought with them to the U.S. different ways of thinking both about the epilepsy that led to Lia’s brain-death and about family responsibilities and love. They considered Lia a full-fledged human being even after Western medicine had pronounced her gone.

If you don’t know about Lia Lee, then right now you should take the steps to get ahold of Anne Fadiman’s wonderful book about her, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I remember reading it shortly after it was published in 1997, and the amazement with which I turned the pages. Fadiman tells the tale of the Lee family’s desperate flight from Laos, their sense of abandonment by the U.S. government after the Hmong had helped out against the Viet-Cong in the “Secret War” during the 1970s, and their bewilderment at the treatment Lia received for her epilepsy at hospitals in their adopted California.

In fact, one small facet of this book has long affected how I teach creative writing. Early on in the book, Fadiman describes how one of Lia’s older sisters had written in elementary school a chronicle of her family’s escape from Laos—swimming across the Mekong River under attack by the Viet-Cong, even losing the life of one family member, enduring squalid refugee camps before finally managing to reach the U.S.—and the teacher’s comments along the lines of “What an interesting life you have led! Watch for proper comma use.” I decided right then and there that I would never trivialize what my students wrote about—that I would always emphasize that the details of writing are not about correctness in itself but about being able to better express the truth of the story you want to tell. I would always treat them as human beings first and writers second. Even this small lesson has served me well.

But The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down taught so many other important lessons. The impact of Fadiman’s book really cannot be well summarized, even though this New York Times article tries to do so. It’s a book characterized by an unusual depth of research, but also of feeling. There are too few books written with this kind of attention to detail and this kind of sensitivity. Fadiman cared enough to get it right, though even she stands corrected on a few matters. I read a lot of books these days that are superficial or sloppy—and, in spite of some imperfections, Fadiman’s book , even after all these years, puts them all to shame. It is a story that endures even though what it teaches to medical personnel about cultural sensitivity has become close to standard (albeit still too seldom acted on) by now.

May the spirit of Lia Lee live on, and may we remember her as well as her family took care of her.

Pretty Bird

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This is one of my all-time favorite songs—for its melancholy, yes, but also for the amazing, unaccompanied a cappella voice of Hazel Dickens and for her story of overcoming poverty and finding herself an artist of the highest caliber. I thought I had included her on this blog already, but evidently I was just remembering posting her obituary on Facebook when she died in April of 2011. (Usually I link to lyrics, but the versions online are not at all accurate. “Love is such a delicate thing” gets particularly garbled. So, we’ll just have to listen.)

I first heard the Hazel & Alice (Gerrard) album when I was in high school in the mid-seventies. Probably they performed at the Laurel Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the Laurel burned down in 1982 and was rebuilt, I remember the creaky floors and old bricks of the original church structure. I heard a lot of folk music there by the likes of John McCutcheon on the hammered dulcimer and a lot of poetry readings there by the likes of Robert Creeley. There was always something going on at the Laurel Theater, and evidently there still is, though I haven’t been there in years.

Both Hazel Dickens’s life and the continued vitality of the Laurel Theater are testaments to the enduring nature of the spirit of creativity in all manner of people and places. And yet, it remains tragic that anyone has to be born into situations like that of the Dickens family, or that artists have to struggle quite so much to survive, as reflected once again in this Salon article by Scott Timberg about the impact of the current economic bad times on the creative class. (It’s bad, very bad.)

It is this dilemma that we call the human condition—the bad and good all rolled together. And another story sent to me today (via this video) reflects this as well. It’s related to this post because it’s about a bird—not one in song, but a living creature on this earth, a magnificent bald eagle whose beak was shot off by some stinkin’ human being I can’t understand. On the other hand, there are some truly lovely human beings who have worked to give her a new beak. It seems to me that some of us work endlessly to repair the damage caused by those whose hearts are bleak, unsympathetic places.

In the meantime, a stray kitty has shown up on our doorstep. I’m pretty sure that someone dumped her—she’s about six or seven months old, not at all feral, and wanted nothing but to come in and get a bowl of grub. She was skinny as a rail except for that slightly bulging belly that indicated that whatever person had trained her to be so affectionate had not bothered to spay her. Tomorrow morning, she will have her little kitty abortion and then be back in my care. The last thing I need is another cat, but I will at least foster her until she finds a new home. If Jupiter and Kollwitz can tolerate her, I suppose we will keep her. As my mother said, “Saving these little lives is a good thing.” As the vet tech said when I took her in today, “Well, kitty, you lucked onto the best cat mom in the world.” I could accomplish worse in life.

But in this day and age, it is beyond me to understand how someone could let a cat or dog go unsprayed or unneutered for more than a second past the appropriate age for surgery. Or how someone could dump an animal he or she had so clearly treated kindly before. It simply boggles my mind.

Not that any of us is pure good. When I said to the vet today that I felt a touch of sorrow about getting the stray a kitty abortion, she said, “Don’t.” She informed me that if I had taken this little cat to Animal Services, she would have been euthanized immediately. They can’t keep pregnant cats, she noted, because they can’t vaccinate kittens until they are two months old, and they can’t keep unvaccinated cats in the shelter. They try to place as many as possible in foster homes, but they are always full. They don’t have the resources to do a spay-abortion, since there is such an overpopulation already. So any kittens under two months and any mothers-to-be are killed instantly.

We all face difficult choices. But indeed some people are more evil than others, and some people become forces of bad because they don’t stop and think. What does it mean to shoot the beak off an eagle? What does it mean to dump a pregnant kitten? What does it mean to fail to support public schools and universities? What does it mean to support tax breaks for the wealthy while the poor and the disabled and the elderly struggle? My brother said to me last week that he feels as though he is living in Weimar Germany just before the collapse into Nazism. I agreed, and I said to him, “The one thing I can promise is that I will not be one of the average folks who will cave in to the Nazis. They can kill me first.” So many disturbing things go on every day. I don’t want to be one of the ones who does them. I want to be on the side of the angels, as imperfectly as it may be possible for me to do that. Sometimes that means being too honest for some people’s taste, and sometimes I flub up and hurt people, sometimes even those I could never construe as deserving it. But I have some pretty good ethical boundaries that I am devoted to keeping firm.

One is that I actually do the job that I am paid to do, unlike so many scammers that surround me.

Another is that I rescue animals in need.

And I respect the right of people to live a decent life even if they care primarily about something other than money and even if they are born into less than ideal circumstances.

That includes artists with their connection to the holy rather than the materialistic.

