Stray Thoughts from a Failed Experiment
As Reviewed By: J. S. Renau
I should begin by saying that, concerning the education of the poet, the special focus for this issue of CPR, I am deeply conflicted. To be sure, I feel a poet should have an education; it’s just that I haven’t a clue as to what it should constitute, or for that matter, what “education” properly means in this context. Should one presume that education here is contemporary idiom for what we used to call philology? Or is it a broader term meant to encompass something more than books? Perhaps it’s the “training” one receives in MFA programs? Furthermore, should the poet’s education be all that different from anyone else’s? That last question rather anticipates my bias regarding the matter, for despite the obvious Romantic pretension of it, I can’t seem to shake the idea that poets aren’t so much educated as they are born. Not very helpful in exploring the topic at hand, I know, but I feel better having said it.
[private]I feel sheepish in that I may be at least partially responsible for this issue’s topic. Earlier this year, during an email exchange with Garrick Davis, I revealed that I was conducting a little experiment in which I had scoured the Internet, willy-nilly, and collected over 50 syllabi for undergraduate Modern Poetry seminars and asked if he would be interested in an essay discussing the results. It would seem that Mr. Davis was interested in this and a good deal more pertaining to poetry and education, for shortly thereafter he informed me of this special issue’s topic, and suddenly my feeler had become a rock-solid engagement, irrespective of whether or not the results of the experiment proved worthy.
Unfortunately, the results of my endeavor were not very edifying and tended to bring up as many questions as they answered. My goal in conducting the admittedly unscientific experiment was to take a snapshot of how Modern poetry was being taught at the undergraduate level-which poets were seen as “representative,” which topics and trends were worth noting, etc.
Sifting through such an abundance of syllabi was about as exciting as updating my address book, but there were moments of mild hilarity, such as finding one professor’s “Worksheet for Evaluating Anthologies,” which seems to me to be the height of academic excess. Aside from such isolated fruitiness, the drudge work of comparing reading lists and broad, topical course sections yielded results that, despite the so-called Culture Wars, were pretty traditional in scope and content. The preponderance of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Moore, Hughes, Frost, Williams, and Yeats was notable. Five or six of these poets in various combinations appeared on nearly every syllabus. A secondary list would have H. D., Thomas Hardy, Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, W. H. Auden, and Robinson Jeffers. From there, trace elements of any number of poets, ranging from John Crowe Ransom to Louis Zukofsky, can be found. From such a cursory examination, if the results can be trusted in the least, those poets deemed “canonical” last century would appear to have staying power.
At this point I should add a few qualifications. Curiously, it would seem that the professorate cannot agree what period of time should be covered in a Modern poetry class. For example, some begin with Whitman and Dickinson, alleging that these poets provide vital background to the period, although in my mind the student’s introduction to Modernism would be better served by reading 19th century French literature and Arthur Symons’ The Symbolist Movement in Literature rather than the anomalous poets above. If the variations in starting points could be termed a lack of consensus, then determining the end of Modernism is an absolute food fight. Some cut it off at World War Two, others include Middle Generation poets such as Lowell, Berryman, and Bishop, and still others push the date as far forward as the Kennedy administration, taking in the Beats and early “Confessional” poetry.
Another factor that frustrates an apples-to-apples comparison of syllabi concerns American poetry as separate and distinct from English-language poetry. Many of the syllabi I used for my exploration excluded British and Commonwealth poetry, and more than any other poet, Auden tended to get short-changed (after all, he did become a U.S. citizen), though this could owe as much to his youth as to his nationality. At any rate, expatriation was such a giant part of what constituted the Modernist sensibility, it seems silly to teach a course where national identity becomes an exclusionary principle.
