Wednesday, December 03, 2003

There's been a bit of an exchange on the Poetics list the past couple days about contemporary poetry and academia, which at some point transmuted into a conversation on race and its alleged monopoly over the current study of literature. I'm always a bit surprised when conversations on the list take this kind of turn, as they often do when race comes up--I guess it shouldn't be odd to find that the avant-garde wing of contemporary poetry (which often prides itself on its leftist allegiances) can be just as wedded to the ideal of the poem as aesthetic artifact, untainted by social context, as any other group of American writers. But it always disappoints me a little.

Kirby Olson's original post observed that there are "no jobs teaching contemporary poetry," to which Joel Weishaus correctly replied that, well, there are really no jobs teaching anything. As someone who's on the job market I can confirm that there are very few jobs explicitly advertised in twentieth-century, much less contemporary, poetry, but I think this is less a symptom of the decline of the field of contemporary poetry than another sign of the arcane and erratic state of academic hiring. Medieval literature--a field that encompasses not fifty or so years but several centuries, and which is also frequently said to be in decline--usually has only a handful of job postings per year. This year, unbelievably, there are something like fifty. I doubt that there are significantly fewer jobs in modern and contemporary poetry now than there were a decade ago; in fact, if anything, I see major programs like Penn and Buffalo continually expanding their commitment to it.

But while there may be very few jobs advertised in contemporary poetry, there are a truly astonishing (well, for the English job market) number of jobs being posted in creative writing--a point that Olson alludes to, but which I think is really central to this discussion. It's becoming increasingly likely that in an academic English department, contemporary poetry will be represented on the faculty not by a scholar with a Ph.D. in poetry but by an MFA-holding, widely-published creative writer, who is often called upon to teach introductory poetry classes in addition to teaching writing workshops. (This phenomenon--of poets being assigned to teach intro poetry classes--is prevalent even at a place like Stanford, which has historically had no shortage of faculty in poetry.) Undergraduates are, indeed, flocking to poetry classes, but those classes are most likely to be classes in creative writing--enrollment in such classes is one of the few growth areas for many English departments.

So what we're looking at is not a decline in the number of people teaching contemporary poetry at the college level, but a significant shift in who's doing that teaching--from the Ph.D.-holding scholar to the creative writer. There's no reason to assume that this is a bad thing--that it represents the triumph of the bad old "workshop aesthetic" of the "MFA mainstream"--not least because that aesthetic has changed, as much the kind of work that's coming out of workshop-trained young writers these days has at least a veneer of the experimental. It might very well have a liberating rather than conservative impact. But it might also result in a narrowing of the field, with the craft of poetry as it is done now coming to dominate over broader historical and critical perspectives.

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