May we survive.

TEDTalks and Keys to Happiness

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I began my blog journey with a desire to understand my own reaction of irritation in the face of the “positive psychology” movement and to explore what motivates me in contrast to an obsession with turning personal happiness into yet another competitive achievement.

Today I bring to you two TEDTalks on the subject of happiness. For me, these two talks demonstrate the gulf in quality among those connected to “positive psychology.” Dan Gilbert (above) I can respect, even though I don’t necessarily agree with all the conclusions he draws from his data. Shawn Achor, on the other hand, I find the twenty-first-century version of a snake-oil salesman.

There is much that overlaps in their TEDTalks—the jokes, the anecdotal examples that render their data amusing, their clunky Power Point slides. Most important, though, both talk about the ways in which we can or do recast negative events in our lives to render them more positive.

But I see differences:

Dan Gilbert notes toward the end of his talk that some things that may happen in our lives are actually better or more desirable than others. Though he insists that we overrate the impact of one result over another in terms of our happiness, he is not disconnected from reality. He is interested in what humans share in terms of how they react to life events, and he asserts that reframing unfortunate events is a human trait we all participate in.

Shawn Achor unfortunately ends his talk otherwise: with a list of ways in which we can retrain ourselves to be happy. His talk is oriented around our deficits, even as he makes fun of psychologists for wanting to diagnose illnesses in order to keep “sick” people coming back for more treatment. Happiness is something that requires treatment and training just as much as getting over any depression or other “below average” state. Achor’s talk is full of logical conflicts like this—and he even admits that the data he puts on the screen is nonexistent—he uses it just to make a point about the evils of averages. Right before this exhortative end, Achor throws out a bunch of numbers but doesn’t really tell us where they come from.

Both Gilbert and Achor rely on a connection to Harvard University for their status as experts, and both have published popular books on happiness (Gilbert’s is Stumbling on Happiness, 2006, and Achor’s is The Happiness Advantage, 2010). And this leads me to something that’s a big difference for me, but evidently not for others. Dan Gilbert really is an expert.

Though Shawn Achor has made himself a guru, he has no degree in psychology at all. His bio on his corporation, GoodThinkInc., says that he “spent over a decade at Harvard University where he won over a dozen distinguished teaching awards,” and here and there he is referred to as “Professor Achor.” Yes, he has a bachelor’s degree in English and Religious Studies from Harvard and a master’s in Divinity in “Christian and Buddhist ethics.” However, he never held a position above that of “teaching fellow,” which this link makes clear is basically a teaching assistant.

He also claims that his company conducts research into happiness, and it contains a “Research” page. But go to that page and what you find is pretty thin. There is a link to yet another business that Achor has “founded,” which, even though it is called the Institute for Applied Research, clearly involves only coaching courses, no research at all, though it does boast of several large business clients. And there is a link to an 800-word column Achor wrote for the Harvard Business Review that, though it does cite some research, notes only one “study” his company performed, which was a post-experiment assessment of the company’s employees and apparently has never been vetted for its experimental legitimacy. In other words, Achor performs “studies” to prove to the corporations who have bought his coaching services that it was worth the money.

Gilbert, on the other hand, has a PhD in social psychology from Princeton (and a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Colorado), and is actually on the faculty and runs a research lab at Harvard. This is not to say that he doesn’t have a stake in the tenets of positive psychology, but his approach is more balanced and therefore less punishing. For instance, in the Harvard Business Review’s coverage of his work, he notes, “Much of the research confirms things we’ve always suspected. For example, in general people who are in good romantic relationships are happier than those who aren’t. Healthy people are happier than sick people…. Rich people are happier than poor people.” Note that he doesn’t say that “happy people are healthier than sad people.” Nor “Happy people are richer than unhappy people.” He doesn’t reverse the equations of causality in destructive ways.

Therefore, even though I have questions about some of the implications of the research results that Gilbert mentions in his TEDTalk, I feel that it’s at least based on research and not on pure gloss designed to sell a service to line his pockets. I hope it doesn’t seem as though I am splitting hairs. These things make a difference to me as I try to understand what sources of advice and inspiration are really that and what ones are potentially damaging shams.

What makes a difference to you in a happiness guru? Which ones irritate you and which ones make sense, and why?

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Rita Dove, Marjorie Perloff, and the Failure of Success

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The “Poem Tree,” carved in England by Joseph Tubbs in the 1840s.

I apologize for the length of this post, my longest one yet. Sometimes it takes longer to examine what’s underneath an argument than to make one in the first place. As long as this post is, I kept it relatively short by focusing on this latest attack on Rita Dove’s anthology rather than Helen Vendler’s earlier one in the New York Review of Books. Dove very handily dealt with Vendler already and she chose to address primarily the racism and mischaracterization exhibited by Vendler, rather than another subject that Vendler veils even more than Perloff but one they both must see as another key culprit in the inclusion of the “many, rather than, few” poets: the MFA program and the presence of creative writers within the academy. Scholars have lost this battle, and creative writing is now well established in academia, so it seems that subject has sunk just below the surface. But it is never far below, and I believe we still need to address it directly.

Everybody Is a Poet

You know something is really wrong when someone mourns the success of a field she purports to love. Maybe love is the wrong word, so let me rephrase. You know something is really wrong when someone mourns the success of a field she has made her life’s work. The first line of Marjorie Perloff’s recent “Poetry on the Brink” in the Boston Review is “What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?”

First, you would think that all lovers of literature and the arts would be jubilantly celebrating in the streets. I mean, my god, the novel may be dead, and support for the arts may be at an all-time low, but EVERYBODY has become a poet!!! How grand and unexpected an outcome is that?

But, no, according to Perloff, the popularity of poetry is a bad thing that ensures its mediocrity, or, as she puts it, “moderation and safety.”

Now, let me back up a minute. Is it true even that everybody is a poet these days? Obviously, in any literal sense of the word “everybody,” this is ridiculously untrue. Perloff bases her sense that everyone is now a poet on numbers provided in a lecture by poet and University of Georgia professor Jed Rasula: colleges and universities now employ 1,800 faculty in graduate programs, and that is only at the 177 graduate-degree-offering ones of the 458 institutions that teach creative writing, which “swells” the number of faculty teaching creative writing (now not just poetry) to 20,000. OMG, in a nation of 312 million, there are 20,000 employed teacher-writers. At least, thank god, their teaching keeps them busy a lot of the time, so they aren’t writing even more poems.

