Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Gabe Gudding loves the role of trouble maker. You can see it in his poetry, his criticism, his weblog, his missives to listservs, the people he chooses to champion. He lists “tastelessness” as a research interest on his web page at Illinois State University in Normal and is photographed there in front of the razor-wire fence of a prison.

Not unlike Kent Johnson, Gudding is one of those people whom it’s possible to admire even as you want to slap him across the face with an old trout. The impulse behind the ruckus is often good, but the impulse itself comes with a lot of baggage. It’s taken me years, for example, to get around to reading his essay, “From Petit to Langpo: A History of Solipsism and Experience in American Poetics Since the Rise of Creative Writing,” which I finally loaded onto my Palm TX & read while I was in California. The title is off-putting enough, but somewhere early on when it was first posted to the FlashPoint magazine website in 1999 I scanned it, saw a cheesy comment about Charles Bernstein (“arguably one of the most benighted and boring writers in the United States”), an aside that actually had nothing to do with the point then being made in the paper & thought of all the other times that Gudding has gone jousting against some of my own favorite windmills, myself included, and decided for the time being that I didn’t need to read that.

In fact, I was wrong. In spite of its somewhat misleading title – the subtitle is where all the action is here – Gudding’s essay is an attempt to understand the impact of creative writing programs on poetry itself, both the verse being written and, even more so, the divorce between the poet as experiencer of Big Feelings – what everyone from Oprah to Garrison Keeler mean by the adjective poetic – and the contemporary writer of poems that are often dismissed as too difficult or insular to bother reading. While there are a few poets – Robert Bly, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Amiri Baraka – who deliberately produce verse for audiences who don’t otherwise read poetry, most poets, regardless of their literary heritage or tendencies, are readily dismissed by mass audiences.

Gudding’s genius here has been not to ascribe this disjunction to one literary tendency or another (tho he also, just as clearly, demonstrates that its roots, if not its effects, are as far from the post-avant tradition as one could imagine), but would appear to be grounded in the history of American education as such, specifically in the rise of English departments, a phenomenon that did not exist 200 years ago, and within them the rise of creative writing courses. Gudding makes great use of John Dewey’s Art and Experience and the writings and work of William Hughes Mearns, whom Gudding credits as the first to teach the subject by name.

Gudding’s point is that creative writing never was intended to produce poets, fictioneers, playwrights or (the latest and most telling development, tho Gudding somewhat surprisingly doesn’t mention it to support his case, which it surely does) professional purveyors of the “personal essay.” Rather, from the beginning, the purpose was to develop, in Mearns’ words, “self-expression as a means of growth, and not poetry…. The business of making professional poets is still another matter – with which this writer has never had the least interest” (Gudding’s ellipsis). Mearns’ efforts might not have created poets, but it sure did create jobs for them, paid work aimed precisely at replicating the same fuzzy experiential agenda – the idea that a creative writing course is the one class in college that is explicitly about You. Gudding cites a then-current University of Montana creative writing program’s brochure that quotes the late Richard Hugo saying “a creative writing class may be one of the last places where you can go where your life still matters." Gudding implies, and he’s not wrong, that this isn’t necessarily a good thing. While I was out in California last week – staying at the home of one of Hugo’s former students, no less, now a psychotherapist whose bookshelves are full of the Pablo Neruda-to-Jane Kenyon spectrum of verse – one former Mills professor told me of a “revolt” that occurred in one of his classes when he had the temerity to suggest that his students actually read contemporary poetry.

The very same poetics of experience that lies at the heart of this growth agenda – Gudding calls it “democratic freighting,” acknowledging the impulses behind Dewey’s view of curriculum – leads to an aesthetic of the overwrought on the side of the School of Quietude, and to a phenomenology of the signifier among post avants, neither of which is calculated to gain a broad readership in a world where the lowest common denominator seems to be Dan Brown’s plot-driven conspiracy narratives.

Gudding concludes by demonstrating just how pervasive this aesthetic of the personal has become, quoting poet after poet, from all literary tendencies, who argue, in form or another, that the poem is found – the contemporary poet doesn’t so much write the poem as she or he discovers it – rather than constructed (the alternate model Gudding traces back to Coleridge): Robert Frost, Eudora Welty, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Bill Stafford. A secondary, but not unimportant aspect of Gudding’s panoply of consequences is the rise of prose within poetry, precisely on the theory – Russell Edson is cited here – on the grounds that it is closer to experience because prose entails less of a formal dimension.

At its heart, Gudding’s argument is fascinating and troubling pretty much in equal amounts. At its heart, what it asks us to do is to think what the poem might be absent this particular literary history. That’s a profoundly important question.

But Gudding’s execution – this appears to have been written while he was himself still in the MFA program at Cornell – is beyond sloppy. His gratuitous dismissal of Charles Bernstein ignores Bernstein’s own work in this area – and Bernstein’s Brechtian send-ups of the personal in his own poetry would seem to be exactly what Gudding is tacitly advocating.

Further, Gudding’s description of prose as an anti-formal aesthetic strategy sounds very 1960s and the constructivist tendencies of the language school are nowhere considered, particularly since they (we) are being dismissed out of hand. It puts Gudding into the convoluted position of arguing for things that he otherwise trashes. One wishes, for example, that he had simply set aside the cheap shots and made the sort of meticulous case for his position that one associates, say, with the work on the history of canons done by Alan Golding. It wouldn’t have been that hard to do, but FlashPoint is hardly the only online journal that seems to think that editing stops with accepting a particular work.

But Gudding shouldn’t be dismissed just because he may be his own worst enemy rhetorically. The argument that he is making – however incomplete and riddled with problems it might be – has elements that ring true and would be good to think out at far greater length. Gudding’s own poetry might be characterized as neo-Georgian, particularly with its emphasis on satire and social wit, as if the only way to sidestep the problematics of the personal might be to go back to the last period in which such concerns were not (yet) an issue. I’m not convinced of this, either by the poems themselves or by Gudding’s reasoning here, but at the very least this misnamed essay offers gateways through which one might begin to address such issues.