Sunday, April 27, 2014

Puzzling over value #7 The Modernists: Excellence or Elitism?

This is going to take some untangling so to start the thread:

Excellence or Elitism

In his most excellent “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” a book that should be mandatory reading for anyone who wants to teach literature,  Jonathon Rose, coming to the end of his narrative, quotes John Carey. In “The Intellectuals and the Masses” Carey “argues that the fundamental motive behind the modernist movement was a corrosive hostility towards the common reader.” (Rose p.392)  and Rose sets this in the context of ‘the centuries-old tensions between the educated classes and the self-educated’. (p393)

Anyone who has read Pound’s criticism, will know his arrogant dismissal of the Mob, but as Rose proves, the “mob” Pound was reviling was becoming far better educated. In 1870 education was made compulsory in Britain, by the beginning of the 20th century the schools had introduced a new generation of working class readers to the classics of English literature  and they were buying the shilling editions of the everyman library by the millions.  

“If most American magazines were printing free verse,[Eliot was complaining of this in 1917)  America could hardly be the philistine wasteland portrayed by Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Menken. In fact the reading public on both sides of the Atlantic was becoming more affluent and more educated. That growing audience could support an ever-expanding corps of writers, artists, critics and academics: they could earn a living by rejecting the mass audience and writing for coteries of sophisticated readers.  The modernists were among the first authors to carve out that market niche, and to secure it they had to become ever more innovative, complex and difficult-partly to frustrate imitators, partly to appeal to the exclusivity of readers. That is why mass education, even mass higher education, never produces a ‘common culture’, however noble that dream may be. Whenever the masses are educated up to a given level of culture, elite audiences and intellectuals will have already pressed on to the next and more challenging level". (p.436)

There is an undeniable process built into the structure of any society. Rose again: ‘If knowledge is power, then power wealth and prestige depend on preserving inequalities of knowledge. Anthropologist Mary Douglas notes that the drive to maintain differential of information is present in all societies: “Ethnography suggests that, left to themselves, regardless of how evenly access to the physical means of production may be distributed, and regardless of free educational opportunities, consumers will tend to create exclusive inner circles controlling access to a certain kind of information.” (qtd 395).

However, Rose, following Carey, seems to  imply that the modernists did this deliberately.

‘The inaccessibility of modernism in effect rendered the common reader illiterate once again, and preserved a body of culture as the exclusive property of a coterie.‘ (p.394)

I haven't read Carey, but  I’m not sure either of them is right. 
More to follow.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Publication in the Quarterly Review

Four poems in the Quarterly review

I admit the idea of being published by the review which trashed Keats was attractive.

I can hear Coker's shade stuttering out of his grave to grab a quill and scratch his indignation. Poems? He rustles, with dusty vehemence,  they call these poems!!!!!

Working himself up to a fine frenzy the Ghost scribbles furiously on a scrap of winding sheet:

I find not one one heroic couplet in the lot. Not one finite, well-expressed thought encapsulated in rhyme.  Is the rest supposed to be blank verse? Can't this Guilar fellow count? The lines don't scan. Well, the first one does, perhaps. If one were being generous.

If the cockney school was bad enough, now god help me we've got transplanted West Midlands Migrant.  Comprehensive school education. No Oxbridge man this. No wonder he ran away to the colonies. Do they even speak English there yet?

The first effusion has some nameless speaker contemplating the present with a cynical discussion of cynicism, the second is a rant about being English, the third an attempt to imagine what Robert Dudley might have thought of Elizabeth the First....ok, so it evokes Kenilworth Castle, give him that. As for the last piece, as far as I can tell there's a game called trivial pursuits, and the questions are about armed conflicts after the Falklands...there's the answers to the questions, a conversation between the players and the thoughts of one of the players.
Where's the uplift? Where's the beauty?
No no no this will not do, Back to the colonies with you, Master Liam. Better to be a well paid teacher than a poor attempt at a poet.
Compared to this,  Endymion was a masterpiece...
Coker pauses, realising what he's just said.
The shade of John Keats, enjoying a bunch of grapes and a bottle of Claret, looks up at the mention of his poem, sees it's Coker who is speaking, and throws the bottle at him.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Puzzling over value #6B: Education vs Legitimisation

Between Education and Legitimisation.

Traditionally A BA (Hons,) in English Lit qualified you for nothing. It meant you had undergone a course of study, had presumably learnt something about English Literature, and could write a coherent essay to a generally agreed standard.  You could argue the course trained you as an academic literary critic, but that was hardly a career path open to the hordes that graduated.  It proved you had attained a standard in your chosen field. You were unlikely to have said or written anything original in the three years it took you to get your degree but that didn’t matter.

