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Wendell Berry recently decided to pull his personal papers from the University of Kentucky, and it got me thinking.

While I know this news story isn’t directly related to the topic of poetry (and this is–loosely–a poetry blog), I can’t help but feel it connects on some other level as we (poets) think about the relationship of our poetry to the world around us. Most of my exposure to the world of modern poetry has taken place through the university system. And while I know there are many poets writing and thriving outside the university system, it seems to me that the relationship of modern poetry is hopelessly enmeshed with our modern universities. Let’s admit it, the modern university (as well as the various foundations, titles, etc.) gives us poets the prestige we desperately desire. Would we be satisfied reading in bars the rest of our lives? Some of us would, but many of us would feel cheated. We want, as it were, to be “overheard.”

Most modern universities are “research universities.” I find even explicitly “liberal arts” universities cast their value in scientific terms. If you’ve been to a grad conference recently, you know as well as I do that academics dutifully toils away in a very narrow slices of their field, increasing knowledge (wherever that is stored…), writing books, gaining tenure. The language of conferences and academic panels has become scientific, calculated, professional. When you are asked about your studies, you must cast it in “pitch” it, so as to demonstrate the entrepreneurial value.

How much of this has seeped into the world of modern poetry?

Does the modern university ennoble (if I may use such an unfashionable word!) those of us (I’m still there!) who dwell in its halls? Consider Berry’s excoriation of the “research university”:

At a 2007 commencement address at Bellarmine University, Berry railed against “the great and the would-be-great ‘research universities.’ These gigantic institutions, increasingly formed upon the ‘industrial model,’ no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. … The American civilization so ardently promoted by these institutions is to be a civilization entirely determined by technology, and not encumbered by any thought of what is good or worthy or neighborly or humane.”

There is little doubt also that the modern university is, as one thinker put it, “the handmaiden of the military-government-industrial complex.” Certainly the poet can be the voice of conscience on the campus, but at what cost? Berry has the strength of his convictions (and the status to sustain them).

Then again, he also has a farm if it all goes to hell.

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Micah Towery teaches writing and literature in South Bend, IN. His book of poetry is Whale of Desire. His writing appears in magazines like AWP Chronicle, Mantis, Slant Magazine, and his poetry and translations appear in Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine, Loaded Bicycle, and Prime Number Magazine. In the past, he's worked as a Coca-Cola delivery driver, bus driver, baker, and church organist. He sometimes tweets @micahtowery.

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  • joe weil June 27, 2010, 12:48 pm

    As your former teacher Micah, you know I believe poetry is a “local” art, meaning it is best served, and serves best when it is allowed to flourish outside the laws of specialization, and within the frame work of a local community which it then serves– aestheticly, spiritually, and by the praxis of service. Berry has been crowned by the universities and his poetry is preserved by the universities, but he is, in a sense , a neo-agrarian– a poet in the line of Ransom, and , more so, Jefferson– and most of all, the Roman republican ideal of the gentleman farmer, the farmer who is also a man of wisdom and learning. I commend him for preferring this mode of being over a pro-global, pro-corporate model that,as you know, I detest. Students treated as “seats” or as “consumers”– as product, become people who treat others in that manner. Professionalism, especially in its aesthetic of narrowness and specialization, makes limited men. I believe the ideal of university is to educate men and women to participate in the polis– with wisdom, with a sense of service, with honor. To make men and women who know every detail of an elephants trunk, but can not relate their knowledge to the elephant (who could care less about the elephant) is, indeed, tragic. Professionalism, in so far as it lauds a sharp but severely limited field of vision, is no different than creating workers who only know how to run screw machines. I believe in specified aptitude, but only when it is informed by a broader appreciation of aesthetics, philosophy, and conscience.
    In terms of poetry, this is what I have directly experienced:

    1. Under grads tend to have all night conversations about the poems themselves, to become enthused (when inspired) by the art. They are not specialists yet, and so they aren’t boring me to death with which magazine is best to publish in, who got what grant, etc, etc– with the fucking business model.
    2. Grad students have a far more specialized relation to poetry. Their knowledge of it if far sharper, but it has already become divorced from their lives except in so far as succeeding at it becomes their lives. This is forced upon them by the need to publish, and make themselves employable. But let me give my “ideal” of a university education:

