Lorine Niedecker’s ‘Lake Superior’
In “Lake Superior,” a poem of historical rumination on the Great Lakes region, derived by Lorine Niedecker from a 1966 vacation journal, there is a brief critical turn amidst appreciations of the landscape and compact accounts of seventeenth-century explorer Pierre-Esprit Radisson, who called Lake Superior “a laborinth of pleasure.” Niedecker draws the reader’s attention to “Iron the common element of earth” as well as “basalt the common dark / in all the Earth.” She features the commonwealth as a geologically coherent reality: “In every living thing,” she writes, “is stuff that once was rock // In blood the minerals / of the rock.” But her salvo, a judgment of human actions on the wild depiction of that landscape, darkens the mood of the poem, and shifts the scale from natural processes of land formation, observed in vivid descriptions of retreating glaciers and “peaks of volcanic thrust,” to that of moral consternation. The brief segment I refer to is simply called “Wild Pigeon,” and it goes like this:
Did not man
maimed by no
mash the cobalt
of that bird
“That bird,” the now-extinct passenger pigeon, enters the poem as an attitude of explicit irony, judging the features of what Niedecker called a commonwealth next to shared mineral distinctions of the region. The mood, more precisely, indicates a morose acknowledgement of human intrusion on natural processes that include millions of years of earthy, geological compression.
I want to discuss this poem because I’m interested in how mood and emotion so often inform or prepare judgments, offering stances toward the world. The language game of Niedecker’s poetry, to borrow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s term for the uses of language in ordinary contexts, takes the experience of the everyday as ground for attention. The Objectivist tradition of writing inspired by William Carlos Williams, Louis Zukofsky, and others, along with contemporary authors like Lyn Hejinian and Joanne Kyger, continues this use of poetry as a “language of inquiry” into the everyday experiences that compose society. The mundane and our many moods in it sustain frameworks of attention in rhetorical encounters that underlie values, or that challenge us to amend certain attitudes or worldviews. Rhetoric, far from being a mere use of figures and tropes as it is often assumed, shapes inquiry and determines modes of truth seeking. By truth I mean the dynamic actions that make the world known. Poetry, similarly, in this Objectivist mode, and in Niedecker’s exemplary “Lake Superior,” shows how individual values and beliefs can be contained within the larger criteria of history and natural science.
Niedecker delivers an enthusiastic concentration of language on objects of everyday experience. Her work suggests not only the temporal and spatial scales that defined the geographic regions of her investigation; it also shows how attitudes, enthusiasms, values, beliefs, and worldviews can be conveyed in everyday language. So much of our communication is informed by phatic utterances, gestures, confirmations or denials of feeling, and occasions to disclose worldviews by way of specific attitudes. Poetry, as Walter Jost argues, “makes evident a way of life.” And a way of life often can be messy, unstable, careless, even as in some of the best poetry we find evidence of persuasion, challenge, and acknowledgement of new positions toward the world. A kind of critical flexibility is required to purchase a hold on any given poem. An author like Niedecker challenges us to measure our personal interests and concerns within what Douglas Crase calls the “evolutional sublime,” a temporal scale that is vast, and in which the meaning of our beliefs and values remains to be discovered.
Niedecker also affords an opportunity to consider the guiding force of mood in everyday experience. I take mood as an extensive presence of an attitude, or conveyance of a belief system or worldview that connects more largely to pathos. From neuroscientific studies we discover that emotion, broadly, can be defined as “episodic, relatively short-term, biologically-based patterns of perception, experience, physiology, action, and communication that occur in response to specific physical and social challenges and opportunities.” Martha Nussbaum in her recent work on political emotions refers to “cognitive appraisals” as important disclosures of emotive capacities, and she considers how they are shaped, invited into participation through the emotional experiences of public life. Nussbaum looks closely at literature and other arts to understand political emotions because poetry is especially important as a mode of inquiry; it accepts the necessity of mood to make sense of experience. Mood establishes a particular kind of bond between author and reader. It conveys how we accept more dominant attitudes or worldviews, or how we deny their influence on our lives. Emerson, as far back as 1832, observed how moods “attend me through every sentence of my writing, & determine the form of every clause.” If, as Jeffrey Walker argues, “rhetorical transactions are immanent in the way things are,” it is often our feelings that first inform how we respond to, and give body to, the various worldviews we encounter.
