THE IVORY TOWER V. THE FRENCH CAFE’

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When it comes to post-grammar school writing, you can’t choose your education; it chooses you.

When you walk into that classroom on that first day you have absolutely no idea how good that writing teacher or that English teacher is going to be, or how interesting, or supportive, your fellow students are going to be, anymore than how it might go when you strike up a conversation with a stranger in a cafe’.

Nor can any institution guarantee the quality of its teachers or its students.

Outside the institution, there are no guarantees either. When you discover, as a reader, a poet you find interesting, you might enjoy the first dozen poems, but that doesn’t mean the next 100 by that poet won’t be highly disappointing, and there’s no telling how, or even if, that poet is finally going to add significantly to what you hope to do as a poet or be as a person.

Writing is a dice roll.  You may spend five years immersed in a book that leads nowhere.  You may spend ten years with a certain style of poetry that leads nowhere.  That secretive poet you’ve loved for years may finally have nothing to say.

It’s the equivalent in the 18th century of going to sea.  Good luck.

You can train yourself in a job that has a certain salary, but you can’t train yourself to be a poet and expect any salary from ‘writing poetry,’ and therefore the only thing poetry education leads to is more poetry education.  Let’s think about this for a second.  The only result from “learning how to make x” is learning how to teach someone else “how to make x,” and x does not exist as a commodity, or really exist at all.

In institutions of higher learning, those teaching poetry cannot even say what it is.

If you said that a poem has a content or a form unique to itself, this would not be true, and the “professionals” who teach the poem are the first ones who will tell you this.

There is no content or form which is unique to a poem; no one can say, with any certainty at all, what makes a poem unique.

Identifying a poem in the old sense of having a certain distinguishable form would be greeted with gales of laughter by the professionals who currently own its teaching and dissemination as a critical product.

The “professionals” would be the first to say that a poem cannot be defined, this non-entity which is “taught” so that someone else might “teach” it again, with “teaching it” not even definable, since “it,” as all professionals agree, is not definable.

Nor does learning poetry have any ancillary benefits that can be defined; if one plays soccer, for instance, or jogs, and it never leads to any income or any definable result, we can say for certain that the exercise involved is a benefit; not so, however, with learning poetry, for it more often than not, leads to ill health: lack of exercise, lack of sunshine, too much coffee or alcohol, an exaggerated sense of importance, low self-esteem from material want, and book-wormish mania.

Writing, in very rare  instances, can be a great career, but half-attempts will inevitably fail and full-attempts which are unsuccessful will inevitably fail miserably, and especially so, in poetry, which none can define.

No amount of institutional professionalism can prevent, by one iota, the issues addressed here, and professionalizing what, at bottom,  is a psychosis, will probably lead to even more unhappiness.

Here, my friend.  Have a croissant.

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16 Comments

  1. notevensuperficial said,

    May 23, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    x does not exist as a commodity, or really exist at all

    To be is to be sloganizable? There’s lots of things we recognize, understand, even talk successfully about – but which don’t admit easily of non-circular or non-essence-begging definition.

    A famous sophistry of Plato’s Socrates that I think Plato means in ironic – and ghoulish – fun: ‘we can’t be “afraid of” death since we don’t know what being dead is’. — The ghoulishness obtaining in the reader’s knowledge of the ultimate worldly fruits (for himself) of the historical Socrates’s astringently educative irony. That (Plato’s, and, I guess, the historical) Socrates was brave in the face of this unknown bourne indicates that he does have a kind of anticipation of what he doesn’t ‘know’.

    I think what literature teachers claim to teach is not so much the quiddity of ‘literature’ as the refinement of one’s written (and conversational) reaction to a piece of it. If an awareness of what ‘literature’ can be grows as a result of failing better at expressing one’s reactions to pieces of it – yay.

    What is “better” in shaping one’s reactions to literature? – Rather than landing on this opportunity triumphantly to trumpet an ultimately naive nominalism, this point of definitional stress is a moment to insist provisionally on the usefulness of the pragmatic approach – however ultimately vacuous pragmatism-for-it’s-own-sake is.

