Who Decides?

In the art of a writer, what belongs to who, and who decides? I am beginning a new kind of reading, into ideas and arenas (specifically about poetry) that I had not previously been interested – how actual forms of writing are tied to power structures – and some concurrent ideas are surfacing. Two books that I purchased not long ago are The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, and Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader, edited by Maria Damon and Ira Livingston. What has come up in both books is the notion of what belongs to who? Who has the right to say yes or no to other people as being acceptable or unacceptable? Poetic forms and ideals about poetry are tied to power structures, to what dominant forces deem as “poetry” –For example, one of those dominant groups has been the ruling Italian aristocrats who enjoyed the sonnet form for its cut-and-dried, question-and-answer manner. From cultural studies comes the more basic notion of asking what a poem is, what it does and who it serves.

This idea has come up in both books. In The Making of a Poem, the idea is related to the history of various poetics forms, in explanation of why a certain form was created in certain cultural contexts, in what ideals that form expresses and serves. In Poetry and Cultural Studies, the discussion is more overtly political, asking who has the right to define what poetry is, especially when certain styles speak to certain groups of people but not to others. As an example of my own, the high school students in my creative writing classes seldom enjoy highly academic canonical poetry that requires knowledge of Western culture and history to understand the allusions and contexts involved. In this example, the highly academic verse serves the academic audiences that both write and read it, but it keeps out readers of poetry who don’t have that education level. My students begin to question whether or not they really do like poetry, because they don’t like or even understand what is being presented to them as good poetry.

Since finishing The Making of a Poem, I have been reading in both Poetry and Cultural Studies and another book titled Groundwork: Local Black Freedom Movements in America, an anthology of essays about lesser-known civil rights movements and their particulars. These books involve similar ideas about political issues. In Groundwork, the editors state that they are trying to build on Dittmer’s book Local People, by clarifying that the Civil Rights movement was more than its leaders alone, and to emphasize the wide variety of positions, tactics, and scenarios involved in different struggles in different places, by clarifying for instance that some movements were non-violent while others endorsed self-defense so generalizing the movement as non-violent is incorrect. The point is to end the generalizations, dismiss the notion that only the leaders deserve attention, and give respect to the people in the trenches.

The same ideas in Groundwork could easily be applied to the subculture of poetry today. In each case, there is a group in a dominant position that is hoarding resources and a group in a subordinate position that is lacking resources, with seemingly little rationale other than favor or power. Certainly, in the case of poets, we are discussing which kinds of poets reach the forefront of the attention and competitions for contests prizes, teaching positions, speaking engagements, grants, and fellowships. But the idea remains constant.

That situation invites the debate: who decides? The people in power decide, in politics and in poetry. Harold Bloom wrote in the introduction to his book, The Western Canon, that he was against the politicizing of literary study, that the only thing that matters in literary studies is the analysis of high-quality literary writing. But who determines the standards for “high-quality”? That is an aspect that Bloom never addressed. However, Albert Murray did address it in one of his book reviews titled “The HNIC Who He?” In it, he speaks out against the glorifying of non-white authors simply because they are non-white. (Albert Murray was African-American.) He finalizes by proclaiming that, while some of these modern non-white authors may be good, they are still not as good as the canonical greats. Murray comes to the same basic conclusion as Bloom about what is high-quality, but at least Murray tells us why.

As I continue to teach a creative writing course to high school students, now in my eighth year doing so, I find that one thing is constant, across race, gender, socio-economic, and other factors. Almost none of them want to be a part of the literary establishment. While almost all of them are genuinely interested in writing, none of them show any interest in playing the game: BA in English from a reputable university, MFA in Creative Writing, contests for building a resume, agents, university and workshop teaching jobs, etc. This aspect of my job is really troublesome: should I push them toward a writing life that will be more likely to support them, or should I teach them to stand up to it and go their own way, like I have? After all, they need to understand that succeeding in writing does depend on understanding the answers to the question, who decides?

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