Heather McHugh and the Schooling of American Poetry
Heather McHugh. Broken English: Poetry and Partiality. Wesleyan University Press 1993. 152 pp. $14.95 (paper)
Heather McHugh. Eyeshot. Wesleyan University Press 2003 54 pp. $20.00
Heather McHugh. Hinge & Sign: Poems: 1968-1993. Wesleyan University Press 1994. 219 pp. $15.95 (paper)
Heather McHugh. The Father of the Predicaments. University Press of New England 1999. 80 pp. $19.95
Years before he became a faculty fixture at Brooklyn College, Allen Ginsberg delicately suggested that most literature professors wouldn't recognize poetry "if it buggered hem on the street." These days, the academy serves the same function for American poets that Paris served for Lost Generation literati: It is the Shangri-La to which would-be writers flee in order to sit at the feet of the famous, split rents and swap manuscripts with fellow aspirants, and, if they make it, live out their days in a cultural oasis furnished with paychecks, prizes, and endless evenings of wine and cheese.
Ostensibly, even when co-existing in the same English departments, poets and scholars inhabit separate worlds. But more than a strip of hallway connects these worlds. Career success as a poet and tenure in an English department have become ever more intertwined. For example, of the last eleven Pulitzer Prize winners, ten have either held faculty positions at a college or university or have extensive university teaching experience. Moreover, in the last few decades, it has become clear that professorships are the only form of sustained economic patronage that America is willing to offer its poets. Even our poets laureate only serve two-year terms. So the future of American poetry is classrooms and lecture halls, search committees and MLA panels, shoulder-rubbings with denizens of that other, theory-saturated world in which poetry as poets speak of it in workshops and craft lectures seems beautiful but dumb, charmingly myopic, hopelessly romantic, and naively convinced that it is the belle of the ball.
As the Great Migration tenure-ward becomes taken-for-granted fact, poets are learning to live by new rules, measure themselves by new standards, mingle at different sorts of parties, and speak new languages. Poets are now trained (via writing workshops) and paid (via professorships) to bring to bear on the act of poetic composition the kind of self-consciousness about language that is promoted in other areas of the Academy. Slowly but surely, academia is changing the way poets think, talk, and go about writing poetry. Sherod Santos, an accomplished poet who is also a professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, worries in A Poetry of Two Minds, a recent collection of essays, that
The famous terms W.H. Audcn employed-the
sacred and the profane ("the value of a profane
thing lies in what it usefully does, the value of a
sacred thing in what it is")-are less likely to serve
as satisfactory distinctions to the more high-mind
ed theorists of the day. Or to those who feel that
criticism has risen to the status of an art while art
has descended to the moribund status of an ideo
"Sacred" and "profane" are certainly not in critical vogue at the moment. But the problem Santos addresses here is not one of nomenclature but of status. To put it in Ginsbergian terms that couldn't be further from Santos' sensitively hedged suggestion, when it comes to intercourse about poetry, it is no longer clear whether the poets or the "high-minded theorists" are on top.
Poets-think of Pound and Eliot-never used to question the relative status of poetry and criticism, or bother their heads over what "high-minded theorists of the day" might think of the terms in which they reflected on their art. Critics assembled editions of poets' works, tracked down their references, expanded their cryptic utterances into elaborate theories, and otherwise served as "profane" prose handmaidens to poets' "sacred" mysteries. …