    I don’t know much about the pedagogy of Creative Writing, but anybody can look up Raphael’s painting ‘teachers’. His masters might not have taught him how ‘to be Raphael the painter’, but they taught him something, eh?

    The life of a writer – most artists – is one of socially generative self-indulgence. Psychosis?! Let’s save this category for the rat bastards of Wall Street, insurance company administrators of ‘medicine’, and credit card pushers. And, of course, for the rampant dementiae of the American Petroleum Institute.

  2. notevensuperficial said,

    May 23, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I mean, ‘worldly fruits for Socrates himself of his bantering – sometimes battering – irony’. Readers include, that I’ve noticed, hers and hims both.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    May 23, 2010 at 8:01 pm

    notevensuperficial,

    I’m glad you mentioned Socrates, for the Phaedrus has taught me well.

    Your objections do not consider the soul of the entire matter, the perfection of my argument as a whole.

    A good argument does not contain waste or digression. I pursued my subject with the frenzy of a dionysian lover and did not let it out of my sight until it was utterly mine.

    Your rhetoric, however, is highly impure: “rat bastards of Wall Street,” for instance, has exactly what to do with the subject of my argument?

    Here is the essence of your counter-argument:

    “I think what literature teachers claim to teach is not so much the quiddity of ‘literature’ as the refinement of one’s written (and conversational) reaction to a piece of it. If an awareness of what ‘literature’ can be grows as a result of failing better at expressing one’s reactions to pieces of it – yay.

    What is “better” in shaping one’s reactions to literature? – Rather than landing on this opportunity triumphantly to trumpet an ultimately naive nominalism, this point of definitional stress is a moment to insist provisionally on the usefulness of the pragmatic approach – however ultimately vacuous pragmatism-for-it’s-own-sake is.”

    This is sophistical and reminds me of the rhetoric of the men who invented the pedagogy of the Writing Workshop system, men like Ford Madox Ford and Wilbur Schramm, ministers of war propaganda, or George Trumbull Ladd, who introduced the study of psychology to Yale in the late 19th century…writers did not create the writing workshop, behaviorists did. You sound like one of them.

    “To be is to be sloganizable? There’s lots of things we recognize, understand, even talk successfully about – but which don’t admit easily of non-circular or non-essence-begging definition.”

    How interesting that you indulge in exactly what I raising as the nub of the problem…you are blithely unable to define ‘x’ but are happy as can be to blithely write ‘even talk successfully about.’

    Socrates was right, by the way, not to fear death. I see no irony there.

    And Raphael, as well as Socrates, could obviously teach you a thing or two!

    Tom

  4. notevensuperficial said,

    May 24, 2010 at 1:56 am

    “rat bastards of Wall Street” has what, exactly, to do with the subject of my argument?

    Tom, they were proposed among a short list of better referents for your phrase “what, at bottom, is a psychosis” than your choice, which I took to be ‘life as a writer’. In other words, you mischaracterize your “subject” by calling it ‘psychotic’, and, in the course of making that mischaracterization clear, I offer, “exactly”, superior examples of “psychosis” (to yours), to which you might have compared your example.

    the essence of your counter-argument

    That’s a pretty long “essence”. Let me re-phrase:

    Literature teachers often don’t teach answers to ‘what is literature?’; rather, they teach how to respond literarily to literature in accord with whatever literary values they favor. Their individual answers to this question inhere in this tutelage; ‘proper words in the best order’, for some particular teacher, entailing that teacher’s anticipatory and performative privileging of “proper” and “best”.

    sophistical

    Which specific gnats are you laboring to smite with this sledgehammer, Tom?

    How interesting that you indulge

    I didn’t try “to define” poetry – not the same as “unable to define”, “exactly”.

