Higher education and the poetry of ideas

Stefanie Botelho's picture

Poets and fiction writers used to pride themselves on being, as befitting romantic renegades, outside of academia. They insisted that creative writing was not a teachable subject, since it required a special gift of imagination and a uniquely individual style. Phrases such as "workshop poems" and "academic poems," designating the sort of work allegedly written for classes, were often terms of derision.

That changed in the 1970s with a profusion of new creative writing programs at colleges and universities. Many poets protested vehemently against the institutionalization of their art, but even the most intense critics of creative writing classes usually welcomed a chance to teach one. The sad and simple truth was that poets had nowhere else to go. I knew several local literary legends, and even nationally prominent poets, who published prolifically, yet barely survived on meagre pensions, in one-room apartments infested with insects. Creative writing programs were a means, and probably the only one available, to send at least a little money their way.

Writers became less like shamans, dispensing divine wisdom, than priests, in the employment of a church. They would henceforth be evaluated rather like other academic employees -- by the number of their publications and the prestige of their degrees. Almost nobody realized it at first, but this was part of a process that post structuralists would soon call "decentering the author."

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