Creative Writing in
a University Setting

"On Being Large and Containing Multitudes," American Book Review 6:4 (May-June 1984).

"There lives a man, who lives by the revenues of literature, and will not move 
a finger to support it."

—Dr. Johnson, on an Oxford professor who would not 
order a copy of his dictionary.

The issue of the writer and the university is a complicated one, but I feel it is at bottom a matter of patronage. All art needs patronage, and in our time and place, it is the university, mostly, that provides it. Private foundations play a small role, as do federal and state governments, and a few writers support themselves by writing books that sell, but most writers rely in one way or another on the university to give them time to write and help them develop an audience for their work. This the university does by teaching young people to like poems and novels, by giving writers readings and teaching their books, and by occasionally hiring them.

At the same time, anyone who has ever taught creative writing will tell you there is often in universities, at best, no more than a tolerance for it. Historians and critics of literature, perhaps understandably, object to having their minds and their students' minds distracted by such marginal matters as composition, creative writing, and the literature of the moment. Not so long ago, current literature was not thought suitable academic material because it could not stand up to the work of the Great Masters or had not passed the Test of Time. One of the things Pound railed against the most was the ignorance of current writing in the universities. And I remember the colleague who said he would not cross the street to hear Shakespeare read his poems, but that if Rene Wellek were lecturing nearby he would walk ten miles to hear him. Luckily, the polemicizing of Pound and others has made current literature academically respectable. Courses in contemporary literature are now taught routinely around the country. Several journals specialize in criticism of it, and libraries are vying with each other to purchase the papers of authors who are still in middle age. A far cry from the time when a Gerard Manley Hopkins or an Emily Dickinson lived their whole lives without getting much, if anything, published. Only a short step farther back lies a time when there were no English Departments at all. The literature of one's own language was not taught.

The principle complaint against university patronage of writing is that it produces an "academic" kind of writing, or if that is no longer true, a homogeneity of writing that is stifling to individuality and creativity. "Academic" writing was, I think, that kind of writing favored by the New Criticism, characterized by irony, detachment, wit, learning, and overt technical skill. One used to hear the word, "academic", a good deal in the Fifties, especially after the Beats had launched their aggressively anti-academic poetry. It was, as Donald Hall has said, an "orthodoxy" in the Forties and Fifties, but if I'm not mistaken, it passed away some time ago. Yet the complaints against the university's role in writing go on. The cry is not so much against academic poetry anymore as much as it is against the workshop poem.

I have been looking at what its critics would undoubtedly call the workshop poem-what Carolyn Kizer once called "the good gray poem" of the workshops-for twenty years, and I have to say that I do not know what it is, unless it is an early draft of a poem by a poet who is still under forty. They have come in all sizes and shapes, struck every known attitude and stance, showed unending ambition and promise, and yes, they have all failed to one degree or another to be the equal of "Sailing to Byzantium." But, then, so did all of W.B. Yeats' work before he was forty fail to be the equal of "Sailing to Byzantium."

If the workshops of the twentieth century have fostered great writing, we won't know it for a certainty for another fifty to a hundred years. In the meantime, we should go about our business helping ourselves and each other to write in the best way we know how. Further, we should not listen to those who would have us believe that a university stifles writing because it is removed in some way from the real world. That I find to be a form of cultural machismo which insists that only physical hardship, exploitative labor, or one form or another of fashionably degenerate living puts us in touch with the "real stuff" of life. The world was as real in Emily Dickinson's front parlor as it was on a three-year whaling voyage to the Pacific. I think it is sentimental to regard physical hardship and so-called hard work, even that species of esthetic self-reliance we Americans pride ourselves on, as essential doors to experience or profundity. Gary Snyder has made poetry I admire out of such experience, as has John Clare, but most people are simply beaten down by it. Is Henry James's work invalid because he had an inordinate love of gracious living or because he never handled a pick? I don't think so.

