Tuesday, June 23, 2009

John Bloomberg-Rissman recently pointed me to the newly-formed Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, edited by Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston. I took a look at its website, and, while it will certainly promote the type of poetry I approve of, I couldn't help feeling a little intimidated by, and cool towards it. This may be my prejudice, I accept. Due to a complicated set of circumstances, I arrived at adulthood without a single educational qualification worth mentioning, and remain in that state now. The editorial board of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry contains 13 Professors and 7 Doctors in total. Does it represent the takeover by the academic world of innovative British poetry? Peter Philpott gives us a lucid discussion of the issue here:

POETIC SPECIATION AND DIVERSIFICATION; Or, Why I am Alarmed at the Role the Academic Environment is Playing in Contemporary British Innovative Poetry

"Poetry isn’t important because it is the subject of academic study. In no way does it depend on academic study. It is important because it is a fundamental human relationship with language (like music is with sound-production, art with mark making, dance with movement). Poetry as such is as unstoppable as sex. It will take place!"

Peter Philpott


Ed Baker said...

as Robert Henri once said (about painting) maybe about 1917:

cld just as well have been talking about writing (poems)::

"Do whatever you do intensely. The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life."

these guys (and gals) most likely mere credentialists ...

Conrad DiDiodato said...


we've got the same problem in Canada: where poets/artists go cap-in-hand to Arts Councils (run by government and academics)for a sort of 'money voucher' (grants, they call it) good at any one of a specified number of establishment presses (mostly in Toronto)

Reminds me of a story I heard about Margaret Atwood recommending a book (by a doctor) on the SARS outbreak here, published just on her say-so.

Credentialists seem to run the show, everywhere

Alan Baker said...

The money voucher to spend at "specified establishment presses" sounds like a way of propagating what Philpott calls "ideological State apparatuses". How do presses get on the approved list, I wonder?

I might add that I've nothing against academics or academia, and many of the editorial board of the JBIIP are people I admire (Tony Lopez for example - see previous post). It is, as Philpott points out, not the individuals we need to worry about, but the system that appears to be evolving.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

I agree,

there are good academics who get the 'writing as true cultural production' idea, proposing & developing it in their own work (I think of Raymond Williams, for example), even some who can write, too

"Idealogical state apparatuses" is not too far off the mark: in top-heavy bureaucratic systems of government, like ours, the State (through this Canada Arts Council grant system)controls education and even the means of cultural production.You'd be pretty hard pressed to get any decent art gallery to display work of yours without it.

So I'd say it's hard to separate the individual from the system (as I've discovered) in a system where state apparatus and culutural means of production are so tightly commingled.

John B-R said...

1. As Philpott notes, academia has given a lot of poets decent salaries. What other form of employment besides librarianship can say the same? I take poets having food and shelter as a good thing (think about Tom Raworth for a minute ...)

2. None of the poets P mentions have "sold out".

3. Sure, a lot of reductionist thinking and lousy imitating will occur in the wake of the great and wonderful poetry we've been lucky enough to share the spacetime continuum with. (I don't care how it comes to look in the history books, but I think the years 1950, say, - now have seen more than their fair share of great poets and great poems)

4. Isn't 3 always how it goes?

5. And after 3, aren't there always new innovators, kids who don't want anything to do with most of the old folks?

6. For those who think 5 might not happen, I'd say if you're right, academia will be the least of the reasons. And if you're wrong, there will be nothing to worry about.

Alan Baker said...

1. What other form of employment besides librarianship can say the same? A: IT? It supports me and Ron Silliman. Driving a bus, selling insurance? I mean, I don't spent a lot of time at work thinking about poetry (well, I do but I shouldn't), but then I don't suppose academics do, in between management, admin, teaching, etc, and even then, they'd mostly be thinking about meta-poetry (and therein lies the problem?)

2. I agree. But the academy will start to impose its own rules, as Philpott observes.

3. and 4. I agree with this also, though observing that we need to reduce the likelihood of "reductionist thinking and lousy imitating".

5. and 6. This is the point where I diverge: there are, it's true, always innovators, kids or not, but the point is that academisation will deter them, make it seem, for example, that you have to have an MA to get published or to get on a reading circuit, or just to be taken seriously. This process in fact seems more highly-developed in the USA (correct me if I'm wrong). I'm with Philpott when he says it's important to make innovative poetry available and welcoming to "to those not already accredited or inoculated" (not by making it 'accessible', but my making it fun, energetic, exhilirating, inspiring and a part of day-to-day living).

