Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Tiresias of Word-Geekdom

One of my students, who has taken both creative and literature courses from me, asked me recently whether I thought of myself as primarily a literary scholar or primarily a poet--and, as a corollary question whether I thought it was more difficult to write poetry or scholarly essays.

The question alerted me--or reminded me--that creative writing and literary criticism are perceived as somehow at odds within academia. Certainly when I was completing first creative and then critical graduate degrees in the 1990s there was no small amount of hostility between writerly-types and literary scholars (who seemed to think of one another as dilettantes and pedants, respectively). Marjorie Perloff touched on this subject in the MLA Newsletter in Spring 2006, where she defended the inclusion of creative programs in academic departments; the fact that she felt she needed to write such a defense indicates that the mutual unease persists. In my own department, some literary faculty exhibit a bit of snobbery toward the creative writers, the implication being (I think) that they're (er,.... we're) not doing REAL work, but are rather sitting down in a field somewhere communing with the Muse. (The fact that I began that phrase there by separating myself from "them" indicates that I myself harbor some of that prejudice, or at least don't want to be tarnished by it. Let's face it: my pseudonym here ain't "poetry girl.")

It's always seemed a strange and artificial division to me. I never check my poetic sensibilities at the door when I embark upon scholarly work, nor abandon my analytical and critical faculties when I sit down to creative work. Critical work and poetry represent to me the same activity expressed in two formally different modes, and the interests that fuel my research also manifest themselves in my creative work. I happen to experience the world in lines, and that certainly influences the way my attention bears upon the scholarly stuff, but I'm also deeply interested in questions that arise out of cultural and religious studies approaches to texts, gender studies, New Criticism, New Historicism, Deconstruction, etc., etc....and these concerns absolutely influence the poems I produce.

I've just given my senior research seminar, whose scholarly focus is the development of the devotional lyric from antiquity onward, an assignment to write a devotional lyric. The poem they write has to be accompanied by an essay explaining why what they've written is a devotional lyric, according to the terms of the course so far. My guess is that writing a devotional lyric will teach them heaps and heaps about this major subgenre of lyric poetry--perhaps more than talking about it all day will (though we do that too). We'll see. I have to say, I'm really, really excited to see the results.

And for the record: writing a poem is, for me, WAY more difficult than writing a scholarly essay.

1 comment:

squadratomagico said...

I was surprised, at the end, that you so clearly identified poetry as the more difficult composition. I expected you to hedge, to say something to the effect that each form of writing has its own challenges etc... it's interesting to me that the choice is so clear for you. But then, I've never written poetry.

I am interested, however, in the ways in which the ideals of scholarly language often exclude attention to form. In history, this quite likely is a stronger drive than in literature: there's a value placed upon "pure" exposition and a devaluing, in many cases, of literary tropes like metaphor or alliteration (both of which I like and use). As a result, I find many historical monographs dreadfully dry -- I cannot understand this opposition at all.