There was an assumption that to teach in the University environment you had to at least do a Master’s degree, with the implication that you had mastered the subject by producing work that “made an original contribution to the Field”. Then you could compete for the jobs available. But the percentage of students who began their BA who ended up teaching in a university must have been tiny.

When Literature was mooted as a university course in England at the turn of the last century, there was serious dissent in the academy from Academics who could not see how you could define the body of knowledge (step one in running any course) and how you could then assess that it had been mastered (step two). Moreover how could someone studying “gossip about Shelley” be on an intellectual par with the students in the science department mastering the emerging discipline of Quantum Physics?

 The fact that literary studies managed to overcome these objections, riding the back of inflated claims for the importance of “Literature” in general and poetry in particular,  is one of the great con tricks in academic history, but by mid-century the process was creaking: did anybody really need yet another PhD on The Waste Land, or on Yeats?  The creaky process was temporarily redeemed by the advent of theory, which not only made equally inflated claims for its own self importance, but gave PhD  candidtates new ways of either saying the same old things about the same old texts or, in Terry Eagleton’s phrase, writing about pubic hair.

Exactly what the point of studying literature at University was, whether critical or theoretical, despite various attempts to justify it, remains vague. It was useful for teachers and anyone who needed a high level of literacy in their future profession: Journalism, the civil service, the diplomatic corps, various types of admin’, advertising, sales, publicity, publishing, copywriting …anywhere eloquence and linguistic sophistication were useful,  but where there was no clear body of required knowledge or skills necessary before you started.

But the point of this is that literary studies were never a professional training course: they weren’t even a good way to learn about writing literature.

So when creative writing  came along, belatedly to the university,  it had to justify itself by fitting in with the existing academic models: there had to be undergraduate courses, and Masters degree, and PhDs.  And they had to fit into the existing paradigms just as literary studies had. Whether or not that paradigm was relevant or appropriate for learning how to write poetry, was, ironically, irrelevant.

There were, theoretically, three options: “Education” on the lines of the English Major, “Professional qualification” or “Apprenticeship”. The apprenticeship model was never going to happen: the idea of studying the craft of poetry, as craft, just didn’t sound dignified enough.  

But It could never be a “professional” training course as far as poetry and prose fiction were concerned because there was no profession to be trained for.

Courses can be developed and run to prepare students to be Lawyers and Doctors and Engineers and Teachers. Students exit the university with a piece of paper that said they have the required knowledge and basic skills to be eligible for consideration for employment in the relevant field. They compete on the Job market, and then they go work and if they are good there are career structures they can rise through. 

But there was no “employment’ for the tyro poet and the University could issue whatever paper it liked, it didn’t change the fact that legitimacy as poet was reliant on one of Bourdieu’s three groups and was unpredictable and erratic. Having a PhD or an MFA in creative writing did not guarantee the quality of your poem,  and whether or not anyone can tell the difference between  a poem written by someone with academic qualifications and a similar one written by someone with none, is a moot point.

That was until creative writing courses became popular, needed to be staffed, and hey presto, in the sealed acoustic of the academy a career path opened that not only sidestepped Bourdieu’s three types, but is well on the way to replacing 1 and 2 and not only does confer legitimacy within the terms of the institution, but has increasing implications outside it. Not the least is the essentially conservative nature of any education process. 

It is, as I wrote in a previous post, the difference between legitimisation and education. The latter is what should be happening, the former is what should not. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Puzzling over value #6a Pierre Bourdieu and why it isn't going to happen again.

I think Bourdieu’s model which I quoted from in my previous post is useful in that it explains how the field of cultural production that is poetry worked, and then, in failing to account for how it works now, shows the problems facing a young poet today.

Point one: for Bourdieu the work or art is simply that which is labeled a work of art by those with the power to do so. Think of it as who gets hung in the gallery. “Poetry is a verdict, not an occupation” said Mr. Cohen. It is inevitably someone else’s verdict, if you’re trying to get published and it is always retrospective to the act of writing.  It follows from this that you cannot 'confer legitimacy' on yourself. You may decide that whatever you write is poetry, you can call yourself a poet, you can self publish to your heart's content, but it does not, in Bourdieu's terms, confer legitimacy. 

