Saturday, January 14, 2012

the evils of academic writing and the instantly forgettable poem Part 3

The Evils of Academic writing.

Smith, H. (2005). The Writing Experiment: Strategies of Innovative Creative Writing. Crows Nest, Australia, Allen and Unwin.

So there is writing, which is not creative (we knew that though we might have worried about what “creative” means) but there is apparently “creative writing” which is not “innovative”. The book never explains “innovative” or "experimental” in terms of “to whom?”: For the individual doing something he or she hasn’t tried before, or the writer trying to do something that genuinely hasn’t been tried before. The fudging of that issue haunts the book.

The “How to write a poem” genre is massive: 1300 plus results on an Amazon search on “how to write a poem” in books alone. I’m not sure where I read it but I think books on “How to write poems” outsell books of poems.

There’s a subgenre of this which "The Writing Experiment” is an example. It window dresses word games with a coating of “literary theory”. They name check Saussure and Lacan and Freud or other randomly chosen names, and they are characterised by their own predictable buzz words:
transgressive, subversive, innovative, experimental, ideological, race, gender sexuality, theory.

I forgot "postmodern".

In these books Knowledge is not a buzz word. Skill, Understanding, Craft, Ability , Talent are not buzz words.

According to this book:

The main special qualities writers must have are perseverance, motivation, the willingness to search for methods which suit them, energy to push themselves out of their own comfort zones and avid reading habits. Failure to produce creative work is often due more to a lack of stamina or insufficient commitment to the process than a paucity of talent.

Which reminds me of the bad old days when I went to school and boys who failed to achieve acceptable results were caned because failure was simply a lack of effort on their part.

Why writing should be almost the only field of activity where you can tell someone, presumably with a straight face, that talent is not an issue is an interesting question. Whatever “IT” is, some people do “IT” better than others.

(Note to self: work at "commitment to the process" if you want to write better…stay up longer…Is a Briggflatts possible if you don’t sleep for six months?).

(Note to self 2: What could creative work mean in that previous quote and would it be "Innovative creative" work?)

Books like this, supposedly about writing, discuss “fundamental issues’ which tend to be defined as sexuality, ideology and ethnicity, roll out names of “literary theorists” and are characterised by an almost complete absence of any historical sense of poetry as a thing people have been producing and discussing, in a form of English accessible to a modern English speaker, for at least five centuries.

Whether this absence of an historical perspective is due to ignorance or is a deliberate strategic manouver to protect the flimsy nature of the writer’s assertions and make what they are promoting seems “innovative” when it isn’t; is a judgment call for the reader to make.

But the implied reader of this book is actually the problem because the implied or model reader is not capable of making that judgment.
On the one hand he or she has to be ignorant enough about poetry to accept:

“..many writers probably do not really know about their writing methods. Many writers probably do not really know how they arrive at their texts and mental events which occur during the creative process may be difficult to remember or describe.”

The vagueness of “many writers” is probably deliberate. Who they are, or why their ignorance is important, is not stated.

However, our model reader obviously doesn’t know about Shelley, or Emerson, or Keats’ letters, or Pound’s writing about poetry, or Eliot’s, or Graves’ or Auden’s or Davie's or Heaney’s or Hill’s or Atwood’s or Boland’s or Susan Howe's ( the list extends and is admittedly a bit random), or anyone of numerous manifestos from Sidney onward, and has not got even a nodding acquaintance with any decent twentieth century poet with a long career, many of whom were/are provocative critics, because if they did have that knowledge and acquaintance, which I would think is essential for anyone who wants to take writing poems seriously, our model reader would stop reading and ask: what about the “many writers” who have spent their lives thinking and arguing and writing about writing?

To be fair, if the target audience of this book are undergraduates on a creative writing program, or high school students, they probably don’t know any of this.

However this same gullibly ignorant reader is later told that:

experimental texts usually work against and beyond familiar literary codes and conventions. To write experimentally is to adopt a subversive and transgressive stance to the literary, and to break up generic and linguistic norms. This formal transgression is significant because it can be a means to rethink cultural mores; to shake up ideas about sexual identity race or class

So given the implied reader’s ignorance of the history of poetry and poetics, how is he or she going to know what “familiar literary codes and conventions’ or “generic and linguistic norms” are? Or be able to know what is or isn’t "Innovative"?

Which brings us back to that crucial question: who is using this “experimental” writing to rethink SI,R,C? Individual readers in the comfort of their own homes?c But if we’re talking about “writing” as a public activity then surely the next question is what ideas of sexual identity, race or class or “linguistic norms” have not been shaken, stirred and decanted over the past five hundred years.
And are books like this, and the approaches to poetry they promote, the reason why so much poetry is instantly forgettable?

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