    What I did do was to indicate that equating ‘difficult to define’ (or ‘undefinable’) with ‘non-existent’ is silly – which foolishness I wanted gently to suggest by way of pointing to the numerous parallel cases, parallel in that we think and talk intelligently about those things – just as we do “poetry” – that we have difficulty defining with idealistic precision – as we do “poetry”. What is love? What is citizenship? What is language, and a language? What are meaning and understanding? – and so on.

    blithely

    Blithe. A. adj.
    1. Exhibiting kindly feeling to others[.]
    2. Exhibiting gladness[.]
    3. Of men, their heart, spirit, etc.: Joyous, gladsome, cheerful; glad, happy, well-pleased.
    4. Yielding milk. [OED]

    Tom, how does “blithely” describe the manner of my “writ[ing] ‘even talk successfully about'”?

    Do you mean ‘heedlessly; unconsciously of implications or consequences’? ‘Milk-yieldingly’ would be more accurate.

    could obviously teach you a thing or two

    Thanks, Tom – though I don’t know that I deserve such a compliment. But more than in being flattered (always effective, sadly for the logos of my character), I’m interested in what Socrates can “teach you“.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    May 24, 2010 at 10:57 am

    Nonsuperficial,

    You blithely continue to deflect the whole point: how do you milk a cow when there’s no cow?

    Here’s ‘the milk’ of your thesis:

    Literature teachers often don’t teach answers to ‘what is literature?’; rather, they teach how to respond literarily to literature in accord with whatever literary values they favor.

    “how to respond literarily to literature”

    Love that!

    Here’s the essence you miss: If learning Latin or reading the canon, if simple immersion in texts from the past, does not teach the student to be ‘creative,’ there is no alternative to ‘make’ that student ‘creative,’ for what is that alternative? It doesn’t exist. It cannot be defined.

    The burden of definition does fall on what is conceded at the start to be a mere idea.

    Please define this x which the writing workshop teaches, or if not that, then what the ‘teaches’ part is. You cannot. You think you have an idea, but you haven’t one; you know there is some business model run by sophists called ‘the writing workshop,’ and you feel somewhere in your gut that it is ‘real’ and yet…you can’t…make your brain….truly…engage with it…you can’t define it…except to say there are worse behaviors in the world…which of course is no definition at all…not even close…

    Creativity is just another word for genius. How can genius be taught? It can’t. It can only teach you.

    Time to study your Socrates!

    oh…and hurry up and eat your croissant…it’s getting stale…

    Tom

  6. Ovid Yeats said,

    May 24, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Shut up you boring git Graves.

    Stop pretending you are not notevensuperficial.

    You can get locked up in a mental asylum for doing that you know, talking to yourself in Letters online, pretending to have a conversation, making up spoofs, lying through yer back teeth Thom.

    Pack it inb, or else!

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm

      Your crossiant’s ready…!!!

      notevensuperficial is quite real…the police may do different voices, des, but rest assured, that will never happen on scarriet…

      Poe did so with Longfellow…using ‘Outis’ as a sock puppet…but Poe was, you know…a genius…I’m a humble follower…

  7. May 24, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    You have really great taste on catch article titles, even when I are not interested in this topic you push to read it
    17:25

  8. notevensuperficial said,

    May 25, 2010 at 6:56 am

    Tom, you’re not listening to what you don’t want to hear. I’m talking about a) teaching literature as a subject to be understood, not as a field to add to, and b) the existence of difficult-or-impossible-to-definables.

    a) teach the student to be ‘creative’

    No, teach the student to write/converse well about “creative writing”. “[W]ell”? – that would be in accord with whatever the teacher valued in literature generally and in expository assaying in particular: clarity, brevity, directness, and so on (not excluding in any particular case the pleasures/edifications of floridity and circumlocution).

    I’ve already denied knowing more than what I’ve heard about Creative Writing as a taught school subject. I’d guess such an environment could be either enabling or disabling, depending on the quality of the instruction/encouragement and the stubbornness of the learner.