Point two: Who gets to be called a poet, what gets to be called a poem and published and talked about, is the result of what Bourdieu sees as the struggle for legitimacy that characterizes the history, in fact drives the history, of any field of cultural production.
In Bourdieu’s model there are three groups who offer legitimacy to the producer:
1)  The small group of fellow producers whose opinion you value. 
2)The people who make taste: the publishers, critics, reviewers, academics etc 
3)The consumers who buy the product, perhaps ignoring 1 and 2.

When Pound went to London in 1908 he went because; ‘His eye was on the London where the most poetry and the best poetry was published and where live poets might be met. It was there he hoped to find a publisher and to find Yeats. It was, he then believed, the only right place in which to practice poetry’ (Moody, p71).  With Swinburne, Tennyson and Browning dead, Yeats was the acknowledged ‘King of the Cats” though there were people saying he was finished. In a letter to T.S Eliot’s father, Pound wrote that London was the place to be because:
..Again, if a man is doing the fine thing and the rare thing, London is the only possible place for him to exist. Only here is there a disciplinary body of fine taste, of powerful writers who ‘keep the editors under’, who make it imperative that a publisher act in accordance, occasionally, with some dictates other than commercialism. (EP to Henry Ware Eliot sr. Qtd in Meynard p98)
Pound was openly contemptuous of 2 and 3 above, while being very good, in his London years, at dominating and exploiting the possibilities for the making of taste. (In reality Pound, like Joyce, and perhaps unlike Eliot, trusted his own judgment and didn’t care what anyone else thought. If they didn’t agree with his opinions, or his own evaluation of his work, that was their failure.)

It is obvious that the Field was then coherent enough for Pound to create a space for his own version of what poetry should be by attacking the version of poetry that was dominant at the time. In so doing he created a version of the ‘professional poet’ and a readership, if not necessarily for his own work, then certainly to help Eliot create one for himself.  

A hundred years later, give or take, and the field that is poetry has shrunk dramatically. It is difficult to imagine a poet doing what Dan Brown does, publishing writing that is critically damned, and selling hundreds and thousands of copies. The third form of legitimization for the poet is rare (there are exceptions). In some corners of the field the idea of popularity and sales (even by the pitiful figures that pass for popular in poetry) are seen as evidence that the poetry isn’t quite right and the fact only five people pretend to understand and admire your radical avant-garde poetry is proof positive of how good it is. Not being understood has become a mark of distinction.

Secondly, the field itself is no longer coherent but fractured and scattered.  In 1908, Pound was 23. Imagine a 23 year old today with his ambition who survives the “don’t be so pretentious” brigade. There is no geographical place which is the centre of poetry in English, (there are places which might claim to be); nor is there a clear ‘King of the Cats’ (there are candidates but the dominance of Tennyson and Browning over the 19th century has not been repeated); and there are so many competing versions of what a poem is that even if our 23 year old wrote the best poem of the 21st century tomorrow, it is unlikely that there could be agreement about its quality or significance across those contending versions. 

When Eliot published The Waste Land people knew the boat was being rocked.  It’s never going to happen again. 

That’s one of the problems with B’s model. It doesn’t describe what happens now. (There are other strengths and weaknesses when you apply it to poetry but this is not the place for a discussion thereof).

What I see as the crucial difference between then and now is that for Bourdieu the field is characterized by the struggle for legitimacy. He doesn't say this but it makes sense in terms of the history of poetry in English: Chaucer’s southern courtly style against the alliterative; Spencer and Sidney having to prove that poetry was possible in English; Coleridge and Wordsworth rebelling against what they saw was an over-ornate artificial diction and imagery; Pound and Eliot against a degraded 19th century stodge. 

However, for Bourdieu, Legitimacy was never automatically conferred.

It is now.

You sign up at the university at 18 or 19, and you progress through the academic hoops, and when you exit with your PhD in Creative Writing you can be employed putting other people through the hoops. You get published because you’ve learnt how to write a poem and you have contacts. You know the other people running courses: they know you. You review them and write intros for their books; they scratch your back in return. You probably even edit an online journal choosing who gets published.

It’s the crucial difference because it confuses education: (you’ve hopefully learnt about poems and writing them and can now go away and try and write something a stranger might enjoy reading. If you work hard at it and you’re lucky you might produce some good pieces: you may not), with legitimization: (you’ve got an MA, MFA or PhD therefore you are a Poet and therefore what you write is Poetry and since your job relies on publication better keep it coming).  