In his essay “Thinking of Emerson,” Stanley Cavell describes how “moods must be taken as having at least as sound a role in advising us of reality as sense experience has.” Mood negotiates “the ways in which human experience is always already mediated by interest, value, and physical embodiment.” The significant presence of mood in the physicality of experience shifts attention from metaphysical ideals to “everyday life, and the medium of its appearance in ordinary language.” Whether we use terms like Wittgenstein’s “language games” or Kenneth Burk’s dramatistic notion of situated discourse, ordinary uses of language often are shaped by compelling moods that can determine spontaneous forms of judgment expressed in the many facets of the everyday. Quotidian experience, moreover, consists of concepts, arguments, evaluations, and decisions that are negotiated in a practical discourse (phronesis) that often “shows forth,” Jost’s translation of “epi-deixis.” Such showing forth in poetry can instruct attitudes and guide judgments in the condensed play of intellect and mood that heightens understanding of rhetoric’s practical uses.
So how does Lorine Niedecker discover a particular kind of language game in her poem “Lake Superior”? Her interest in geology, history, and geography enables a “showing forth” of Lake Superior that does more than merely document a vacation: it examines cultural and regional history, reflects on relationships between human perspective and geologic time, and enacts judgments that clarify positions established by guiding moods of travel. Such moods are established through objective encounters with “great granite / gneiss and the schists,” and by her reading of Pierre-Esprit Radisson (“long hair, long gun // Fingernails pulled out / by Mohawks”). Niedecker’s relation of the road trip detours from the high modernist investment in “epiphanic events”: instead, her writing compels curiosity, deepening a reader’s capacity for observing the “the centrality of ‘attunement’ and ‘voice’” in an experience of the ordinary. This shift from the modernist notion of epiphansis, a unique and personal manifestation, toward epideixis indicates Niedecker’s rhetorical appreciation for the persuasive and tactile delivery of poetry: the focus is not located in the profound experience of the individual, but on the persuasive social presentation and invitation to a community of readers who encounter the domain of individuality established through poetry.
In this attunement, Niedecker uses what Kenneth Burke called a “qualitative formal progression.” That is, her writing proceeds by way of echo, compression, foreshadowing, and densely refined sequences of linguistic exchange. Lake Superior and its environs mediate a profound discovery between the poet and her words, and between the industrial stresses of 1966 with the abundance of life forms that had proliferated throughout the region. She writes:
Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters
Sault Sainte Marie — big boats
coal-black and iron-ore-red
topped with what white castlework
The waters working together
Gulls playing both sides
Niedecker’s language, like the mineral world, shifts, hardens, transforms. A sense of the impermanence and constantly changing features of landscape pervade “Lake Superior” with what Lyn Hejinian describes as “the measure of felt thought.” A sense of fluidity navigates Niedecker’s attention to land as well as words, and human activity moves through the larger duration of this geologic time. The Canadian Shield on the north side of Lake Superior reveals some of the most ancient rock to be seen in the world. Three-million-year-old granite is exposed there. On this the French traders and Friars established European ways of plunder and prayer. Niedecker does not praise these acts as heroic deeds; nor does she critically revise the ventures of France in the New World: instead, she observes the features of religion and statecraft as they absorb into these geological realities. She writes:
Through all this granite land
the sign of the cross
Beauty: impurities in the rock
And at the blue ice superior spot
priest-robed Marquette grazed
azoic rock, hornblende granite
basalt the common dark
in all the Earth
And his bones of such is coral
raised up out of his grave
were sunned and birch bark-floated
to the straits
Later in the poem, Niedecker moves attention from historical activity to the action of language use, following etymological next to geological nomenclatures. She writes
Ruby of corundum
from changing limestone
kicked up in America’s
you have been in my mind
between my toes
Niedecker’s love of rock is evident in the accompanying journal she kept of her 1966 vacation. The mood is more matter-of-fact, and conveys the curiosity and liveliness of travel. “The agate,” she says in an early entry, “was first found on the shores of a river in Sicily and named by the Greeks. In the Bible (Exodus), this semiprecious stone was seen on the priest’s breastplate.” Between her poem and the accompanying journal, we can see how Niedecker’s communicative practice cohered as if it were a kind of sedimentation: her everyday is absorbed with history, science, literature, and language. In her enthusiasms for place and words we encounter judgments and attitudes that inform our own relationships to notions of commonwealth, and what we value in our personal holdings as well as our public surroundings.