    1. A six year program with no degree except “prepared.” To that end:
    a. The student would be able to speak or, at the least, understand another language.
    b. A student would be able to make some sort of product: a chair, a dress, a suit, a house, and to explicate upon the principles regarding the aesthetics, and design of said chair, dress, house.
    c. A student would know every constitutional amendment, and the precedents pertaining to that amendment. They would also participate in local government by attending council meetings, and by voting.
    D. Each student would have a responsibility towards a small plot of land and would learn horticulture and husbandry.
    F. Each student would learn to play a musical instrument. They would not have to be good at it, or even proficient, but they would know basic music theory, and at least three songs.
    G. Each student would learn to balance a check book, and file their own income tax.

    Now, all these courses are about practical and social living. To that end, each student would take such courses all six years. If they proved hopeless at one of these skills, they could keep at it until their instructor wrote “prepared” with no stigma attached. If they proved to have aptitude, they would be moved along to the next level. For example, someone good at income tax returns, would then move on to general accounting principles, then to business ethics, then to economic theory, but, by gosh and golly, no one would be allowed out of this school until they could balance a check book and file their own returns, speak or understand another lanuage, play a couple songs, make a dress, a chair, a tool, and participated in the polis.

    2. Theoria:

    1. All students would learn the philosophical and aesthetic grounding of their society. To that end:

    a. All students would be somewhat familiar with the basic philosophies, religions, and political systems of the world and to that end would be trained to recognize both common ground and difference between these systems. In this respect, they would have to be familiar with basic texts: The bible, the Koran, The Upanishads, Plato, Aristotle, Zen, nature religions, and with the works of at least three acknowledged authorities on these texts.
    B. All students would be made to write their own philosophy in the first year. In the second, they would be required to do research in the influences and origins of their philosophy. In the third year, they would be required to teach this philosophy in a series of three lectures to an audience that would challenge them. In the fourth year, they would be used to attend such lectures given by third year students and challenge them. In the fifth year, they would have to “defend” a philosophical system that contradicted their own. In the sixth year, they would revise, and amend, or augment the philosophy they wrote in the first year.
    C. All students would be required to take a course in the sciences all six years. These would stem from Earth, wind, fire, and water, and the last two years would be a course in the ethics of science and technology. Earth: horticulture, basic geology, soil science, biology. Wind: astronomy, weather/ climate, solar energy. Fire: chemistry, metalurgy, the actual study of fire in terms of how it changes and forms the environment. Water: flood control, turbulence, water energy, all theories pertaining to how water impacts life. The last two years would be a study in science theory, and the origins of scientific method, their influence on civilazation for good or ill, etc, etc.
    D. Logic, and the study of the irrational.

    3. Poesis:

    A. All students would study Poesis– the art of persuation, and would be familiar with the basic strategies of “appeal.” To that end:
    First year: the study and learning of rhetorical devices: anaphora, analogy, metaphor,hyperbole, invective, the relationship between information and form. In these classes, all documents, including scientific and legal documents would be analyzed as poems. How does the verbal strategy of a scientific paper prove effective or ineffective. To what audience is it addressed? What happens when a scientific or techonlogical or legal principle is transported to a more general audience? How can one take some of the principles of poesis and use them to slant or convey a more specialized language to the general polis? To this end, first year students would be given an excerpt from Darwin’s origin of the species to compare to, let us say, a nature poem by Wordsworth, and an origin myth. The point would not be to decide which was “true”, but rather to learn something about how these each employ different strategies of language to convert, to convince, to affirm. Where do the strategies of science enter poesis? When we reduce rhetorical devices, what does it mean? When we increase them, what is the point of such a strategy? What is the origin of quoting authorities to prove a point? Religious quote passages from the bible to back up their point. Sceintists quote data. We know the difference between religious passages, and scientific data, but what is their common ground? Who creates, and what engines of speech or text create authority? To that end:
    A student would write a poem. After studying the strategy of legal jargon, or scientific jargon, he would translate that poem into the terms of that jargon– if possible (And it is). He would then take a non-poetic text and translate it into the terms of poetry. The student would learn to immitate and mimic styles of address. This is poesis– the strategy of address by which we communicate, and the audience we imagine.
    Second year: The student would memorize enough poetry to sit in on a three hour round robin with ten other students. For three hours, they would exchange poems, with the longest being no longer than ode length, and the shortest being haiku.
    Third year: A student would be assigned a specific style of poetry (NEw York school, Language poetry, concrete poetry, etc) and would spend the year researching that style or school, at the end of which, the student would formulate an exam question and answer it.
    Fourth year: A student would learn basic poetry forms and, by the ned of the year, produce an example of each one.
    Fifth year: A student would write a book of poems, stories, or essays, and have these prepared and submitted.
    Sixth year: a student would have to do an interactive art project, yoking poetry to music, dance, the visual arts the sciences, the social sciences, or to a sense of the market (in this case, they would act as porducers, and art administrators).
    B: In addition to poetry, students would have to attend six performances or art exhibitions per semester, and write a two page paper on each. Each year, they would have to take an art history or a drawing, sculpture, painting class.

