Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On Amy Newman

I first encountered Amy Newman’s poetry in a chapbook called Curving the Present Tense published in The Ohio Review shortly before the publication of her first book, Order, or Disorder, which won the 1994 Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize, I knew immediately that hers was a unique and luminous talent. Her two subsequent books have only confirmed that conviction.

If Charles Olson was an archaeologist of morning, then Amy Newman is an epistemologist of morning: she wants to know where the knowledge starts. She is Wallace Stevens’s inheritor in the depth and precision of her investigations of the interrelation of mind and world, the imbrication of perception and conception. In Newman’s work we see that to know something we must touch it, feel it in both senses of the word, and to touch something we must know it, know of it.

Amy Newman is not an “abstract” poet: all her ideas are in things, and all things, for her, are bright with idea. This embodiment is not only in the images but in the words of her poems, which have a body and substance felt on the tongue and in the ear.

I included a substantial selection of Amy Newman's poems in my Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries, published by the University of Iowa Press in 2004.

The Architecture of the Wings

Everything vanishes. The line of rain
traverses the country. A certainty of rain.

Behind it, the narrative oceans,
at our backs the longing, the cold sweat

of winter. I say The lake has a vagrant current
drifting toward the possible

I say the subsequent sun on its skin is
the second language of platinum

Tiers of white quarried by silence or
an alliteration of angels.

Everything about it vanishes.
Sapphire comprehending white

in the vault of wings,
twilight’s outstretched torso

down the noon from which
cold blue has fallen,

the safest indulgence into the air.
It is an accident they are

so beautiful, so severe.

Darwin’s Unfinished Notes to Emma

Actually Darwin’s gradual loss of faith, which he downplayed for fear of upsetting his devout wife Emma, had...complex causes.--Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden

The world this morning is wide as this sea,
and full of potential. I think of you so often,
with great sadness at our distance.


Some of the plants I see are extraordinary. One,
whose petals seem lined with cream
and opens out so full
reminds me of your hands...


It is a diverse world, Emma, the structure
is breathtaking. We will never unlearn these

hours of facts. The world...


I think of you especially as we observe the orchids,
those flowers that you so admire. I would like to give you
all the varieties of orchid


Bees cut holes and suck the nectar
at the bases of certain flowers, which,
with a very little more trouble, they can enter

at the mouth


The mistletoe depends on birds to spread its seeds, the
flowers depend on insects, it is all
a series of increasingly apparent
relationships. Nature moves
in profitable steps.

To propagate, the orchid,
I am flustered to write,
requires the cooperation
of the male wasp, and so resembles


we have acquired some idea of the lapse of time;
the mind cannot grasp the full meaning of the term
of even a million years


Do you remember that one morning I smelled of nectar?
Darling, the world is feral, and we are natives.


Of all the species of bee,
only the humble-bee can visit the common red clover.
It has to do with curvature, with length
of the proboscis, too slight
to be appreciated by us. Whole fields of red clover

offer in vain their abundant supply
of nectar to any other bee. This idea

of a vast spread of fresh green waiting
with all its juice,


Instinct! The mental processes of animals!


To propagate, the orchid
requires the participation of

the male wasp, to get the pollen
on his legs, and to get him to transfer

the pollen to other orchids.
The orchid must resemble genitalia,

a female wasp, her body,
so the insect will copulate

with the flower. The orchids had to become
desirable, so this man wasp

will alight from one to another,
cross-pollinating. She wears her color

like flesh, and scents brazenly
for him: spreading herself in the cooler air;

her sweet interior; the fumbling
of the dizzy wasp. This did not happen

as a whim. This is
an extremely intricate subject.


The similar framework of bones in the hands of man,
wing of a bat,
fin of the porpoise,
leg of the horse


I am remembering your subtle throat, how in the heat
your skin will almost pearl. Underneath your dress of skin
all that fragile blood. You are this morning

a field of clover, and I feel drawn to this,
a humble-bee. I am carried in the world’s


The same pattern in the wing and the leg of a bat,
in the petals, stamens, and pistils of flowers


This is a matter of perfection, over time,
and complication. Did the orchid have the means
to think itself into seducing, to adapt as idea
the perfect dress of reproduction,
the female wasp

a bit of fur and soft petal
curved like its soft parts


Last night a dream of you and I dusted in pollen


I would like to believe

Penelope’s Notes to Orpheus


This wet land is a weird equation, the lily’s
anther bowed with pollen,the lily’s stigma
reaching, and all around them,
moths, who beat their gray, ecstatic wings.


At the moment you saw her gone,
the world as fair as any wager and her, blooming
like a crazy vine;
it did you up. I tremble

at your impossible body. I consider you as one
defining loss, its difficult glass
curtain. I want to say, Orpheus,
are you as bad as I hope? Could you

have maybe been playing your music
to me? I feel remote
as any island. Some days I look out on
the water’s turned back,

and no ship can cross it, no matter
how famous the man.


A moth is dusting his legs
in a flower: impossible weight, his
vague gray lust; the bloom and he
nearly graze the ground. I promise you something

you’d shape a sound on,
white as a page but full, of little
pointed licks and volutes. How close to the earth
can we hover? You would fill me like a sail.

To move under the influence of gravity; especially, to drop without restraint.

The eyes close and the gilded flesh
leaves messages in its spiralling, leaves
us astounded at the festive lethargy, at the body’s
reckless, pliant, beautiful lessening,

a shedding of the eye level of thing—
tinny cascade of objects, and the dailiness—
then the weight of all that blood and flesh, the fully human
and bright limbs thinking their way

to the pavement, to the grass, to the water
at the root of the world, all that
thinking, I am falling, and the requisite dull hit
and the end of the defining. A body falls like a story:

beginning, middle, end. I am watching as she falls,
an equation: the earth’s rotation cleaved
as if by insects by this tiniest shift of breath,
the angle of the downward motion

factored in wing beat against the world’s rushing curve.
A beautiful woman falls against the scrim, the tiny distance,
shoulders almost fold as a neat clean blouse,
rib cage dropped in gentle descent, musical,

the decrescendo, her diminution, this whisper added
to the world’s weight. Natural, artful,
the body falls. First height, then loss, all the way down:
the earth the only friend to catch you, the hard truth, the helpful ending.

"The Architecture of the Wings" is from Order, or Disorder, published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 1994 and now out of print. "Darwin's Unfinished Notes to Emma" and "Penelope's Notes to Orpheus" are from Camera Lyrica, published by Alice James Books in 1999 as winner of the Beatrice Hawley Award. "To move under the influence of gravity; especially, to drop without restraint" is from fall, published by Wesleyan University Press in 2006.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Two Posts of Interest

My partner, anthropologist and cultural theorist Robert Philen, has two very interesting recent posts on his blog.

