Tag Archives: Academia and poetry

Get poetry out of the ivory tower and give it back to poets

Elephant from a 15th c. bestiary (The Royal Library of Denmark)

Speculative representation of an elephant from clues in 15th century England … or … Academic interpretation of modern poetry in English, c. 2010

… ‘But, censorship aside — why does the academic infestation and degradation of poetry bother you so much?’ I haven’t yet replied to the friend who asked me that after reading the last three posts on this blog.

I could answer in two parts: first, that I suppose the fault lies partly with me. I’ve never given up a childhood glimmer of intuition in close sympathy with Mme. de Staël’s definition of poetry, c.1800, as ‘a momentary possession of all that is sought by our soul’. … Alright, I was a geeky, old-fashioned child who should have known better, having been born post-modern like you, readers – known that Modernism was about irreversible repudiation, disenchantment and disillusion, with no room for exaltation through the sublime.

For the second part, I might say: for the same reason I’d put the Kama Sutra near the top of my list of the dullest books ever printed.

What? that hallowed sex bible of the ancient Indians? is what I expect my friend to shriek. Yes, that one, which has never lived up to its billing, for me. (Or possibly the Indologist A.L. Basham, who said that ‘The Indian passion for classification […] led to the development of rather pedantic schools on […] sexual relations.’) I’ve found instructions for fiddling with the innards of personal computers a bigger turn-on than the venerable do-it-yourselves manual for the inculcation of lust that presumes mechanical contortions and not emotional and mental electrification to be the erotic gift that keeps on giving.

To see what that has to do with modern poetry, just close your eyes and imagine: your limbs are sweetly intertwined with your amour‘s, lips fine-tuned to the secret harmonies of lips. Suddenly, a voice that belongs to neither of you speaks. ‘Dopamine level’s rising nicely in both male and female subjects,’ it says. You look over your shoulder to see a large pair of tortoiseshell spectacles angled in your direction at first, then at the screen of a small computer, and then at another screen with a tangle of wires – with eek! …two of them ending in you and your partner.

‘Don’t pay any attention to me,’ a someone perched on the edge of your bed says in precise, forensic tones. ‘I’m just validating your trajectory from pre-consummation to full-on orgasmic attainment. So pleased your pheromones were gaining altitude fast enough that you didn’t notice me inserting my hormone calibrators into you!’ … If, defying all conceivable odds, you and your dear one do manage the uh, … usual culmination, … the all-knowing voice intones through heavy breathing a helpful summing-up with forward spin. ‘Excellent! Oxytocin and prolactin attaining high averages in both subjects. If you want my advice, kids, try and keep a lid on the prolactin – good for bonding initially, but you don’t want it getting too high as the rate of congress rises over the medium to long term. Can be a causative element in feelings of entrapment.’

… Perfectly ‘orrible, yes?
– except for those of you who surely depend on recipes for every meal you cook, and need food and wine critics to tell you what your own taste buds should, or could, if you would only let them. … What I’m saying is, I see reading poetry or experiencing any artistic creation as an intimate, highly personal exchange between an artist and every member of an audience. No intermediaries, thank you. Certainly not for poetry in English from roughly John Donne’s time.

I can think of nothing worse than having to digest the evisceration and explanation of a poem before I’ve had a chance to read it on my own — like many an unfortunate student of literature. Well, actually, I can. Infinitely more frightful would be the literary equivalent of a research sexologist straining to persuade me that if I would only consider this other position – I mean, interpretive possibility, I’d get over my instinctive aversion to those pinhead eyes too close together, … I mean of course, that shopping list for athlete’s foot remedies rearranged as an experimental Poem, and attain nirvana.

Literary assessments by a critic who is also a sensitive writer do not read like sexology. When Frank Kermode died a few weeks ago, the elegant NYT editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg had this to say:

In my years in academia, I had watched the study of literature go down any number of rabbit holes — chasing after theory and ideology and system. The very point of reading and talking about what we read seemed to have been lost in a kind of strangulating self-seriousness and alienation. That’s where Kermode came in.

He was drawn to the entanglements of the text and its rational mysteries rather than some scaffold of theory. In his many books and essays, he protected the reader’s freedom to be interested in whatever was interesting. That meant writing a prose that was never wholly academic and over the years became more and more open to the intersection of literature and the lives we’re actually living.

