This post attempts to front page some of the discussion unfolding here and here, conversations spurred by posts here and here.
Way back in Ye Olde Olden Days of Yore, I was a semi-miserable graduate student who had just completed a year of study. I felt like I was in the grip of crisis, unable to decide between the reality of advanced literary study and the fantasy of being a novelist or poet or some other kind of lucrative creative writer [I write "fantasy" now but at age twenty-two it seemed that all I had to do was embrace the writer's vocation and I would, of course, become famous. I had taken enough creative writing courses as an undergraduate to minor in the subject so, hey, I had the credentials ... I just needed a good plot or something]. I had just been to a public lecture by Helen Vendler at which she had mentioned that, as a girl, she wrote poetry of her own, including a piece in which she figured herself as Moses in the arid desert, striking water from a rock (SPOILER: for those who have trouble with symbols, that "water" would be mellifluous verse). The image haunted me, but so did Vendler's admission of an abandoned career.
Helen Vendler had been my teacher in a Wallace Stevens seminar. I admired her confidence, her gift for finding the perfect descriptive word, her definitiveness. Yet after that lecture I kept wondering: at what point did this famous scholar of contemporary poetry decide that she was going to be an interpreter of art rather than an artist? A critic rather than a poet?
Having decided to confront Vendler with my question, I made an appointment with her secretary and came to her office in the English department. I was filled with an excitement I only vaguely understood. I suppose I thought that on this day I was going to be granted an epiphany: Vendler would reveal to me how she resolved her own inner struggle over critical analysis and the scholar's life versus poetic production and the artist's. I'd be given the tools and inspiration to resolve my own insomniac uncertainties.
We exchanged pleasantries as her assistant bustled, gathering correspondence and arranging unanswered mail into neat stacks. I sat uneasily in my chair, knowing that the Big Question was about to be uttered. I blurted it out too quickly, revealing too much of my own turmoil as I spoke. She looked at me quizzically, and then the telephone rang. "Excuse me," she said and gave a brief interview to some newspaper. As she hung up and realized I still sat expectantly before her, she smiled and said, "I don't know." She turned to her piles of mail. "I really don't know. I've never thought about it." Pause. "There was a time I was writing poetry." Envelopes whizzed into the trash bin. "Then there was a time when I was writing poetry and writing about poetry. At some point the poetry just stopped." She looked at me in a way that signaled it was time to leave. "I suppose I realized without knowing it that I wanted to write books about poets. But it's not as if there was a turning point."
"Thank you," I said, but I really thought NO! Can it really be that easy? Can we choose without a crisis?
Many years later, I'm prepared to say: yes. We carve what we do into so many sub-disciplines and we draw so many lines to box our products from contamination with other forms. But let's face it, sometimes the crisis doesn't arrive ... or if it does arrive, it's getting in the way of thinking about the alliances, the shared energy, the potential for monstrous offspring. I am currently the chair of an English department that combines a creative writing faculty with a literature faculty. We all gain from the fact that we're not segregated into separate quarters. Yes, I do think some incredibly shallow writing comes from introductory creative writing courses, just as each semester I grade some incredibly shallow interpretations of Beowulf, the Wife of Bath, Marie de France. If we're good teachers, though, we instruct our students in such a way that such depthless response is challenged and creatively rethought.
One last thing to admit: my own Helen Vendler moment has been in not going into crisis over abandoning the fabulations in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity. Of the manuscript's three initial readers, only one suggested that I remove them (actually, he requested that I delete the book from my hard drive). I took the fabulations out because I found them too distracting. They demanded attention disproportianate to their brevity; the argument suffered through being outshone. I'm not yet a good enough writer to integrate such flights in a way that satisfies me, but I do hope that in the future as I continue to work upon my craft I'll find a way to make such experiments work.