The first post, "Longfellow, George Will, Poetry, and the Artist or Individual Thinker", discusses the different cultural status of poetry in America between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first century, the ideas of accessiblity and difficulty in art (which I have also addressed several times in this blog), and the relationship of art to the artist's biography or social context (arguing, as I have done as well, that the one is not determined by the other).

The second post, prompted by a performance we saw together of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, is called "Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art (Musical and Visual)", discusses the difference in the experience of live musical performance or original works of art from the experience of art in reproduction, as well as the greater conservatism of audiences for "classical" or "serious" music as compared to the audiences for visual art.

I highly recommend both pieces.

The World Is Not Enough


For Lawrence White

The man in my dream said, Let me live, but that
was too much of a sacrifice, and I was never
just, like you; he was working for the infidel,
his domino mask said that, blue turban with one
black feather and a ruby set exactly
in the center: entitled to his own sedan chair
with four bearers. An unlikely forebear.
Venice perhaps, betraying anybody’s lovers
to sell more of the sea, body of cold
salt water warming in the sun. An heirloom
brooch my mother never owned
is waiting for me when I wake up: Honi soit
qui mal y pense
, it says in French that no one
speaks any more, medieval as the patience
it takes to go blind coaxing these raised letters
out of hammered gold and ivory filigree, a full year
of travel and expense: someone waited the entire
fourteenth century for this, no doubt. He’s dead
by now, still waiting for that final shipment
from Bukhara, Samarkand, or the Tarim
basin. Shame, indeed. I should think evil of the man
who could command such labor, but
my ancestors weren’t involved, and it was
just a gift, passed down like a secret
or a kiss from mouth to mouth: by the time
it’s come to me it’s been forgotten what it
was, what that man’s lips could possibly
have tasted of. Who knows who
he stole it from, who knows who he is now, or
where. This amulet, charm, or medallion
against shames not to be named never was
my mother’s, never belonged to anyone
I could mistake for mine. My mother
had nothing she could hand down; I lost it
centuries ago. In my dream he kissed me (I forgot
to say), begged that I not think evil of him
for what he had to take. I won’t forgive you, world
I won’t survive.

The poem “World,” from my third book, Wrong, was inspired by a brooch given me long ago in the New Wave Eighties by my club friend Joe. The brooch was rather evocatively inscribed with the medieval French words “Honi soi qui mal y pense”: “Shame be to him who thinks evil of it,” the motto of the Order of the Knights of the Garter. It seemed oddly fitting, as there were and are many aspects of my life to which such an admonition might apply. Shame be to him who thinks evil of me.

Knowing Joe, I’m sure that he stole it from someone or somewhere, or both. I have no idea where that brooch is now. (I think I gave it away in turn, or lost it; it might even have been stolen.) I don’t know where Joe is either, or even if he’s still alive. So many men and boys I knew then aren't. Whoever that brooch belonged to, it clearly wasn’t mine, nor, for that matter, was it Joe’s.

This supposed heirloom (which could well have been a fake) given me by someone likable, attractive, and well-intentioned, but not entirely to be trusted (and of course white, like most of my friends and/or objects of desire), came to seem a perfect emblem, the objective correlative, of my relationship to high culture. It’s something which is in my possession but which doesn’t belong to me, a thing that I have but don’t own, and of whose authenticity I have no proof. I have no inheritance of my own, but only this emblem handed down or over to me by someone whose claim to it is itself in question. Much of my poetry is engaged in working out what such ownership would mean for me, how I can claim this heritage for myself, disentangling it from its implication in social injustice and freeing its liberatory potential.

Art offers the possibility of liberation, though that possibility is not always realized. It offers in its form, in its valorization of each element, its insistence that every word of the poem matters, a vision of a world in which people and things exist for their own sake and not as objects of what Adorno calls instrumental reason. I’d like to separate out what Russell Berman calls form and domination, to divorce artistic order from the oppressive social orders with which it has too often consorted and with which it is too often and too easily identified. (“What is art?” asked jesting Robert Scholes in a graduate class on modernism and modernity. “A bourgeois mystification,” an earnest student replied. Why study it at all, then? And why would art be more of a bourgeois mystification than, for example, refrigerators? Both are the products of a bourgeois society and a capitalist economy.)

My poetry operates within a literary tradition and a literary language to which I owe my formation as a writer, yet which is not “mine” (as a black gay man raised in Bronx tenements and housing projects). I wrestle with this necessary angel and rise renamed, blessed but also lamed. This language, the language of Yeats and Stevens, Eliot and Hart Crane, has both made me possible as a writer and made being a writer an asymptote. It is a language to which I aspire in the act of writing it and being written by it (every writer is as much the tool of language as its wielder). Thus my relationship to my own language (simultaneously mine and not mine at all) is haunted by the questions, “Can I speak this language? Can this language speak through me?” Eliot wrote that the poet must always mistrust words; to “be” a writer is an asymptote for all who engage seriously in the practice. But the problem of language is foregrounded for me in ways it needn’t be for writers with a more settled, if illusory, sense that language is “theirs,” though Eliot reminds those who care to listen that tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.”

I’ve no wish to smash the canon (as if there were such a single and singular thing), any more than I wanted to break that brooch. My relationship with it, a long and happy agon, has always been paradoxical: there is both no place assigned me there and more of the possibility of creating such a place than the world at large has ever offered. I have made that literature and that language mine, a part of me, in a way that brooch never was, and I don’t intend to lose it or have it taken from me, even by its “rightful” owners.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Some Thoughts on Race and Academia

In my post "Academia and 'Real Life',", I wrote about the fact that, despite the flip assumptions and assertions of some, academia is as real a world as any other. Unfortunately, this also means that academia shares in all the faults and contradictions of other social environments and institutions, and of our society as a whole. One of these is an attitude toward black people which is conflicted and contradictory at best, and racist and stereotype-riddled at worst. In this post I discuss both statistical evidence for and personal encounters with such racism.

I hesitated before posting this piece, both because of its partly personal nature and because I am on the academic job market and feared that it might offend potential employers. Unlike many who engage in blogging and other online exercises in self-display, I am well aware that my blog is my public face, though as a well published writer I also have other public faces which have long preceded this blog. But a potential employer who would be offended by what I have to say would most likely not wish to hire me in any case.

I was also concerned that I might be presenting a distorted or unfair picture of my experiences on the academic job market, since the egregious examples I recount here constitute a small proportion of the rather large number of job interviews I have had. But my partner Robert pointed out that if I can enumerate not one or two but several such outrageous incidents, involving a wide range of institutions from all over the country, they represent just the tip of the iceberg of many other occasions in which racism operated less blatantly.