However, my next-door neighbors on either side don’t write poetry: the nurse, the retired engineer, the paralegal, and the fellow who owns a car dealership. None of them write poetry, and as far as I know, none of them read it either. When my undergraduates arrive in our introductory creative writing classrooms here at UCF, most of them have never read a poem by a living poet, and, though some of them may have written shortened lines of anguish in their online journals, or even in a notebook they keep under their pillows, they do not consider themselves poets. Their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and aunts don’t write poems, and the first time they venture to call some words they’ve written down a poem, they don’t feel safe at all. That is even more generally true for the F-school elementary students and the ex-cons and the nursing home residents that my friend Terry encounters in the Literary Arts Partnership she directs.

This is not to say that I don’t sometimes grow exhausted by the number of would-be writers I encounter in everyday life. Just about every week I do meet someone who wants to be a writer. The first I recall was a psychology professor who ran a fellowship program I was in during grad school—he became very insulted when I declined to read his novel manuscript. Then there was a stranger in a meditation class I took, who brought me rafts of poetry that I didn’t have the time or inclination to read. My hair dresser wants to write, as does the wife of a physician I worked with in the medical humanities. The Buddhist monk who ran the meditation retreat I attended a few weeks ago is working on a book. Every freaking doctor or nurse seems to want to write a book, except my next-door neighbor. (The plethora of medical writers is a post for another day.) At least once a semester, I get an email from a random person who has found my faculty website and who hopes that I will “edit” his or her manuscript for him or her for free, out of a “love of writing.” I don’t do it, but this is not out of any sense that none of these people has a story worth telling or a poem worth shaping. It is not out of a sense that they shouldn’t be trying to write. I celebrate their attempts, though it’s beyond my capacity to help them all, just as I imagine a doctor or a lawyer recognizes the legitimate health and legal concerns of many in the population without offering to treat or represent them all.

I’m also from a family of writers, some professional, some not, and I can say with certainty that the richness of that background has led me where I am today—not a famous writer, perhaps not even a particularly memorable one, but one who makes her living by the word. The many writers in my family—from my great-grandfather the journalist who published two books of natural history through my grandmother with her religious verses through my amateur-novelist parents (both of them!) and my long-time blogger brother—have not detracted from my own modest accomplishments, but made them possible.

Perhaps it is for that reason that I don’t think that a large number of poets in society is a bad thing, to the extent we even do have a large number of poets. I think, in fact, that it makes the likelihood of great poetry emerging out of the plethora of mediocrity all the greater. Even if most of the poetry today is basically compost, it creates a rich soil for a much wider possibility of poets.

I would like to point out, in fact, that even with the numbers that Rasula cites, we are talking about 0.0064% of the population making a living as writer-teachers. Hardly everybody, even if we trust his numbers, and I’m not sure if I trust the numbers of someone who equates 0.0064% with “everybody.”

That teeny-tiny percentage also includes writers who write primarily in genres other than poetry, but it doesn’t include the many published writers (especially those many in literary journalism and genre fiction) who don’t also support themselves by teaching. It isn’t those independent writers, however, that concern Perloff and Rasula, only writers who also try to survive the academic gauntlet and are thereby rendered “safe” and predictable as writers.

Note that Perloff is not arguing against the kinds of standards that she seems to think force creative writers in academia to become safe and mediocre. She is not suggesting that tenure for such writers in academia should be judged in some way other than the number of awards they’ve won or the number of poems they have published in journals any more than she is arguing that scholars of American literature should be judged by a standard other than the number of awards they’ve won or the number of articles they’ve published in academic journals, in spite of the fact that the readership of scholarly journals of criticism is lower and the percentage of work accepted also generally higher than in most creative writing journals. She is simply arguing that not so many of these writers should exist.

She is also not arguing that academia has produced a corrupted uniformity and mediocrity in literary criticism, which, if the logic holds, would also be the result of the tenure and publication process therein. Perhaps we should entertain the idea that all critics are dulled by academia and need to make their way as reviewers. There are certainly those in our state legislatures these days who aren’t sure that our public universities need so many of them.

Can you imagine a physician coming out with a public statement decrying the general population’s attempts to eat better or exercise or get vaccinations? Can you imagine a lawyer who would discourage folks from using an inexpensive online will-document or living-will service if they couldn’t afford a private attorney? Can you imagine a doctor noting that nurses are valueless just because they have R.N. degrees instead of M.D.s?

It strikes me as very strange indeed for someone like Marjorie Perloff—professor emerita at Stanford and the author of numerous books and articles from the academic press—to imply that the academic environment corrupts poetry. Jed Rasula, too—a full professor at the University of Georgia, whose publication career includes both scholarly work and a couple of books of small poetry from small presses—seems to have benefitted from the support of academia. (This is a point I will come back to later.)

The Ivory Tower, this one a castle built c. 1780s in Neath, Wales, and no doubt fought over until a ruin.

The Struggle Over Academic Territory

People, this is not about “everybody” becoming a writer. It’s a power-struggle over academic territory. Reading between the lines, what I find in Perloff’s lament are the following:

1) The idea that if you can’t be somewhere as illustrious as she is, then you shouldn’t be messing with poetry. If fewer people did it, then discussions of poetry would remain “lively and engaging debates about the nature of poetry and poetics,” as she thinks they were in the 1960s, even in the 1980s. (I don’t recall the former, of course, but the latter seems to me to have been just as full of territorialism.) Maybe it is okay to democratize engineering, but not poetry. It should still be an elite endeavor, protected from popularity and the masses of would-be writers.

2) The idea that the kind of poetry that Perloff promotes—“language” or “experimental” poetry—is the only truly innovative kind, even though that type of poetry is more linked to the institutions of learning that support it than any other kind. Though it is academia that she thinks supports a mediocre poetry, the poetry that has a better chance of popular success and survival outside of academia is, in fact, the “lyric” poetry that she finds so abhorrent. It is not Jed Rasula or even Charles Bernstein that sells poems outside of a narrow academic audience, but the likes of Billy Collins or, yes, Rita Dove, who comes in for such a beating from Perloff.

3) So, it’s not that Perloff doesn’t think there should be writers in academia or that academia should not support some writers. It’s that somehow academia isn’t only or primarily supporting the more “elite” kind of poetry that she supports—that is, poetry that has its roots in theory and intellectual ideas about language as opposed to what she considers banal imagery and feeling.

4) In other words, Perloff is doing what academics do, especially in times like these when resources are shrinking—she is conducting a turf war, an argument about what should be taught in the academy, and she is arguing for the styles she personally favors. Period.