Also of note in comparing syllabi is the number of poets taught during the seminar. Although I don’t how it is possible, some professors “teach” as many as 20 or 30 poets a semester. One can only wonder at what kind of treatment Modernist long poems receive on such a crowded syllabus, but fortunately, the majority confined its reading list to fewer than 10 poets per seminar. Without descending into polemics (that comes later in the essay), the professors who teach more than 10 poets tend to be those who seek out “alternative” voices or those who have an ideological axe to grind. As a practical matter, I can easily imagine that such a robust syllabus means that no poet receives the depth or care he should, but without taking the courses, who can say for certain how the poets are taught, and this line of inquiry touches on the much larger issue of criticism and current literary theory and how they are incorporated into the classes. I was mildly and pleasantly surprised that the majority of syllabi I reviewed seemed to give pride of place to the poetry itself. Of course, there were a few exceptions, where books of criticism, like Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, were required reading.
A final, yet important, consideration is one that cannot be gauged from a random survey of syllabi, namely, the frequency with which these courses are taught. With the rise of film studies, cultural studies, communications, and literary theory-often under the auspices of the Department of English-undergraduates likely have fewer opportunities to engage in period studies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some of my favorite seminars as an undergraduate were organized thematically. Yet for sheer comprehensiveness, the exposure a student gets from the period survey is unparalleled. When one considers that many of the undergraduates served by these courses never venture beyond the boundaries of their undergraduate education, that range of exposure represents a last chance to discover some of the treasures of the English language. Although I have no evidence, not even of the anecdotal variety, to confirm my suspicion, I would guess that, in most large state universities, it is difficult for an undergraduate student of English to piece together an academic career that provides thorough instruction in English literature because the classes are being taught less frequently than before; on this point, since I became an academic refugee several years ago, I would welcome edification from those in our readership who might have hard data one way or the other.
As typical of my endeavors and a chief reason why I eschewed doctoral work, the side effects of this altogether unsatisfactory “study” ended up being far more interesting to me than the purported goal. One such side effect concerns the anthologies of Modern poetry that most professors use in the classroom. As we have seen already from the nutty “Worksheet for Evaluating Anthologies” referred to earlier, academics tend to take these things more seriously than others, but to say that their effect on education is nugatory would be equally foolhardy.
What particularly struck me was the role anthologies play in organizing and categorizing the audiences for poetry. Of course, much of the taxonomy is drawn from the academic Holy Trinity of race, class, and gender, but that’s hardly the beginning or end of it. If you are a New Formalist (typically, stodgy white males), there is Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism; if you are a Christian, perhaps you’d like Upholding Mystery: An Anthology of Contemporary Christian Poetry; if you are a pet lover who has recently lost a loved one, then consolation can be had from buying Angel Pawprints: Reflections On Loving and Losing a Canine Companion. There literally is no end to the stuff and, given the commercial success of these books (they far outsell volumes of poetry by single poets), it would seem people don’t much mind being monkeys of the publishing houses.
The pattern of consumption pretty much conforms to what has come before, meaning that we define our identities and authenticate them through consumer choices. It’s abundantly obvious how this plays out in practice. Look at the billion-dollar industry that is “Christian publishing,” which supplies us titles such as The What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook and When Angels Appear (Tiny Treasures/Priceless Thoughts). But such laziness is not confined to the traditional concept of the middle class, for there are a growing number of lifestyle publications for people who are not so mainstream. For example, after an evening of skimming the literary pleasures of Masquerade: Queer Poetry in America to the End of World War II, you can whip up one of the delicacies found in The Queer Cookbook: A Fully-Guided Tour to the Secrets of Success in the Homosexual Kitchen!. I must say I have no objection to such lifestyle-oriented products in and of themselves, although it is a little scary how easily people feel compelled to reduce their whole identity to little more than a brand name.
Those anthologies that are the products of niche marketing are successful, one could argue, because they more accurately reflect the way people actually respond to poetry. The poems that we remember and cherish are the ones that hit us where we live, that speak to us in our everyday lives. Is it any wonder, then, that a young black teenage girl will find Rita Dove of more interest than, say, Charles Olson? Is the educational process supposed to wean her off of Ms. Dove and lead her on to Homer? Is the interest in Ms. Dove’s work supposed to become a template for appreciating any and all worthy literature?
