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In his 2010 book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl lays out a claim that feels both strikingly original and obvious in retrospect: that the rise of university creative writing programs has exerted an unmatched influence on the production of postwar American fiction, and that literary studies, as a discipline, must account for it. McGurl’s book is wonderful in its insights and admirable in its range; it is also full of blind spots and unfollowed leads, which McGurl, to his credit, readily admits to. Among the most conspicuous of these missing pieces is poetry. Though currently a minor art form in the United States in comparison to fiction, poetry’s relationship to the academy is older, messier, and marked by a more fraught dependence. For fiction writers with professional aspirations, two distinct paths – MFA and NYC – were lain down by the mid-twentieth century. But by then, for poets hoping to make a living as poets, all roads led through the academy.
Poets began their trickle into the halls of higher education during the High Modernist era. The 1929 stock market crash and accompanying financial turmoil wreaked havoc on the patronage network that writers like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein had relied on. These patrons had supported their writing lives, and bankrolled the production of the little magazines they published and were published in. Poets were forced to look elsewhere for financial support – their options were the free market, the state, and the various public and private institutions that filled in the remaining space. Turning to the free market, for the modernists, was out of the question: not only would it be anathema to see their artwork enter the fallen world of commodities – to let the muse know the pressure, however slight, brought on by an awareness of the demands of consumer culture – but, when it came to poetry, who would even buy it? Selling out wouldn’t even be worth it. So the modernist poets turned to the state, the academy, and various private foundations for financial support, knowing that here, at least, they could sell themselves on better terms. This new situation would require some sort of labor from them, be it teaching, editing, or New Deal-funded administrative work of some kind; but these positions came with a steady salary and, no less importantly, a tacit acknowledgment that the work they were being paid to do was a sort of necessary, secondary labor. No matter how many more hours of the workweek it took up, such labor would remain in service to art-making.
Concurrently, the modernist poets – a great many of whom, T.S. Eliot most famously, were literary critics as well – began to ally themselves with the literature professors who they now taught and wrote alongside, and became valuable partners in an institutional setting that had previously treated living, breathing poets with hostility (or worse, indifference). This newfound bond stemmed, in part, from the logical camaraderie between two groups whose work, wholly devoid of market value, was reliant on institutional support. But more importantly, this interwar period saw New Criticism creeping towards the position of primacy in English Departments it would take full control of following World War II, a process the modernist poet-critics had a sizeable hand in. As the New Critical model of close reading and textual critique grew in provenance, so did Eliot’s assertion that practitioners of an art form were the only candidates capable of weighing its merits. This idea, if not taken as dogma, was sufficiently popular to give the poet-critic a baseline degree of authority a notch higher than that of the academic. Thus the academy opened its wrought-iron gates to the poet-critics, and though some were apprehensive, most walked straight through.
The end of World War II and the passage of the GI Bill brought about a rapid expansion of higher education in the United States. University enrollments and endowments bloomed, and poet-critics rushed in, hoping to fill the space and establish their own spheres of influence. For many poet-critics, this was a golden opportunity not only to secure stable employment – though many found teaching less a vocation to be pursued than an indignity to be weathered – but to leave a distinctive mark on the canonizing apparatus of the academy, one in the shape of their own aesthetic mores and critical tendencies. If the ideas and texts they held most dear could be debated in peer-reviewed journals, expounded upon in lectures, and appear on countless undergraduate syllabi each spring and fall, both modernism and New Criticism’s place in literary history would be secured. And so it was.
Like the modernists, the Language poets began as a small coterie of poets and publishers, who, seeing no space for their poetics inside what core member Charles Bernstein termed “official verse culture,” created a space of their own. Little magazines and limited-circulation, small press editions were, again, the means of distribution. The Language poets lacked the aristocratic patronage that gave the high modernists their early waves of support, but the advent of cheaper and quicker printing techniques during the Mimeograph Revolution permitted a more DIY operation. This model of independent self-publishing dovetailed with the politics of the Language poets, who, unlike most of the (North American) modernists, saw their poetic output as actively anti-capitalist. Language poetry’s aesthetic was one of fragmentation, admixture, and an insistence on the non-referentiality of language; this, they argued, was a form of resistance to the totalizing force of capitalism, which would treat all objects – including poems – as consumable and ready-made. They advanced their aesthetic ideology by way of critical essays and other polemics, a body of work which proved no less essential to Language poetry than the poems themselves, and accounted for most of the page space in their journals. Under this arrangement, art and criticism fed off each other in a self-perpetuating loop. Often, what resulted was inane to the point of self-parody; often, what resulted was brilliant. Some of the work written under the umbrella of Language poetry stands as the greatest U.S. poetry of the postwar era.
