The time of the poet-scholar

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.

The thick and the slow of knowledge

On the poet-scholar

Photo courtesy Giulio Menna.

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.

'Outside of knowledge'

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.”[1] 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.[2] 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.[4]



1. Nicholas Dames, “The Theory Generation,” n + 1 14 (Summer 2012): 157–68.

2. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).

3. Lisa Robertson, Nilling: Prose Essays on Noise, Pornography, The Codex, Melancholy, Lucretius, Folds, Cities, and Related Aporias (Toronto: Bookthug, 2012), 13.

4. John Ashbery, “Soonest Mended,” Collected Poems, 1956–1987 (New York: Library of America, 2008), 184–85.

Uses of the useless

Against the division of poetry and scholarship

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Burrill.

Contemporary so-called “innovative” or “experimental” poetry’s fascination and engagement with the theoretical and the critical owes a lot to the Language poets, who, though not the first to approach the composition of poetry as an intellectual enterprise, did offer what Marjorie Perloff characterizes as a “rapprochement between poetry and theory” that could serve as an alternative to the increasingly anti-intellectual creative writing classroom of the 1970s. And while Charles Bernstein, talking about the poetics program at SUNY-Buffalo, avers that “the practice of poetics [is] something distinct from, even though intersecting with, the practice of poetry,” he also argues that poetry and poetics may “enhance” one another. Indeed, we can easily name many poet-scholars for whom this seems to be true.

Let’s start with Lyn Hejinian. In her critical prose, Hejinian writes about the sociality of language and takes as a given the idea that poetry is a site of, in fact the language of, “inquiry” — philosophical, political, and theoretical. So, while Hejinian turns to the essay to argue the point, the point is that poetry itself does theoretical work — a kind of theoretical work that perhaps cannot be done in the space of poetics. An excerpt from My Life is instructive:

A pause, a rose, something on paper
A moment yellow, just as four years later, when my father returned home from the war, the moment of greeting him, as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, younger, thinner than when he had left, was purple — though moments are no longer so colored. 

At first we might encounter this as the typical material of poetry: memory, personal history, aesthetic detail — the narrative bound not by the telling of a story, but by the creation of a mood. But upon closer examination, we see that this is a poem that theorizes temporality in a peculiar way: here time is not linear, but associative (The speaker’s father comes home “younger” though he is undoubtably older); not cerebral, but sensory (the moment is colored purple). And she “begins” not with something, but with nothing — a “pause” acts as our entry into this text, so at the very moment of first encounter with the poem, we are asked to wait; time stops; the poem stops before it has begun. We could argue that it is up to the critic to derive the theory from the object of analysis — Hejinian’s poem — but I would argue, instead, that the theoretical heavy lifting is done by the poem itself, insofar as it gives us a context in which to perceive the modes of memory, temporality, and perception that would be imperceptible in the space of poetics alone: instead you need, to borrow Hejinian’s phrase, “something on paper”: the poem.

And if, as I have been arguing, some poetry is actually a form of poetics scholarship, then we should not be surprised at the rise of hybrid essay forms, which try to bridge the gap between poetry and poetics. Indeed, the fact of these hybrid forms in and of themselves suggest that poetry is doing a kind of work that scholarship cannot do, else why bring one into the realm of the other? In Juliana Spahr’s hybrid essay “Spiderwasp or Literary Criticism,” the very title of the piece asserts the exchangeability (though not interchangeability) of what we call “literary criticism” and a poetic/metaphoric language, here represented by the “spiderwasp.” The more traditional essayistic portion that runs down the right side of this piece dissects the relationship between certain women poets and the literary traditions with which they are associated, arguing that while these relationships are relevant they are not definitive. However, on the left side there is a fragmentary story of a pepsis wasp laying its eggs in a tarantula and a person recounting a sexual betrayal. A third kind of story takes place in the footnotes.  “This is the story of metaphor,” Spahr writes, asserting at once that the “story” of the spiderwasp is metaphorical, the “story” of literary history is metaphorical, and that the metaphor is the story. The three threads of thinking — metaphorical, historical, tangential — only make their case in combination — each kind of critical labor is necessary to the argument. As Brenda Hillman points out in How2, “neither complete fragment nor complete discontinuity is accurate. Only both are accurate.”

If Lyn Hejinian is right, and poetics is an art, let us hold it to artistic standards. Let’s remove the hyphen between poet-scholar, let’s be poelars and scholets, poetics emerges from the poem, poems emerge from scholarship — why not all at once?

A manifesto presented at the Fall Convergence on Poetics Conference, 2012, at University of Washington–Bothell.



Five-pointed star. Starfish arm severed. Mislaid limbs, the lyric is

Of the animal kingdom


Poetics and poetry are not dialogical but dialectical, we can see where

One is only when we look at the other.


Horse’s hooves stapled with iron. A quatrain of crescent moons.

Storm break, murmur of wounds. Repetition. Your name, and yours.


When we speak of a theoretical paradigm there are no equivalencies.

A paradigm is a context for contexts.


Nervetree, procedure. The belt from which we have removed every hole,

A drift of white, like a bandage in the air. cedarbark arrow, moss.


A poetic is a poem from which poems are made. A poem is the terra firma of a poetics. 

A tautology is a very useful thing.


Pine-scented manifesto. Exuberance. The shape of a letter

Opened like a letter. An electric Borges. A promise.


An ontological position is claimed when we read aloud. A poem is a set

Of instructions for being in the world, briefly.


Everybody put your pencils down, everybody pick them up.

