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Friday, February 17, 2017

In / Out

If you study poetry in the academy, you always yearn for a "non-academic" approach. I suppose a sociologist never feels this? That there is a real sociology taking place that might be better than sociology as an academic dictionary? No, because sociology was born and will die as an academic discipline. That's what it is, for better or worse.  

Conversely, from outside the academy, you might crave the knowledge that you think professors have about poetry.  I always thought that I could be a professor and come up with the real knowledge, but also using my actual poetic knowledge to that end. When I say that I knew things about poetry at age 14 that many professors do not know, I am not at all exaggerating.

The accoutrements of scholarship, the formats and conventions, are external to the object of study. But then they get confused with the real thing. I know a poet who wants to justify everything he does in academic, theoretical ways, as though writing poems like Keats did were not sufficient.

What if you had Mozart in your music department.  Oh, professor Mozart, he doesn't have a PhD!  He just writes the stuff; he's not a scholar. Yet if a poet in an English department happens to be a mediocrity, then we won't think in that way. Or if a Spaniard in your department writes a mediocre (actually maybe a bad) novel and gets it published through connections, as has happened, not in my department but in other cases I know. You wouldn't call him Professor Lorca.

So you'd like to have an approach to poetry that takes it seriously, but part of that would be making those value judgments that the academy has a hard time with.  We legitimate our work through peer review, but there is not a consensus about what a good poem might be. So we have this whole category of work that is not taken seriously (translation too)...  but to take it seriously would also mean that it wouldn't count at all if it were self-indulgently shitty.


Being smart about poetry is even more rare than being a poet.  As Pope said about "Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss" or something like that. All this scholarship that just goes through the motions is profoundly depressing.


Thomas said...

"I suppose a sociologist never feels this?"

They do actually feel this. Some even feel it in the sense that they would rather write novels. (Jon Elster, if I recall, described himself as a failed novelist or poet somewhere.) Gail Hornstein (a psychologist) expresses the same sort of feeling in terms of "reaching a popular audience". (I blogged about it at the time.) I'm sure many sociologists yearn for the life of the "public intellectual" (or pundit).

Jonathan said...

I don't think it has much to do with reaching a broader audience or being a pundit or public intellectual. It is a more fundamental conflict than that. For example, my less academic writings about poetry might also be difficult and technical. The audience might be a small coterie of poets rather than a small group of academics.

Thomas said...

Fair point. But I think many social scientists do actually have a desire to speak plainly and directly about social issues. They would like to be able to speak to union organizers or social workers in an "inside" way. And those who are actually able to do this sometimes feel that the academic discourse is sort of bullshit.

I think it's important not to succumb to this feeling too much. "Academic" should be neither a pejorative nor an honorific. It's often not a question of academic and non-academic approaches to the same thing (poetry, society) but completely different practices (teaching literature, studying society vs. writing poetry, organizing labor).