The question of whether an unstable and shattered field of linguistic meaning could manifest an actual political praxis was left with no satisfactory answer. But the poetry and polemics of the Language movement ruffled sensibilities and ignited controversy in the halls of official verse culture, spreading their oppositional stance to a larger and more institutionally-embedded audience than their self-published manifestos would ever reach. Among those who tuned in were the departmental colleagues of the partisans of official verse: the professors of literature, a great many of whom were rapidly becoming enamored with the Continental import now informally known as “theory.” The Language poets were already reading (well, maybe skimming) and reacting to theory in their critical communiques – the foundational premises of their poetics were indebted to Saussure, Barthes, and other semioticians – and, for the new acolytes of theory, the Language poets were natural allies, practicing artists whose work could be held up as counterpoint to the uncritical and capitulating verse of their colleagues. To make matters even more convenient, the Language poetry came with a readymade theoretical foundation, one provided by the poets themselves. This was the 70s; New Criticism, long dominant, was ossifying as an intellectual practice and, in the wake of ‘68, revealing itself to be wholly amenable to capitalist and imperialist domination. Time was ripe for a shift in paradigms.
At the risk of overstating their similarities, one can draw comparisons between this new creative-critical alliance – that of the Language poets and critical theorists – and its predecessor – that of the modernists and New Critics. Both countered and aimed to supplant a waning intellectual and aesthetic order; both saw poets themselves as uniquely positioned to analyze and critique their own art. It should thus come as no surprise that the modernist lineage was one the Language poets laid claim to, albeit unevenly: while denying Eliot (fascistic) and Pound (simply fascist), they paid tribute to Stein, the Russian formalists, and other branches of the pre-World War II European avant-garde.
So, yoking their work to both a modernist literary tradition securely rooted in the academy and critical theory’s rising star, the Language poets eventually came to secure their own small but stable foothold, first as an aesthetic and critical tendency and then, in several notable cases, as professors themselves. Though far from dominant – they are less widely taught to undergraduates than the more canonical twentieth-century avant-gardes, such as the Beat poets or the New York School, to say nothing of the stalwarts of official verse that Language railed against – they have a few prominent institutional nodes. UC Berkeley’s English Department took on Bob Perelman and Barrett Watten as PhD students in the 80s, and hired Lyn Hejinian to teach some years later; in the 90s, the University of Pennsylvania brought on both Perelman and Charles Bernstein as tenure-track faculty. In recent decades, the most notable Language poetry stronghold has been SUNY Buffalo’s Poetics program, which, since its establishment in 1991, has helped promote the creative-critical model to which Language poetry attached itself, approaching poetics as both object of study and mode of engagement.
From this slow leach of Language poetry into the academy, a symbiotic relationship emerged in which the writing of poetry and of criticism coiled around each other and occasionally merged. This process enabled the continued ascendance of Language poets and fellow travelers to tenured professorships and endowed chairs in English Departments. Through the literature courses and creative writing workshops they taught, their poetics propagated and spread, passed along by those among their students who went on to receive MFAs and PhDs of their own. At the same time, structural economic shifts were pushing poets toward the academy in greater numbers. The close of the twentieth century, marked by neoliberalism’s noisy but short-lived triumph over history, saw the continuation of cuts to public arts funding that began during the Reagan Era – on top of ballooning income inequality and the decline of real wages. Under these conditions, the academy seemed a site of relative refuge, given its offer of stable, fulfilling employment (though that offer was really just the dangling of a possibility, like a cart-driver dangling a carrot in front of a donkey).
