Archive | June, 2009

Poetry Blogs You Should Be Reading

25 Jun

In my long blogging absence I’ve negleted to highlight two great blogs about poetry and the process of writing poetry:

1. First Book Interviews: Keith Montesano interviews Rauan Klassnik in his 21st interview for the series (while in the midst of getting his own first book published).  Choice excerpt:

Yes there’s certainly a lot of violence in Holy Land. I don’t think it’s gratuitous though. And, yes, there’s also a lot of tenderness. Perhaps some of the tenderness is gratuitous. But I’m quite sentimental and as much as I guard against it does come through in the poems sometimes. I’ll cry over just about anything. Over a raindrop. The latest Star Trek movie. An old man in a doorway.

2. How A Poem Happens: For aspiring poets–or those who simply want’s to peal back the the veil of inspiration and Romantic ideas about poets–Brian Brodeuer asks poets about their process writing and shaping a single poem.  The latest post takes a look at Philp White’s “Six O’Clock Flight to the Interment”.  An excerpt:

What is American about this poem?

Even if death is the great universal, love and grief, and attitudes toward time and place, self and other, are all tinged, if not shaped, by culture. I’m sure the poem is American in some way. But it doesn’t make a point of it.

Saving Globalization from the Poets

18 Jun

Jeremy Schmall has a post over at HTML Giant that argues that poetry’s larger cultural irrelevance makes it a useful site of resistance against globalization.  Schmall’s description of globalization (and capitalism in general) however, is mostly caricature bolstered by some hand-waving and talk about the power of imagination.  The central mistake is, I think, an attempt to define “true culture” against market exchanges:

The crucial point here is understanding the difference between a consumer market and true culture. A consumer market is based on what kinds of people buy what kinds of things, i.e. how to make money by selling what to whom. True culture is the spread of what is critical to people, beyond the control of corporate manipulation, and without regard to profitability; culture is precisely how humanity itselfunderstands humanity itself. Capitalism seeks to manipulate this process by producing its own manufactured meaning; if it can control the endpoints, it can control the means to achieving those endpoints, e.g. if you want to be a “hip enlightened nerd,” here’s your type of shoe, TV show, soft drink, and automobile.

As a categorical tool for thinking about these different relationships, the cultural/market (Geminschaft and Gesellschaft) are, in the abstract, useful.  But Schmall defines “true culture” as that which is “critical to people,” and then cites poetry’s continued existence in the face of overwhelming forces that poetry must be critical to people while neglecting all of the other things we consider “critical” that are part of market exchanges.  As someone who values and writes poetry, I’ll readily agree that poetry (in whatever form) had be deemed important, across cultures and historical epochs. But what about the most critical resources and goods like food, clothing, and shelter? We consider these part of cultures (and often leave their distribution to the market, with some controls and exceptions).  There are many creative, cultural products and traditions that are part of market exchanges and the result of market forces (think of something as simple as French toast or stews in cooking; both use leftover or day old ingredients as a creative response to limited resources).

Moreover, Schmall’s description of capitalism oversimplifies things to the point of distortion:

A consensus has emerged that our current place of existence—severe economic crisis and pervasive paranoia—can be blamed on poor management, that with a few tweaks—tighter regulations, less leveraging, more honest accounting—the catastrophe unfolding before us could’ve been avoided; but what has really been revealed is a crisis of our collective imaginations. It’s been revealed that we were incapable of imagining a world without a receding economic horizon that must be sped toward at an increasingly rapid pace, despite the fact that the faster we sprint—the longer we work with increasing productivity—the faster it recedes; that we failed to imagine our lives without consumer electronics, name brands, oversized homes, green lawns, shopping malls, and automobiles; that we failed to imagine for ourselves a world we could truly thrive in.

How has increasing productivity lead to “a receding economic horizon”?  I’d argue (or agree, as the case may be) that increasing income (the result of increasing productivity) shouldn’t be the only measure of welfare and flourishing in a society, but the list of consumerist evils (name brands, shopping malls, oversized homes) is simple hand-waving.  How do any of these things prevent us of from thriving (the argument that we don’t pay the true costs of these–the negative externalities–is a valid one, but one that has a market/government solution, but Schmall rejects these in favor of improving our “collective imaginations”)?