The truth about this is that most (and I don’t mean all) “language” or “experimental” or “Conceptual” poets come out of a scholarly background. They came to writing via literary history and theory. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, and most writers I know have nothing against the pursuit of this kind of writing by those drawn to it. However, the resentment that exists in English departments between the scholarly (PhD) people and the creative writer (MFA) types abounds. It always has. I guess, alas, it always will. The likes of Marjorie Perloff cannot be satisfied unless literary theory and intellectual debates about the nature of language come to dominate the creative writing parts of English departments. They do not see the success of creative writing (as it currently exists) as part of a shared success of the field of English studies, though I think they should, especially during times when many elements of our political world would like to eliminate the study of the humanities almost entirely. Instead, the rise of MFA and undergraduate creative writing programs threatens their hegemony and dominance.

The cover of one of my great-grandfather’s books, Rhymes, Roughly Rendered by T. J. Campbell, 1902.

The Place I Speak From

I feel I can legitimately speak to this because of my own liminality, not to mention my own lack of importance. I have an MFA in creative writing, and I have a PhD in American literature (a regular English PhD, not one with a creative-writing dissertation and a few extra lit courses). I even did one of my comprehensive exams on the subject of literary theory. I feel a great appreciation for and protectiveness of both of these veins of study, though it is true that my career has focused on creative writing. But you just don’t get MFA faculty attacking the very existence of the scholarly study of literature the way you get scholars attacking the creative writing endeavor. A few snide comments, sure, but mostly defensive ones. Occasionally these rise to invective, as in my former MFA mentor, the inestimable (and, for the record, entirely “experimental”) Paul West referring to scholars as “corpse-fuckers.” But nothing like the continual, in-print, organized, and elaborate attack on the existence of mere writers in the academy. Our muddling along as untheorized observers of the world, illuminators of the “small epiphany,” and explorers of intimate sensitivities is often (though thankfully not always) anathema to some (but thankfully not all) of our scholarly colleagues.

Trust me, I see many problems in the arena of academic creative writing. I am nauseated by the insularity of the prizes, the clubbyness of professional organizations, the back-scratching that so often is what leads to publication. I despair over the continued sexism and white dominance in spite of the “identity politics” that Perloff thinks produces only slight variation. (See, for example, evidence in the VIDA count and a recent report by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting.) I could write expose after expose, rant after rant, bitch-fest after bitch-fest about the limits and bad advice that have been imposed on me and those I know within the tenure system, not to mention the disintegrating publishing industry.

Instead, I end up reading over and over again these disses against MFA programs, from within the academy, sometimes even from within MFA programs themselves..

I think of a conversation I had with my neurologist a few weeks ago, after it became clear that he had originally misdiagnosed a problem I was having. I like him—he had made the referral to the Mayo Clinic that finally resulted in a different diagnosis, because he recognized his own uncertainty, and he was modestly apologetic. “Sometimes,” he said, “I wish I were an orthopedist. I could say, ‘Oh, you have a broken bone.’ It’s clear and direct. Neurology is more complicated.” Maybe an orthopedist would disagree with this characterization, but seldom would one of these specialists be enough of a foolish ass to aver that the other kind shouldn’t exist.

Yet just that kind of thing is common in English departments and in online and print publications that are responsible for carrying on discussion of our literary culture.

The Adoration of the Magi by the Master of the Llangattock Epiphany from the 1450s, back when epiphanies could be large.

Perloff’s Complaints About Contemporary Poets

In this case, I find the following a selection of questionable assertions in the first half of Perloff’s essay:

* In Perloff’s outline of the three characteristics of contemporary poetry of which she disapproves, she notes “irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself.” This is an outlandish claim, and I know of no poets who think or teach little to nothing about lineation. How can she even say that? Of course, she bothers to give exactly no evidence or example. Free verse, of course, means that lineation must be constantly and individually attended to, not formulaic.

* She claims that another characteristic is “graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor.” The adjectives here, of course, are simply a matter of taste and debate, so what she is objecting to is the foregrounding of imagery and metaphor in themselves, which are indeed key elements of most poetry. If one takes out the adjectives, one sees that Perloff must, then, be arguing against their use. Go ahead, I want to say, see where that gets you.

* What it gets us to is the third characteristic that Perloff dislikes, the “expression of a profound thought or small epiphany” that I mentioned before. Usually, Perloff notes, this is “based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.” I suppose Perloff would rather us celebrate or forget those things. At least, they are so trivial as to be beneath her. And it is here that Perloff really begins to show her own imperialist tendencies, but more on that in a minute.

* Perloff also claims that “[w]hereas scholars gain cultural capital as they move up the academic ladder and can—by the time they become full professors—feel relatively comfortable in their careers, poets are always being displaced by younger poets.” This statement made me laugh out loud. First, as so often with this article, I think that the fabric here contains only the thinnest thread of truth. If Marjorie Perloff doesn’t think she bears any threat from younger scholars, then she should be careful about how many times she hails the 1960s and the 1980s as a fabulously superior time to ours. Granted, perhaps it is so that youthful sexiness is more vaunted by the commercial publishing industry where creative writers hope to place their work than by the university presses that publish the scholars. Indeed, author photos do not hold the same sway in the scholarly world as in the creative. Indeed, even when a creative writer places a book with a large publisher, if sales are not meteoric, it may get harder to publish subsequent books, whereas scholarly presses accept a very modest definition of popularity and will often therefore continue to publish a scholar who is hardly a bestseller. But this is one thing that poets (as opposed to novelists and creative nonfiction writers) have in common with the scholarly writers—modest expectations of sales of books has led to long careers. Donald Hall, who Perloff mentions, for instance, has published 22 books of poems (plus numerous books of biography, short fiction, memoirs, and textbooks) since 1952, the most recent in 2011. Robert Pack has published 15 books of poetry and 6 of prose since 1955, with again the most recent in 2011. Perloff disproves her own remarks in this regard, perhaps out of some sense that poets should not ever become full professors. I hate to break it to her, but they do with regularity these days. If their publishing challenges are so much greater for them than the scholars, all the more reason to admire them.

* Perloff cites this insecurity in aging poets’ careers not as a lament, but as an excuse to note that they write the same basic thing over and over again in their books, that “somehow the fourth book, no better or worse than the previous ones, gets less attention.” “Ezra Pound’s ‘Make it New’ has come to refer,” Perloff sorrows, “not to a set of new poems, but to the poet who is known to have written them.” Ironies abound here.

