Friday, April 28, 2006

Plato's Ouija Board

Working as a legal secretary in San Francisco as I do, I think a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of a poet working outside academia. The disadvantages are rather obvious, as teaching offers a way to make a living while working with like-minded people on work one loves. On the other hand, the etymology of academia is simply “the school where Plato taught,” and knowing what we know about Plato’s opposition to poetry, we might expect to find a few problems.

One problem is the inevitable academic emphasis on theory. Yes, it’s important for writers to reflect on the theoretical underpinnings of their writing, to become aware of their unconscious theoretical assumptions. But mostly I think writers need to find a theoretical foundation that works for them. Let’s face it: some of the greatest poetry ever written has come out of the most crackpot theories. Think of Yeats. Inspired by geniuses like Wittgenstein and Barthes? No way. He seems instead to have been inspired by the likes of Madame Blavatsky, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and an apparently literal faith in “the little people.” That is not even being inspired by an esoteric cult. It’s being inspired by a second-rate Las Vegas magic act. Penn & Teller are postmodern geniuses next to the jokers who inspired Yeats. (And I won’t even start on James Merrill and his Ouija board or Ezra Pound and his “economics.”)

But who cares? It’s what they needed to make their poetry possible. In an academic environment they might have found far more brilliant theories that left their poetry cold. And that brings me to my second problem with academia. Isn’t there an inevitable tendency to distort our criteria for judging poetry? Of course this problem is just as true of blogs as it is of academia! What is mean is that in academic settings—as in blogs—we form strong impressions of the people we encounter: who’s brilliant, who’s charismatic, who’s compassionate, who’s honest, who’s boring, who’s shallow, who’s bourgeois, who’s mean. And often these opinions are formed without having read a word of the person’s poetry. How many writers have reputations for brilliance because they’re charismatic teachers (or fascinating bloggers, or wise speakers on a panel discussion at AWP), poets who would never make any foolish, embarrassing remarks about “the little people”—with barely any attention paid to their poetry at all?

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