Which explains why there is so much poetry and so much of it is solid but uninteresting. The situation now is very similar to what faced Pound. There's a lot of poetry being published. But our 23 year old rebel today, burning with Pound's conviction that good poetry is an art worth fighting for, has no where to strike.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Puzzling over value #6 The Institutionalising of Legitimacy. Wheeler's 'Meme'

According to Pierre Bourdieu,  what characterizes the artistic field, and what gives it its history, is the struggle of succeeding movements or individuals for legitimacy, which is gained by supplanting the existing dominant forms by the revolutionary new.
This definition-Who can legitimately be called a writer? What is legitimate literary practice?-is one of the key stakes of symbolic struggle in the literary field, and failure to understand it often results in the blind acceptance of the dominant definition of literary legitimacy. (Bourdieu.1993, p.12)
According to Bourdieu (1993) there are three competing Principles of legitimacy:
First, there is the specific principle of legitimacy, i.e. the recognition granted by the set of producers who produce for other producers, their competitors i.e. by the autonomous self-sufficient world of “art for art’s sake”. Secondly there is the principle of legitimacy corresponding to ‘bourgeois’ taste and to the consecration bestowed by the dominant fractions of the dominant class and by private tribunals, such as salons, or public, state guaranteed ones, such as academies, which sanction the inseparably ethical and aesthetic (and therefore political) taste of the dominant. Finally there is the principle of legitimacy which its advocates call ‘popular ’i.e the consecration bestowed by the choice of ordinary consumers, the ‘mass audience’. (Page 50/51)

There was a time when Eliot could be validated by all three. Pound scorned the second (‘it hits me in my dinner invitations’, he wrote) and the third (which he was fond of calling The Mob) and was only interested in the first, but the other two certainly existed in his day. Before Pound began his career in London it was possible for Elkin Mathews, who would later be Pound’s London Publisher, to publish Admirals All and Other Verses by a then unknown Henry Newbolt in his ‘Shilling Garland’ series and for it to go through thirty reprintings, selling 30,000 copies by 1910 (Nelson, 1989, p.47).  Such an action today, in Australia, is difficult to imagine. The problem facing the modern poet is that legitimisation has been institutionalised. And those with power, have power, because they are employed by the institution.

The shift within the field of poetry in the past 100 years means that currently those with the power to confer legitimacy tend to be employed by academic institutions, especially since the burgeoning of creative writing courses in Universities . But these people are employed because they meet the requirements of the institution for employment. This does not mean they are not good at what they do or should not be there, it just means that like any employee they operate within the mandates, traditions and practices of the institution In terms of creative writing it is almost inevitable that institutional needs, processes, and what is required for external justification, will be in conflict with the kind of freedom Graves celebrated (See here: )

Attempts to justify creative practice in terms of existing definitions of academic research are bound to alter the process of writing, and since literary theory is in fashion, its application to creative writing, regardless of how appropriate that might be in other terms,  is one inevitable consequence.

Assessment has to be based on criteria that are as objective as possible, must be reportable, must be fair and comparable across cohorts, across time and across institutions. If genuinely new poetry is radical and revolutionary because it challenges the existing orthodoxy, how can this happen in a setting where orthodoxy is institutionalized and therefore a requirement for recognition and achieving grades?

This is not a criticism of the institution or the people in it. But for the writing of poetry and the effect on the Domain, the results of this institutionalizing of legitimacy is problematic beyond its tendency to emphasize content and to police ideology. Firstly because being within the institution, the reading practices and the academic thinking fashionable within the institution are going to affect it. The kind of political or theorised readings, based on assumptions about poetry and its social and cultural and political role, become the ground on which the poetry course or the creative writing course might operate and on which the poem will be criticized. Secondly, as Bourdieu says, the game is to change the field without disturbing the ground of its existence. Refusing to play the game according to the rules calls ‘into question not a way of playing the game, but the game itself and the belief which supports it. This is the one unforgivable transgression” (P81).

I can see no other reason except for the institutional processes outlined above why something like this following piece gets published. In a book by a ‘prize winning’ author, who at the time of publication taught at Princeton University where she was director of the creative writing program, in a book bearing the sticker “National Book award Finalist’:

wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait
I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m
not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not
done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done
fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking
wait I’m not done fucking wait I’m not done fucking wait

(p74. This is all there is on page 74.)

(From Meme: poems by Susan Wheeler.University of Iowa press, 2012.)

When you’ve got over the cute way it reads the same way downwards at the ends of the lines and the first and last lines what are you supposed to do with this?  You could replace ‘fucking’ with any two-syllable activity, and what difference would it make? (Ok, so I admit I had fun reading it with a pause after done, but that was my desperate attempt to find something to keep myself interested).

 What am I, as reader, supposed to do with this? Why did anyone think this was worth charging dollars for?