Part of the confusion regarding these issues-and I see anthologies being an effect rather than a cause-concerns the motives of educators in their use of poetry in the classroom. On a very basic level what do we hope to accomplish in “teaching” poetry? It seems clear to me that we can discern three principal motives, but they are found in various pedagogical amalgams-in other words, they’re not mutually exclusive, but because the question itself is so rarely examined in an honest way, some of these combinations of motives can be quite strange.
The first motive draws its inspiration from the very old tradition of classicism, but of course, classicism is pretty much dead in terms of being the touchstone of a liberal education. My poor summarization of classical studies would be, simply put, that we broaden our awareness of the world and of ourselves by interacting with the enlightened texts of the Classical Period. That means acquiring a mastery of Greek and Latin, which every learned person up through the 20th century had. In this curriculum, poets were seen as masters of the word; there may be individuals with a superior sense of rhetoric, grammar, or oratory, but the poets synthesized all of these and a good deal more. To study ancient Latin and Greek poetry is to study the language itself in all its luminous splendor. Classicism may have died, but some of the habits of mind persist in the teaching of poetry. Those instructors who use poetry in the classroom as stylistic examples of superior composition are indebted to the Classical tradition.
My intention here is not to reduce the whole period to mere style, which is surely wrong, but rather to highlight how poetry came into the classroom in the first place. Our learned forebears did not read Lucretius in order to understand the composition of the soul (they had Christianity for that); they read him because of his masterful use of the hexameter, because of his ability to write Latin verse unlike anyone else-where even his encyclopedic, pseudo-scientific content approached sublime expression. And so it is today that many teachers of poetry are motivated similarly, to seek out, teach, and promote the most accomplished verse so that students might emulate the model (not necessarily in verse-writing, but in adopting habits of thought and expression). Of course, today’s teachers of whom I speak are not working with Latin; they’re teaching a vernacular, living language, and this somewhat complicates the picture, as we shall see.
If the first motive is given over to style, then the second motive concerns process, or perhaps, thought itself. Many teachers will claim that poetry allows students to think in a substantially different way than that to which they are accustomed. They’ll call it sideways thinking, thinking with the right side of the brain, or some such vague construction. Presumably, this kind of thinking produces a range of vision that can’t be had any other way. The origin of this concept of poetry is thoroughly Romantic, though a fine modern restatement of this approach to poetry can be found in Kenneth Rexroth’s “Unacknowledged Legislators and Art pour Art” (1958):
As time goes on and the poem is absorbed by more and more people, it performs historically and socially the function of a symbolic criticism of values. It widens and deepens and sharpens the sensibility and overcomes that dullness to significant experience that the Jesuits used to call “invincible ignorance.” People are by and large routinized in their lives. A great many of our responses to experience are necessarily dulled. If to a certain extent they weren’t, we’d all suffer from nervous breakdowns and die of high blood pressure at the age of twenty. The organism has to protect itself. It cannot be completely raw.
What the arts do, and particularly what the most highly organized art of speech does, is to develop and refine this very rawness and make it selective. Poetry increases and guides our awareness to immediate experience and to the generalizations which can be made from immediate experience. It organizes sensibility so that it is not wasted. Unorganized sensibility is simply irritability. If every sense impression, every emotion, every response were as acute as it could be, we would soon go to pieces. The arts build in us scales and hierarchies of response.
The third motive concerns what I would call content, or perhaps more pejoratively, ideology. Literature generally, and poetry specifically, can be a tool for defining group identity, strengthening group awareness, and for building community. This can be seen in something as common and simple as a hymn, the group expression of worshipful praise by that arch-community, the Church. A more forceful example can be seen in the various “national literature” movements of the 19th century. These movements typically involved peoples, such as the Latvians or Slovaks, who, due to their small numbers and historical subjection to foreign rule, were very aggressive in using literature as an expression of national identity.