Let me conclude with Davida Charney’s observation of how poetry conducts relationships and performs personal crises in public. If, as Jost argues, there is “an ‘epideictic’ rhetorical disclosure that underlies all argument and that invites us to identification in the first place,” then poets like Niedicker, and the authors of the Psalms Charney discusses, perform strategies of discovery and embody relationships between persons and the environments that give them shape. The strength of the persuasive appeal is carried through dominant moods and attitudes that orient language to worldviews that may instruct future actions in the world. If nothing else, we are readied by our attunement to poetry to bear words and judgments that enhance our capacities with what Burke called “equipment for living.” Niedecker’s exemplary poem to a regional landscape provides insight into the importance of epideictic discourse that gives shape and shows forth “truths” and values that distinguish our convictions and enlarge our abilities to experience the possibilities of discovery belonging to the everyday.
21. I take this insight from statements presented by Davida Charney (Sixteenth Biennial Rhetoric Society of America Conference, San Antonio, TX, May 23, 2014). See also Charney’s book chapter “Taking a Stance toward God: Rhetoric in the Book of Psalms” in Jewish Rhetorics: History, Theory, Practice, ed. Michael Bernard-Donals and Janice W. Fernheimer (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2014), 1–15.
Curated by Jennifer Scappettone
After many months of planning and labor, we are delighted to launch a new sector of PennSound: PennSound Italiana, devoted to contemporary Italian poetry. We seek over the course of this ongoing project to offer a broad sense of the field, filling in the substantive gaps in global access to Italian poetry (as both written and sonic text — even within Italian borders), and expanding awareness of its range of practitioners, with an emphasis on marginalized and experimental voices of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is an effort — a unique one, in our reckoning — to “liberate” the spectrum of Italian poetry for as broad a public as possible through audio and video recordings, given that the publishing industry and the translation market are endangered and/or blinkered enough to condemn a significant swath of both historical and contemporary innovation to oblivion. As such, this live archive extends the task of PennSound writ large.
Some highlights of the first edition, to whet the curiosity of listeners:
Five episodes of “Con l’ascia dietro le spalle: 10 anni senza Amelia Rosselli” (“With the hatchet at our backs: Ten years without Amelia Rosselli”), produced by Andrea Cortellessa, and containing rare interviews with Rosselli and with other poets and critics, including Antonella Anedda, Biancamaria Frabotta, Emmanuela Tandello, and Lucia Re;
Salnitro (Saltpeter), a historic 1976 sound poem produced in the studios of RAI by Milli Graffi, member of the Tam Tam group and current editor-in-chief of the experimental literary journal Il verri. Of this piece, Graffi writes, “I understood what my sound poem could be when I listened to Schwitters’ Ursonate recited by Giuliano Zosi: half an hour of uninterrupted pressurized vocalizations, strongly rhythmical, and exemplary. For me, it was the path of the first avant-garde, and one had to depart from there. An absurd tercet of hendecasyllables came to my mind in a flash, and I prepared a rigorous plan of fragmentation, defined on every page of the score with tempos and directions for vocal execution … Invited to take part in the Audiobox broadcast directed by Pinotto Fava, I realized the eighteen minutes of Saltpeter in the RAI studios of Rome in three days of rehearsal with the technologies of that time. From that point, using the cassette that RAI gave me, I composed Saltpeter by improvising with my live voice and redoubling the effect by overlaying it onto the voice recorded on cassette. With the lights out, I had an animated play of liquids that Giovanni Anceschi had given me, and which made for a good “saltpeter” effect, projected onto a screen at my back. I dressed all in white to become an integral part of the imaginary grotto.”
