Orr Into Gold

David Orr has a long essay in the February issue of Poetry, ostensibly on a new anthology, Poetry of the Law, which spins off in a number of fascinating directions.  I am most interested in his discussion of creative writing within the academy.  He writes: "Creative writing is not, on the whole, a strong discipline in the way that the university conceives of such things.  It lacks a coherent methodology, shared assumptions about its own materials, perspective on its relationship with other academic departments, and often any kind of historical sense.  It can be pretty loosey-goosey stuff.

But it's also supposed to be loosey-goosey stuff." - and then he quotes McGurl, who notes that creative writing's raison d'etre is "as an institutionalization of anti-institutionality" (italics his). Orr then observes how law students and creative writing students share more than at first might meet the eye - they both look to a world where their practice is validated, beyond the university's theories and doors - after all, for all the theory and study, lawyers actually do things with words, as do poets - as Austin noted - some words are performative, and lawyers and poets both make things happen with words (in very different ways).  If this seems unlikely, Orr makes a striking point, one I'd never considered before - for all the talk of poetry's dying, the reason it is so universally studied and supported by universities as creative writing practice is because people still (obviously) find it alive out in the world - whereas no one now runs university workshops in the writing of "serial novels".

I like this idea of freedom within the academy that creative writing (perhaps especially of poetry) seems to offer, though I sometimes wish the poets would also yearn a bit more for the yokes that, conversely, the university offers for them to embrace.  That is, I am puzzled by the signal lack of a coherent development of a creative writing methodology (beyond the workshop process, itself heterodox) at most universities.  Writers and poets no doubt resist the institutionalisation of their writing practice, but that is what is, to a degree, required, in order to "bottle the magic" and impart it.  One thinks of Hogwarts here, perhaps, where students fall under the spell of various teachers, each with their own foibles and intentions - but even there a sense of progress underlines the seeming chaos.  Yet, how often do we hear a poet say, "I've licked sestinas and now can go on to pantoums" - within the context of a workshop?

Another article in the same issue by poet-critic Adam Kirsch, on another new anthology, this of Rap, from Yale, is also essential reading - making this I think a bumper issue.  Kirsch makes the brave argument that Rap - whether seen as lyrics or verse - despite its bravura formal elements, in some ways more impressive than contemporary poetry (Big Daddy Kane seems to out-Muldoon Muldoon in the rhyme department) - is a genre limited in some ways, constricting the larger-than-life rappers.  Rappers tend to be misogynistic braggarts, because the conventions of the genre expect that - and to break away with irony, self-reflection, modesty, and even anxiety (aspects of modern writing of poetry, for instance) would seem to be beyond the bounds of the Rapper's very art.  In this sense, Rap is not Poetry, after all - but a definitively different kettle of fish.  Still, the idea of 920 pages of transcribed Rap is an exciting one.


From a viewpoint within the academy, the academic discipline of creative writing may very well be thriving, although with a certain lack of rigour. However, from my point of view in the big bad world outside, it seems that these students and graduates are coming to dominate the scene. A glance at current poetry magazines will show that so many contributors hold or are studying for an MFA or MA or PhD in Creative Writin' and English or similar disciplines. I know decent poets with a background in science, the theatre or even driving vans, but are they in danger of being squeezed out by the qualified Creative Writers?

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