Of course, we in the English-speaking world most readily identify this type of fervor with the Celtic Revival since so much of the literature was written in English, but there are numerous other examples. And so poetry was written in order to create community, or in some cases, to justify the creation of the state. The movements in large part consisted of writing down, collecting, and publishing old folk songs, not unlike what W. C. Handy did in the United States with the Blues, for many of these nations had no literary past other than what was given to them by the Church or by their imperial masters. There were other, more exotic, expressions of national literature, like the assembly line of “national epics” that were created in the 19th century, works like Detvan and Lāčplēsis that never enjoyed much of a readership outside the countries where they were written. In fact, I can’t be sure that they were ever translated into English-it could be quite a chore even getting your hands on them. Without intending to hurt the feelings of our Latvian and Slovak friends, it is quite a safe assumption to say that should those books be lost forever, it would not much matter to us, considering that 99.9% of the English-speaking world has not heard of these works, much less read them; however, our disposition toward these works does not make them any less important to the audience for whom they were intended, and that seems to uncover the heart of the matter regarding this third motive: to teach poems with regard to content-specifically ideological content that seeks to instill values, habits of mind, politics; in short, self-identity-a teacher needs to be reasonably sure the classroom in fact represents a “community.”
I think it’s fairly reasonable to assume that Motives Two and Three, namely thought and content, are the most popular among today’s professorate, yet it’s funny how often the justifications given for these approaches to poetry derive from the language associated with the worst of classical snobbery. For example, textbooks will claim that one writer or another is “undervalued” or will point to this or that work as an “unacknowledged masterpiece.” The point here is not that writers and books aren’t currently undervalued, but rather to point out that each motive for teaching poetry, each approach, has its own set of standards. That seems obvious enough for Motives One and Two-refer to the last two millennia of literary criticism to help you make sense of what those standards are or should be. But what about the third motive? By what standards does one judge ideological content? And who does the judging? The “intended audience,” that is, the community for whom it was written? The general world of letters? These questions lead us into choppy waters.
Take, for example, The Anthology of Modern American Poetry, a relatively new book first published a few years ago by Oxford University Press. The anthology has a companion web site hosted by the University of Illinois that offers teachers and students a burgeoning mass of material-essays, interviews, and assorted prose-dedicated to the 20th century American poetry found in the anthology itself. That the project is decidedly left of center is no secret. MAPS’ home page is adorned with a pink and red illustration that seems lifted from the Moscow Metro circa 1935; the book’s and web site’s editor is Cary Nelson, an old Marxist warhorse who wears the label “tenured radical” as a badge of honor. Nelson achieved some small amount of notoriety in the 1990s with the publication of Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis-a book that sought to reveal the sorry state of the untenured college instructor and in so doing angered a good many inside the university-and polemical tracts addressing Culture War issues. However, it is Nelson’s previous and ongoing scholarship in poetry that informs the Oxford anthology, and his work is taken up largely with, in the words of one sympathetic scholar, “reconfiguring U.S. modernism to include not only women and people of color but also leftist writers ‘disappeared’ by anticommunism.”
The most striking editorial decision of the book involves the inclusion of a section titled “Japanese American Concentration Camp Haiku,” and judging from the syllabi I encountered whilst looking for Modern Poetry courses, the section is actually used in the classroom by quite a few professors. The section is essentially a collection of separately composed haiku by inmates of World War Two concentration camps which were then collected by Nelson and published for our edification. This section, and the anthology itself, has been commented on many times, perhaps most entertainingly by Marjorie Perloff. I mention it here as a means of showing how ideologically driven the book is. There’s no possible way to judge these particular poems; there’s nothing one can really say. Even on the MAPS website, which is replete with critical essays, the only supporting texts for the haiku section are government documents, essays about concentration camps and similar materials. Not a stitch of criticism, again, because what can one possibly say? The only editorial justification possible is one based on ideological purity, and this is a dangerous game, for it invites reactions against it that are equally ideological in nature, and that’s a prescription for a really big pissing contest that has nothing really to do with poetry.