Soundscapes by Tommaso Ottonieri and electronic musician Martux-M that were published with Le strade che portano al Fùcino, a 2007 collection of prose poetry charting the plains of Telespazio, a multinational satellite services company based outside of Rome that “covers the whole space market value chain,” in acts of code-twisting between globalized standard Italian and dialect;
“Di colpo la parola smarrimento” (“Suddenly the word disorientation”), from Sicilian poet and historical novelist Maria Attanasio’s Amnesia del movimento delle nuvole (Amnesia of the Movement of Clouds), with “en-face” recordings from Carla Billitteri’s translation published by Litmus Press in 2014;
Sonata n. 2 per Graphemium, a video composition by Laura Cingolani, poet, musician, singer, performer, and gutsy heir of the neo-avant-garde (executed with the help of Daniele Salvati, electronic musician and sound researcher): Laura writes that “Each grapheme typed in on the keyboard of the PC is associated with a note: the text is literally played, and each execution can be carried out with a different sound, timbre and instrument”;
Lettere alla reinserzione culturale del disoccupato (with a pun on Letters toward and Letters to the cultural reinsertion of the unemployed), based on the 2013 book by Paris-based author/editor Andrea Inglese: “field recordings” made in various cities, and mixed by Stefano Delle Monache.
We hope that providing the sounds of these texts to a greater public — including a public that is not conversant in Italian — will enable an altered state of listening for what exceeds the contours of understanding defined by national languages — and seduce listeners into the concord (or discord) of tuning. Such states are made possible in a space between bodies that Antena founders Jen Hofer and John Pluecker ask us to inhabit critically and expansively in their “Manifesto for Ultratranslation”: “Moments of untranslatability lead directly to untranslation, undertranslation, overtranslation, an excess, extranslation, a lack, a limit, an excrescence, an impropriety, distranslation, retranslation, multitranslation, a mistake, a conflict, dystranslation. An understanding of the potential in not understanding.”
Subsequent editions of PennSound Italiana, already underway, will include historic recording sessions by Giulia Niccolai and Paul Vangelisti; work by contemporary poets Antonella Doria, Angela Passarello, Laura Pugno, Giovanna Frene, and Michele Zaffarano; and new unpublished poems by Milo De Angelis, with translations by Susan Stewart and Patrizio Ceccagnoli. Stay on the line for these and other exciting developments!
I have an autobiographical relation to the poet-scholar category. I wanted to be a poet. I went and got a PhD in English with the idea that even the TA line would be a sort of day job, and at the time they felt not quite related. My first job was as a scholar. My second, and current, job is as a creative writer. There is nothing unique about this story, so I will present it as an anecdotal example. I will in these notes just quickly attempt to enumerate the terrain which I think might explain how we have found ourselves at a panel on the poet-scholar at the MLA in 2012. I will draw no conclusions from it.
When I was applying for that first job, I thought I was entering the job market in its decline. Casual or adjunct appointments were at around thirty percent. This felt catastrophic. The general thinking was that that there was no way it could get worse. “Who would do the service?” it was often said; it would be unsustainable to go lower. But then adjunct labor was teaching fifty percent of the classes when I got this second job in 2003 as a poet, in what Mark Nowak calls the American neoliberal MFA industry. What I realize now that I couldn’t see then was that despite the massive casualization of academic labor, I was at the same time getting a job in what is looking like it might very well be an MFA bubble. When I got my first job in 1995, there were somewhere maybe around sixty-five MFA programs. In 2014, Poets and Writers had 214 programs in their database. Many of these MFA programs are clustered at tuition-dependent universities (although some state universities have begun to see these programs as good ideas because they can provide that casual labor pool). But there are next to no employment prospects for these graduates, which wouldn’t necessarily have to be a problem if not for how so many have funded their degrees through large amounts of student loans. This is why the MFA numbers look unsustainable.
