Wednesday, May 21, 2014

In 1954 and 1955, Robert Graves, poet, novelist, and classical scholar, gave a series of lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, which were collected in his essay collection The Crowning Privilege. In his opening remarks, he offered this general overview of the place of the poet in postwar England:
Unlike stockbrokers, soldiers, sailors, doctors, lawyers, and parsons, English poets do not form a closely integrated guild. A poet may put up his brass plate, so to speak, without the tedious preliminaries of attending a university, reading the required books and satisfying examiners. Also, a poet, being responsible to no General Council, and acknowledging no person superior, can never be unfrocked, cashiered, disbarred, struck off the register, hammered on 'Change, or flogged round the fleet, if he is judged guilty of unpoetic conduct. The only limits set on his activities are the acts relating to libel, pornography, treason, and the endangerment of public order. And if he earns the scorn of his colleagues, what effective sanctions can they take against him? None at all. . . . 
This general privilege, as I understand it, implies individual responsibility: the desire to deserve well of the Muse, their divine patroness, from whom they receive their unwritten commissions, to whom they eat their solitary dinners, who confers her silent benediction on them, to whom they swear their secret Hippocratic oath, to whose moods they are as attentive as the stockbroker is to his market.
I find these remarks both depressing and exhilarating. I sink into gloom whenever yet another man trots out this time-worn reduction of the poetic urge. Man writes; woman inspires! In college during the mid-1980s I had a young literature professor who used to waste class time crowing about his beautiful wife. "My Muse!" he would sigh ecstatically, and my friend Jilline and I would catch each other's eyes and then look at the floor and squirm in our chairs. At that age we weren't above wishing to be Muses ourselves. But what we really wanted to be was artists; and even in our unformed yearnings, we recognized the trap.

Yet Graves's statement is more than standard man-poet emoting. It also sketches a vanished time: when "a poet [could still] put up his brass plate . . . without the tedious preliminaries of attending a university, reading the required books and satisfying examiners." Graves himself was tremendously learned, not only wedded to classical sources but deeply read in the traditional English canon. He might seem, according to one point of view, a quintessential academic. But he nonetheless perceived that poetry is a wild land, and one's ability to negotiate its thorns and chasms must have nothing to do with externally imposed requirements.

Things are different today, and not everything is worse. If Graves were to make that Muse comment at a university lecture, he would not escape unscathed. And as I've said here many, many times, a formal education in poetry can be a wonderful gift. But it's not the only way to become a poet, nor is it necessarily the best way; and it's a fact that people without MFA degrees do tend to have lower status among other poets and are almost always financially penalized.

This educational shift has created an inversion in nomenclature. Today, when people talk about poets who work within and outside "the academy," they are generally referring to the divide between poets with advanced degrees who teach in university settings and poets without advanced degrees who may not teach in any setting at all. Yet these graduate degrees are often predicated on a close study of contemporary poetry rather than an immersion in Graves's conception of the traditional canon: Milton, Dryden, Pope, and those other big men of letters. Once we would have called that old-fashioned route academic. Now, however, it is academic only if one is not a poet.

Since the mid-1950s, when Graves was speaking at Trinity, poetry education has twisted itself inside out. For the generation of women who were young and aspiring in the fifties--women such as Plath and Rich and Kumin and Sexton--that twist was both essential and destructive. In far less dramatic manner, I think it has affected most of us, for better or worse.

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