As Perloff touched on in her essay, and as I have mentioned earlier, it’s the audience dynamic that is most puzzling. Who does Mr. Nelson believe the audience is for his ideological project? In marketing terms the book is positioned as a competitor to the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Literature; in other words, it is meant, primarily, to be a textbook used in the high school and college setting. From one perspective, namely the cynical one, this makes sense, for only a captive audience would suffer the excremental badness of much of the “poetry” in this book. Students may be excessively lazy, but they’re not stupid-they too will wonder what the motives are for being subjected to such art when so much of it clearly is irrelevant to them or even contrary to their own fledgling self-identities. Once the proselytizing motive is unmasked for what it is-and at the end of the day, the only “standard” such art can claim is adherence to its own faith-it’s poetry that suffers most. At the very least it inculcates in the student the notion that political rectitude, or ideological purity, alone is sufficient in appreciating poetry. At worst, it will create a nasty backlash, not only against the likes of Mr. Nelson, but also against the art he has co-opted for his crusade, and that backlash will utilize the same vacuous justifications, only in service of another, opposing ideology.
Ultimately, my complaint has little to do with what I think of Mr. Nelson, or Marxism, or any philosophy that seeks to funnel all joy and pleasure into a sterile ideal of social justice; after all, I think I’ve made my case as to why I think teaching poetry in this way is wrong-headed, and that would apply to any ideology so facilely presented. Rather, it’s the intellectual dishonesty of it all that makes the whole notion of “teaching” poetry a joke. In this regard at least Mr. Nelson comes off as a straight-shooter; you know his program because he puts it right out there in front of your face. But what about other professors who lack the courage of their convictions, who seek to teach poetry in this shallow manner without an appropriate heads-up to their students, who should limit their claims about the works under consideration to the ideological realm? But often that’s not what happens, and this transcends the old, tired left-right divide and begins to touch on a great deal of contemporary poetry, irrespective of ideology. Instead we have the most maudlin praise heaped on poets due to cronyism, or because a professor (or critic) is sympathetic to the underlying political or cultural implications of their work. And that praise is drawn straight from the vocabulary once reserved for the venerable old books of the tradition.
Take, for example, the anthology of Christian poetry referred to earlier, Upholding Mystery. On the back of the dust jacket, one Jonathan Holden is quoted as follows, “The anthology, Upholding Mystery, edited by David Impastato, is as revolutionary a document as Pound’s Des Imagistes.” Well (newsflash), it’s not as revolutionary a document as Pound’s Des Imagistes, but for a certain type of Christian poet who so desperately needs to believe that Christian poetry actually matters, you’re willing to dupe yourself into any number of ridiculous claims. Note I said “Christian poet,” because I can imagine actual Christians don’t need the comparison to Pound in order to believe Christian poetry might have some relevance to them, but that of course requires poets and editors to actually consider the audience.
And that’s the problem with so many anthologies, whether it’s Upholding Mystery, which attempts to conceal its irrelevance via self-deception, The Anthology of Modern American Poetry, which seems to have absolutely no concept of audience other than the one imprisoned in a classroom, or the newly revised Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, which is an unmitigated disaster of a book. In a show of me-too people power, the new Norton in many ways simply steals from some of Cary Nelson’s editorial “innovations”. Perhaps, in Microsoft fashion, W. W. Norton thought it could maintain its near monopoly in the Modern poetry textbook market by co-opting its main competitor’s differentiating features, but whatever the reason, the new anthology, edited by Jahan Ramazani, proves itself to be equally challenged concerning its audience. It’s a confusing mess of a book, seeking to be everything to everyone, or as one colleague summed it up after browsing its contents, “It’s like panning for gold in the sewer.” Already an unwieldy beast back in 1973 when Richard Ellmann, the previous editor, first worked on it, the book is now a pilotless supertanker running aground, choking its audience on an unmeasured flow of words (see Sunil Iyengar’s essay in the CPR archive about how the Norton managed to stuff less poetry into more pages). The muddled nature of the Norton is a direct result of its not being clear regarding its own motives. Some poems are included because for a half a century the audience for poetry has thought them brilliant; the inclusion of others seem motivated by nothing more than ideology or as a kind of literary sensitivity training.