Could Kermode’s approach serve as the gold standard and guide to writing about poetry in the future? Can we ask academics to restrict their interpreting and grinding down to verse written in obscure, archaic forms of the language? Could they be persuaded to refrain from telling us what is and isn’t good poetry – or indeed a poem at all?

Asking those questions could be whistling in the wind, today. Poetry has been getting more and not less entangled with academia, as the lawyer-poet and critic David Orr has wickedly pointed out:

Partly as a result of the art form’s academic attachment, poets are increasingly knit together in complicated patterns based on mentorship, instruction or just basic university proximity. […] In “Laureates and Heretics: Six Careers in American Poetry,” for example, the critic Robert Archambeau smartly traces poets including Robert Pinsky and Robert Hass through their connection to Yvor Winters at Stanford. It’s a project that wouldn’t work (or at least, not quite so well) with Eliot or Frost or Williams, simply because times have changed.

That said, some of the inter­dependence in today’s poetry world isn’t a function of modernity but of insecurity, which is why you’ll occasionally find writers claiming to be “fourth-generation New York School poets,” as if latching on to your great-grandfather’s avant-garde were something to be proud of, rather than sheepish about. Presumably it feels better to be a poet carrying on the tradition of “X” than just a plain old poet talking to the void.

… But then there’s this internet, through which change – if enough people demand it – can come as unexpectedly as a sneeze. Nearly every publication of note in the old print world has been frantic to outdo the others, lauding Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom to the stratosphere and beyond. I’ve been monitoring the many very different reports on the book at Amazon.com – a few of them finely considered and beautifully written – by actual readers. Freedom’s standing with these reactors has fallen steadily over the weeks since its launch near the start of the month, bringing its average rating down by half a star to just three.

This was precisely what I wanted to see happen four years ago, after twice being misled by professional critics infecting each other with hype fever — steadily improving, credible, independent literary criticism.

So I’m optimistic about the net helping those of us who care to reclaim poetry for true poets, who want it left alone. I suspect that we’ll get the sexologists — no, I mean surely, poexologists, out of the way soon enough. ; )


Filed under Criticism, Poetry

On a Guardian poetry blog, scenes from the crumbling old order

The Clash - Jakub Julian Ziolkowski

Much that is rotten about the social order collapsing in the dying age of print is obvious from what was cut when censors ran amok on – of all things – a supposedly liberal newspaper’s poetry blog, the subject of the last entry here. Readers who never saw the comments hacked out of that discussion have been curious about what they said, so I’m putting up a selection in another part of this site.

The Guardian purge is well worth revisiting, for connoisseurs of pattern recognition. Censorship itself started with religious authorities who had glimpsed the beginning of their end in Gutenberg’s printing press. As hard as it was for their 15th-century ancestors to keep up with the subversive literature of their day, the toil of today’s online censors is even more quixotic. Yet they bash on, against the popular will, the masters that they serve as hopelessly misguided as hierarchs of the past were in insisting on their entitlement to authority – banding together for reinforcement in much the way they did, and deploying similar tactics.

It was the very smallness and insignificance of the group of actors associated with the poetry blog that made watching old patterns play out in the bloodbath so entertaining – not merely horrifying.

Here are seven parallels that stood out:

1. The use of propaganda. After a hundred-odd comments were slashed – by the reckoning of several readers – a supporter of Carol Rumens, the lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger enraged by attacks on academia’s effects on poetry, tried to justify the silencing of her opponents with this nonsensical post:

3 September 2010 3:47PM

An elegantly pruned blog, all excess foliage to the compost. These words of wisdom say it all: […]’Pruning grape vines is a basic principle that any grower, regardless of experience, must understand. Whenever you leave a vine unpruned, the first year you’ll have a massive big crop. Novice growers can feel delighted with their success and wonder what all the pruning fuss is about. […But …] when you actually prune a vine correctly, you remove as much as 95 to 98% of the previous season’s growth. […] The vine can’t produce enough energy to ripen an unregulated crop, and it’ll be poor quality.’

Propaganda is a branch of the art of persuasion. It nearly always relies on specious logic, like other kinds of communication that insult readers’ intelligence. Pruning a grapevine has absolutely nothing in common with suppressing free speech. Snipping leaves and branches serves a single, consistent aim – producing wine of a particular type. Not a bit like the right to free expression, which can serve as many aims as there are people expressing themselves, whose opinions can be diametrically opposed.

