The Lost Poets

For the past few months, I’ve been thinking again and again about something Mark Doty posted on Facebook related to the connection between poetry and the idea of (or the term itself) “the academy.”

I was initially irritated by Mark’s implication that poetry existed only within colleges and universities these days, as from my perspective, this is not the case. Then I went back and, in an effort to refresh my own ideas, reread his Facebook note and found myself not in disagreement with him as his actual writing was much more measured and fair than my initial reading of it. The text follows:

I’d like to encourage everyone concerned to just drop that tired descriptor, “academic.” It no longer means anything. Here are some reasons: 1) Much of the reading, thinking about, and appreciation of poetry in our moment takes place within the context of a university or college setting. 2) Since poets are the ones teaching poetry, the curriculum reflects a great variety of preferences; there’s no one sort of poetry favored. 3) If you’ve ever taken a workshop, taught one, been engaged by a book of poems by someone who makes their living as a teacher, been to a summer writers’ conference, or been to a reading sponsored by a college or university, you’re “in” the academy, too. 4) The idea of “the academy” is a myth; a great variety of educational institutions in the U.S. support the reading and writing of poetry, in one way or another, and these schools do not collude, conspire or even agree. 5) It’s hard to imagine what would have become of American poetry without university support, given the character of the second half of the 20th century here. Like a lot of people, I found the art because of a Poetry Center sponsored by a school (in my case, the University of Arizona). It was a place that furthered the education of my spirit, and — I don’t exaggerate — probably saved my life.

But regardless of my personal experience, it seems pretty clear to me that “academic” now means zero, nada, zilch! Let’s bury the term.

I’ve been trying to negotiate these ideas both through my own experience and through my perception of the poetry community as a whole (if it can be so examined). My conclusion is difficult to come by; I feel a tremendous sense of conflict about the notions as stated, what they represent on a larger cultural scale, and how I and others can fit into the current perceived situation.

I recognize many of my peers and colleagues earn their living and health insurance through teaching in some way. It’s true that even I, in the last few years, have worked in this way, either directly in a workshop room or indirectly by coordinating workshops for others. But I don’t know if my personal experience in this area–literary nonprofit organizations–fits with Mark’s assertion. While yes, we were teaching people how to write (at best) or simply engaging their interest in writing (at least), we were perceived by our audience as non-academic, as not the academy. I would say this is true of our national organizations like The Loft, Grub Street, Centrum, The Attic, and Lighthouse Writers, all of whom exist very purposefully outside of the more concrete identity of the “academy” and tend to draw audience to them for precisely this reason.

Does the teaching of how to write poetry alone make something an “academy”? If so, we should let the rest of the traditional academy know as in my own experience, the creative writers were reviled, devalued, or simply ignored by the more “serious” academics who toiled there. I pose this as a serious question.

I was introduced to how to write poetry in 8th grade, by a poet who provided a weeklong residency to my school. I also had a teacher in high school who very intentionally fed me the criticism, readings, and support necessary to continue writing. Are these, too, academies, even if their content fell far outside the normal realm of lesson plans and curriculum standards? Almost all of my poetry instruction in high school occurred in after-school meetings or independent studies. And true, in college, I participated more traditionally in the workshop model of instruction, and true, I pursued an MFA in the academy. All of these were necessary steps for me. But not for all.

Over the last few years, I have encountered and had the pleasure to work with some amazingly talented poets who live entirely outside the academy. I’ve come to understand this is more common than many people think, particularly those who spend the majority of their lives and careers within the academy.

These “outsider” poets generally have no idea that poetry is so entrenched in higher education. They perceive poetry as open to everyone, not as a cloistered and privileged pursuit. They have less awareness of the inner machinations of what some folks call “pobiz” and are generally the happier for it. They may or may not have heard of AWP if they’ve attended it. They read many poets, focusing, perhaps, on what their friends in their poetry circles are reading, what has been nominated for national awards, or what their booksellers or librarians recommend.

I think this community of poets is growing not more larger, but more visible. We can account for the growth in MFA programs as one factor contributing to the ever-larger crowds at AWP, but I think, too, that the Internet has afforded outsider poets new opportunity to become tourists in the other world of poetry. And I believe they are enriched in their visits–they encounter new journals they may otherwise have little or no access to in the real world, they meet new colleagues, they hear their favorite poets give readings.

I respect Mark’s perspective and don’t wish to imply his statements are wrong. I will say my experience suggests the divide between “the public” and “the academy” is generally only perceived by those within the academy. Those who are outside are fortunate for they generally have no idea they are outside of something.

In my thinking, poetry is something many Americans do respect, appreciate, and value. It’s just not the way most contemporary poets would prefer they value it. We (and I include myself here) would rather our fellow citizens read our books, attend our events, engage in dialogue. We want citizens to come to us–to find our location, which, as Mark wrote, is very often within the walled garden of the academy.

But poetry in America, I think, is less about location and more about occasion. You can lead an American to poetry, but you can’t make her or him read. Americans want to read poetry not where they want, but when they want.

Poetry is our natural impulse for processing sadness, grief, and loss; for celebrating momentous happiness like births and marriages; for ushering in a new era when a President takes office; for communicating the tremendous value a single person has or had in our lives.

The most widely read form of poetry in America? The greeting card.

Poets all over America who read this just cringed. I’m not overly thrilled about it myself, but I also think that’s my own arrogance creeping in. Who are we to determine what poetry is “valuable”? That’s a dangerous path to tread as it invites us to make all sorts of exclusions–some random, others purposeful. It is precisely that impulse to exclude that has helped us construct a falsely white male canon of literature.

A tremendous number of people also write poetry. If you want to determine how many, simply let the person sitting next to you on an airplane know that you write poetry. If you make them feel comfortable enough, you can bet they’ll regale you with some of their own verse. Of course, these poets are “untrained,” so they’re probably not worth listening to–which might be an attitude you’d find inside the academy, where training is the necessary credential for access. Outside the academy, nobody cares. Those people aren’t writing for audiences and adulation; they’re writing for themselves, maybe their families, maybe some friends. And that is awesome.

The people will select their own value. We live in the era of self-aggregation, where everyone gets to curate their own content to their own liking. I’m not saying poetry should take over the greeting card industry, although I would enjoy sending cards so much more if we did; but I am saying that we need to remember that poetry matters to a great many people, in ways that extend far beyond our own books, our own classes, and our own presses. We don’t get to choose the way it matters to them, or even when. They will find us when they need us. In the meantime, we keep writing, we keep recording, we keep remembering.

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