Finally, consider also that “true culture” can be restrictive in ways that inhibit flourishing and reduce welfare (whether material or something more abstract).  There are many cultures that have cultural practices, dress codes, mores, and roles that aren’t the result of the market, but tightly inscribe what women should do and wear, or what jobs a certain ethnic or religious sub-group may hold.  These are real restrictions on flourishing (women can’t earn a living not provided by a man, can’t be educated and improve their own understanding) that have nothing to do with the market.  Contrary to what many of globalization’s critics argue (or assume about their work of economists and other proponenets of markets) there isn’t a single market policy or process of liberalization that a country must persue (see Dani Rodrik”s work).  But what Schmall is describing is a caricacture of capitalism, a caricarture with little explanatory power.

In Defense of Writing Programs

12 Jun

Actually, this isn’t technically a defense of writing programs; I don’t think writing programs need defending*.  Rather, it’s a quick look at what I believe to be some of the unexamined (or at least not widely cited) benefits of writing programs.  In a much discussed review essay of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, Louis Menand lays out the raison d’etre of the book and one of the inescapable features of the modern (post-war) literary era:

As McGurl points out, the university is where most serious fiction writers have been produced since the Second World War. It has also been the place where most serious fiction readers are produced: they are taught how to read in departments of literature. McGurl’s claim is simple: given that most of the fiction that Americans write and read is processed through the higher-education system, we ought to pay some attention to the way the system affects the outcome.

The proliferation of creative-writing programs is sometimes cited as a sign of fiction and poetry’s decline; if poets and authors had to produce works the literate public actually wanted to buy from their local bookseller then more people would be reading (or at least there wouldn’t be so much surplus literature produced that few people are interested in reading).   But these are two separate claims: 1) That the supply of literature, in some way, determines demand (through some unseen magical process) and that 2) There is an overproduction of literature.  The second claim is most likely true, but it also irrelevant (at least considering the other possible options).  It’s a matter of how we want to go about supporting literature and the arts.  This requires a little bit of explanation

Writing programs do not choose who the next great writer will be.  Readers, critics, and publishers help determine that.  So if writing programs don’t necessarily produce great writers, what are they good for (besides the aforementioned benefits, which aren’t particular to writing programs)?

  1. Writing programs make up a large, decentralized subsidy . This is my Hayekian argument for the MFA. Most art produced can’t survive the whims and vagaries of the market by itself, so it needs support from other sources.  This is okay, given that, for whatever reason, we make a lot about appreciating the arts and like the idea of having a country that produces its fair share of great cultural works in addition to cutting edge technology and iPhones.  Universities and colleges are a good public/private mix of funding that doesn’t pursue one type of literature or any one school of writing within literature.  So (for the sake of argument) Columbia University can have a “house style” if they like, but that still leaves several hundred other programs that can have their own different house styles (NB: From my experience, this isn’t the case–programs rarely enforce a party line and exclude writers who won’t toe it.  But there are many programs that favor certain kinds of writers and thus tend to attract student interested in writing in that style.  The bottom line is that even if programs produced a kind of “house style,” its unlikely that they would all produce the same one, giving us a variety of literary works to choose from.)
  2. Writing programs are an alternative to other kinds of literary study found in English departments. In many ways, Creative-writing programs ask many of the traditional questions of literary study, without as much of the academic apparatus of theory and cultural studies: What makes this text a great work?  How do the author’s choices affect our understanding of the work?  What is it that we admire in a text?  That is not to say that the Literature faculty of English departments are not concerned with these questions.  I’m not trying draw an arbitrary line between those Theory weirdos deconstructing Moby Dick, and the true defenders of traditional culture in creative-writing programs (I’m aware the some people who dismiss big Theory commit little theory).  But I do think it says something about the practice (or at least the study) of literature when many undergrads choose creative-writing classes as their entry into the discipline (especially considering that many–if not most–of those students will not become published writers, at least not professionally).

This last point is something I’d like to explore further, but for right now I think these are the two biggest, unexplored arguments in favor of the increasing influence of writing programs(to my limited knowledge–please highlight anyone who has raised either of these points elsewhere**).  As an institution, creative-writing programs are decentralized, which means that it’s responding to different demands in geographically (and aesthetically) different locations, and that this demend represents a popular alternative to the kinds of literary analysis and interpretation done in other parts of English departments.


* Not because writing programs are self-evidently useful or productive, but because the sorts of things programs are good for (time to write, a community of writers) are either valuble to someone intersted in writing or they aren’t (or are provided through other means–in which case an MFA is unnecessary).

** Actually, now that I think about it, David Wojahn makes a similar argument to my second claim in his book Strange Good Fortune.