2. Defenders of the status quo are uniquely protected from criticism or reprisals – and on the public purse. SCFMH – whose posts are usually more intelligent — has revealed himself elsewhere on the net as Simon M. Hunter. Like Rumens, he appears to teach at a university. There is irony unbound in the reason why SCFMH can support a Rumens capable of calling her employers ‘you bastards’ without producing a single birth certificate blank where a father’s name should be – yet lecturing commenters not sitting in her classroom about their behaviour, and getting a few of them banned from the Guardian‘s site for no more than bracing, playful criticism. (I would place a large bet on no reader of or commenter on her blog’s ever having addressed an employer as she did, in full public view.)

That reason is called ‘tenure’. It was invented, as the Wikipedia says, ‘to guarantee the right to academic freedom: it protects teachers and researchers when they dissent from prevailing opinion, openly disagree with authorities of any sort, …’

Who pays the salaries of most university lecturers? Ah, in Britain and the US, that would be us, the unwashed public. Shouldn’t we be entitled to as least as much freedom as they have to speak out?

3. Blatant hypocrisy goes unchallenged. Like feudal serfs, most readers of the Rumens blog were stopped from objecting to her treatment of dissenting commenters by the censors’ threat: ‘This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.’ (And indeed, all attempts to support Rumens’ critics disappeared.)

4. Defunct, repressive authorities have collaborators, enablers and appeasers. . . among those who should know better, but fear that they stand to lose more than they gain from a revolution. Look at the posts left in place after the grand cull on the morning of September the 3rd and you’ll find fine samples of smug support for the triumphant status quo.

5. No right of appeal for those muzzled and expelled. ….The Guardian’s censors and moderators will only discuss deletions in private, by email. As anyone who can see why transparency is essential to justice knows, that amounts to, ‘We’ll brook no challenges and will suppress all evidence of our repression and mistakes’.

6. The powerful never stoop to an apology. Rumens showed that she understood that something of the kind was required of her when she said vaguely, the following week, ‘Milton may be above criticism, ATF, but , alas, I don’t think I am…’. .. A whole-hearted apology clearly linked to the censorfest might have won her some points. Most of all, she owed – still owes – her critics a respectful discussion of what academia has done to modern poetry; of the wider implications of both her and her featured poet being academics. … And she and the Guardian could have won the undying loyalty of many a reader by conceding that the censorship went too far, and above all, by restoring the censored posts.

7. Futile attempts to carry privileges from the old order into the new. Noting cracks in the joists and foundations of their fortresses, some members of the old guard are naively trying to set the rules for the new order. Anxious to be seen as egalitarian in spite of the mountain of evidence to the contrary, Rumens said in the cull’s aftermath that her ‘blog has to have comments – that’s the admirable nature of the beast. It’s not about soloists.’ … Ah, but that’s the beauty of online media: there are no such rules. There are no externally imposed‘ has to have’s, shoulds, or musts. Millions of wonderful blogs on the net have no comments at all, year after year; millions of others have huge and lively comments sections that read like transcripts of beer busts.

… Indeed, the old order changeth … And yet, as an old friend put it, ‘These dictators never learn, do they? They can’t help themselves.’


Filed under Censorship, Criticism, Editors and editing, Poetry, Social trends, The blogosphere, The Guardian

Mysteries of modern poetry: are poets still free spirits?

Off with their heads!

Drawing by John Tenniel

Continuing our inspection of censorship at the Guardian, here’s a surprising suppressor of free speech — that is, if you are used to thinking of poets and other artists as passionate believers in unfettered communication.

Could that honestly be said of Carol Rumens, a published poet, university lecturer and Poem-of-the-Week blogger for that newspaper? Her electronic column — when written by her predecessor in that space — was a quick, open-ended introduction to a poem chosen for discussion by all comers. Under Rumens, the blog has taken on a directive and teacherly tone that some of her readers enjoy.

This week, an extended argument with commenters keen to lift the dead hand of academic analysis from modern poetry – affecting not just its criticism but writing – grew intense. Guardian moderators slashed comments by Rumens’ opponents so wildly and in such quantities that at least one onlooker wondered about the possibility of unhinged combat rage (think My Lai and Green Berets.)