    I’m pretty sure Flannery O’Connor didn’t learn ‘how to write like Flannery O’Connor’ in a classroom, but – and I don’t know – I’d bet that she heard things there that somehow helped her. Can you really not even imagine ‘how’ a strong personality and writing style could continue to be midwifed by an intelligently supportive teacher? Even if you can’t imagine such a thing, —

    ‘responding literarily to literature’ is no great reading-comprehension challenge. ‘Writing well about some piece of writing’ – about how it works or fails, how one is caused to feel and think by it, what it’s made out of in literary terms, and so on.

    Something like conducting an on-line blog in which one explains to one’s correspondents what they’ve got wrong about pieces of writing they’ve read, or about what they’ve come to be convinced is true about . . . um . . . literature . . .

    b) Please define this x

    Tom, you’ve slipperily evaded your own fingerprints with this laughably martial posture – Sophistical Monkey? Do you not understand that even everyday language is richly stocked with words without provision or demonstration of uncontestably perfected definition? – but here you go:

    Poetry. II. 3. c. The expression or embodiment of beautiful or elevated thought, imagination, or feeling, in language adapted to stir the imagination and emotions, both immediately and also through the harmonic suggestions latent in or applied by the words and connexions of words actually used, such language containing a rhythmical element and having usually a metrical form; though the term is sometimes extended to include expression in non-metrical language having similar harmonic and emotional qualities. [OED]

    poetry 2: [text] that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm [adapted from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary]

    “poetry” ‘the use of language to mean by virtue of the unity and coherence of its parts with its whole; the adequation of the material existence of an expression to its sense’ [mine]

    Time to study your Socrates!

    Always “time” for that – to investigate anew, for example the Charmides. In which Plato has Socrates, Critias, and Charmides fail to define swfrosunh (‘temperance, sobriety, moderation, discretion, prudence’), and in which Plato shows us this virtue in the restraint of Socrates (155 c-d) – and the abandon of Critias and Charmides (176 b-d; the conclusion of the dialogue).

    Do you understand “literature”, Tom — though “you cannot” define it? Plato’s Socrates and his conversation partners are rhetorically stymied (elegXos) in defining an x — in the course of Plato’s dramatization (poros) of that very x.

  9. thomasbrady said,

    May 25, 2010 at 11:01 am

    notevensuperficial,

    You are agreeing with me…though i’m not sure you’re even cognizant of what you’re really saying….

    You are defending, rather vaguely, I might add, the way literature was taught BEFORE the writing workshop era took over.

    You write, with as much indignation as you can muster:

    No, teach the student to write/converse well about “creative writing”.

    You are missing the whole point of the creative writing era, which is stated quite clearly by one of its founders.

    “The students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.” –John Crowe Ransom, 1938

    Here is the heart of the matter. The architects of the program era said, ‘tear down the english departments! they only teach about literature!’

    I’ll be happy to talk specifics, quoting the actual men who formed all the early writing workshop models, and wrote extensively about what they were doing and what they were trying to accomplish, their tastes, their aesthetic philosophy, their goals, but people don’t seem to want to talk specifics about this subject…they want to leave it as it is in their minds…a pleasant sophistry…

    I’m glad you know your Socrates…that will help you in any debate….that’s why I’m a little puzzled by your objections…I’m not sure why you are sneering at my thesis….yes…Socrates…by comparison, the architects and defenders of the writing workshop era are ambitious dogmatists…their writings are easy to find…but no one cares to read them, since the ugly business model is rolling along and is a complete ‘success…’

    Tom

  10. notevensuperficial said,

    May 26, 2010 at 7:11 am

    Probably best to make sure that you’re “cognizant” of what you’re saying, Tom.

    ‘Define poetry‘ seems to have become a fossilized red herring on this particular thread – uncertain geology, but good news.

    What I can’t be “sure” of is whether tilting at Creative-Writing-program windmills is worth the trouble. The Foetry exposures were well-deserved (and hilarious) humiliations.

    But a) there must be some real tendance of poetry in writing classes somewhere; and b) what does ranting about “workshop” sludge accomplish? — better to taw one’s logoscape wrangling unruly Shakespeherian rags?