But just as important as these material concerns was the promise of entry into a guild where one’s creative practice would be taken seriously, and even be seen as an essential aspect of one’s vocation. To write experimental poetry as a professor of literature was to engage in knowledge production at a level equivalent to, or even surpassing, that of traditional scholarly practice. Unlike a typical academic article, a poem’s possible meanings weren’t limited to what was stated in an abstract – they could mingle, recombine, and proliferate differently for each reader, with each experience of reading. The value of these poems as acts of knowledge-producing helped give rise to a novel and specific set of institutional mechanics: marked as potential sources of knowledge by the poet-critic’s institutional credentials, these poems became prime candidates for study, especially when they incorporated the academy’s language or gestured toward its theoretical concerns. A poem could offer itself up for critical reading, lay tracks for possible interpretive routes; or, in a feat of vertical integration, it could dispense with the external critic entirely, turn inward, and subject itself to its own critical gaze. Institutional practices exerted pressure on aesthetic tendencies, and this subcategory of poetry became increasingly self-referential, a closed eddy of technique and thought that was not only in the academy, but of it, too. Thus, full entry into this artistic and intellectual world demanded familiarity with both a vibrant but forbidding aesthetic tradition and its less vibrant, more forbidding critical adjunct. Graduate-level coursework and institutional affiliation may not have been strictly necessary, but alternative routes were hard to imagine and harder to live.
But is this all-roads-lead-to-the-seminar-room situation that bad? The aim of the academy is, after all, to produce knowledge; to be a poet in academia – not self-exiled to the craft-addled island of the (archetypal) creative writing workshop, but in the English department proper – is to be in and of this work of knowledge production. This may take the form of traditional scholarship: one can write a monograph, submit articles for peer review. But poetry is no less a form of knowledge, and the writing of poetry no less its pursuit – a drive to articulate something about the world without the need for clear argumentation or a posture of knowingness. For the poet who wants their work to be in fruitful relation with knowledge production writ large, membership in the academy can seem an ideal to aspire toward. To have peers and colleagues that respect your work, or are even trusted readers; to teach courses that serve as extensions of one’s own thinking; tenure, sabbaticals, and long higher-ed summers, time to spend on one’s own writing. These are the promises of such a life. If the opportunity arose, wouldn’t you be a fool not to take it?
This is how, by the close of the twentieth century, Language poetry – along with many more of the diverse and fractured tendencies culled under the label of experimental writing – came to dwell largely (though by no means exclusively) in the academy. Outsiders became professionals, political radicalism and aesthetic autonomy became canon, and what Sueyen Juliette Lee refers to as the “Academic Poetry Industrial Complex” took on its contemporary form. This is an arrangement whose perniciousness grows more apparent each passing year, as the promise of a stable life in the academy vanishes beneath the slow crest of contingent labor, rising tuition, and compounding interest on student debt. The relationship of exploitation and extraction that US higher education maintains with its laborers (faculty, graduate students, staff) and clients (students) mirrors that of its primary societal role writ large: the reproduction and exacerbation of income inequality and class hierarchies in the United States and across the world. Those fortunate enough to come out on top in a job market that is functionally a pyramid scheme are rewarded with membership in an institution that is wholly aligned with existing structures of power.
For the poet-critic whose political commitments are in any way connected to actual collective life, the question of how to keep up such commitments in a space that works tirelessly to erode them is endlessly fraught. In The Undercommons, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write that to be a “critical academic” is, paradoxically, a route of capitulation. It is “to be against the university, and to be against the university is to always recognize it and be recognized by it.” In this way, “to be critical of the university would make one the professional par excellance, more negligent than any other[.]” The critical academic, in taking the university at face value, responds to its interpellative call; critical knowledge, being knowledge nonetheless, exists simply as yet another good produced, one with the added value of proving the university’s openness to self-critique. To critique the university does not harm it – it simply piles on proof that the university can produce and capture, in a single motion, any stone lobbed in its direction. This is not to say that to be a critical academic is to act in bad faith, but that the will of the individual isn’t a match for the recuperative muscle of the university, which is essentially limitless. Moten and Harney contrast the critical academic with a worthier model: the academic who is “in but not of” the university, who “abuse[s] its hospitality,” and whose teaching and research are marked by “a radical passion and passivity such that one becomes unfit for subjection.” This is praxis to aspire toward, but the line between critical academic and bad-mannered guest is hard to see even if you squint, and acting out the moves of the latter – using the office printer to run off pamphlets for the adjuncts trying to unionize, or funneling departmental money to local DIY art spaces – can feel like nothing more than a stalling tactic for the inevitability of what Lee terms “institutional capture.”