Parallel to what is looking like an unsustainable MFA bubble is what I might call the “possible creative writing-ization” of the English major. The Department of Education did not introduce Classification of Instructional Program codes for degree completions data until 1987. But data collected since 1987 clearly shows a dramatic increase in creative writing degrees. In 1987, 468 undergraduate and 413 masters degrees were awarded in creative writing. In 2011, those numbers are over 2,500 undergraduate and 2,782 graduate degrees. This is a fairly significant rise. And these numbers probably underreport, as many undergraduate programs only offer a BA in English with a concentration in creative writing, so the undergraduate data in particular is probably only reliable as a growth trend.
When I was an undergraduate way back in the ’80s, colleges and universities tended to treat creative writing classes like candy; too many would make you sick and weak. The small liberal arts college that I attended taught two poetry workshops a year: a beginning and an advanced one. You had to apply to take them. Twelve students were admitted. The rest, it was felt, did not deserve such a pleasure. Other schools, if they even had a creative writing major, tended to limit the creative writing majors. They had a gateway admissions process and only a certain number were allowed to be majors. Some schools, especially big state universities, still use this model. But in general, as the university system has begun to see students less as children whose candy intake should be regulated and more as consumers whose candy tuition money they want, they tend not to regulate but to provide. Anecdote again: the small liberal arts college where I now teach used the limited class offerings model to regulate creative writing majors when I began teaching there. Each semester there was a beginning and an advanced, waiting lists and demand be damned. At a certain point, the department began to receive more and more pressure from the administration to enroll whatever would enroll however it would enroll. So the department began to offer more and more undergraduate workshops. Now the department’s unregulated undergraduate creative writing majors tend to double undergraduate English majors.
There are numerous reasons for this: the grades in creative writing classes are obviously higher; the reading is less; the writing has a lower word count; etc. But not all of them are necessarily negative or lazily assumptive. I’d like to think that students might also be looking at the five-page seminar paper, the continued tendency to teach mainly the literatures of only two nations, and the strict century-coverage model that begins in the early modern period, and think to themselves, well at least the novel, say, has the possibility of being read by someone outside of the classroom.
Beyond anecdote, there is a fairly obvious piece of evidence to support this “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments. Although the AWP started in 1967, it did not feel compelled to hold a conference until 2005. It started small, with 3,000 attendees. In 2014, 13,000 people registered (probably more went and did not register). The MLA at its peak in the mid-1990s maxed out with around 12,000 people attending its conference. Last year it had around 7,000.
I doubt this “possible creative writing-ization” is in any way a permanent change to English departments. And that is how it should be. However, it definitely has had a major impact on the hiring patterns of English departments, and English departments will be changed by this for years to come. And while whatever happens next remains to be seen, I doubt it will look like a retreat to what English departments looked like in what we might now want to begin to call the glory days of the 1990s. The profession is obviously in the middle of a profound metamorphosis of some sort, from the fairly dramatic funding cuts that are privatizing the state university systems to the increasing evidence that the private system might have reached peak tuition a few years ago and might now be massively overpriced in relation to student ability and/or willingness to pay or borrow in a fairly stagnant employment market. And then English departments have their own narratives within these large-scale changes. I’m not sure, in short, that the profession could pay its composition and intro class instructors so little if it were not for the current large numbers of MFA graduates. It is also worth remembering that when Bennington fired all its tenured-line faculty, under the advice of John Barr — the recently retired president of the Poetry Foundation — they justified this by saying that they wanted to hire working artists and writers rather than scholars. But that is another talk for another panel, the one on the role of creative writing programs in the privatization of education or the one on the role of MFA programs in the casualization of the labor of English departments.
That said, I don’t really have a profound conclusion here. Except as much as it might be the time of the “possible creative writing-ization” of English departments, it might also be the time of the poet-scholar. And what it means to be a poet-scholar is full of these issues. I’ve been a bit grumpy about it all. But one of the potentially productive things that could happen out of this “possible creative-writing-ization” of English departments is that this old standoff between creative writing and scholarship might dissolve. One thing that I’ve noticed where I now teach is that as the number of creative writing majors has grown, more and more students are writing a creative thesis that is basically a form of scholarship. In recent years, in addition to the usual retellings of Jane Austen novels, I’ve read an elucidation of a queer subtext of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, a feminist reworking of a series of classic male performance art pieces, a detournment of a Hemingway short story with the genders reversed, etc. I am, in short, watching undergraduate students attempt to write what I might call “more interesting to me literary scholarship”; they are reading and thinking and arguing with the informed critiques and discussions of the field. Although I should admit that graduate students are still doing what they tend to do. They are still writing, with a few lovely and notable exceptions, and god bless these, the mainly confessional, even when experimental, observations about their lives and their loves and sometimes the weather and the land and the suburban animals.
