The Poetry of Academe

The Poetry of Academe

Through academic courses,  literary criticism, MFA programs and support for the small presses, the universities play a critical  role in today’s serious poetry. But what is it about academe that produces such indifferent poetry – generally mundane reflections on subjects that would not merit inclusion in a local newspaper? I’m not going to name offenders, but if the later selections in the Oxford Book of American Poetry {1} are anything to go by, the art form is now in a bad way.

Perhaps it’s the politics, what commentators on 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School, expressed as:

There are certainly kind and decent people in academia … most definitely. But this post is spot-on. With everyone working on (practically) lifetime appointments and nothing other than grad students and relatively meaningless awards and publications to hold over one another, the politics and infighting can get very ugly, very fast. {2}

The level of pettiness and downright disrespect that I’ve seen in academia is absolutely shocking, especially at the Ivies. You will find politics in any office or organization, certainly, but the concept of “professionalism” is almost totally absent in academe. {2}

The venerable emeritus professors still at Yale when I entered graduate school [in the 1960s] may have been reserved, puritanical WASPs, but they were men of honor who had given their lives to scholarship. Today in the elite schools, honor and ethics are gone. {2}

But no, there’s very little nastiness in the poetry published by the university presses: quite the opposite – it’s over-cautious in the main, an anaemic prissiness showing little gift for apposite diction, emotive phrasing, challenging subjects, or anything else that makes poetry memorable. Much is pedestrian thought in pedestrian language, perhaps inevitably so: its authors haven’t read, thought or lived enough to write anything of any value. Before Modernism, poets had long traditions to call on, and could simply allude to a wealth of shared understandings. Today poets must make their own solitary journeys across unrewarding landscapes, carrying everything with them, and therefore, because lacking adequate experience or survival skills, continually making a nuisance of themselves to professional rescue teams and the like.

But, returning to academe, perhaps the tenure track is to blame:

Thanks for your comments on the ridiculous posting that academe is based on merit. What at load of B.S. Tenure breeds mediocrity and academe is ruled by The Tenured Mediocrity. Anyone who doesn’t fit into their P.C. paradigm would be wise to leave academe A.S.A.P. {3}

So perhaps no one dares to put a foot wrong, given the difficulty of attaining tenure. {4} How many of our good poets have been politically correct? Chaucer, no doubt, but he was a court poet. Spencer and Shakespeare, perhaps, but both lived in a police state. Of the others, Eliot, Pound, Hardy, Tennyson, the Romantics, the Augustans, Jonson . . .? None come to me offhand. How many taught at school or university? Before the post-war expansion of higher education in Britain and America, very few I think.  They had independent incomes, pensions provided by wealthy patrons, or wrote poetry as a sideline to playwriting or journalism, or a held country living as curates and parsons, or took subscriptions for substantial translations in the manner of Pope. Etc.

Then possibly it’s the alternative meaning of ‘academic’ that applies, i.e. not of practical relevance, of theoretical interest only. Many academic poems do seem classroom exercises, lacking the deep convictions that come from living in the hard, everyday world. Is your journey really necessary? ran the hoardings in world war two Britain. Perhaps the same should be asked of so much now crowding the small and university presses. Is your poem really necessary? If it’s more of the stuff that everyone else is writing, the answer must surely be no.

End Notes

1. Oxford Book of American Poetry. Chosen and Edited by David Lehman. O.U.P., 2006.
2. 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School: 84. The politics are vicious. Monday, June 11, 2012.
3. 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School: 71. The tenure track is brutal.
4. Should I Just Quit Academia? It’s the last thing I want to do, but I may have no choice by Patrick Iber. Slate, March 2014.


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