Is it academic?

Posted by Ken Edwards on Friday, March 20, 2009 Under: writing
In my last post I said "I'm ambivalent about the increasing academicisation of innovative/parallel tradition poetry..." I think there may be one too many syllables in one of the words there, but I hope my meaning is clear, if not the precise detail of my ambivalence. I'm prompted by an announcement by my good friend Robert Sheppard of the proposed launch of a Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry which he is to edit with Scott Thurston (the publisher is Gylphi:

The new journal has an impressive editorial board numbering 19 people. I impressed myself when I realised that I knew at least 18 of them personally - in some cases they are old and dear friends (I trust I don't have to apologise for "old" - I mean, I knew them mostly before they acquired the title of professor or doctor, which the majority of them bear).

This will be a great achievement. And a watershed. Are we witnessing the arrival of "innovative" poetry as a cultural force to be reckoned with, something to be taken seriously after so many years of neglect, hostility and ridicule? Or (and this is my fear) does it mark the end of an era that began with Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum, Eric Mottram's stewardship of Poetry Review and the first flowering of Cambridge poetry, back in the 1960s and early 70s? Must innovative poetry now cease to be innovative and embark on a period where it is analysed, historicised, theorised, synthesised, until it is no more?

I note that part of the remit of the journal is discussion of the teaching of innovative poetry. None of the poets I grew up with were taught at college how to write innovative poetry; the learning happened outside of the academy by and large, even if there were academic mentors around. Will exciting stuff happen as a result of the great explosion of creative writing courses in this country? I'm not holding my breath.

The irony, though, is that most of my poet peers now earn their crust in education, generally higher education. While I was assembling the new Reality Street website recently, I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of poets my press has published are described as teaching or having taught for a living. And the opportunities for paid readings, vanishingly few as they are for most of us, are largely provided by the academies. (I'm reading at Royal Holloway's Runnymede Festival tomorrow, with Jeff Hilson, Robert Sheppard and Ulli Freer, btw - report to follow.)

It's encouraging that there are live reading scenes, such as openned in London, where younger poets can experiment and fall flat on their faces and learn and get better. But I worry about what happens to a young poet who doesn't take the teaching path - will they become divorced from the action? Will we ever again see a major poet whose day job is in the Post Office or the railways, as Lee Harwood's was? And if they do go into higher education teaching, will their particular innovations get buried there?

As always, in this country we are a decade or so behind the USA. When I was in America in the late 1970s, Language Poetry was the happening stuff. By the late 80s/early 90s, on subsequent visits, I was told by more than one person "It's over." Many poets had become professors and in several cases were continuing to do good things, to enthuse new generations and to set up new opportunities. But poets who had been on the ground floor of Language Poetry, yet were outside of the academy, tended to get forgotten. I'm thinking of the Ray DiPalmas and the Alan Davieses, and some others.

I wish the new journal well. But my big hope is that innovative poetry does not vacate the pub upper room, the late night discussion in someone's front room, the shabby little gallery space and, yes, the marketplace, and pitch its tent in the great campsite of academia, where all its needs will be met until it slowly dies.

In : writing 

Tags: poetry 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at