'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 institutionallife 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.