On the poet-scholar
Fidelity to the shapeliness of poetry, in an academy of prose, because knowledge is inseparable, we insist, from the texture and pace of its approach. Knowledge is not front-loaded, though the presiding timeline of production demands it be so. It’s a dawning: ambient, but nonabsorptive, with myriad ports of exit and entry.
And fidelity to scholarship, if scholarship signals the ritual of seeking and transcribing what exceeds one’s own, immanent domain, because knowledge as music can only ever be choral (as the Old English “school” conveys in meaning “choir,” or “band, troop, company,” appearing chiefly in verse): reverberating among voices made current by writing, but never merely coeval.
The writer whose hyphen denotes everybody’s discomfort with her being neither here nor there because devoted to shifting material works in spite of the disciplinary expectation that thought knows where it’s going, is to be delivered in terms on which it has “landed,” on which we agree. (“Because they liked me ‘still’ —”) Thinking has to found its own idiom continually to be thought.
The hyphenated writer whose method emerges in wayward relation to prevailing brands, because evolved in empathic relation to materials unsponsored and at hand, as in translation, cultivates a transfiguring humility with respect to poeisis as art: laboring in the glacial tempo of study, in the awareness that others have been here, over and over, over and upon one another in the sedimentation of collective thought — and that any literary scene nursed by the amnesia of blindered publicity, appearance, and feed rarely strains far enough beyond the current syntax of the possible to effect a tectonic shift.
The radical Venetian publisher Aldus Manutius gave poetry both the gift and the delusion of autonomy when he stripped his editions of the exegetical apparatus, allowing Dante’s 200-year-old comedy to subsist independent of theology, and sonnets to be carried in the hands. Hence the motto festina lente, “speed up slowly” — granting poetry the quickness of immediacy (signified by the dolphin) and the delay (the rhythm-giving anchor) of its unmanagement on the page.
The thicket of transcribed voices the scholarly tradition anticipates, given so little room, buried on the page, tends to map only parasitic relations, hierarchies, or agons, rectilinearly. This convention can hardly accommodate the reciprocal interference between an object generative of the fascination or disgust antecedent to knowing and the being in its thrall: a transformation in which “I am not I any longer when I see,” as Gertrude noted.
Criticism committed to fascination will always have a labyrinthine relation to precedent and explanation, multiplying alignments as it seeks revised outlooks and grounds.
And poetry committed to knowledge existing as matter unappropriated by consciousness will seek likewise to document the struggle of its absorption as form.
The knowledge I’ve accumulated over time from the writings of the writers surrounding this table and past I’ve taken in as rhythm, as acts of patterning and interference, plurioblique. The knowledges of their books inhere as phenomena of facture and interpretation — they’re ways of doing, on the move.
Thinking that takes the shape of a continual negotiation as with the tides, of listening for an object’s countervailing logics, can raise suspicion among scholars: it is no “archaeology,” having failed to assume the noble trope of critical distance. This writing takes on bodily awkwardness: it sits intractable on the page, at once too-slight impression and fat with material.
But if the transformative ideal of poetry as a repercussive pull on the language in which we listen and see and act is to take effect in research and pedagogy, and the ideal of poetry as research is to exceed the superficial incorporation of information as decorative engagement effect, we need to defend the value of the poetic as a means of thickly knowing: not a knowing that aspires to transcend the structures which condition our sociability and governance as objects of global economies, citizens of national constructs, and members of discursive provinces, but one that seeks to trace and press against them — to recreate them, in the measure not of payoff, but of debt.