    My six year course would not ruin specialized knowledge. I believe all specialized knowledge should exist against as broad a back round as possible. I would have no majors. Let’s say a student produces a decent chair and enjoys making it. For the next six years, if he so chooses, he would expand on this knowledge as follows:
    1. A course in the history of furniture design. 2. A course in the semiotics of space– how our philosophical/moral/ and cultural beliefs influence materials, shapes, and presence. 3. A course in furniture as an extention of the human body. 4. A course on the relationship between comfort, discomfort, and culture.5. A course in set design, etc, etc.

    A student who showed special aptitude would have it noted in the teacher’s journal. At the end of the year, a meeting would be called for all those students noted for special aptitude. The instructors would then present to the students what their courses would entail, and make a sales pitch.
    There would be no required courses, but, rather, required skills. A student who recieved unprepared for a course would take it over again until he recieved prepared. Prepared would be defined as a “basic level of competance at subjects taken under the heading of praxis, theroia, and poesis.

    The school would strive to create its own alternative source of energy, produce its own food, and furniture, and design as well as build its own structures. The students, in exchange for their aiding self-sufficiency, would be given room, board, and tuition. Students would teach once they received a prepared under the supervision of master advisors. In a sense, everyone would be a graduate student. Every student would be expected to teach at some point during the six years, and fauculty would have the choice of being research or pedagogical professors. Unemplyed men and women who passed a test proving a true mastering of a skill would be enrolled both as students and instructors. Every food worker, server, maintenance man/woman, and security emplyee would also be a student. A beneath which not, a standard would be in place. At the end of six years, every student would have to knw how: to:

    Balance a check book, fill out income tax, and write a grant proposal.
    Speak or understand another language.
    Play a musical instrument or at least have knowledge of music beyond merely listening to it.
    Know how to grows one’s own food, and know the true cost and value of foods, thus becoming far more informed consumers.
    Know something about the arts
    Be able to make a tool, a product, a house, a dress, or some other practical skill to the point where they could give an introductory class on it.

    There would be no grades except prepared or unprepared. A teacher who opted for free housing, medical care, and food would be given only an “Augmentation” salary of twenty thousand dollars above room, board, and sustenance. In effect, the twenty thousand dollars would be an honrarium. A teacher who opted for a salary, would negotiate it in the traditional way and through the traditional patterns, but only those who opted for what might be called the barter exchange system would be allowed tenure. The rest would be free agents, hired for no more than three years, and then given the choice of remaining as barter professors, or finding employment elsewhere as traditional professors. This would allow schools to still compete for what were deemed the “stars.”but It would also relieve the stress of under paid adjuncts. It would create self sustaining monads with the escape option of free agency. It would use two normally conflicting systems and meld them.

    This will never happen because we like distinction more than we like true learning, because we are rotten with hierarchy, because people see certain jobs as less skilled than others, because it would create a citizenry well informed enough to see through sound bytes and political flim flam, because it would dismantle specialization and expertise in its old sense. Because people would have to become at least competent in tasks they loath, because “well roundedness” is against both the industrial and consumer/service mentality, because barter may be prosperity based, but it is not friendly to status or profit, because, at the same time the university would be monastic, it would have to call on the skills of those who are not traditional academics. Oh well… that’s my ideal means of education. What would Wendell Berry think of that?

  • John James June 30, 2010, 9:11 pm

    Strangely enough, I’m a poet from Kentucky. I attended the University of Kentucky for a while, and graduated from Bellarmine University (where Berry gave that speech). It’s nice to know we’re at least on the radar in New York City.

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