Poet / lawyer / blogger Seth Abramson has been blogging, as part of his preparation for his PhD preliminary exams, about the Creative Writing MFA and its place in the polysystem of American literature, especially poetry. His overall point is to overturn the standard narrative of the Creative Writing MFA, which is that it “institutionalizes.” Abramson argues pretty convincingly that the “institutionalization” reading comes from an ideologically-based analysis of the current economy of poetic production that conspicuously overlooks both the history and the present reality of the MFA as an institution. As a poet with an MFA, Abramson clearly has a dog in this fight.
But he’s also getting a PhD, which puts him in an interesting position in what he describes as the “125-year-long battle between two opposing forces in American poetry, ‘creative writing’ and ‘the Academy.’” I take it Abramson is motivated against what he sees as the predominant model of an embattled American poetry scene (as Abramson says, “the Combatants Aren’t Who You’d Suspect“), defined by Ron Silliman as the “post-avant” vs. the “School of Quietude,” and enshrined in places like Cole Swensen’s anthology American Hybrid (a hybrid can only emerge from forces in opposition to each other). Rather than the opposing forces being two different ways of writing poetry, Abramson says, it’s two different ways of conceiving poetry. My tendency in the decade or so that I’ve been following Ron Silliman’s blog has been to see the shifting battle lines historically, that is, what used to be a split between Academic Study of poetry vs. Creative Writing poetry had shifted to be a split between poetry inspired by & engaged with the continued relevance of Pound and / or Stein vs. poetry that would rather imagine that moment had never existed. Abramson is asking that we take another look at the fundamental division; if nothing else, it’s fair to say there are many fronts in this fight, as well as some unexpected allegiances.
I can relate to Abramson’s approach because I think one of the reasons I got so interested in translation during college was my frustration with many of the approaches to poetry I’d witnessed in both the creative writing classes I took and the academic courses for my major. In short, I turned to translation for something that could provide both the rigor I came to expect from academic coursework and the freedom I looked for in the Creative Writing workshop. And yet since then I have also become only more and more of an academic. In many ways this tension within me still exists, as I define the translations I don’t like (mine or by others) as being either too “academic” or too much defined by a “poetic voice” I recognize from the workshop atmosphere but don’t recognize in the poet being translated. But as an academic–albeit not of the English dept., which I think is where the brunt of Abramson’s analysis falls–I have seen a lot of how my colleagues and I and the institutions around us tend to treat the things we treat. And this is where I think Abramson’s reading of the battle between Creative Writing and the Academy falls short: basically, I don’t recognize the academy in his description of “the academy.”
Abramson makes some interesting points about the university–such as how it is “pro-multiculturalism in discourse, anti-multiculturalism in community“–but more often I find myself lost in unexplained statements like “Consistent with their academic affiliations, the forces of the Academy are anti-aesthetics and pro-poetics” and “The Academy equates aesthetics and politics.” Does that mean the Academy is anti-political? I’m confused. If I could recommend a quick corrective to Abramson’s view of the Academy, it would be that he treat it with the same care with which he treats the MFA. Be more clear on its history the recent developments within literature departments, sure (for instance, have discursive appeals to multiculturalism been followed up by increased multiculturalism amongst and within academic communities?), but specifically in terms of the relationship between the Academy as an institution–a university with a bureaucracy, endowment, and workplace regulations–and the Academy as a literature dept. in which people talk about writing. Then I’d be more interested in what he’s got to say about it, and less prone to believe that his appeals for peace between “creative writing” and “the Academy” weren’t disingenuous attempts to ensure his side more respect from the other.
Still, I do agree with his conclusions. He writes, in the last paragraph:
if we could get all these folks together we could probably remake the presence of the literary arts in the academy in a generative way that would take us to the next stage in the development of American poetry. It’s time for those dissatisfied with 125 years of fruitless propaganda-laden battles to put down their swords and seek a better way forward for all.
For me, that would have to include–and even be based on–translation.