My remarks focus on the humanities and particularly on English, since these are the disciplines with which I’m most familiar and because they are from my impressionistic viewpoint the disciplines in which the dynamics I discuss are most pervasive and egregious.


It’s a commonly held belief that academia is overrun with minorities. One symptom of this is the popular pastime among heterosexual white male academics of complaining that they lost a job to a minority or a female candidate. According to “Love Me, I Celebrate Diversity,” a December 2006 First Person column in The Chronicle of Higher Education by the pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton (who has recently “outed” himself—his phrase—as William A. Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan and a former agitator in the cause of graduate student and adjunct rights), “Anyone who has ever been on an academic hiring committee has heard people say things like: ‘The last thing we need around here is more white males.’ Or, ‘We have to make sure that we don’t accidentally interview any white males.’ And academic job advertisements usually reflect that position.” Perhaps this is why the chair of the English department at an elite Northeastern university at which I taught several years ago proposed that the white husband of a black scholar another department was pursuing be taken on as an affirmative action hire, apparently because of his proximity to a black person. (After I raised objections, the man was instead brought in under the rubric of a spousal hire.)

Benton also claims that there is an academic bias in favor of “preferred minority groups” and that “the price of the slightest misstep on issues of race [means] social and professional ostracism, particularly if you [have] aspirations to work in higher education.” Ironically enough, I have as the wrong sort of black person apparently made such missteps myself. (The article can be found here.)

Such men often expect me to sympathize with the terrible unfairness of their not getting a job “because I was a white guy,” or at best “because they wanted a minority” or “they wanted a woman.” As one told me while we were classmates at the Iowa Writers Workshop, “You won’t have any trouble getting a job.” I must admire the resilience and perseverance of straight white men that, with so much stacked against them, they have still managed to dominate higher education.

A few statistics may help provide some perspective. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005 black persons reporting only one race constituted 12.8 percent of the U.S. population.

The Chronicle of Higher Education web site reports that between 1984 and 2004 the number of doctorates in all fields earned by black U.S. citizens at U.S. colleges and universities almost doubled, rising from 4.1 percent of all doctorates to 7.2 percent. Though this represents impressive progress, these are still not large numbers, either proportionally or in absolute terms. In 2004 26,431 doctorates in all fields were awarded to U.S. citizens by U.S. colleges and universities. Out of this total, in 2004, 1869 doctorates were awarded to black U.S. citizens. Of this number, 45.9 percent, or almost half, were awarded in various fields of education. The Chronicle lists these as Research and administration, Teacher education, Teaching fields, Other education, and Engineering. I don’t know the content of these categories. (This information may be found here.)

I read an article some time ago in Black Issues in Higher Education (which has since renamed itself Diverse Issues in Higher Education, to reflect a wider focus) that most of those, of all races, receiving doctorates in education are career educators seeking the degree for professional development and career advancement. That is to say, these are people who already have jobs, mostly in primary and secondary education. Those that are seeking jobs are primarily seeking positions in primary and secondary education; some are seeking positions in college and university education departments. (There is a fascinating recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on black people in education, which describes the way in which black students and faculty have historically been and are currently funneled into education, a low-paying, low-funded, and low-prestige field. It may be found here or here.)

Since, as far as I can tell, most of those complaining about the plethora of minority candidates stealing their jobs are in the humanities, it’s worth pointing out that, again according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, only 3.4 percent of all doctorates awarded to black U.S. citizens in 2004 were in Letters, which would presumably include English. That adds up to a grand total of 63 doctorates per year, to which one can add the seven doctorates (0.4 percent of the total) awarded to black U.S. citizens in Foreign languages and literature, the 49 doctorates (2.6 percent of the total) awarded in History, and the 51 (2.7 percent of the total) awarded in “Other humanities.”

According to the Report on the MLA’s 2004 Survey of Hiring Departments, 16.9 percent of those hired in full-time positions, tenure-track and non tenure-track, by four-year English departments advertising in the MLA Job Information List (JIL) were “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic.” This would include black, Asian, and Native American job recipients. I am not sure why the MLA does not break down their ethnic categories in a more detailed and informative way. Nor, crucially, do they give any indication of how many of these “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic” job recipients are U.S. citizens. Immigrants and foreign students are not minorities in the same way that native-born individuals of the “same” race are. I would not be surprised if many of the “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic” job recipients were not U.S. citizens. (When I was a graduate student at Harvard University in the late Nineteen Eighties, students and faculty from Mexico and Spain were counted as “Hispanic.”) 14.4 percent of those hired in full-time positions, tenure-track and non tenure-track, by two-year English departments, both JIL and non-JIL, were “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic.” 11.7 percent of those hired by four-year foreign language departments that advertised in the MLA Job Information List were “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic.” Again, this category includes black, Asian, and Native American job recipients, and there is no breakdown of the proportion of U.S. citizens and non-citizens. The report also does not make clear how they define their categories. For census purposes, while people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent are considered white, South Asians fall into the category of Asian and Pacific Islander, and so would also be included in the report’s “Nonwhite, non-Hispanic” category. For all hiring categories, the statistics include job recipients with doctorates, MFA degrees, and master’s degrees. This information may be found on the MLA web site.

I was unable to find any demographic information regarding recipients of MFA degrees in creative writing. This doesn’t surprise me given the extent to which, like Margaret Thatcher, creative writing programs like to pretend that there is no such thing as society.

As the data I have presented above should make clear, the number of black Americans receiving doctorates in any field and who are on the job market in any given year is rather small. The number receiving doctorates in the humanities is even smaller. Furthermore, most black people receiving doctorates, probably including those receiving doctorates in education, work in some version of “black studies.” They are thus for the most part not in direct competition with white job candidates, except for those few whites who also do some variety of black studies.

Black people are not represented on American academic faculties in anywhere near their proportion of the general population or of the college and university student population. In the words of “The Snail-Like Progress of Blacks into Faculty Ranks of Higher Education,” a 2007 article in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education:

“According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, in 2003 there were 33,137 African Americans serving in full-time faculty positions at colleges and universities in the United States. They made up 5.3 percent of all full-time faculty in American higher education. [Note that this includes both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty.] Thus, while blacks are 12 percent of the total enrollments in higher education, the black presence in faculty ranks is less than half the black student enrollment figure.

“In considering these statistics it is important to note that approximately 60 percent of all full-time faculty at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities are black. [There are 105 historically black colleges and universities in the United States, comprising 89 public and private four-year institutions and sixteen public and private two-year institutions. Many other institutions of higher learning are predominantly but not historically black.] The thousands of black faculty members at these institutions mean that the African-American percentage of the total faculty at the nation’s predominantly white institutions is significantly less than the 5.3 percent total for full-time faculty nationwide.” (This article may be found here.)