Perhaps paramount is the utter repetitive nature of Marjorie Perloff’s work itself or that of almost any scholar in academia today, where we are trained not to be generalists (for better or for worse). Perloff has commented on an impressive array of modernist poets’ work and she has pounded in a variety of ways about the banality of lyric forms of poetry, but does her work really range more widely than that of most contemporary poets? Does her focus on the rhythmic and metrical, on the language aspects of modern and post-modern poetry really encompass that much wider a world view or strategy?

But, also, Perloff cites Ezra Pound’s “Make it New” as a rebuke to current poets for not being innovative enough and then goes on to note that statements about emerging hybrids between experimental and narrative poetry “don’t quite carry conviction” because “’an avant-garde mandate’ is one that defies the status quo and hence cannot incorporate it.” I know that Perloff has read Pound, and I am sure that she knows her Pound far better than I do. But we all also know that rebellion from the status quo and reverence for the forms and insights of the past were both key to Pound’s work. Perloff contrasts Whitman, Williams, and Ginsberg (those committed to “the emotional spectra of lived existence”) with Pound’s “collage mode.” So it seems to me that Perloff confounds two issues here: 1) age and tradition and 2) “feeling” versus “collage,” the latter meaning text sources of inspiration.

Any given poem and its construction beforehand is a struggle between all these forces or, perhaps, on a good day, a beautiful dance between them. This does not, as Perloff insists, mean that the choices are arbitrary or that they have nothing to do with the historical moment or the cultural context. Individually, they certainly do. But that does not mean that they cannot all coexist with the field of poetry or even within a single poet. It is not a war where there need be a battle to the death.

The cover of Rita Dove’s anthology.

The Meat: Perloff’s Complaints About Rita Dove’s Anthology

After this, Perloff gets to what it is that seems to have recently set her off: the publication of the new Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove. A long chastisement follows, in which Perloff takes issue with the omission of Random House poets that Dove and Penguin chose not to include because of prohibitive copyright costs. Dove has recently explained this decision in an AWP Writer’s Chronicle article, as well as in the introduction of the new anthology, but Perloff is not buying it and places the blame firmly on Penguin. “How,” she asks, “could a leading publisher such as Penguin fail to get publication rights for materials so central to a book’s purpose?” She does not mention that Dove has indeed explained this quite fully in print elsewhere.

Aside from whose fault the omissions are, this issue is a dodge that allows Perloff to critique the selections Dove has made, as well as her sense of literary history. Perloff claims that “one evidently wants to read her anthology not to learn about American poetry of the twentieth century but about her likes and dislikes.” In other words, Dove’s tastes are not adequate for the job, at least not in Perloff’s view, because Dove has not made the same selections that Perloff would have made.

At least not past the modernist era—Perloff notes that “however individual and intuitive Dove’s judgments on contemporary poetry, her Modernist canon… is more or less everybody’s Modernist canon.” Here is where Marjorie really begins to sound old. Here is where she returns to her earlier hint that she mourns the loss of a simpler time when everyone supposedly held a consensus about who the great poets were. She notes that before World War II everyone agreed on what the canon was. Alas, however, “the lack of consensus about the poetry of the postwar decades has led not, as one might have hoped, to a cheerful pluralism animated by noisy critical debate about the nature of lyric, but to the curious closure exemplified by the Dove anthology.”

Her lament about what Dove includes is then exemplified by Natasha Trethewey’s poem “Hot Combs.” Perhaps the oddest thing about Perloff’s reading of this poem is that, based on Trethewey’s own mixed-race heritage, Perloff assumes that the narrator of the poem is the poet herself. She complains that the poem, with its “easy conclusion that beauty is born of suffering, would seem to place this poem somewhere in the 1960s or ‘70s” but that it was published in 2000. Yet, Trethewey is known for combining her own personal experience with historical settings, including in her 2002 book Bellocq’s Ophelia, about a fictional prostitute living in the early 1900s. Perloff seems to willfully misread or oversimplify her reading of Trethewey’s poem.

But Perloff also makes another strange move here. She claims that “Hot Combs” exemplifies the three typical (and inadequate) characteristics she has noted above in the mediocre contemporary lyric poetry she is criticizing (no attention to line or word per se, prose syntax filled with imagery and metaphor, and the presence of a small epiphany. But only one of the the numbered list she gives in attacking this poem matches her list above in her second paragraph. Instead, she lists: 1) a present-time stimulus, 2) a memory, and 3) an epiphany (only this one matches). She does mention “prose syntax” and she insults Trethewey’s diction by putting “literary” in quotation marks before reciting a few of her descriptive phrases. But there is no coherence to the argument here. It’s just that Perloff doesn’t like this particular poem.

An example of “experimental” concrete poetry by Vasily Kameysky, 1914.

Perloff Turns to Supporting the Few

In the second half of her essay, Perloff goes on to write a manifesto about “a growing group of poets who are rejecting the status quo” with “what is now called Conceptualism.” The phrase “what is now called” seems to me to imply that she is simply talking about a different kind of status quo or tradition—in a direct line from the “language” and “experimental” poets of the past several decades. It also strikes me that somehow the fact that this is a “growing” group is used here to legitimize these poets, whereas the increasing size of the group of lyric poets somehow delegitimizes them. Go figure.

Perloff notes that the “main complaint against Conceptual writing is that the reliance on other people’s words negates the essence of lyric poetry.” She goes on to restate that Conceptual poetry is accused of having “no unique emotional input,” and that the question asked about it is, “If the words used are not my own, how can I convey the true voice of feeling unique to lyric?” As usual, Perloff doesn’t cite any examples of this argument, and perhaps it is true that some people have said this kind of thing. But most poets, even the lyric poets that Perloff seems to think are utterly stupid, are not that naïve. They don’t claim that the words they use have never been used before, and they often pay homage to other poets in their work. In fact, they often themselves produce mash-ups, and many of the literary magazines that Perloff suggest contribute to a uniform mediocrity send out calls for poems that do just that (For instance, here’s one from Crazyhorse: Cross-Off Contest). It is part of the conversation that is literature, no matter the style.

