Academia vs. Poetry: How the Gatekeepers of Contemporary Literature might be Killing It
By Rosemarie Dombrowski, PhD
For better or worse, at Poets & Writers last count (in 2012), there were 127 literary journals affiliated with MFA programs in the U.S. Of course, there’s no hard evidence to substantiate the allegations of elitism within these publications, and antithetical to these rumors, there’s evidence that many writers who don’t possess MFAs have graced their pages.
But those of us working within the academy see the high-praise doled out by deans to journals that publish 90% “established writers” and only 10% “emerging writers,” which essentially translates into Creative Writing professors and their students vs. the rest of the poetry-writing world. Thus, the quantitative data (which most journals disclose in their Poets & Writers listing) suggests that these journals, despite what they may say on their submission page or in some other public forum, read the bios of the submitters first. There’s no other explanation for the 90/10 split. And as for the remaining 10%, if we think that some principle of egalitarianism suddenly emerges with regard to those submissions, then I think we’re deluding ourselves.
Of course, there’s a logical alternative motivation – human curiosity – but being a long-time editor for a few different journals, I know that pedigree-biases will tip you in ways that language/lyrical biases won’t. I also know that there’s no such thing as a truly blind reading of submissions, meaning my stylistic proclivities will always tip me in one direction or the other, and the last thing I need is someone’s gender or alma mater tipping me further (or prematurely). And maybe more so than taking the ethical high-road, I’m trying to avoid pedigree-bias because I know how many times it’s stopped me from getting in the door despite my BAs and my PhD -- the glaring omission from the list of acronyms on my vita being, of course, the MFA.
That said, pursuing an MFA seems to be a foolproof way of gaining access to the inner circle. And even if you’re an outsider who’d prefer to remain more of a rogue, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing an MFA, though I tell my students that you need to be motivated by your love of craft, the desire to devote yourself to the honing of your craft in a disciplined environment. Granted, it may help you land a low-paying, no-contract teaching gig (likely without benefits) in the future, and it might ensure that your submissions get read by a few more journal editors, but beyond that, there’s really no quantifiable value in it.
Despite being a supporter of higher education and having earned higher degrees myself, the real problem with contemporary literature (and literary scholarship) is that so much of it comes out of institutionalized culture, i.e. the ivory towers. A 2007 study cited in Smithsonian.com concluded that “half of academic papers are read only by their authors and journal editors” (Eveleth, 2014).
Aaron Gordon, a writer for a scientific journal laments “how it must feel as an academic to spend so much time on a topic so far on the periphery of human interest” (qtd. in Eveleth). Indeed, it’s lamentable, but only if academics are aware enough to realize how little interest their writing engenders in the general reading population.
Sadly, contemporary writers of literature haven’t escaped this paradigm. And if there’s anyone more trapped than others, it’s the poets. And again, the majority of published poets are coming out of a tradition of reading primarily at MFA showcases, seeking publication in a handful of select MFA-affiliated journals, and never considering palatability to anyone beyond the handful of cohorts who graduated from similar programs and who are running the editorial boards of the said journals.
And again, though there’s nothing wrong this communal form of masturbatory exchange – after all, this is similar to how women poets in America were disseminating their work in the 18th century and engendering an audience in the literary salons of somewhere between two and ten readers – but if anyone expects contemporary poetry to “do” something, or “incite” something, or “engender change,” then this internalization is moot.
Maybe I should start accepting the fact that we’re not the generation I thought we were. But we didn’t come of age in the shadow of Auden’s reductive mantra “poetry makes nothing happen.” Rather, we came of age in the shadow of Adrienne Rich’s 1994 edict (published in her interview with Matthew Rothschild in The Progressive) that not only hailed the effect-iveness of poetry – “I happen to think poetry makes a huge difference” – but also recognized why it wasn’t perceived as useful or relevant by the masses:
I think there’s been a great denial of the kinds of poets and poetries that could speak to a lot more people. Poetry has been kind of hoarded inside the schools, inside the universities. The activity of writing about poems and poetry--the activity of making it available and accessible--became the property of scholars and academics and became dependent on a certain kind of academic training, education, class background. (Rich qtd. in Rothschild)
From the perspective of someone who considers herself a “community poet,” a professor without an MFA who’s always written and communed outside the academy, Rich is so painfully right – poetry has been hoarded by universities, and those universities have kept out poetries that could speak to and resonate with more people.
