Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Writer and the Academy

I’ve identified myself on this blog as a ‘writer and academic’. Besides writing poetry, script and other works, I’m a teacher of creative writing and English literature. I have a research specialism in English Romanticism, and the intellectual, political and spiritual traditions in which that literature participates. Particular interests here include literary mythopoesis; the evolution of spirituality; mythological and religious syncretism; literary esotericism and occultism; antiquarianism, archaeology and folklore; the history of science; ecology; and the relationship between literary culture and the social and political constitution.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think – and to my mind, you’d be right. But for some writers, there is a tension and even antipathy between the creative mind (as they conceive it) and the image of an academic. There are some understandable concerns, of course – over institutionalisation, for example, or being pigeonholed, or how much time non-writerly duties might take up – but all of these would apply with any form of employment. Beyond these, and more seriously even, there is a worry that the academy simply speaks another language – one potentially damaging to the writer. Something like this troubled Ted Hughes; he went so far as to link his own essays in prose criticism to the collapse of his health. His letters, however, show that he didn’t consider this a necessarily universal principle: he praises Marina Warner for being able to produce highly imaginative writing and sophisticated criticism without the one crucifying the other.

Academics, too, can be frosty about the intellectual authority of creative writers – particularly in the university system. Maybe some writers have themselves to blame for provoking that kind of response; I’ve heard of a few such cases, though never encountered it first hand. But such hostility from academics can also suggest a failure to appreciate that imaginative writing is intellectual exploration by means of embodiment – that is, experiential immersion – rather than argument; through ‘the blood & vital juices of our minds’, as Wordsworth has it, rather than reasoning alone.

In my position, these issues remain live. But although I bear Hughes’s warning in mind (which in turn echoes Robert Graves) about staying true to whatever my calling is, poetry doesn’t so readily separate from criticism, for me. The role of poet-critic is not a new one, after all – and you don’t have to look far to find contemporary examples. Take Michael Donaghy, for instance: besides his poetry, the posthumous collection of his prose in The Shape of the Dance opens a channel to the critical thinking of one of the most skilled and influential of recent poets. In a fundamental sense, all writers have to be critics, insofar as they are readers interested in the making of language, and what language makes – with the need to articulate that process (however indirectly) for themselves.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge is one of the great poet-critics – and human enough to have his doubts about the effects of such a mix: at one point he worried that poetry and philosophy might cancel each other out, and leave him an ‘inert mass’. Writing a doctoral thesis on Coleridge, with his fears of this kind right in front of me, it crossed my mind that I, too, was taking a risk. But I soon realised that for me, writing the thesis and writing poems were intimately and inextricably connected, and shared a common root and impulse. Studying Coleridge for A-Level, aged 17-18, woke me up to what poetry could be with a wave of exultation: concentrating my reading, my sense of identity, and my desire to create in ways that I still find startling. When I came to write my thesis, twelve years later, it was as much an attempt to understand and articulate that lasting excitement, as much as anything else. Having things to say about Coleridge that I felt on my nerves as well as my mind, fuelled a desire to intervene in the vast conversation prompted by his works – whether scholarly or otherwise. In the early years of my doctorate, The Body in the Well was published, and I worked as a scriptwriter for the BBC. There was, to my relief, no cancelling out.

There’s no doubt that in the later stages of the thesis, and its transformation into Coleridge and the Daemonic Imagination, I wrote more about poetry than poetry itself. Amongst other things, however, that process involved the working-through of my own poetics – and I wrote it as a book for poets, and interested readers of all kinds, as much as for the academy; to operate imaginatively, as well as analytically; as writing, as well as scholarship.

Now, as I concentrate on my own poems again, I would describe my activity as a poet and a critic – or, if you will, a writer and academic – as a continuum: the modulation of the same desire to speak and to know.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Finding and Making

Welcome. As well as being a window onto my writing, I envisage this blog as a kind of public notebook, not of an entirely casual kind, but as a rolling discourse on things that matter to me, particularly in poetry and the life of ideas, the ways in which we constitute reality, and the way reality is constituted for us.

I have kept journals of ideas, first thoughts, observations, and seed-beds for poems for many years – writing I now regard as books in the making – and amongst other things, this blog will, I hope, extend that process into a new sphere of activity. (Though I won’t burden you with unfinished poems.) For all sorts of reasons, the time feels right to open up something of my methods in this way.

I thought I’d start with one principle that often recurs in my thinking – and will probably arise frequently, in one form or another, on this blog. It consists in the experience of a paradox, in which the act of finding is one and the same with the act of making, and the act of making is one and the same with the act of finding. To find generally supposes the discovery of something that already exists, independently of you, which you didn’t know about before. To make generally supposes the production of something that didn’t already exist. Put another way, to find is to receive, and to make is to generate – to give of yourself, as it were. Logically, then, to find and to make are quite different things. And yet, in the kind of experience I’m talking about, these occur at one and the same time.

For me, this describes the order of experience involved in writing poems. It is one of the things I crave in the act of composition, and explains how poems, to my mind, become a form of knowledge – something found in the act of making, and made in the act of finding. To write is to read, and it follows naturally that the act of reading itself involves finding and making, receiving and generating. A poem is an experiential theatre, in which the mind can think sensuously – i.e., through the imagination: the realising power, which remains open to the unknown, and so becomes the source and conduit of new knowledge. This is no less real, nor less respectable to right minded people, than analytic thinking – in fact, when it comes off, it is more subtle, entire and authoritative, because it works on us both viscerally and intellectually: through what is made present and what is invoked. In this way, poetry is a medium of human exploration, no less than science. And in poetry, the experience of knowing remains not only motile and open-ended, but vitally personal: its truths touch and feel, arrive like a scent.

In its fusion of finding and making, poetry says what could not otherwise be said. This is why the best poems disturb, amplify and expand our being. And this, dear reader, is what still – against all the odds – stakes a place for poetry at the centre of cultural life.