Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Writer and the Academy

I’ve identified myself on this blog as a ‘writer and academic’. Besides writing poetry, script and other works, I’m a teacher of creative writing and English literature. I have a research specialism in English Romanticism, and the intellectual, political and spiritual traditions in which that literature participates. Particular interests here include literary mythopoesis; the evolution of spirituality; mythological and religious syncretism; literary esotericism and occultism; antiquarianism, archaeology and folklore; the history of science; ecology; and the relationship between literary culture and the social and political constitution.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think – and to my mind, you’d be right. But for some writers, there is a tension and even antipathy between the creative mind (as they conceive it) and the image of an academic. There are some understandable concerns, of course – over institutionalisation, for example, or being pigeonholed, or how much time non-writerly duties might take up – but all of these would apply with any form of employment. Beyond these, and more seriously even, there is a worry that the academy simply speaks another language – one potentially damaging to the writer. Something like this troubled Ted Hughes; he went so far as to link his own essays in prose criticism to the collapse of his health. His letters, however, show that he didn’t consider this a necessarily universal principle: he praises Marina Warner for being able to produce highly imaginative writing and sophisticated criticism without the one crucifying the other.

Academics, too, can be frosty about the intellectual authority of creative writers – particularly in the university system. Maybe some writers have themselves to blame for provoking that kind of response; I’ve heard of a few such cases, though never encountered it first hand. But such hostility from academics can also suggest a failure to appreciate that imaginative writing is intellectual exploration by means of embodiment – that is, experiential immersion – rather than argument; through ‘the blood & vital juices of our minds’, as Wordsworth has it, rather than reasoning alone.

In my position, these issues remain live. But although I bear Hughes’s warning in mind (which in turn echoes Robert Graves) about staying true to whatever my calling is, poetry doesn’t so readily separate from criticism, for me. The role of poet-critic is not a new one, after all – and you don’t have to look far to find contemporary examples. Take Michael Donaghy, for instance: besides his poetry, the posthumous collection of his prose in The Shape of the Dance opens a channel to the critical thinking of one of the most skilled and influential of recent poets. In a fundamental sense, all writers have to be critics, insofar as they are readers interested in the making of language, and what language makes – with the need to articulate that process (however indirectly) for themselves.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the great poet-critics – and human enough to have his doubts about the effects of such a mix: at one point he worried that poetry and philosophy might cancel each other out, and leave him an ‘inert mass’. Writing a doctoral thesis on Coleridge, with his fears of this kind right in front of me, it crossed my mind that I, too, was taking a risk. But I soon realised that for me, writing the thesis and writing poems were intimately and inextricably connected, and shared a common root and impulse. Studying Coleridge for A-Level, aged 17-18, woke me up to what poetry could be with a wave of exultation: concentrating my reading, my sense of identity, and my desire to create in ways that I still find startling. When I came to write my thesis, twelve years later, it was as much an attempt to understand and articulate that lasting excitement, as much as anything else. Having things to say about Coleridge that I felt on my nerves as well as my mind, fuelled a desire to intervene in the vast conversation prompted by his works – whether scholarly or otherwise. In the early years of my doctorate, The Body in the Well was published, and I worked as a scriptwriter for the BBC. There was, to my relief, no cancelling out.

There’s no doubt that in the later stages of the thesis, and its transformation into Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination, I wrote more about poetry than poetry itself. Amongst other things, however, that process involved the working-through of my own poetics – and I wrote it as a book for poets, and interested readers of all kinds, as much as for the academy; to operate imaginatively, as well as analytically; as writing, as well as scholarship.

Now, as I concentrate on my own poems again, I would describe my activity as a poet and a critic – or, if you will, a writer and academic – as a continuum: the modulation of the same desire to speak and to know.


Tim Love said...

David Kennedy once wrote "When I sit down to write I often don't know whether it's a poem or a critical piece that's going to be produced". I don't know whether any sign of that ambivalent birth survives in the finished pieces, but some people manage to write poetry about theory. Often it's readers rather than the writers who feel that the result is confusing/unlyrical.

I've noticed 2 things of late - the increase in US poems about Creative writing classes, and the corroding effect of increased marking and assessment on teachers (both in terms of time and orientation).

Gregory Leadbetter said...

Interesting. I don't experience what Kennedy describes - judging from how he's phrased that, anyway. There's a distinction between the two orders of writing, for me - but a symbiosis, too, in the way I sketch in the post.

Do tell me more about that corrosive effect you've noticed, when you get the chance (he says breezily, fending off paranoia about my own marking/assessment roles...). Feel free to email me at my Birmingham City University address.

Tim Love said...

Do tell me more about that corrosive effect you've noticed - it's not something I've experienced myself (I'm not involved with CW) but people like Carrie Etter mention it quite a lot. In the last 4 days on Facebook her headings include "marking first-year poetry papers till further notice.", "hates giving back student papers and fearing the ones who have done poorly will now despise her", and "How do teachers explain to non-teachers how exhausting the work is?".

Peter Daniels said...

Michael Donaghy's writing about poetry is really somewhat anti-academic. He certainly felt considerable revulsion from his experience at Chicago, though I think he recognised that their postmodern academic obsessions were extreme. I believe there's something of this in his playfulness introducing a hoax quote from Auden - at least, I'm sure it is a hoax when he "quotes" Auden saying "Everything changes but the avant-garde", because I've never been able to trace the source, and his non-academic lack of a citation makes me think that all the more.

Gregory Leadbetter said...

Thanks for your note, Peter. I think it's fair to say that Donaghy objected to the prospect of universities becoming shelters for self-congratulatory, self-sealed coteries, disdainful of the wider culture, often calling themselves 'innovative' poets (as if all decent poetry wasn't innovative) and sneering at the 'mainstream' (whatever that is) - with the result that the idea of poetry is further removed from the bustle and contention of social and intellectual life in general. I share that concern - as does Chris Hamilton-Emery (see his comment in response to David Morley's posting of this blog entry on Facebook). I suppose my key point in this entry, however, was to make a productive link between criticism and creativity. And in fact, I see grounds for hope that the threat Donaghy had in mind is diminishing - at least in British universities.