On the poet-scholar
In the summer 2012 issue of n+1, Nicholas Dames has a pretty good essay describing how contemporary realist novelists of what he calls the “Theory Generation” — educated in American universities after 1980, steeped in deconstruction and poststructuralism — have been “thinking back on their training.” In their novels (including The Corrections, The Marriage Plot, The Ask, A Gate at the Stairs), “contemporary realism has its revenge on Theory” by treating it, in bildungsroman style, as one of the educational “follies of youth” that the characters outgrow after college: “so good to have them; so good to be beyond them.”
Dames’s essay offers, it seems to me, an interesting contrast as we think about the larger tendencies embodied in the latter-day figure of the “poet-scholar.” It begins to chart a story about the continuing afterlife of the “theoretical turn” as it plays out in current narrative practices — a story whose poetic trajectory we might explore today in our discussion. While the realist novelists of the Theory Generation are busy making use of Theory (and academic education and its associated reading practices) by way of antagonism and disavowal, their poet contemporaries — and the subsequent generation emerging onto the scene now — define their writing in more directly affirmative terms with theory and scholarly practices. The category of the “poet-scholar” seems to offer an embodiment, a crystallization of this larger tendency.
Why might this be? Why is it that being a “poet-scholar” makes a kind of logical cultural sense today — while, say, a “novelist-scholar” roundtable is nowhere in sight? More generally: what does this say about our contemporary understanding of poetry that the language of scholarship — discursive, propositional, argumentative, didactic — is somehow so amenable to poetry, a discourse so often defined as noninstrumental, nondidactic — and vice versa?
The authorial category of the poet-scholar certainly suggests a particular permutation of poetry in the present: a conception of poetry in strong relation to — or as a form of — knowledge-production and knowledge-work, one that conceives of learning, researching, interpreting, as forms of poiesis. In the contemporary figure of the “poet-scholar” we might see a model of poetic production as grounded in inquiry, instruction, and labor (rather than, say, the expressivist ideals of natural genius, creative imagination, and emotional spontaneity). This model suggests that, unlike in the contemporary realist novel, ideas and arguments are less to be worked through or against in a kind of psychic agon than worked with, reworked, opened up to creative/nonpropositional ends.
These preliminary descriptions of the poet-scholar point, unavoidably, to the question of institutional context. Dames’s essay provides a nice bookend to Mark McGurl’s recent The Program Era, about the rise of the writing program in the postwar period, both of which describe the productive (rather than simply antagonistic) relations between institutions of higher learning and the contemporary novel and how those relations get inscribed in novelistic form. We could think today about how the figure of the poet-scholar might tell us a parallel story about the institutional life of contemporary poetry, but also one that diverges in important ways from the story of “program fiction.” This would mean to think about the poet-scholar in terms of a developing field of disciplinary specialization and within a context of institutional demands and market pressures.
In this sense, we might consider the poet-scholar as a professional, developing a body of professional knowledge. This would raise questions about what kinds of disciplinary knowledge the poet-scholar is responsible for learning: what is her archive? what are her objects of study? What kind of writing should she produce?
Even as we explore the institutional/professional context of the poet-scholar, however, I would also suggest that we would want to counterpose the figure of the amateur — whose writing bears different kinds of relations and responsibilities to its object than strict scholarship. This is a figure associated with play rather than work, with pleasurable avocation rather than vocation, a figure interested in the production of what Lisa Robertson, in an essay from Nilling, calls “speculative thinking, which is outside of knowledge.”[iii] Might the “poet-scholar” also point toward this speculative relation to reading, writing, and research: as means not of finding but of “being lost” — not of knowing but of “tarrying” in ideas?
In this sense, the contemporary poet-scholar might offer a rejoinder to the Theory Generation’s understanding of theory and scholarly ideas as youthful collegiate dalliances to outgrow. This rejoinder would be couched in something like John Ashbery’s terms from “Soonest Mended” that “the promise of learning is a delusion,” and that
Tomorrow would alter the sense of what had already been learned,
That the learning process is extended in this way, so that from this standpoint
None of us ever graduates from college,
For time is an emulsion, and probably thinking not to grow up
Is the brightest kind of maturity for us, right now at any rate.