To the charge that the workshops are producing a homogenized poem, one can say, look at the poetry of any age. Start reading Elizabethan sonnets and see how far you get before Drayton turns into Spencer into Sydney and they all begin to sound like a well-trained chorus. How much Augustan verse can you read before your mind begins to wither, or more to the point, how much reading of both did it take before you could tell Dryden from Pope? I don't doubt at all that we all sound more than a little alike, but I don't think it was the workshop or the university that did that to us. That very similarity is apt to mean that we have been taking part in the finding and making of the literary language of our time, which is, I think, what poets have always done. With a little effort, we can tell Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge apart, but the thing we don't see, because most of us are convinced that it is the differences that matter, is that they are all writing slightly different versions of the same new language made available to poetry at the end of the eighteenth century, obviously one very different from the poetic language that preceded it.

The last complaint made against the workshop poem and the university's role in producing it is that it appears in such unrelenting bulk. Once again, I appeal to history, though I do need help from one or two other areas. A day or two in a good library will demonstrate horribly how, in most ages, there has been, relatively speaking, a ton written, and, amazingly, published. We do not see the Felicia Hemans's or the William McGonigal's because time has quietly put them away (though occasionally an "owl's anthology" restores wretchedness to us for our amusement). The Felicia Hemans's of our time, however—show up-as Felicia Hemans herself did—in all the best places. The literary life in any age is a continuous panning for gold where one has to expect to come up with large quantities of sand.

Still, this does not do enough to explain the bulk we are faced with. Part of it is explained demographically. What was the population of England in 1600? The United States today is probably a hundred times more populous. We also have much to thank mass literacy and public education for. In addition, thirty years ago we passed silently through a revolution in printing that historians are likening to the invention of the printing press itself. The end of the Gutenberg Era, as it is sometimes called, coincided with the period of the greatest affluence this nation, and perhaps the world, has ever known. All of these factors, together with a vastly increased world population, have combined to create unprecedented publishing opportunities. Magazines and presses by the hundreds now exist where there were only dozens before, and they have provided the necessary lure most writers need to sustain their writing, namely, publication.

So, yes, there is probably a degree of bulk to our writing which has never been encountered before. More people per capita, I should guess, are appearing in print than at any time in history. But, as nearly as I can understand, the university is not to blame for this. The university's or the workshop's role seems almost negligible, in fact. More important, though, one needs to ask the decriers of this situation, so what? Could anything possibly be gained by shutting down the workshops or by returning universities to their former glory, when they eschewed practical or applied knowledge in favor of the history and theory of it? 

Thirty or forty years ago, the complaint was that the publishing world was small and closed. You had to raze heaven and earth to get into it. It is no different today, if one looks only at commercial publishing. What has changed, as we know, is that a large satellite industry has come into being that makes it possible for an author who does not have, or want, instant commercial viability to get work published. With the decentralizing of publishing, however, has come another kind of decentralizing, and this I think is troubling to many and may be the true source of the complaints we hear. The center of our culture has disappeared, the implicit consensus that, till recently, had always been a feature of our cultural life. The consensus made John Berryman a poet and Allen Ginsberg an outlaw, an admitted outlaw. This state of affairs no longer exists. James Merrill will, if he has not done so already, find himself in the same anthology as Charles Bukowski. Equally amazing, Bukowski will find himself in the same anthology as Merrill. Readers are asked to stretch their sensibilities around such authors as Anthony Hecht and Robert Kelly. Can it be done, or does such a feat snap the rubber band of sensibility and cause one to complain of the crowd and the noise and start attacking those institutions which seem to encourage, by not actively discouraging, the leap we have made into what some would call esthetic anarchy?

I prefer to think our literary life is much like literary life in any age, with one exception. We have achieved a cultural plurality which we now have the option of accepting or rejecting. It is new and strange, discomfiting, and acceptance of it implies inevitable losses. But what about the gains, those we have made and those we seem to be promised? I don't see how we can say no to them.