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.