The last thing we want is "Discourse about poetry [being] placed as central" - and that's a likely outcome, as "discourse" is what academics do, without that, they're no more privileged than anybody else in terms of engaging with poetry.

AidanSemmens said...

Though I was invited to do so, I don't think I'll be subscribing to the journal. Yes, there are several people I admire on the board, and yes I did go to Cambridge, but the academicisation of poetry - "poetics", please! - can only be a mixed blessing at best. The estimable Jacket gives me at least all I can take of words about words about poetry.

Ed Baker said...

what was it that "what's 'is name" said?

-in my craft and sullen.

best that any artist/poet learn and apprentice to a trade...learn a trade a useful trade! carpentry, plumbing, electrician, pottery, doctoring, ..

one builds a deck (to sit upon and read poetry) same way one builds a poem: one nail/one word at a time.

learn and practice the rules of your craft.... then break the rules.

try Soetsu Yanagi's The Unknown Craftsman

then go fix your leaky toilet!

John B-R said...

Alan et al,

1. All I meant was there have been LOTS of poet-librarians, and academic-librarians, not that those fields were exclusively good for poets or anything.

2. What institution doesn't impose its own rules. I mean, would Ron have divided the entire world into binary opposites (SoQ and the post-avant, of course) if he didn't work in the world of 0s and 1s? How will we ever know? All I can say is twas ever thus. All practice becomes institutionalized, then conditions change, the rules break down ...

3. You write: we need to reduce the likelihood of "reductionist thinking and lousy imitating". Agreed. But what are the odds?

4-5. When I added 6, I was serious. While academization is perhaps not the l[e]ast problem faced by poets, I think corporately controlled media is a bigger deterrent to "original" thinking, if any can exist. I think the total surveillance state is a much bigger danger.

Frankly, I've worked on a campus for almost 25 years, and have found most academics to be too sociopathic to ever get together and form a common front that will be able to control anything. Especially in the humanities.

Now if the state ever gets complete control of the schools, then I think the problem's the size you all think it is.

The Editors said...

From the inside I'm a bit annoyed at the conflation of 'academic' with 'creative writing department'. There's a major rift running through the middle of every 'academic' department that decides to take on a supposedly 'vocational' subdepartment like creative writing.

The division's a false one in some ways, but from an HE student funding perspective, CW is divided very clearly into a box labelled 'this course is more likely to get you a job, so we give you less grant money'.

Often, it's an ongoing up hill struggle for writers, who - even ones with PhDs - are falsely positioned at odds to the mission of most humanities departments. It's interesting that some (UK) CW depts. have sprung up within schools of communications, rather than englit. But when you're more obviously in a position whereby you are /generating/ the stuff that the englit academics are supposedly basing their careers on, perhaps it kind of breaks the code of the magicians' circle, or something? I don't know, but the resentment is very real even after a few decades of the stuff in UK academies.

As to factory farming writers: no academy's creative writing course will make you a /good writer/, None I'm aware of profess to do so. Mostly they simply promise to make you a better /reader/ - of your own and others' writing (whereas, perhaps, analytical courses aim simply to make you a better reader and writer on others' writings).

If there's a discussion to be had about the 'kind of reader' the institutions /are/ churning out, then it needs to be positioned also in light of the kind of readers that the more impacting systems - family, school education, etc. - /aren't/ producing.

My Greek cousins were reading Francis Ponge alongside European modernisms at the age of 16, while I was still stuck on Keats and Carol Ann Duffy. If somewheres get it to work, why can't elsewheres?


Conrad DiDiodato said...


exactly right: learning how to read. And many of the young, heres and elsewheres, just aren't! And if Joan Houlihan's critique of postmod poetry is right, there aren't a whole lot of writers today reading either.

George Steiner said it best: the next generation of Nobel Laureates? Look for them in cafes of Eastern Europe, not in any englit/creative writing classes.

Alan Baker said...

When my daughter attended a German school on an exchange visit, they (a class of 16-year-olds) discussed a poem by Paul Celan. Hear at home she gets... Carole Anne Duffy. Most people, I think, at least in this country, don't know how to read poetry - forgetting perhaps that listening may more important than reading (maybe that's why song lyrics provide most people's engagement with poetry).

Jeffrey Side said...

Like you, Alan, I am a little perturbed by the exclusivity of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry. I hear that it only considers article submissions from people who have delivered papers on the subject of innovative poetries at academic conferences. I feel this sort of attitude will alienate those not embroiled in academic affairs related to such poetry.