Cathy A. Trower and Richard P. Chait, authors of the article “Faculty Diversity,” in the March-April 2002 issue of Harvard Magazine, state that almost half of all black faculty in higher education teach at historically black colleges and universities. Many others teach at institutions that are predominantly but not historically black. They also point out that, although black faculty constitute 5.3 percent of all full-time higher education faculty, tenure-track and non-tenure-track, “The proportion of black faculty at predominantly white colleges and universities today—2.3 percent—is [much smaller and] is virtually the same as in 1979. Even in fields with a relatively ample supply of minority scholars, such as education and psychology, the proportion of black and Hispanic faculty positions at predominantly white institutions barely approximates the percentages of nonwhites who hold doctorates or professional degrees in those fields.” Black faculty members hold lower academic ranks than whites, are less likely to be tenured than whites, and are more likely than whites to work at less prestigious institutions. (This article can be found here.)

And yet despite all this, somehow black people are always taking white men’s jobs. When it comes to hiring committees there is always a shortage of minority candidates, or at least of “qualified” minority candidates. When it comes to white male job candidates who feel themselves to be the victims of reverse discrimination, there is always a glut of minority candidates, though of course these candidates are never “qualified.” Both share the assumption that minority candidates are almost by definition not “qualified.”


In July 2003 I read a very dismaying First Person column in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Other Candidate” by the pseudonymous “Ben Jackson.” (It can be found here.) According to Jackson, a (white) faculty member at the institution where he had unsuccessfully applied for a position had explained why he had lost out to “the other candidate”: “‘He’s a black guy,’ he said. ‘You know how it is.’” Jackson goes on to write, if a bit shamefacedly, that “If there’s a minority candidate, he or she will be highly favored….They had to take the black guy.” Of course they did.

While admitting the potential racism of his assumption that he did not get the a job because he was white and “the other candidate” was black, while admitting his guilt about harboring such assumptions, and furthermore while listing numerous reasons why he might not have gotten the position, Jackson nonetheless holds to and perpetuates the idea that a black candidate in academia gets a job over a white candidate simply because he is black. Jackson hardly acknowledges that, had “the other candidate” been white, while he would undoubtedly have been disappointed, and even upset that someone he less experienced got a job that he wanted and had even been encouraged to think he had a good shot at getting, such a disappointment would simply have been part of the normal academic job search process, which is inscrutable to the point of irrationality, and in which straightforwardness and honesty are rarely to be found. If “the other candidate” had been equally less experienced than he, but white, how would Jackson then have explained the situation?

Though Jackson’s article disturbed me, I was appalled by the comments in the forum that The Chronicle of Higher Education set up on the topic (as far I can tell, the forum is no longer accessible). Almost every respondent unselfconsciously and vehemently displayed his wounded sense of straight white male entitlement. I read complaint after complaint that some (doubtlessly undeserving) minority had taken “my job.” Some were quite explicit about the degree to which the usurping minority was undeserving. Even with the pervasive nepotism of the academic job market (and I doubt that the beneficiaries of that breed of preference need worry about anyone taking “their” jobs), I wasn’t aware that so many specific jobs were, apparently insufficiently, reserved for so many specific white men. The unthinking racism, and the unthinking display of that racism (encouraged by the anonymity of the forum, and the assumption that they were speaking to and among their own kind—I felt very much excluded from the conversation), was depressing and infuriating.

In the introduction to Diversifying the Faculty: A Guidebook for Search Committees, published in 2002 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, author Caroline Sotello Viernes Turner notes that

“Although the pool of minority faculty is underdeveloped, studies have shown that it is also underutilized (Turner and Myers 2000; Smith, Wolf, and Busenberg 1996). Moreover, within the higher education community, myths and misconceptions dominate the conversation about the recruitment of faculty of color. It is often asserted, for example, that potential applicants are unqualified, widely sought after, or unavailable. It is important that campuses move beyond such mistaken notions. These myths, stereotypes, and assumptions help maintain the status quo and create significant barriers to achieving a racially and ethnically diverse faculty.” (This piece can be found here.)


The idea that black candidates get some kind of free pass in academic hiring is racist nonsense. Though my professional qualifications are substantial, I have found my race to be nothing but an impediment in my search for a teaching position in creative writing. Usually it is clear that I am being interviewed only so that the institution can say that they interviewed “a minority” before they go on to hire a white man, or on occasion a white woman. A special set of “black questions” is often reserved for me during interviews, questions I am quite certain are not asked of the white candidate (“the other candidate”) who is eventually hired, and questions to which I never provide the right answers.

During a campus visit at the flagship university of a Great Plains state with very few black people and a great deal of corn, the chair of the department told me, quite out of the blue, that “some black faculty run to the affirmative action office any time they’re passed over for a raise or a promotion.” Perhaps it was a warning not to follow in their footsteps, but that’s what I would do if I were “passed over.” He also explained to me that the department had had “a black faculty member” who was “very angry,” and took her anger out on her students and her colleagues. All of the students I met during my visit seemed very pleasant and eager to learn, but her colleagues seemed a quite reasonable target for her anger. I wondered what this woman had to do with me, but apparently all black people are interchangeable. During my formal on-campus interview at this same institution, the chair of the search committee (not the same individual) said “We will of course say and do racist things without meaning to. How would you respond?” Had I been less nonplussed, I would have replied, “Oh, are you planning something? A cross-burning, perhaps?” It had apparently not occurred to the members of the search committee that by taking thought they could easily avoid saying and doing “racist things.” Instead, their racism was my responsibility, while they gave themselves carte blanche to behave as badly as they wished, because of course they would never mean to. Considerately enough, they did arrange a dinner for me with "members of the local black community." I hope that they arranged meetings with members of the local Caucasian community for their white job candidates.

During a more recent MLA interview with a large urban public university in the Northeast, I was asked how I would teach a class on prosody, which I proceeded to explain. I was then asked how I would incorporate “cross-cultural poetics” into such a course. Though I knew what was meant, I pretended that they were actually referring to other cultures, and replied that I wasn’t familiar enough with, say, Chinese poetics, to confidently teach it. Someone then brought up the example of a black American student who used black vernacular as a political gesture. I had to explain that American black people are not “cross-cultural.” We are Americans, just as are white people. Indeed, the presence of black people, paradoxically both central and marginal, is one of the things that distinguishes American culture from its European antecedents. I also explained that millions of people use black vernacular every day, and it’s neither political nor a gesture. Having lived in the South for several years, I can now add that it isn’t even specifically black. It’s just the way that poor and working class Southerners speak, and most American black people have relatively recent Southern roots. (As a black member of the audience asked a black member of the Oakland, California school board regarding their proposal to teach “Ebonics” in the Oakland public schools, “What language are we speaking now?”) During this same interview the chair of the department complained that all the poets I taught in my introduction to creative writing course were canonical.

