What Is A Poet?
Final Panel — from right: Hank Lazer, Denise Levertov, Charles Altrieri, David Ignatow, Marjorie Perloff, Gerald Stern, Louis Simpson.(hidden), Helen Vendler, Charles Bernstein, Gregory Jay. Photo by Gay Chow:
Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of the What Is a Poet? Symposium
On September 19, 2008, at the invitation of Sue Walker, Poet Laureate of Alabama and department chair at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Charles Bernstein, Marjorie Perloff, and I gathered to re-visit and reflect upon the What Is Poet? symposium which had been held at the University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa) in October 1984. As the director and organizer for the symposium, the event marked the beginning of my friendship and working relationship with Charles and Marjorie (each of whom I met for the first time in 1983). In organizing the symposium, I worked from a rather naïve set of assumptions about the value of conversation. As I noted in my introduction to the symposium’s concluding panel discussion:
When I began to put this panel together, it should be fairly obvious by now that part of the interest was to create some diversity and controversy. The issue of what is a poet, as Coleridge let us know, is also involved with what is poetry, and these joint issues are issues that the nine people on this panel feel very strongly about and are devoting their lives to dealing with. So it was to be expected that we would have differences of opinion.I organized the symposium to investigate and understand better why poets and critics of divergent aesthetics never gathered together to discuss those differences. I had attended a number of other poetry conferences, and the governing rule seemed to be to invite poets (or critics, but not both) who shared common assumptions about what constituted “good poetry.” I wanted to see what would happen – and if conversation was possible – when the participants represented a much more divergent set of affinities. (In retrospect, of course, the symposium’s diversity turned out to have its own limitations: for example, there were no poets of color included; ethnopoetics and non-US perspectives were only minimally represented.)
Each poet presented a lecture and a reading; each critic presented a lecture; all participants took part in the concluding panel discussion. Certain questions came up again and again – in the lectures, in conversations throughout the symposium, and in the panel discussion: what is a poet? what is a critic? what is or ought to be the function of criticism? what is poetry? and, echoing the title of an essay by Heidegger, what are poets for? Finally, there was considerable conversation about the place and function and centrality (or not) of emotion in poetry, as in the following exchange:
Ignatow: Let me ask you this: If poetry is not emotional, then what is it?As for the poet/critic distinction, Louis Simpson does a good job of stating a key point of contention:
Simpson: I think that this distinction between poets and critics as it’s going around here is not good. I’ve never met a poet who was not a critic. It is impossible to be a poet without being a critic as you write. And most of the good critics have much of the poetic feeling in them. You’ve mentioned Schlegel; you’ve mentioned Coleridge, of course. The differences come when we attack schools of criticism or attitudes of criticism. That is valid argument. I don’t think anybody here, any poet of this panel, would deny the absolutely useful function of good criticism. But I personally as a poet today find certain tendencies of criticism which I consider bad. They may have had a grain of truth in them, but as far as what I consider the making of poetry to be, they are very harmful. For example, the treating of a poem as expository prose, ignoring its dramatic unity or its effect upon the feelings of the reader as a read or heard thing, to me is bad criticism. And there’s a lot of that around. There are more serious questions being raised, such as, I think, Charles’s basic point, and I think Marjorie shares it to some point – the attempt to remove from the poet himself or herself some sort of controlling truth. This is a point on which we will not agree. And to think that culture produces poems – this is a very fighting point on which we will not agree.Bear in mind, then, that this 1984 symposium took place at a time when the rise of theory – of deconstruction and other modes of European postmodern philosophy – was taking place and the nature of English Departments was, in some universities, undergoing a remarkable transformation. Particularly at universities such as Alabama, where creative writing graduate programs co-existed somewhat uneasily within historically and critically defined English Departments, the conflict between partisans of theory and its opponents was particularly intense, with the vast majority of creative writing faculty deeply opposed to an interest in, much less the ascendancy of, critical theory. You can sense this tension in the exchange among Gregory Jay (at the time, a colleague of mine at Alabama, and, at the time, a partisan of critical theory) Louis Simpson, Denise Levertov, and Charles Bernstein:
Simpson: I think I’m beginning to see a basic reason we’re disagreeing here. You approach the world as a construct which humanity has made, and therefore language is a construct, so you approach experience through language. I would argue that for poets experience occurs as a primary thing, without language in between. I quoted Dante yesterday to you about visions. We have visions, we have experiences for which there is not language, and our job is to create that into a poem. And that seems to me a radically different point of view.Part of the threat posed by Language poetry came from the fact that its chief practitioners were adept, sophisticated readers of continental philosophy, and their own writing manifested little sense of demarcation between poetry and theory (or the essay). The tenor of the symposium was thus deeply contentious. There were occasions when creative writing faculty from the University of Alabama led students and friends in leaving the auditorium in the middle of a lecture (as happened when Charlie Altieri spoke), muttering as they left, “who can understand this shit…” The next poetry reading on the UA campus – a couple of weeks after the symposium – began with both the introducer and the featured poet denouncing the evils of theory and the evils of the recently held symposium. I, myself, was not able to give a departmentally sanctioned poetry on my own campus for fifteen years. The symposium itself proved to be a means for revealing the emerging tensions between creative writing and the rest of the English Department, as well as between poetry of the plainspoken free verse epiphanic mode and the newly emergent innovative poetries (represented, in part, by Language poetry).
Charles Bernstein’s presence – his second major academic conference – became a flashpoint. One of the other poets accused him of polluting the public beach of language. Another accused him of intellectual McCarthyism. Oddly enough, the polarity that I most expected to occur – between critics Helen Vendler and Marjorie Perloff – did not become particularly intense. In fact, a mutual respect and friendship was more evident than any sense of hostility or opposition.
The symposium also took place within the context of a growing number of essays critiquing the rapidly growing institutionalization of creative writing and the equally rapid growth of the writing workshop. Donald Hall – who was invited but unable to attend the symposium – allowed me to reprint his influential essay “Poetry and Ambition” in the What Is a Poet? volume. In that essay (which first appeared in 1983), Hall argued,
The United States invented mass quick-consumption, and we are very good at it. We are not famous for making Ferraris and Rolls Royces; we are famous for the people’s car, the Model T, the Model A – “transportation,” as we call it: the particular abstracted into the utilitarian generality – and two in every garage. …
The 1984 "What Is a Poet?" symposium took place at a time of considerable tension within the world of American poetry. The emerging critique of the burgeoning creative writing/workshop industry, the rise of critical theory and its importance to English Departments and to interpretive methodologies, and the increased attention to Language poetry and other innovative poetries contributed to the kinds of tensions reflected in the concluding panel discussion. One might argue that the mid-1980s represented a much more polarized time in American poetry – a time when camps and schools of poetry held more sharply delineated differing assumptions and when those affiliations led to a sharp sense of turf (reflected in networks of publication, employment, prizes, and the other apparatuses of official [and unofficial] verse culture). While today it might be more common to assume that we live in an era of happy hybridity – a sort of post-polarized poetry world, in which students are free and encouraged to try any form of writing – that claim belies the fact that there still are walls and differing assumptions about how to proceed as poets. It would be intriguing to have another symposium – again, with the deliberate intention of having poets and critics of differing perspectives (and beliefs) present to articulate and discuss those differences (and commonalities). What made the 1984 symposium unusual, and perhaps historic, is that just such a conversation took place.
—Hank Lazer, July 2009