Total autonomy, be it of art or action or thought, is a purely ideal state, contingent on the exclusion of anything resembling life. But autonomy as a kind of freedom-from – whether from the obligations and circumstances that would place constraints on a writer’s time and resources, or from the forces or institutions that would delimit what could and could not be written – remains as a guiding principle, a vanishing point one never stops chasing. In this chase one can go faster or slower, one can progress or slip backwards. Put another way, there exist degrees of control and degrees of giving it up. For many poet-critics in the latter half of the twentieth century, to enter the academy was ostensibly to gain creative autonomy by means of stable and fulfilling employment, protection from the free market, and a path toward artistic and intellectual relevance. Whether the academy usually, or ever, delivered on this promise is one question. Exactly what else poet-critics had to give up in exchange for institutional capture, and whether it was worth it, is another.
Will poetry save us from our present circumstance of hell? Of course not. Yet it feels like it will, which is why, despite knowing better, poets persist in writing it. The poetic impulse holds out hope that it’ll touch the knowledge that will finally change things – a first tap to set a causal chain in motion that ends up somewhere new, a place where the ringing of uncertainty’s been silenced. Yet the present material conditions of the university sabotage what, for the poet, they promised to provide. There are the capitulations to the demands of professionalization, to tradition, to a system of higher education that endorses and perpetuates existing forms of inequity and structures of power. The university may enable the poet materially, but it draws a line around them that cannot be crossed; on its other side lies a shot at creative autonomy and ethical certainty, both of which the poet, perhaps unknowingly, gave up when they accepted a tenure-track job.
The outside often seems alive with emancipatory potential; in truth this is rarely the case. Extra-institutional spaces are not free from strictures, devoid of limits. But I focus on the academy because of the uniqueness of its case: its simultaneous opening and foreclosure of the possibility of poetic knowledge, a sort of institutional torque that makes the activity of thinking and writing an occasion, beyond all else, of ambivalence and uncertainty. If, as Mark McGurl argues, postwar American fiction must be read in the context of the institutionalization of creative writing, it follows that poetry – especially those forms of experimental poetry that have come to reside in the academy – must be as well.
As she notes in the acknowledgements, the title figure in Lucy Ives’ 2016 book The Hermit – a mixture of prose, lists, and fragments, each titled with a number – appears only once. We encounter Ives’ hermit in fragment “51,” which consists exclusively of a description of “a strange art object” which can be found, we are told, at the end of the narrator’s unfinished novel. The object, a 4’ x 4’ x 4’ cube of dark wood, is decorated with an implausibly intricate array of carvings: frolicking animals, serene landscapes. Then, near the end of “51,” a strange figure appears: “a hermit in a peaked hood pick[ing] his way among these grim reminders of human law and folly.” Appearing just beyond the halfway point of the book, this hermit acts as the hunched fulcrum on which Ives’ collection turns. It is the poet-critic’s analogue, the one whose bind The Hermit maps out an allegory for.
In addition to an MFA in Poetry, Ives holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from NYU, where she currently teaches. She is the author of two novels, several books of poetry and prose, and numerous critical essays on art and literature. Though her publications are primarily poetry and fiction, Ives, as her credentials would suggest, has a deep affinity for forms of critical knowledge produced in the academy. In an essay for The Baffler, she describes the impulse that drew her to theory: a conviction that “[t]his was where all of the secrets concerning human culture lay. Once I began to read I couldn’t stop, for the simple reason that I had to find out – by which I mean, what had happened.”