Many of these questions are actually illegal, or at least against procedural rules. Many state institutions have rules that all job candidates are to be asked the same set of questions. This has not been the case in my experience.

Several years ago I applied for a teaching position at a progressive public college in the Pacific Northwest which requested that applicants supply a “Statement of Multicultural Experience.” I responded that if they meant substantial experience in a foreign culture, I had none. If, however, by “multicultural” they meant “minority,” then I, as a black person raised in poverty in the ghetto and attending and teaching at predominantly white and predominantly upper class educational institutions since the third grade, was the very embodiment of multicultural experience. This was apparently not the correct answer. I suppose that white applicants can just write the equivalent of “Some of my best friends are African American/Asian/Hispanic/Native American.”


If one is black, one is particularly disadvantaged if one doesn’t do some recognizable version of “black studies”—black literature, black history, black sociology. (I’m fairly sure that there are no such fields or subfields as black physics or black mathematics.) “Black” topics are presumably the only ones with which black academics can be trusted. They are also usually thought sufficiently trivial that any available black person can teach them. I was once almost offered, until I made clear my lack of interest, a position as director of black studies at the main public university of a Rocky Mountain state with an infinitesimally small black population. I hadn’t applied for the position, but received a call from a woman I’d met briefly during one of my several sojourns in graduate school. Apparently their search process had consisted of asking, “Does anyone know a black person?” Although I made it clear that I had no background in black studies and didn’t have a PhD, I was told that didn’t matter. What they wanted was someone who could be “a role model to students,” presumably of a black man who was neither a rapper, a basketball player, nor incarcerated. Soon afterward, having applied for a creative writing position at the flagship university of an Appalachian state, I was offered a black studies position, although, again, I made it clear that I had little background in the field. My biological background was apparently sufficient. “The other candidate,” who got the job for which I had actually applied, was a heterosexual white man.

Black academics are expected to stay in the box marked “black,” and if they are not already in that box, they will be placed in it. As someone whose other academic specialization, besides creative writing, is Anglo-American modernism, this also puts me at a disadvantage. I am insufficiently “black,” and furthermore, by studying and teaching something insufficiently marginal and not marked as “minority,” I am trespassing on the territory reserved for white academics.

On the other hand, my very existence as a black person seems somewhat blinding to some academics. After one interview with a small Northeastern urban public university in which we primarily discussed creative writing pedagogy, a friend who knew a member of the interview committee told me that she thought that I was an “in your face black gay man,” though neither topic had come up during the conversation. My skin color matters far more than my experience and qualifications as a writer and a teacher. I am either not black enough (because I don’t do “black studies,” and because I don’t perform a recognizable version of blackness, reassuringly placing myself as “other” and thus unthreateningly irrelevant), or, simply by virtue of the fact that I am a black man, I am too black, by definition “not one of us,” perhaps even a bit scary.

It’s ironic how often such judgments of the sufficiency or the excessiveness of my blackness are made by white people. It’s doubly ironic that many the white people who make such judgments, who engage in such categorizing and outright stereotyping, are people who consider themselves to be liberal and even progressive. Indeed, they sometimes engage in such stereotyping in the name of progressivism, in the supposed interest of “cultural sensitivity” or “multiculturalism.” In a graduate course on teaching composition that I took at a large public university in Chicago, we were assigned an article that explained that different ethnic groups thought in different patterns. Helpfully enough, the article even included illustrations. White people, of course, thought in straight lines, while Asians thought in spirals. I don’t recall in what shape black people thought, but at least one ethnicity thought in zig-zags. Student teachers (presumed to be white) were to learn to make allowances for the fact that “they” didn’t think like “us.” In the chapter "Teaching Culturally Diverse Students" of the twelfth edition of McKeachie's Teaching Tips, published in 2006, teachers are informed that apparently rambling, roundabout students responses "might represent an ethnic 'circular' style of oral communication rather than a more linear 'Western' one (Gudykunst, 1998). Western thought and language tend to proceed in a linear fashion." But "The student's reply may reflect an oral tradition deriving from a preliterate period in which knowledge was passed on orally." In this view, "ethnic" students would seem to be some kind of anthropological curiosity. I'm not sure how "Western" students' rambling responses are then to be accounted for.

On a similar but almost laughable note, I was standing on the sidelines at a dance at a low-residency creative writing program in the Northeast at which I briefly taught many years ago when the director came up to assure me, “Don’t worry. We’ll be playing some African music soon.” I was greatly relieved.

At the same elite Northeastern university I have mentioned above, the chair and the director of graduate studies of the English department proposed that the already rather flexible requirements for acquiring an MA degree (for those students unable to complete the PhD program) be waived, because minority students had such a hard time making it through the doctoral program and should be awarded something for their efforts. It never occurred to them that the patronizing assumption that minority students couldn't cut it, thus requiring some kind of consolation prize, might be one of the impediments to minority progress in the program.

Such multicultural stereotype-mongering is not limited to white people. Some “Afrocentric” black educators say that black people are not good at math because our minds don’t work in that cold, abstract manner. (I read this in Time magazine several years ago.)

Multiculturalism is just a new word for segregation, keeping all the minorities safely in their places. As a black college friend of mine once observed, “People of color. Where have I heard that before?” Notions of cultural sensitivity are too often just new ways of seeing black people as other, as inscrutably and reassuringly alien: “It’s just their culture, nothing to do with me.” To slightly modify an old and tiresome slogan, “It’s a black thing. I don’t have to understand.” And so they don’t.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Nine Critical Works Which Have Helped Shape My Thinking About Poetry: Not to Be Confused with the Nine Muses

Since I have recently provided a list of the books of poetry that most influenced me as a developing poet, and since I believe that thinking about what one does as a poet is crucial to such development, I thought it might be useful or at least interesting to discuss some of the critical works that have been most valuable to me as a writer. Again, this is far from a list of all the criticism I have found interesting, important, or useful, but only of those works that have been most formative.

Theodor Adorno, “Lyric Poetry and Society”

This fairly brief essay gave me a way to conceive of the relationship of poetry and the social in other than thematic terms. In Adorno’s thesis, the lyric both bears the imprint of social relations and embodies a utopian moment. In my writing and reading I have tried to remember both poetry’s social culpability and its reproach to society. “For the substance of a poem is not merely an expression of individual impulses and experiences. Those become a matter of art only when they come to participate in something universal by virtue of the specificity they acquire in being given aesthetic form...immersion in what has taken individual form elevates the lyric poem to the status of something universal by making manifest something not distorted, not grasped, not yet subsumed.”