There is no concluding paragraph, no concluding poem, only

a cloud in the room where the two make weather.

Two roads diverged?

Bridging the roles of scholar and poet

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, and at an institution I won’t name except to say that it isn’t Fordham University (my current affiliation), a former chair was explaining his general policies on raises. Evidently regarding me primarily as a critic, not a poet, he didn’t realize how taken aback I would be when he unapologetically declared, in virtually so many words, that he typically gave minimal raises to poets because “their poems are usually so short, and they don’t even rhyme.” Conversely, a decade after the heyday of so called high theory, a writer whom I respect very much told me that she always advised MFA students never to take literature courses because they would learn nothing but corrupt and corrupting theory.

The panel that generated the series of articles in which this essay participates focused on convergences between the two hats of poet and scholar that its participants all wore — but I open on these war stories about what Milton termed “distrust … distance and distaste”[1] to emphasize divergences. In order to achieve the interplay between those two roles for which we hope, those of us fulfilling both of them need frankly to acknowledge the tensions between them, including attitudes we might even have unwittingly internalized ourselves.

Given the necessary brevity of this essay, I’ll cull just a few telling examples of the conflicts we should recognize and redress. To begin with, conflicting determinants of achievement and status can cause problems. The MFA, long considered the appropriate final degree for writers, may not be fully respected by English professors with doctorates. One encounters scholars who assume that a chapbook is inconsequential because it is short and because, they mistakenly believe, it is probably self-published. And I am no doubt not the first to observe how insubstantial, even frivolous, the names of our veritable zoo of distinguished poetry presses sound to people who pride themselves on their connections with, say, Oxford University Press: Black Sparrow? Sheep Meadow? Greywolf? Moreover, as the story I cited above indicates, too many writers conflate all literary criticism with poststructuralist theory, or rather their parodic version of it, disdaining both the dense prose and condescension or inattention to the literary text with which they would associate that form of analysis.

While tensions like those may be amenable to explanation and correction, others are more subterranean and hence even harder to address. Both the language that poets bring to reading texts and the thinking that impels it is often perceived by critics as touchy-feely, soft. Despite the stereotype of the hard-drinking and irrepressibly philandering visiting poet, I think that writers are in effect sometimes gendered as female and scholars and critics as male in what, to adapt Fredric Jameson, we might call the professional unconscious.[2] That is, those who craft poetry, fiction, and that fraught category, creative nonfiction, are often stereotyped as flighty, disorganized, impressionistic rather than rigorous, stereotypes that are still on occasion seen as feminine even in venues where those types of gendering are officially disallowed.

Other substantive divides remain as well. Critical approaches as diverse as materialism and contemporary theater history do often play down the significance and agency of the author. Similarly, many recent studies of the history of the book focus on printer, publisher, and audience and may devote equal attention to later editions published years after the death of that author, thus further diminishing her role.

Clear and present dangers, then, continue to threaten relationships between scholars and poets. But we can work on linking those roles in at least two areas, the discursive and the pedagogical, and thus effectively counter the threats. Discursively, where there is tension as I just indicated, there are also opportunities for borrowing of terms and concepts, especially now that formalism is no longer the F word of the profession. In particular, craft in the sense we use it in writing workshops (and its analogue techne) can fruitfully be imported into literary analysis at the current critical moment. Often it can be substituted for the aesthetic, a term so freighted with misunderstandings of Kant and reactions against those misunderstandings that it is not always useful.[3] And craft importantly emphasizes what can be present but is often submerged in discussions of the aesthetic: the text as the product of an ongoing process and the result on occasion of partial success rather than complete success or failure.

As someone who abandoned poetry writing for many years, partly in response to graduate training that discouraged combining the two roles, I rejoice for many reasons that I returned to creative work — not least because I’m confident that I am a better scholar because I understand the challenges of composing poetry. So I’m particularly interested in what we can do in the classroom to help our students to bridge the roles of scholar and poet.

I often require undergraduates to memorize poems — using the alternative vocabulary I gratefully adopted from my former colleague Sandy Mack, that is, “learning by heart” — and to recite them to me in my office, partly because these processes often make the students more alert to issues about craft, such as the workings of sound. I believe in encouraging both undergraduates and graduate students to write in, or at least write partial sections of, the forms they are studying: a couplet or a quatrain, for example, if not a whole sonnet. And people intimidated by an assignment to create that challenging genre sometimes enjoy doing it as a team. I also recommend that professors talk about our own work as poets in those scholarly courses, not least because doing so helps to legitimate wearing two hats. Recently my class’s more theorized debates about autobiographical readings of sonnets fruitfully developed from my explanations of how my own experiences had been transferred into — but also transfigured in — a couple of sonnets.

These and other answers to the challenges and opportunities of combining the roles of poets and scholars generate the challenges and opportunities of further questions. Mightn’t we need to distinguish the categories of “critic” and “scholar” in addressing such issues? What advantages and risks do untenured colleagues face when they try to combine the roles, a problem largely but not entirely institution-specific? If poet and scholar can and should be combined, should we be encouraging the trend of wanting writers to have PhDs? And should literature graduate programs allow or even encourage people to take creative writing courses?



1. Paradise Lost, in The Complete Poetical Works of John Milton, ed. Douglas Bush (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 6.9.

2. See Jameson’s influential, indeed iconic, Marxist study, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981).

3. I develop this argument elsewhere. See “Delivery Rooms: Towards a Reconsideration of the Conclusion of The Tempest,” in Essays in Memory of Richard Helgerson: Laureations, ed. Roze Hentschell and Kathy Lavezzo (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2012), 87.