  11. thomasbrady said,

    May 26, 2010 at 10:36 am

    It’s not “define poetry…” you are putting words in my mouth; I have no intention of trying to chew on that all at once…

    Here’s the nub of the matter, in your words:

    “whether tilting at Creative-Writing-program windmills is worth the trouble”

    I’m sure it’s not worth ‘the trouble’ to you, notevensuperficial, for it’s obvious you have no passion for this issue, which is why you’re getting slaughtered in this debate; it’s not that I’m smarter, or better read, or have more facts than you—it’s simply that I care for a matter which you find mundane; I want to make sense of a system which impacts not only poetry, poetry criticism, but the minds and hearts of millions; I’m mad, as Socrates would say, or, call it, if you’d rather, boring civic responsibility and pride; the history and pedagogy of what Ransom and others said is of a profound interest to me, which must be funny to someone like you, who feels so many wrongs so greatly; you are probably engaged in other more authentic adventures against wrong, even as I write these words, against the “rat bastards of Wall Street,” “insurance company administrators,” and the “credit card pushers…” which is great! I wish you all the luck in the world! Let me know how that goes, will you?

    Tom

  12. notevensuperficial said,

    May 27, 2010 at 6:17 am

    you are putting words in my mouth

    No, Tom – not with someone else’s robotic arm. Among the “words” tumbling from your “mouth” have been: you are blithely unable to define ‘x’; Please define this x.

    That x is “poetry” comes from your original post: “The “professionals” would be the first to say that a poem cannot be defined, […] with “teaches it” not even definable, since “it,” as all professionals agree, is not definable.

    I gladly trust that all the “words” in your posts, whatever the mode(s) of their intentions, are from your “mouth”.

    it’s not that I’m smarter, or better read, or have more facts

    In the cases of these assertions, I’m interested in your, [eh], blithe reversals of position.

    Let me know

    Wilco! – and do resist the temptation to be coquettish in the matter of your self-treasured erotikh mania on behalf of the “hearts and minds of millions” of Creative Writing program consumers.

    • thomasbrady said,

      May 27, 2010 at 10:57 am

      notevensuperficial,

      You don’t seem capable of putting two ideas together; you’re only able to entertain one idea at a time, apparently, so I’ll lay it out for you.

      I never claimed to be able to define ‘x.’ The whole thrust of my article was that there’s a for-profit system in place which claims to teach what it cannot define.

      Further, languages and history do exist and can be defined and this is why they are taught.

      Are you really so simple-minded to have missed all this?

      The argument is simple.

      You just don’t want to engage with it.

      You should say as much.

      Jumping up and down and beating your chest just makes you look silly.

      Tom

  13. notevensuperficial said,

    May 28, 2010 at 7:14 am

    “One idear” at all would be an ambition to reckon with, Tom.

    I never claimed to be able to define ‘x’.

    Yes, that was carefully “never claimed” among the spew of indefinabilities.

    (You do say that “[t]he burden of definition does fall on what is conceded at the start to be a mere idea.” – which might raise the question: what do you mean when you use the word “poetry”?)

    a for-profit system in place which claims to teach what it cannot define

    Again, I don’t know from having been in one, but I’ll bet that Creative Writing workshops/degree mills suffer from indulging in too many definitions of “poetry”, rather than too few.

    I don’t see a) what professional Creative Writing teachers’ definitions of “poetry” have to do with Foetry-exposed corruption; or b) why poem writers not in the “for-profit system” of Creative Writing should care much what those businesspeople are up to.

    Jumping up and down and beating your chest

    Tom, that object scoffing theatrically is called a ‘mirror’.

  14. thomasbrady said,

    May 28, 2010 at 10:56 am

    notevensuperficial,

    You’re ranting now. A shrug will do. You couldn’t care less about the writing workshop industry. That’s all you need to say. You flatter me, you really do, by expecting me to do for you what none of the wise in history have been able to do: define poetry. I’ll take up that challenge, I promise, in another post. “What is Poetry?” A fresh start. The thrust of this post-thread is a very simple one: you don’t agree with it; that’s fine.

    Tom


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