W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays

Auden’s humanity, humor, down to earth good sense, and amazing breadth of knowledge were an inspiration to me, as was his sense of the relationship of criticism to poetry: that the poem always comes first, and last. “Whatever his defects, a poet at least thinks a poem more important than anything which can be said about it, he would rather it be good than bad, the last thing he wants is that it should be like one of his own, and his experience as a maker should have taught him to recognize quickly whether a critical question is important, unimportant but real, unreal because unanswerable, or just absurd.”

Charles Bernstein, Content’s Dream: Essays 1975-1984

I am obviously not a Language poet, though I do write poems made out of language. But, while I hardly agree with all their conclusions or positions, the Language poets’ insistence on questioning settled assumptions about poetry as an aesthetic and social practice (except, of course, the assumptions on which their own interrogations were based) was invaluable as a reminder that in art nothing is to be taken for granted. “In talking about language and thinking I want to establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form.”

R.P. Blackmur, Form and Value in Modern Poetry

The New Critics are much maligned today, for reasons which have more to do with literary fashion and ideology than with any attention to their actual work. But this little mass market paperback collection of essays on modern poets (selected from his larger volume Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry) was a model to me of what careful attention to a poetic text and all its connotations meant, of how the word “funest” in Stevens’ poem “Of the Manner of Addressing Clouds” could open and flower when closely examined both in itself and in the context of its line, its phrase, and the poem as a whole. “Good poets gain their excellence by writing an existing language as if it were their own invention; and as a rule success in the effect of originality is best secured by fidelity…to the individual words.” Intelligent, well-informed close reading has never been superseded as a means to experiencing and understanding a poem.

T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose

I single this book out since it collects most of Eliot’s best-known essays, but I include almost all of his prose, except the religious and social commentary. Eliot was my first example of the seriousness and rigor with which poetry could be, must be, discussed. His idea of the objective correlative, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” which can embody an emotion, thought, or state of mind, is still infinitely useful to me, as is his insistence that what matters is “significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet.” “What happens [while the poet is writing] is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable.”

Allen Grossman, The Sighted Singer: Two Works on Poetry for Readers and Writers

This visionary book of poetics, especially the Summa Lyrica, “a primer of the commonplaces in speculative poetics,” was a salutary reminder of the demands that poetry places upon us as readers and writers and the impossible but necessary aspiration, to save the world by means of words, that it calls us to. “Poetry is produced by the mortality of body and soul, the immiscibility of minds, and the postponement of the end of the world...Poetry functions as a machine for producing immortality in the form of the convergence of meaning and being in presence.”

Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry: Tensions in Modern Poetry from Baudelaire to the Nineteen-Sixties

This book helped me conceive of Modernism in broader terms than the Anglo-American literary world. Hamburger explores the meaning of Modernism in Euro-American poetry at large, its slendors and contradictions. “The necessary interrelationship of beauty and truth in poetry remains tantalizingly paradoxical…; for the ‘literalists of the imagination’ have been brought up against the knowledge that the peculiar truth of poetry may have to be rendered by fictions, or by what, literally, amounts to lies; and absolutists of the imagination have been brought up against the knowledge that ‘it must be human.’”

Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading

This book made me realize just how much there was to know if one were even to try to be a good poet. I dedicated myself to Pound’s reading list for several years, though I confess that I still cannot read Sappho or Cavalcanti in the original. He also provided a salutary reminder that “The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good writing…is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one…specimen with another.”

Ron Silliman, The New Sentence

As Eliot might have written, I am not Ron Silliman, nor was meant to be. But in the Nineteen Eighties, besides helping me think through the meaning and uses of syntax, this book was more broadly illuminating as a concrete demonstration of the ways in which structuralist and post-structuralist theory could be of use to the practicing and thinking poet. “Every mode of poem is the manifestation of some set of assumptions. It’s no more foolish to be conscious of them—and their implications extending into the daily life of the real world—than it is to actually have some idea how to drive before getting behind the wheel of a car.” I would add, though, that the poem, though conditioned by them, is not defined or determined by these assumptions, and can even transcend them. But they must be recognized.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Academia and "Real Life"

The ideas that a writer needn’t or even shouldn’t have an organized, disciplined apprenticeship and that writing isn’t a respectable profession (unless you’re writing best sellers), because you’re “out of touch with the world,” are very close to the conviction so many students have that because they use language every day in one form or another, then they know how to write and to write well, or even that there is no difference between writing well and writing badly, because "anything goes" in creative writing.

The denigration of creative writing programs seems of a piece with the general denigration of education so prevalent in our culture. On the one hand there is the sense that if something isn’t “practical” or “useful” (which usually means “profitable”), then it has no reason to exist. On the other hand, there is the “everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten” mindset, the conviction that learning and education are irrelevant to “real life.” “Real life,” in my experience, is a quite multifarious thing. I don’t know why “the academy” (as if there were only one: the world of physics departments is rather different from the world of English departments, but usually only the humanities are indicted under the rubric) is so blithely assumed not to be part of the “real world” in these attacks on creative writing programs. Making a living is about the most real thing there is in our society, and many, many people (not just faculty but staff, the people who actually make the institution function) make their living in academia, often a piss poor one, in one capacity or another. I don’t know why doing data entry, for example, is more “real” than teaching. In my experience, it’s just more degrading and boring. (Academics who complain about how hard they work and how little time they have are clearly people who have never had nine-to-five jobs.) For that matter, I don’t know why doing data entry inside academia (as staff and many faculty do) is any less real than doing data entry outside of academia.

School of various kinds is where almost everyone in America spends a great portion of his or her waking hours until age eighteen at least, and millions more spend many more years after that in some form or another of higher education. That is certainly as real as experience as any other. I suspect that most of those who romanticize some gritty notion of “real life” have no more experience of such a thing than that of watching police and hospital shows on television.

As Jeffrey J. Williams, a leftist English professor and former prison guard, has recently written, “It is…often said that the university is not the real world, but in my experience each institutional parcel of life has its own world. When you work in prison, just as when you work in academe, you experience a world that has its own language, its own training, its own hierarchy, its own forms of recognition, its own forms of disrepute, and its own wall from the outside. In some ways, prison is the flip side of meritocracy. Both prisons and universities originated in religious institutions and are based on the model of the cloister; both are transitional institutions; both house and grade people; and both marshal primarily the young. The difference, of course, is that the university represents the hope, prison the failing, of the meritocracy. It’s an unseemly sign that we invest more in the underside than in the hope” (“The Professor Was a Prison Guard,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume 53, Issue 31, Page B11, April 6, 2007).