Perloff then asserts that the musicality used by John Cage in his re-working of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl is “absent in most contemporary poetry,” a slam that literally stuns me. She chooses one example “at random” (I doubt it) that she then turns into prose and notes that Cage’s poem “cannot be turned into prose” because of its “very formatting.” Well, really, I could turn it into prose, but, given that the Cage lines are further from usual prose syntax than the lines she quotes from Dove’s anthology, is Perloff really suggesting that prose can have no musicality? And has she read the same contemporary poetry that I have? Plenty of it is musical and rhythmic, and if some of it is less so, why should poetry have to conform to a formula of musicality any more than a formula of tripartite “observation—triggering memory—insight” or the 14-line form of a sonnet?

For example, these few lines from “The Golden Shovel,” written by a young poet I’ve recently discovered, Terrance Hayes:

When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real

men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we

drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school

I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk

of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we

watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight.

[from Lighthead, Penguin, 2010]

To describe this work, and work like it, as having no musicality requires an unimaginably deaf ear. I know Marjorie Perloff cannot have such a deaf ear. So why does she make such an enormous, vague, insupportable claim? She seems to me to be grasping at some kind of legitimacy for poetry she feels is unappreciated, and she goes on to analyze the work of four poets she likes.

Death is a common subject in many styles: The Death of Henry VII represented in a medieval miniature.

Perloff’s Four Poets

First, she discusses That This by Susan Howe, who she notes was not included in Dove’s anthology but who nonetheless “would not call herself a Conceptual poet.” In addition, Howe’s book focuses on the sudden death of Howe’s husband, Peter Hare, that subject matter of “personal tragedy” that Perloff earlier criticized in lyric poetry. The difference is that Howe reconstructs her poems out of fragments from other sources.

Don’t get me wrong—Howe’s work sounds fascinating to me, and I fully plan on looking it up. Perloff is at her best when she writes passionately in support of work that she finds interesting. She convinces me that Howe’s work is worth a look.

* Likewise with another set of poems that Perloff analyzes in some depth—from another poet she characterizes as “not primarily a Conceptualist”—Srikanth Reddy’s re-working of the memoirs of former Nazi and president of Austria Kurt Waldheim into a work Reddy calls Voyager. And again Reddy seems to partake of a subject matter that Perloff has criticized—sensitivity of feeling about “our imperialist wars.” Reddy’s work is different not just because he has re-worked an earlier source, but because his poems are “free of all moralizing or invective on the poet’s part.” I understand that there are shades here, but I am not sure how Reddy’s “critique” of Waldheim’s hypocrisy and of “political mendacity in general” is free of moralizing. His project and its outcomes seem inherently (and appropriately) moralizing to me.

Both of these books also sounds as though they need to be seen in their entireties—in book form—to be fully understood and appreciated, something that it’s difficult to present in an anthology. Perloff even says this herself: “Like Howe’s” book, Reddy’s “has to be understood as a poetic book rather than a book of individual poems.” How, then, would she suggest that Dove anthologize them?

* Recognizing this issue, Perloff then turns to recent short work by Charles Bernstein. Bernstein, she notes, has been criticized for becoming “easier” in his more recent work, but she argues that the trickiness of assessing Bernstein’s tone in such lines as the following renders his work still compelling:

No, never, I’ll never stop loving you
Not till my heart beats its last
And even then in my words and my songs
I will love you all over again

Bernstein, Perloff notes, is posing the question of “how to come to terms with this embarrassing bathos.” That makes the bathos interesting, though, of course, it is not an excuse that is allowed the “status quo” poets that she criticizes.

* Perloff’s last example of a poet she deems worthy is Peter Gizzi, who has written a collection called Threshold Songs “in response to a series of deaths—his mother’s, his brother’s, one of his closest friends—so overwhelming they can hardly be processed.” Again, because it “avoids the unsayable by its appropriation of other voices,” Perloff believes that Gizzi has written a more legitimate series of poems about his own personal tragedies than people who write more directly from their experience.

Ron Stillman’s neon sculpture “From Northern Soul (Bury Neon),” Greater Manchester, England, 2011.

Concluding the Inconclusive

Perloff ends her essay rather suddenly by noting that, “Increasingly, the ‘true voice of feeling’ is the one you discover with an inspired, if sometimes accidental click.”

Honestly, I don’t even know what she means by this last statement. Does she mean poets themselves or readers of poetry? And, while I guess she’s been making the case for a particular mash-up strategy of writing, she seems to have lost the point of arguing against the tradition of lyric poetry. Surely, she doesn’t mean that the only legitimate way to write poetry is to re-write other texts?

And for someone who is here to champion hard-core experimental and Conceptual work, Perloff has now given us examples from two people who don’t consider themselves Conceptualists and two examples of Conceptualists, one who has softened the Conceptual line around his work, and another who has taken up the lyric subject of his own personal tragedy. Does she really believe, then, that hybridity is impossible and an unconvincing storyline as she asserted early in the essay when she briefly mentioned Cole Swensen and David St. John’s anthology, American Hybrid? Her own examples seem to me to prove its healthy existence.

I do, however, agree that, as Perloff states early on, “Formal choices are never without ideological implications.” I believe that Perloff’s choices certainly have them, and that her ideology most clearly supports an elite of the elite. Writers and readers of poetry are quite an elite all on their own, and when you sift out the grandmother-amateur-poets, they are even moreso. But Perloff seems to me determined that poetry will also remain shuttered from lived experience, centered in the halls of intellectual academe, and upper crust, if not essentially white and male (Reddy, of Indian descent, attended Harvard and the University of Iowa). She does not celebrate the vernacular found in poetry she would call unmusical, nor in the actual experience of loss or suffering, only in sublimated versions. A poetry based in the middle class or the working class must be anathema to her, just as any but the most intellectualized ideas about poetry are.

I want to make clear that I do not think that debates about quality are not relevant or appropriate. But what I see in Perloff’s essay is fundamentally a grasping to preserve the values of a time long past—a pre-World War II era when scholars defined quality, when poets themselves were largely excluded from the academy, before they had infiltrated it in creative writing programs and had begun to find the platform to assert their own definitions of quality that were often at odds with their more theoretical scholarly colleagues. Perloff notes indignantly that Rita Dove’s anthology “depends not on … its capacity to satisfyingly delineate a poetic canon or make some claim about the nature of poetry in a certain time or place—but on the prestige of its editor.” It seems outrageous to her that Dove is “prestigious” in spite of her 13 books.