I should be able to rest my case given the ethos of the speaker, but Rich’s interview was printed in 1994, and in order to substantiate how little anything has changed – or how much conditions have worsened – I have to turn to something more timely, perhaps something as recently published as September 26, 2014, which happens to be the date that Steven Pinker’s explanatory piece entitled “Why Academics Stink at Writing” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
He opens the piece with a string of apt adjectives used to describe academic writing: turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand.
He goes on to ask and answer the critical question – why would anyone write this way? – which he brilliantly and lucidly answers with the help of literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas, Mark Turner, and their book Clear and Simple as the Truth. In it, they argue that “every style of writing can be understood as a model of the communication scenario that an author simulates in lieu of the real-time give-and-take of a conversation” (qtd. in Pinker). Though grim, the theory Pinker sets up is that the academy breeds inaccessible writing because the conversations that academics would be having with their colleagues would be equally inaccessible to outsiders.
I suppose I could accept this premise if the writing products of academia were limited to publications in the hard sciences and the social sciences, but the humanities and the literary arts should be ashamed of themselves. There’s nothing quantitative for us to write about (other than pages counts in Shakespeare’s quartos versus folios), and even isolated, academic poets must intuitively know that no one in the general population can fathom why anyone would have to use the word loam instead of dirt or soil. What could that distinction possibly add to a line of poetry? Personally, I’ve never heard it contribute anything but pretense and pretentiousness, yet I’ve heard the word loam at more readings than I care to recount.
As an editor, I’ve begrudgingly made my way through experimental prose poetry devoid of punctuation and capitalization. I’ve suffered lines indented like staircases in the most mundane of poems. I’ve seen numbered sections and section headers for what I have to assume are purely arbitrary reasons. The editorial board of the independent literary magazine I work for collectively scratch our heads at our Sunday meetings between our complaints of fatigue and coffee refills. Most of us abhor these ticks and gimmicks, preferring, instead, a beautifully crafted imagistic or narrative piece, oftentimes authored by “a local poet” as opposed to an academic one.
Maybe the problem is that academic poets and writers have lost their intuitiveness. Maybe the problem has something to do with the number of years they’ve been talking to, interacting with, and reading to each other – and only each other. Maybe they’ve forgotten why they wanted to become writers in the first place, or why they were compelled to write in their youth. Or maybe their reasons weren’t the same as Rich’s to begin with.
Ultimately, this isn’t just about contemporary poets being more academically blinded than their predecessors. It’s also about the need for contemporary poetry to engender a real audience, and I’d think that would be a collective concern for poets at this point in our literary history. And though I have no right to say that the sub-culture of inaccessible, self-aggrandizing, self-stroking writers shouldn’t exist, I can speculate that as long as they’re the gatekeepers of so many prestigious journals, then they’re also, by extension, the gatekeepers of the canon. And if they lean toward exclusivity, and exclusively printing what they privilege, then the poetic products that appear in print will be as privileged as the conversations they have in their offices – the ones that are laden with academese and metadiscourse, plagued by “the Curse of Knowledge,” the inability to imagine what it’s like for others to not know what they know (Pinker).
As a poet, I actually want others to know what I know, but I also know that what I know is limited. And though I want others to experience the cross-section of humanity that I interact with, teach, learn from, and love, I want to experience the other cross-sections as well.
Like Rich, I want to rattle readers, and as a reader, I want to be continuously rattled.
As a human, I want to be an explorer of cultures and a documenter of cultural histories, but I want to do it with a lyrical bent, an ear tuned to the nuanced rhythms that language can produce when simple words are beautifully arranged.
Maybe all contemporary poetry needs to believe is that it can do all of these things, and that it can do them without any additional complexities beyond those which make us human, which seems like plenty. Actually, it’s more than enough.
Rosemarie Dombrowski is the founder of the poetry journal Merge (05-10), the co-founder and host of the Phoenix Poetry Series, the editor-in-chief of the undergraduate writing journal on ASU’s Downtown campus, and a poetry editor for the Phoenix-based literary magazine Four Chambers. Her poetry has previously appeared in Columbia Review, Ginosko, Tipton, Salt River Review, Hartskill Review, and others. Her prose has recently appeared in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place and The Huffington Post. Her first collection of poetry, The Book of Emergencies, is forthcoming from Five Oaks Press.