The butchery was justified on the grounds that commenters had been attacking a living poet – the author of this week’s poem, Vona Groarke. Actually – as is clear from careful inspection of the unexpurgated record, there were no personal attacks on the poet, with the exception of a childish remark about her name by someone notoriously infantile. It was the opinions and judgment of Rumens herself that came under fire and, in a scant few posts, the poem itself.

At the end of the cull, Rumens made an ominous announcement in her comments section:

[…] I have emailed the mods via Sarah […] and they will watching the blog extra carefully.

@Einsloth, a delightfully whimsical commenter known to be an accomplished poet himself, was singled out for a special rap on the knuckles. Why? Because he had begun his critique by referring to ‘this precious pearl of a poem’. Comparisons with other samples of acid wit in the annals of literary criticism would reveal that to be mild – as intended.

But Rumens said,

He begins with a sneer. That is NOT doing what we should all do here. [her caps.]

Should. Shouldn’t. … Hmm … Now, this particular Guardian blogger has been a teacher for decades. We must allow her the tics of the more dictatorial members of her profession. But what was a newspaper doing, denying its commenters their right to disagree with her?

This post on acciaccatura is aimed at those moderators and constructed to honour the old maxim, ‘Do as you would be done by.’ I would like to see the Guardian simply highlight all comments it finds questionable – except for libel – and let readers reflect on them and draw their own conclusions. How? Just as I’m setting out these excerpts from the blogs and comments-section remarks of Carol Rumens – neutrally, and in a spirit of enquiry.


Can a prose style like this, introducing poems, earn poetry more readers – and stimulate new interest in the most graceful literary form?

It’s a strong poem that inhabits a slightly uncharacteristic lyric angle, off-road to the central preoccupations of this septuagenarian poet’s spacious, modernist imagination. Yet I feel it reveals the emotional forces implicit in those preoccupations.

… when the same ideas could have been stated like this:

It’s a strong poem, with an uncharacteristic touch of lyricism, a departure from the usual preoccupations of this septuagenarian modernist. Yet, to me, it reveals the passion behind those preoccupations.


Is this a helpful interpretation of a cheerful short poem? Lines that describe an athletic woman diving into the sea?

In an understated way (provided we allow that the poet is the protagonist of her own poem) “Pier” seems a feminist work. Exposed in bathing-togs as she “flip-flops” past the fishermen, the woman here is untroubled about body-image. There’s no shrinking from either visibility or danger. Next time, in fact, she’ll claim even more visibility, and take a bigger risk: she’ll dive from the pier head-first, and she’ll shout. While not as blissfully at one with the environment as her project at first suggested, the speaker embraces the growing sense of power and liberation her risk-taking gains her. We might also infer that, where Church and state attempt to control women’s bodies, rebellious leaps and shouts may be fun but are also more significant politically than they may first appear.

N.B. A controller critical of controlling?


Should a blogger cooperating with censors of free speech be calling her own employers at her university ‘you bastards’ in public – on a Guardian blog? Carol Rumens was gently reprimanded by a kind commenter: shouldn’t she extend the same kind consideration to the impassioned comments of others?

Comment No. 1200270
July 2 18:41

To my Employers (the National Institute for Excellence in the Creative Industries, University of Bangor)


Sorry but they are trying to get me to do some extra teaching that forces a younger colleague out of a job. Hope you’re reading this, you bastards.

Comment No. 1203154
July 4 8:57

Never slag off an employer on
Impulse, especially in forums
Everyone can be a voyeur on
Carol Rumens, Oh Carol Rumens
Ire will misfire- its – hire or fire

Seriously, Carol I think it is best that these matters be resolved using the appropriate channels. If you believe there is a case, then take it to the union or whoever represents you, and take it up with the boards. If it is a Dean or Director who has made this decision then go to the head of the college. If you have already exhausted those channels then you can use this blog to vent off your anger, but not until then. I do not personally think it is useful to make fun of your employer’s strategy which is one that is typical of all those humanities departments that had to reinvent themselves in the 1990’s so as to be more attractive to business. …

Readers, I’ll let you decide …


Filed under Censorship, Editors and editing, Poetry, The Guardian