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Eleven Books That Helped Make Me the Poet I Am

A couple of commenters on my last post asked me to list those poets, current and canonical, whom I consider inconsequential but of undeserved reputation. I can see nothing useful in such an exercise in negativity, nor can I see it bringing me any practical benefits; quite the opposite, in fact. W.H. Auden said that he never reviewed books he didn't think were good, because, given that there was only so much public attention to go around, he didn't believe in wasting it on work that would hopefully wither away of its own accord. In any case, my list would doubtless be different from someone else's, and without the kind of explanation and commentary I have neither the time nor the energy to spend on things I don't care about, it would amount to nothing more than a set of personal opinions (on about the same level as listing my preferences and aversions in food), rather than reasoned arguments. I thought that it might be more useful to list a few of the books that most influenced me as a developing writer and briefly discuss what each one offered me. This piece is adapted from an essay I have contributed to the forthcoming anthology Poet's Bookshelf 2, to be published by Barnwood Press. A description of the first volume of Poet's Bookshelf can be found here. I write about the books roughly in the order in which I read them.

I won’t attempt in this little essay to list even a fraction of my favorite books, either past or current. Some of my favorite poets, like Yeats, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, have not to my knowledge been strong influences on my work. Some of the writers who most shaped me, like James Wright, are not people I much read anymore. (Some of my strong early influences are things I hesitate to admit having ever read, like the poetry of Erica Jong and Alice Walker, though I’m curious what I would think of Jong’s poetry today.) There have been many writers since those formative days who have been important influences, like Michael Palmer, Ann Lauterbach, Paul Celan, and Osip Mandelstam, but I came to them as a mature writer, which engenders a different kind of encounter. I doubt that I’ll ever again be under the spell of a writer in the way that I was enthralled by these early loves.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems
Hart Crane, White Buildings
Louise Bogan, The Blue Estuaries
James Wright, Collected Poems
Marilyn Hacker, Presentation Piece
W.H. Auden, The English Auden
Louise Glück, Descending Figure
Jean Valentine, The Messenger
Laura Mullen, The Surface
Jorie Graham, The End of Beauty

I’ve probably written too many times about the impact that Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had one me. It was the first poem I ever read, and it made me want to write poetry, made me want to be a poet (these aren’t the same thing). Eliot had taken my mundane misery and made it shapely, meaningful, beautiful, even. I wanted to be able to do that for myself, and to create things that would have the effect on others that poem had on me. I read all of Eliot soon after (I bought The Waste Land and Other Poems in the Walden Books at the Macon Mall). I didn’t understand all of it, but I experienced it, a hollow man traveling through Eliot’s wasteland as if it were my own. But I quickly discovered that while I could admire Eliot, I couldn’t emulate him, not without sounding like a parody of him.

In Wallace Stevens’ chilly, distanced intimacies and sinuous, carefully measured sentences, in his intermingling of intellect and emotion finding form, I found a mode that I could emulate, a model for the kind of poems I wanted to write. No matter how intense the emotional pressure, his lines never lost their poise: I aspired to that composure, to compose that way. Stevens’ embodiment of idea and feeling in images and landscapes like those of “The Snow Man” and “The Auroras of Autumn” is an ideal toward which I still aim.

The psychological landscapes of Auden’s early poetry entranced me, the loneliness and desire embodied in its craggy limestone wastes, desolate cityscapes, and cryptic vignettes of mysterious wars in which opposing soldiers steal moments of intimacy during lulls in the fighting. Edward Mendelson describes them very well: “These first poems often have the air of gnomic fragments; they seem to be elements of some…private myth whose individual details never quite resolve themselves into a unified narrative….The elusiveness and indecipherability of the early poems are part of their meaning; they enact the isolation they describe.” The poems’ overtly homosexual undertones (the paradoxical formulation is intentional) seduced me as well. Love was a secret agent operating in the shadows and interstices, always in danger of being exposed and betrayed.

Hart Crane’s extravagances of language and vision also enthralled me: he wrote poems that were unabashedly Poetry, utterly unlike everyday speech. His poems’ passion thrilled me, all the more so because it was the passion of a man for other men. That Crane sought transcendence in the flesh of other men made sense: other people seemed both to inhabit and to own their bodies, while I always felt a stranger to mine. The oceanic rush of Crane’s words transfigured emotions into “The silken skilled transmemberment of song,” proposing voyages I longed to embark upon, by means of which I could transcend my feelings without surrendering them, and end up in the arms of some beloved. Perhaps I could even conjure him up out of the luxuriance of my words.

Louise Bogan showed me the possibilities of a bitter lyricism like that of Sir Thomas Wyatt, disenchanted and yet enchanting in its lithe and lute-like music: “Loneliness was the heart within your side.” Her commitment to what she called the stripped, still lyric was a model and a reproach to my tendency to talk in poems; poems were “to be sung on the water.” Her poems were all songs for the last act, immortalizing the moment after passion, the eyes opening to a world of wonders now shown to be false or at best lost: "Now that I have your heart by heart, I see." That too felt true to me, who had never known passion at all but could only imagine it as out of reach.

James Wright’s deep image epiphanies, a man lying in a hammock surrounded by the flourishing natural world that reminds one of one’s own insignificance to the point that one realizes the waste of one’s life, floating among lonely animals, longing in fear and hope and hopelessness for the red spider who is God, showed me (along with my readings in Imagist poetry, H.D. in particular) the power and intensity of brevity and concision, the way moments can open up into exhilaration or desolation, the everyday can blossom into revelation: “My bones turn to dark emeralds.”

Louise Glück’s spare, lapidary poems contained so much passion in their restraint; they created a mythic world where pain was raised to a higher, nobler level, mere suffering transfigured into grief. The poems in Descending Figure seemed almost chiseled out of the suffocating, intractable mass of silence. To have been able to wrest them out of the void was a victory in itself. Their aspiration toward an impossible perfection, a finality of utterance as if one’s words could transubstantiate themselves into the Word, inspired and humbled me: “it is the same need to perfect,/of which death is the mere byproduct.”

Marilyn Hacker’s work demonstrated the way that formal poise and stylistic elegance could be combined with direct engagement with the materials of everyday life and with a range of diction from graffiti to sophisticated literary allusion. Her poetry affirmed that it was okay to write what a friend called flashy poems, poems that were unashamedly poetry and not just lineated anecdotes. Her work also confirmed that poems should be heard and not just seen. Under her influence I wrote exclusively in traditional form for about a year (my sophomore year in college), and my ear is much the better for it.

Jean Valentine’s poems exuded a cool but impassioned sense of mystery, and revealed how much could be said by so much left out. Her poems absorbed their occasions into themselves, leaving behind the luminous residue of event, these numinous tokens left behind, ordinary things illuminated by a scrupulously loving attention: “and trees paths stars this earth/how will I think of them.”

The infatuated yet skeptical music of Laura Mullen's poems sang itself to me for years. They embodied an almost perfect and perfectly precarious balance between what critic Charles Altieri calls lyricism and lucidity, enchantment and disenchantment: beauty and pathos and the awareness of all the things they won’t let you say. I, who longed for the raptures of romance but knew already that romance couldn’t always be trusted, aspired to walk that fine line, staying “Up all night for beauty you could use.”

Jorie Graham’s work, like Stevens’, made ideas shapely, and sensuous, and made the numinous bloom out of daily landscapes. Like Stevens, she demonstrated that one not only could but must think in poems, and to let the poem think. Thought in her poems was not conclusions but process, the flight of geese overhead a syntax to be parsed and explicated. Her exploration and excavation of myth and cultural narrative in The End of Beauty resonated with my desire to get inside and under myths, to find out what lay hidden on their underside, the other side of myth.

I hope that it may at least prove interesting to talk about some of the writers who have most shaped me.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

In a Major Key

This piece continues some of the thoughts I explored in my posts “Why I Write” and “Daring to Disturb the Universe,” and in my correspondence on the topic with Mark Granier.

Like Stephen Spender, I think continually of those who are truly great. I strive to write work that lives up to theirs, while always fearing that it may never attain those heights.

It’s clear to me that some poets are more important than others. The world is awash with poets who have no reason to be writing, who make no difference to the world at large or to the world of poetry. I’m not speaking of the outright bad poets, but of the sea of depressingly competent poets of no consequence, though sometimes of undeserved reputation. Richard Strauss supposedly said, “I may not be a first-rate composer, but I’m a first-rate second-rate composer.” While I both admire his clear-eyed self-evaluation and recognize the boast within it, I am not so sanguine. I want to be a poet who matters and I want to read poets who matter. I want to be first-rate.

Some might say that dividing poets into major and minor is presumptuous or arrogant. This is a fair charge, but we all do this whether we admit it or not. We all decide that some poets are more important than others, although we may not articulate it in those terms. Listing one's favorite poets is often, though not always, a version of this ranking process. Who doesn’t think that his or her favorite poets are better, are more important, than the poets he or she doesn’t like?

A word like “major” always implies comparison, whether explicit or implicit, to its opposite, whether one calls that other “minor” or something else. The distinction, how it is to be made and what it means, troubles me. I worry about making it, and I worry about not making it. By T.S. Eliot’s criteria in his essay “What Is Minor Poetry?” almost every poet who ever wrote is a minor poet. (In my heart I wonder, “Would I be among them?” and fear the answer.) As Mae West reputedly said, goodness has nothing to do with it. For Eliot, poetic excellence is a necessary condition for poetic majority, but hardly a sufficient one. I wouldn’t want to emulate his sweeping judgments, especially because much more poetry matters to me than seems to have mattered to him. But still, the question haunts me, perhaps only because of my own personal ambitions as a poet (which are not the same as my poetic ambitions as a poet).

When reading a poem, a selection of poems, a book of poems, I ask myself, “Is this interesting? Is this engaging? Is this individual? Is this distinctive?” I frequently ask myself, “Is this worth reading? Was it worth writing?” Too often the answer to all these questions is “No.” So much work has no reason for existing besides that the poet could, and presumably wanted to, write it. That’s not enough if one is going to present the work to the world. I write in part for the dead, for the poets who made me want to be a poet, placing little votive gifts on their altars, hoping that my offering will be acceptable. I think it’s more acceptable than most, but most poets don’t even try for that. They write for themselves and for their coteries.

Despite the spell that Eliot can cast on me, I don’t ask myself when reading a poem or book of poems, “Is this major?” I do think, when I read some of the people who’ve most inspired me, like Keats or Stevens or Eliot, “This is great poetry.” It would be more accurate to say that I think of some poetry as great than that I think of some poetry as major. But while my college mentor Alvin Feinman made a point of only reading great poetry, I am not so pure or so high-minded. I read, enjoy, and learn from much poetry, both of the past and of the present, that I wouldn’t think of as great. And there is some great poetry I can’t bear at all.

The question of whether something is of major accomplishment (which isn’t equivalent to, “of major length”) is one I ask much more of my own poetry than of others’ poetry. I want to do my best, but I know that sometimes one’s best just isn’t good enough. My ambition from the time that I began writing was to be a great poet. I haven’t gotten there, but I still have hopes. At the same time, given the changes in the cultural climate and the role of art in general, and poetry in particular, I wonder if such a term even has any meaning anymore, or if it does, what that meaning is. Poetic greatness may not be simply a matter of individual accomplishment but of social context, a social context that no longer exists, and perhaps never existed in America. But my doubts and my questions don’t erase the aspiration to greatness, even if it is impossible or no longer possible.

As Mark Granier points out, a major poem is one that opens up new possibilities, breaks new ground in some way or another. It’s a poem that creates ripples in the river of time, perhaps something like the stone in the stream in Yeats’ “Easter 1916,” momentarily halting the flow, or at least forcing it to bend, to accommodate itself to an object that won’t be moved and can’t be ignored. Henry Gould, in a comment on my post "Short Thoughts on the Long Poem," also mentions a thematic ambition, an attempt to take hold of some larger topic or idea. The Waste Land certainly qualifies on both counts. But a great poem need not be major in scale. Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” is a great poem, and it’s only thirteen lines long.

When measured against the world, let alone against the universe, any individual is insignificant, though I don’t think that diminishes the value of individual lives. My recognition of my own insignificance fuels my writing: I want my poetry to mitigate that insignificance. I try to write work that will be remembered. Whether one’s work is remembered also depends on much that has nothing to do with its merit. Reading an article in The Writer’s Chronicle about a public library in Fairfax, Virginia that’s discarding all books not checked out in the past two years, including literary classics, doesn’t give one much hope for the possibility of literary immortality. No longer can one count on one’s book sitting on the shelf waiting for the right reader, sleeping in the library until awakened by a reader’s kiss.

Sometimes I wonder why I care, since I won’t be around to know whether I’m being remembered. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but if there were one, I suspect that I’d have other things with which to occupy myself than worrying whether people were reading my poetry. Unless the afterlife is like that in the recent novel The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, in which people continue after their deaths so long as someone remembers them, and fade away when they’re forgotten. In the novel, to be remembered indirectly doesn’t count, but a poem, or a book of poems, allows one to live on in the minds of people one has never met. However one defines it, to be remembered is the only immortality we can have.