I have a knee-jerk reaction to contrarians. I automatically like them. It takes me a while to step back and decide how valuable their views are because I enjoy their spirit of opposition.
I’ve been following a contrarian named Thomas Brady for some time now. His blog is Scarriet. I like the punning sneer at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and I like some of Brady’s critiques of the current situation of poetry. But I’ve come realize that his views aren’t finally very valuable, despite his contrarian credentials.
The problem is this: Brady is a fundamentalist. By that I mean he believes that he has The Truth and that everyone else in the world is benighted. He is the Rick Santorum to Dana Gioia’s Mitt Romney. (Is that fair? Probably not—but it is very Brady-an.) He is a passionate devotee of the English Romantics, especially Shelley, and views Poe’s theory of composition as a sufficient template for judging any poem’s aesthetic worth. Although he writes with energy and wit, qualities generally missing from discussions of poetics, his aim is to make poets do an about face and march with all deliberate speed back to the nineteenth century.
Brady’s recent post on teaching Creative Writing (his bottom line: one can’t) is typical of his approach. His fundamentalist tenets are all on display in it. Some are clearly stated: the notion, for example, that “the real work of writing [consists of] reading and writing in solitude.” This is the branch of his thought whose hidden root is the Romantic idea of “natural genius.” Natural genius is a gift from God or the Muse and is nurtured in isolation; no commerce between budding geniuses allowed. (This would come as quite a surprise to Wordsworth and Coleridge; Shelley and William Godwin; Keats, Leigh Hunt, and John Hamilton Reynolds; or Byron and Francis Hodgson.) I assume that Brady can hold this view because he is not, himself, a poet (though he dabbles in verse); he is a highly educated reactionary, akin to those Shakespeare scholars who claim that the Bard never set foot in Italy but got the details in his Italian plays from pamphlets and travelers’ tales (an absurdity demolished by Richard Paul Roe here). Those who do not do are free to indulge in such fantasies.
Brady wields the idea of natural genius in his ongoing war against the teaching of Creative Writing, which he views as a branch of Modernism (no surprise: he hates it, too). Such programs, he argues, can’t create great poets, because natural genius is nurtured only in solitude, though solitary reading and writing. Of course, no one—no one—involved in Creative Writing claims that the system can create talent (a more modest term for “natural genius”); Brady more or less admits this by focusing not on the main purpose of teaching Creative Writing but on its negative effects, such as writing to please fellow students, writing in ways that merely parrot institutionalized aesthetic values, elevating minor poets who have worked their way into positions of power, and so on.
There’s no good reason to quarrel with Brady on these points, because he’s right. The system—like any system—produces unintended consequences. It is subject to ill-considered enthusiasms (my favorite is con man Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing,” which has been taken seriously in some surprising places). It encourages a depthless study of the new at the expense of a deep study of the tradition. Those of us who teach Creative Writing, as I do on occasion, are well aware that young writers don’t have a grasp of the tradition, which is only to be expected. What’s frustrating, though, is that they often show no interest in developing a strong grasp of it. Brady is right that this is a side-effect of the workshop system, which treats each student as if his or her generally uninformed opinion carries weight. But no uninformed opinion should matter to a novice writer. What should matter are the opinions of master writers, alive or dead. And there are many more dead master writers than living ones. Creative Writing programs should acknowledge this deficit and work harder to reduce it.
Where Brady goes off the rails is when he denies any value to Creative Writing courses. Again, this is because he is a reactionary: his view of the past is rosy and dimensionless. Poets spring from the womb of Time fully empowered; all they need is a library card, solitude, and (presumably) a quill pen. The reality, though, is that poets spring from families and exist in society; the lives of most great poets show them sharing their work with other poets, bowing to or rebelling against their fellows’ advice, joining and sometimes creating various circles with shared aesthetics (Scarriet is an example of this), striving for publication, and so on. The solitary reading Brady recommends is certainly crucial early on, but at some point readers who would be writers must share their insights with others. Creative Writing courses are a venue for this. Their first hopeful aim is to provide the kind of community that in other times and places was developed via salons and coffee houses.
Of course, talent can’t be conferred upon an untalented person by a Creative Writing course, nor by solitary reading, nor hobnobbing in literary salons, nor by indulging in passionate coffee house debates. But all these can help fledgling poets explore, understand, and refine the nature and scope of their talent.
Creative Writing courses can also help to heal the odd division between the study of literature and the creation of literature. Because of the very “natural genius” paradigm Brady embraces, the study of literature has been ceded to scholars—a situation Yeats mocked in his poem on that subject. Few institutions will allow even widely published poets to teach poetry as literature—without the imprimatur of a Ph.D and ongoing publication in turgid scholarly journals. The situation should be reversed: let living, productive creative writers be full professors while mere critics and scholars wander from school to school, teaching five or six classes a week for adjunct pay.*
What Creative Writing also does is to fill in a cultural gap. Salons of the sort that Leigh Hunt used to introduce an unknown Keats to certain more established writers aren’t ubiquitous in America. As someone who grew up in Denver, Colorado, in the days when it was still considered a “cow town,” I can attest to the impact of isolation on one’s sense of oneself as a writer. The isolation Brady romanticizes can crush talent before it has a chance to fully emerge. This is why, for me, an MFA in Creative Writing—a two-year program outside the United States, at the University of British Columbia—was such a boon.
Not only did I have the privilege of connecting with an abiding mentor, George Mcwhirter, I was also called upon to read a hundred or so books that I would not have discovered on my own. Until being accepted into the MFA program, my influences were distinctly and narrowly anglo-American: Keats, Coleridge, Robinson, Frost, Bly, Snyder, Ginsberg, Creeley (although I had stumbled on François Villon). Frankly, I was flailing. Then, the summer I received my acceptance from UBC, I wrote to ask if there was anything I should read before I showed up on campus. They responded with a six-legal-page single-spaced list of works, classic to contemporary, mostly European, perhaps only 20 percent of them written originally in English. Would I have discovered the brilliance of Seferis, Parra, Paz, Rimbaud, Nowlan, Valéry, Hikmet, Machado, Vallejo, Cavafy and so many others in my twenties had I not encountered them on that list? I doubt it. I also doubt that on my own, in my isolated situation, I would have learned to recognize my worst writing habits before they had taken very stubborn root.**
In the end, my sojourn in Canada prevented me from catching the reactionary, anglo-poetic nostalgia that afflicts Thomas Brady. It also encouraged a different kind of contrarianism. Studying outside the U.S. and with internationalistic writers taught me to value openness in poetry above all else (though I agree with Bob Dylan’s observation—in “High Water (For Charley Patton)”—that “You can’t open up your mind … to every conceivable point of view”.) The effect of my Creative Writing experience was the opposite of what it seems to be for so many poets in today’s more institutionalized system: it encouraged my tendency to avoid subscribing to any aesthetic program. How could I?—when it became obvious that there are significant exceptions to any poetic prescription, whether it comes from Poe or Shelley or Derrida or Silliman—or clever contrarians like Thomas Brady.
* I’ve been more enmeshed than usual lately in the adjunct scene and have become a fan of the notion that everybody deserves a Black Mountain College experience.
** Not that I still don’t harbor bad habits. Must be that I actually enjoy them.