It is entirely possible that Dove has made selections for this anthology based more on a creative writing sensibility and pedagogy than that of a scholarly literary one. Indeed, the delineation of a canon or the examination of the cultural and historical aspects of poetry is often not the focus in creative writing courses, though creative writing students are always required to take numerous literature courses in which they are. It is also true that creative writing pedagogy and traditions often function with a more idiosyncratic and artisanal model of teaching and learning than do scholarly ones. Perloff clearly believes that this is wrong-headed, as do many in the scholarly literary field, and she insults these methods by stating that she wonders if the intended audience of Dove’s anthology is “junior high students.” It is true that creative writing pedagogy in the wrong hands can be too easy and indulgent, but in the right ones it can be rigorously powerful and empowering. There are many variables that contribute to particular outcomes. I just wish that Perloff would admit that what she is doing is longing for a time before creative writers per se had a place at the table of deciding what poetry has merit. She wishes it were only the scholars and the few scholar-poets who had the kind of “prestige” that Dove now shares.

If Dove has constructed an anthology suited to her own reading and teaching preferences, what is wrong with that? Is it not the same method that Perloff herself uses when she edits anthologies and decides what works she will include on syllabi? As Rasula notes, in academia, we are trained to be “specialists,” and Perloff herself is not asked to teach courses in the Victorian novel. I can fairly safely assume that she has never included a Rita Dove poem on her syllabus in spite of the fact that Dove has published more books and has been more widely read than some of the post-modernist poets that Perloff favors. It is probably true that most poets teaching in academia weight their teaching toward the lyric, and even poets in that tradition (such as Carolyn Forché) have worked to open it beyond the personal to a more political consciousness. But these poets have asked that the door be opened, not that another door be closed.

The second half of Perloff’s essay, though not particularly logically consistent, nonetheless serves a valuable purpose: supporting four poets whose work she finds compelling. I am all for that.

Yet I must point out that Peter Gizzi is a full professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Charles Bernstein a named professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Srikanth Reddy an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, and Susan Howe retired as a named chair at the University of Buffalo (formerly SUNY Buffalo). Of the four poets that she mentions early on that she feels were neglected in Dove’s anthology—Harryette Mullen, Will Alexander, C. S. Giscombe, and John Yau—all but one has a full professorship at a prestigious university, and even the one (Alexander) has taught in several places while making the choice to remain in his native L.A. All of them, in spite of some of their and Perloff’s protests, have successful careers legitimized within the very academy Perloff wants to blame otherwise for the mediocrity of contemporary poetry. They are all also writers whose work is deeply connected to the scholarly, theoretical, and historical tradition.

Academic historians and theoreticians of music and the visual arts can’t so easily cast out the practitioners of music and art—their media require a different kind of technical facility than the scholars have. But when the medium of art is language, too often the scholars don’t believe they need anyone but themselves.

And this turns me again back to the first half of Perloff’s essay, which seems to me an unacceptable diatribe about MFA programs in creative writing and the influence of academia on poetry, that is, on poets within academia who do not toe her rarefied intellectual line. I do believe that we can debate the merits of specific poems—and the Trethewey poem that Perloff critiques will likely never be one of my favorites. I agree that we can debate what the most important elements are in poetry, too. But this kind of hand-waving, overgeneralized dismissal of MFA programs and lyric poetry is less than we deserve from our well-known public intellectuals in the field. I am a relative nobody, with no doubt a less lofty education and certainly fewer credentials on which to stand than Perloff and her Harvard and Berkeley cronies, and even I can think beyond this.

We need to celebrate in the streets—and in print–the rise of creative writing’s popularity in the public imagination and in our colleges and universities, or else we really could end up dancing on the grave of poetry one day soon. Just about 99.9936% of the population may not even notice.

Beware the Enthymeme!

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It's bad enough to debate complex issues in slogans, but even worse when the slogans so cheerfully lie.

In Florida, as in many states, there are a variety of license plate designs for car owners to choose from. I always think that these, like bumper stickers, are a strange way to express oneself, though I’ve been known to slap a bumper sticker on my car now and then. Last presidential election cycle, I had two Obama stickers stolen off my car, and I have a long-term one that says, “Please don’t breed or buy while shelter pets die. Opt to adopt.” Other than one time when a friend at first thought it protested the breeding of humans and was an insult to his parenthood, that one has been uncontroversial. At least as far as I know. And I guess that’s the joy of broadcasting one’s opinions this way. Unless you meet up with a crazy person who will bash into your vehicle, you are safe from argument.

One of the popular license plates around here is a yellow one with red crayon-like boy and girl figures that imply they were drawn by a child and that says “Choose Life.”

It might be an okay message if it really meant what it says. Of course, most of those who sport this license plate don’t actually mean that. What they mean is that they would rather force every pregnant woman to bring any pregnancy to term. What they mean is not “choose life,” but “choose to support laws and organizations that offer no choice to women.” And, as this Slate article reports, “the legislation in most states [that have these plates] expressly provides that any program offering referrals or even discussing the option of abortion is barred from funding.” In other words, these plates support lack of choice, not a choice.

There is an odd way in which the language gets twisted like this. Of course, progressives and liberals do it too, but what I notice lately is the way that Republicans and right-wingers do this all the freaking time. No doubt, we are gearing up for a maelstrom of misused language in this coming election season.

What I also notice is that progressives have a hard time correcting these misuses of language. I guess they don’t want to be accused of nit-picking about semantics or something like that. But the use of language is one of the most important things we can pay attention to. This is one of the things that rhetorical analysis is good for, and it pains me that so many can get through high school and freshman comp and even four or more years of college and still not be able to understand the manipulations of language to which they are subject on a daily basis.

I will never forget one of my early teaching experiences, when I was laboring as a freshman-composition TA at Penn State during the fall of 1991. At the same time, playing out in the media, were the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill, who had worked as his assistant some years earlier, arrived on the scene with her testimony about Thomas sexually harassing her.

Hill’s testimony lasted only a few hours, but the discussion of it went on for weeks and months, even years. The issue even resurfaced in 2010, when Clarence Thomas’s wife called Anita Hill and suggested she should apologize.

In spite of the fact that Hill subjected herself to a polygraph test that indicated her testimony was honest, whereas Thomas refused a polygraph, and in spite of another woman’s affidavit that she had received similar treatment, Hill’s testimony was vehemently called into question. And one of the prime reasons people gave for their disbelief was that Hill had continued to work for Thomas rather than quitting her job, had in fact even worked for him at a second position after the time during which she said he harassed her. This line of discussion had been begun during her Senate testimony when Republican senators Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch strove quite clearly to discredit her. (The entire hearings are available via C-Span. About half-way through Day 1, Part 3, Specter grills her about why she continued to work for Thomas).