This, arguably, is the poet-critic’s core pursuit – to take on, via whichever form lends itself, the questions that literature, scholarship, and critique conspire to answer. It is the work of knowledge production, that which the academy regulates and constrains even as it makes it possible, and The Hermit can be read as an archive of movements though this institutional net. Its notes, dreams, and fragments are documents of the poet-critic’s life and work before the ambient threat of institutional capture and the risk of creative and intellectual enervation.
Throughout The Hermit recur images of dwellings, both simple and extravagant, and they take on the weight of allegory from the outset. The first of these appear in “3,” where Ives’s author notes: “I write, inconclusively, ‘All culminating in the image of a dwelling: It indicates a secret life…’” This secret life, for the poet-critic, comes into existence only where the mystery of desired knowledge can be apprehended, where she can sit down by the hearth and be with it. She dreams this is where her path will lead her. But the author can describe this image only “inconclusively,” an adverb which places this desired “image of a dwelling” in the realm of things aspired-toward but never realized. It is the kind of foolish hope the author is herself aware of.
Midway through the book, in “48,” Ives’s author recounts a dream of a museum (“named either LOUIS or LOUY—or, now that I think of it, LOUIY”) resembling “a small castle or folly.” In architecture, “folly” refers to an extravagant, ornate building – prominent during the eighteenth century – constructed primarily for decoration. The name doubles as common perception: a striking but ultimately foolish enterprise, given its extravagance and lack of clear purpose. Entering the dream-folly (fallacious dream), Ives’s author encounters “harmony with the name: textiles, a kind of pattern, iteration, smallness, intensity; something I associate with the 1980s as an intellectual zone, if ever it was one.” Ives’ formation – as a scholar, critic, and, first and foremost, a poet – occurred within this (conditional) intellectual zone. But now, in the honesty of a dream, its true essence is revealed. Though attractive, it is quaint, foolish, and possibly illusory. The folly here is not simply the institution, nor the knowledge it produces, but the “intellectual zone” they both comprise, one that lives in books, journals, talks, seminars, conferences, cultural signifiers, and, most importantly, the ambient charge of living under the roof of a certain set of ideas. To live here is to live a hermit’s life, to pick one’s way among grim reminders.
This life has its appeal – the dwelling might be beautiful enough to be worth its foolishness. But what starts out a shelter can wind up a cell. For Ives’ narrator, the dwelling that held the promise of a secret life becomes a site of claustrophobia, and the poet-critic comes to suspect that the answers she seeks are, in fact, on the other side of its walls. This is in part an institutional failure, of the academy’s knowledge failing to deliver what it promises. In “24,” Ives’s narrator notes: “[t]heory as pure verbalism: a generated knowledge with negative impact.” Theory, once “where all the secrets concerning human culture lay,” now exhibits the symptoms it sought to diagnose: language emptied of meaning, signifiers untethered from signs.
But the poet-critic’s disenchantment is not attributable solely to institutional failure. The academy could not, through some miracle of perfect reform, ever be arranged so as to grant access to the secret life in perpetuity. The poet-critic knew this from the very beginning: that the desired knowledge is always infinitely distant, on the other side of an epistemic horizon that recedes at the rate one approaches it. In “22,” Ives’s author admits: “[I] do not know what I in fact am, since the ‘knowing’ I desire is something like ‘real being.’” The academy can give the poet-critic the space and resources to produce knowledge, whether that knowledge ends up taking the shape of poetry, critical writing, or something else entirely. But the longing for “real being” is a longing for a constitutive outside, for what lives beyond the walls of the dwelling the poet-critic has chosen to reside in. Whatever forms of knowledge production institutional life makes possible, it is not and will never be “real being.” And if real being is not to be found inside the academy’s walls, can living there – amidst sacrifice, economic precarity and exploitation, capitulation, complicity – be justified? The poet-critic may have an entire world, but that world is little more than a cube-shaped box, intricately carved and devoid of meaning. The quote from Hamlet that appears at the close of “78” – “I could be bound in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” –dramatizes this plight nearly perfectly. “Bad dreams,” after all, encompasses not just nightmares, but cruel longings, too. Real being is right there – all you need to do is reach the far side of the shell.
Peter Myers is a poet and writer living in New York. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Vestiges, Boston Review, and elsewhere. He received an MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop