I read an article recently where the author celebrated how certain poets had saved American poetry from being the property of “academic” poets. The author was not a polemicist on a rant but was ecstatic at the energy of our current poetry, so the names of the villainous academic poets went unspoken, in a kind of Harry Potter way. Precisely because they weren’t named, I immediately tried to figure out who these academic poets were. However, I hit a quick dead end. I couldn’t think of any poets I knew who would consider themselves “academic,” and this worried me even more. There is an old saying in poker that if you can’t see who the sucker is at the table, the guy who will walk away at the end of the evening with empty pockets, then you are probably that guy. Am I an academic poet? It sounds like a terminal diagnosis: you are doomed to have your books stuck on the dustiest shelf in the library. No one will read them, and your only hope will be that the entire civilization will be wiped out and only your tattered pages buried in the ruins will be left.
To fend off this apocalyptic vision, I tried to think about what we mean when we call someone an “academic poet.” Certainly, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of poets who teach at colleges and universities. My guess is that absolutely none would self-identify as an “academic poet.” Or, does the term just mean somebody who died fifty or more years ago? Did they, upon dying, automatically become academic? Perhaps I was drawing my circle in too restrictive a fashion. Maybe what makes a poet academic is actually that writer’s subject matter. If your poem contains a reference to grail myths or Arthurian legends, does that make you fit the category? (Confession: I did write a poem once about Sir Bedivere selling insurance in Iowa and reminiscing over wings and beer about King Arthur killing a giant, but I never thought of that one as particularly pleasing to professors.) Are references to history, philosophy, or classical art off limits now to poets? I don’t think so because the author of the anxiety-producing article seemed to like John Ashbery. This left me with only form to consider, and it can’t be that iambic pentameter or rhymed poems are forbidden because too many decidedly non-academic poets have rediscovered formal poetry in the last ten years or so. John Murillo, for example, is one of the most formally exciting poets I’ve read.
Somewhere in these considerations, I realized that the last poet I’d seen photographed in a tweed jacket and with a pipe in his mouth was Hyam Plutzik—the photo snapped somewhere in the 1950’s or earlier—and if you’ve read his work, you’ll realize he was fascinatingly experimental in his language and thought, tweed jacket or not. Or, take Stanley Kunitz. I studied at Columbia with him almost forty years ago. He had refused tenure offers just about everywhere he’d ever taught because he didn’t want to be identified with the academy, but maybe Kunitz—regardless of his left-wing politics and painfully beautiful poems—is the kind of poet from whom we have been somehow saved. He was for sure learned. The story goes that he and Theodore Roethke used to play a game where one would challenge the other with a single line of obscure poetry and the one challenged would have to name the poet who wrote it, the title of the poem, and the year it was written. Apparently, being phenomenally well-read doesn’t prevent a person from being a great poet, but does it make that poet “academic”?
I recall how when I worked for a law firm in Washington, DC and one of the nastier partners wanted to disparage something I’d drafted, he would refer to it as “academic.” (I probably should have disclosed in the first paragraph above that I have some graduate degrees.) It was an easy put-down, and I think it’s an easy put-down in poetry as well. There is no one style or subject matter for poetry that is better than all the gazillion others. The only criterion is what works in a particular time and place. If there are academic poets today, they are near invisible. The big commercial publishers publish celebrities and Nobel prize winners—if they publish poetry at all. There is no cabal of “academic poets” reserving poetic laurels and cushy jobs for each other, and there never really has been. For hundreds of years (if not longer), poets have flattered themselves that they are in revolt against whatever has just come before. Sometimes, stylistically this has been true, but most of the time, they were just clearing ground for themselves by pushing aside the poets they’d read most closely. (My more “academic” readers will hear the ghost of Harold Bloom rattling the dishes in my cupboard to show approval.) For the same reason, Octavio Paz defined modernism as “a tradition against itself.” Whatever is modern now is against whatever was modern yesterday. Some academics thought they had solved that problem by creating “postmodernism.” I did a quick online search of definitions of “postmodern poetry” and found no general agreement on what it was or what the term meant. There were some examples of the “language poets,” but they retreated into a justified irrelevance sometime back during the last century. If they were the academics threatening poetry, they were rapidly dispatched because very few people ever found them interesting to read.
This leaves us, academics and non-academics, in a predicament. Is the poetry being written now in rebellion against any predecessors? Should it be? While it’s common and usually misguided to think we occupy a unique position in history, we can still acknowledge some distinctions. Goethe pointed out that his period was the first to have access to all the other, earlier periods and to literature translated from many other languages, that he lived in a time of “world literature.” What was true for him is even more true for us. The size of our poetic world is so grand that any specific style or group shrinks in proportion and importance. The other factor is acceleration. As I mentioned, nothing stays modern for long, or post-modern. Before a poetic rebellion could be successful, time would already have rendered the previous ruling class antiquated if not entirely irrelevant. How are we supposed to define ourselves in such a world?
This is why it may be time to stop defining by opposition and to adopt a new stance toward our literary history. I suggest—and I write this timidly because I am aware of the multitude of problems and personalities we’d be taking on—that we consider a new kind of classicism. Czeslaw Milosz set up a contest in poetry between the classical and the real. It was a useful distinction because it emphasized how important reality is to the making of poetry. For him, “classical” referred to structure and tradition, and “reality” was that pressure of the immediate that forces us to respond and to include the world in our poems. I mean something quite different. The poems that move us, going back to the beginnings of Western European civilization and even earlier, have certain features in common. First, they are full of life as it’s being lived at the time. Second, regardless of the form in which they’re written, they are formally memorable. Third, the poems—even the epics—contain a human voice. They are not “author functions.” Whitman understood this when he told us, his readers and descendants, “Camerado, this is no book; / Who touches this touches a man.” If a poem fulfills these criteria, then with a little luck, it’s capable of becoming a classic, and whether the poet who wrote it was an academic or a revolutionary doesn’t matter.