This discussion nagged at me and nagged at me. Finally one day when I was set to teach the enthymeme, I realized why. Dully, I had been writing a traditional enthymeme lesson (that had been provided to us new TAs) on the chalkboard:

Johnathan lives in Japan.
Johnathan speaks Japanese.

And then out to the side the missing link: People who live in Japan speak Japanese.

In a fit of inspiration, I erased it and wrote instead:

Anita Hill claims she was sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas.
She’s probably lying.

“How many of you agree with this?” I asked. More than half the class raised their hands, most of the men and a few of the women.

For the next half hour, we explored the possible unstated assumptions behind the conclusion. The students eventually had to admit that the basic assumption they were making was that women should always put their “purity” above their careers. Certainly, that was the assumption that the all-male panel of senators who had grilled Hill clearly made. If this were not true, there might be a host of other priorities that Hill would put before quitting her job to escape Thomas’s advances and inappropriate comments.

Once we teased these assumptions out into the open, there were very few students (maybe only one) in the class who agreed with the statement that women should always put their “purity” over their career advancement. Most of them found themselves confronted with an assumption they didn’t agree with but that they had allowed to underpin their opinions on a matter of national importance.

A few of the young women in class began to make the connection to their own experience. “Oh, yeah,” one said, “I have a manager who is so offensive—he always stares at us waitresses too much and puts his hands on us whenever he can—but I haven’t quit my job! We all just ignore him. And it’s a nothing job.” Every female in the class could cite at least one instance of sexual harassment that she had let slide. We agreed that none of us would quit a job over it unless there was actual threat of rape or a high level of severity and directness in the harassment, but that this did not erase the fact of the harassment. It was a daily part of our collective lives.

By the end of class, because they could understand why Anita Hill might have stayed in her job in spite of harassment, they no longer deemed her a liar. I will never forget their mouths hanging open in disbelief at what they had been duped into repeating from the media to friends and family members. They rushed off after class to correct themselves. Thomas, of course, had already been approved as a Supreme Court justice.

I wonder about this kind of thing in the media. It seems to me that both the “neutral” media and the progressive factions do too little to correct this kind of blatantly stupid and unsupported claim. They do too little to monitor the use of language in blatantly deceptive ways. Some, including, of course, FOX News, are notorious for participating in this kind of ridiculous bias themselves (several examples here and one here that’s particularly about twisting of language). Lately, even our senators and representatives have felt free to make utterly false and ridiculous claims, and later to say they didn’t mean them as factual or to insist on defending their mischaracterizations. Only in these most blatant of examples are they called out on it.

For instance, in response to an email I sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott’s ridiculous decision to sign off on establishment of a new (unneeded) state university in Florida, I received a reply containing this statement: “Governor Scott’s top priority this legislative session was adding $1.06 billion in new funding for K-12 education.” First, nothing in Scott’s email responded to the subject I had addressed. And second, this is bull. Scott has been ballyhooing his great increase in state funding for K-12 education this year, after he cut $1.3 billion last year. A few reporters note toward the end of their articles that Scott’s budget doesn’t even replace what he has previously cut, but the headlines mostly remain that he is raising the budget. (Notice that this blogger put a more accurate headline on the same article published with an innocuous-sounding headline in the Palm Coast Observer. But, hey, at least the reporter mentions the facts.)

I believe that these twisted uses of language are one of the reasons why our society has become so divided and discussions so disharmonious. I think that we need to do all we can every time we hear these false uses of language to stop them in their tracks, even if it means making conversation halting. The fact is that it’s one thing to disagree about the substance of things and another for someone to lie in order to exaggerate our disagreements.

There are many examples, but I have gone on long enough. Today’s exhortation, again in support of so many friends who are ending long semesters of teaching freshman comp (and other courses that attempt to teach critical thinking), is: REMEMBER THE ENTHYMEME! Talk about the enthymeme. Pick apart the enthymeme.

School’s Out & The Little Red Schoolbook

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Today’s song (lyrics here) is a little old anthem to help all my friends get through the next week or so (or more for those in el-hi) to the end of the school year. It took me a long time to realize that teachers feels the same sense of relief at the end of the year that students do.

Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” dates to 1972, but I was still a goody-two-shoes child then and didn’t fully appreciate it until I was in high school and going through my own teenage rebellion. Even then, I was rebellious in a goody-two-shoes way. I wasn’t smoking in the parking lot, at least most of the time, and I wasn’t yet drinking or losing my sexual innocence. I was just disobedient and disrespectful to my teachers.

Watching the above version of “School’s Out,” filmed at a concert in Sweden, made me think of one of my inspirations for my rebellion, The Little Red Schoolbook. (I mistakenly thought it originated in Sweden, but it was Denmark.) The Little Red Schoolbook made the rounds in the U.S. about the same time “School’s Out” did.

I don’t remember much about my own rebellion, except that I got thrown permanently out of geometry class and that the school administrators summoned my parents to confer about how to make me behave. My geometry teacher frequently assigned students who whispered in class to copy out passages from books as extra homework. He often suggested the Bible as a source. When I received this punishment one day, I chose The Little Red Schoolbook as my source—a passage about how authoritarian teachers are actually insecure. “All grown-ups are paper tigers…” “If you’re bored, you only learn how to be bored.” And so on. Mr. Houser greeted this with outrage. The one detail I will never forget is the shade of red his face turned when his eyes fell on the words I had copied out in my prissy schoolgirl hand. I was satisfied with that.

It’s interesting to me how those mixed feelings about school have stayed with me even though I chose a life in education. That doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy teaching, but I feel a constant tension with these issues of authority. And even my fellow academics, most of whom I believe generally love school more purely than I do, get burned out and look forward to summer or whatever short breaks we may get.

We don’t get cut many breaks in education these days, especially not in public education. When I found a video excerpt of a documentary about the Australian release of The Little Red Schoolbook, called As It Happened: The Book That Shook the World (2007), I was struck by its emphasis on the possibility of students striking. I had just posted on Facebook about the sorry state of higher education funding in the state of Florida and noted that “IMHO it’s time to start thinking about strikes, though we are all too grateful just to have a job.” I guess the rabble-rousing Little Red Schoolbook is still somewhere inside of me, though I have long since been absorbed into the status quo and the nation has backslid in terms of progressive education.

Below is the short strike-related documentary excerpt, and a longer, more general one is here.

Here’s to dreams-soon-to-come-true of summer, freedom, and much-needed rebellion.