The editors want us to believe that a more inclusive book is better, but never really justify why this is so, nor do they supply any substantive criteria for what work gets included. When a reader comes across Richard Wright’s lousy poetry in the Anthology of Modern American Poetry, there is at least an ability to see the point (Wright was an outspoken Communist, and for those scoring at home, it probably helps his cause that he was black); the Norton, on the other hand, manifests no unity of purpose other than the notional good that a bigger book is a better book. But no matter how much one reeks of the turnip truck, one can never quite accept or believe that the book has no editorial point of view, that, like some tablet from the heavens, it just appears fully formed in the pitifully small poetry section of the neighborhood superstore. So you’re left scratching your head, pondering the jaded but likely explanation: Norton caved in to using a more ideological approach in order to reclaim the market share that Oxford had taken from it. As for the audience, again the classroom-as-gulag is about the only place that would suffer it.
When considered from the perspective of the classroom, the Norton Anthology is, to borrow a phrase from Henry Adams, the book that creates a type but not a will. The Norton aesthetic writ large is one that contains everything and values nothing. The understanding of 20th century poetry that it confers is not unlike the understanding one gains of a country from studying a topographic map. I can have my Robert Frost and Marianne Moore, you your Louis Zukofsky and Mina Loy, and we can all occupy the same ramshackle dwelling. Better yet, we don’t have to actually talk to one another about the greater good of the art, because thanks to Norton, we’ve learned that being inclusive is the uttermost virtue.
But take a closer look at that inclusiveness, for it is not what it seems. In her aforementioned review of Mr. Nelson’s anthology, Marjorie Perloff astutely points out the notable omission of certain black male poets, “evidently because they are male poets who don’t write straightforward lyrics about oppression and victimization.” A similar charge could be leveled against the new Norton. For American Indian poets, all roads must lead back to the reservation; for any number of immigrant poets, it’s the oppressive process of cultural assimilation robbing them of their identity; for poets writing from third-world or Commonwealth nations, it’s the (apparently) endlessly enchanting notion of the “reversal.” It’s not that these themes and topics aren’t appropriate for poetry, but they are a tad tired and predictable, especially when you see poems play out the same way over and over in the relatively short space accorded to each poet. I would say here that, if reading poetry must become a study in ethnography, couldn’t we have a wider variety of themes and topics? But I’ve read enough contemporary poetry to know that the diminution of subject matter is often a fault of the poets themselves who appear to suffer from a kind autism regarding their own ethnic and sexual identity, that in effect, they are quite willing to take up residence in the literary ghettos set up for them by the anthologies.
Again, it’s a question of audience; perhaps those readers who belong to the relevant communities find endless pleasure in topics the poets explore, but I doubt very much that Suzy Q. will gain much of an appreciation for poetry whilst sitting through her poetry survey at State U.
But is that what it’s come to? The machinations of identity politics carving up the audience for poetry along ethnic, cultural, and political lines? Perhaps so. I think of William Butler Yeats, a poet of notable political engagement, who was every bit as committed to his creed as any one of the hacks found in today’s anthologies, but thankfully his poetry is informed by something other than mere politics. After all, he was a master of the word, and they are not. When the Black and Tan forces were scouring Ireland, coercing the population through threatened and actual physical abuse, Yeats responded as poets should, not with political pabulum, but with “The Second Coming”. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold….” Where American poetry is concerned, perhaps there was no center to begin with.[/private]