What Makes a Poet an Academic Poet?

This came up at my Tuesday night workshop. What qualities make a poet an academic poet? Is it writing in a certain style, form vs. free verse? Does it refer to the use of obscure (or obtuse) language and references? If the poet writes in an accessible style, can he/she still be considered an academic poet?

If a poet also teaches, does that make him/her an academic poet? Does that make him/her part of “the system?” Does having tenure make a difference? Or am I talking about two different things, teaching vs. writing? What if you went to college and studied poetry. Does that give you entry into that club?

When I hear people say he/she is an academic poet, it carries a negative connotation, as if academics write for a small, exclusive group of like-minded poets. Why is that? I mean, that's always been my understanding going back more than 20 years.

What is wrong with being an academic poet? Or, put another way, are "academic poets" keeping poetry alive or are they driving readers away from poetry?

Thoughts? I'm especially interested in hearing from poets who consider themselves academic poets.


Kristin said…
I want to be an academic poet who writes poems that my grandma who didn't go to college will love. I want to write a body of work that could sustain future graduate students and scholars as they write dissertations and books on my work--but I don't want to sacrifice accessiblity (which some consider an insult, but I take as a compliment).

I feel I live in several worlds, which makes me at home in none. I have a Ph.D. in 19th century British Lit, so I understand that academic arena. But I've also spent much of my life teaching in community colleges and other schools who serve students who have certain disadvantages, and I understand their problems with academic poetry (both the academic poetry of the past and present). I want to write poems that those students can find, read, and treasure--and I want those same poems to be accepted by academics with Ph.D.s.

I don't know if I'm successful yet, but those are my thoughts.
KateBB said…
The term used to mean something, a poetics of high mindedness and lofty subject matter written by and for academics. What can it mean now when even poets with loose style and louche subject matter teach and even run writing programs? I do feel it is and always has been a pejorative term suggesting an ethos in which careerism trumps talent and in which the real reading audience gets short shrift.
January said…
Accessability always comes up as an issue. I think it's a compliment, too. There's nothing wrong with having a broad appeal, either.

It would be nice to write a few poems that are memorable and live on beyond us.

Is there a difference between academics with PhD's and those without? And is this a issue with other genres? Is there such a thing as an academic fiction writer?

Thanks for thoughts, Kristin.
January said…
KateBB, I agree. It seems to me that the poetics of high mindedness and lofty subject matter is the work that survives and endures, much of it canonized.

So, it is this small, insular group of readers and writers keeping poetry alive?
twitches said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer said…
Jan, I'm glad you're bringing this up on the blog! I've long felt a need for a clear, even agreed upon, definition of this term since it's bandyed about so often between poets (but @Jan you're right--NOT so with fiction writers!?!). Kristin, I like your goals: to be canonized as well as enjoyed by non-scholors. Like Gwendolyn Brooks, maybe? She's heavily anthologized and accessible. But would she be considered an
"academic" poet just because she is canonized?

And @KateBB, who is "the real reading audience?" (I really want to know what you mean :)
KateBB said…
Real reading audience? I just mean people outside academia and poetry circles. "Real" is a poor choice of word. General audience is better.
While fiction writers don't necessarily wrestle with being branded as academic vs. non-academic/general, they do have to contend with being labled "literary" vs. "commercial." Ahh, we all have our stigmas with which to contend...
Diane Kendig said…
I think the term, as it was used in the 1970's and 1980's doesn't really fit today. Then, there was often quite a dichotomy between those who worked in academia as graduate creative writing professors; those who worked as professors not of graduate creative writing; and those who worked elsewhere. Many of that first group, which was referred to pejoratively as "academic poets" tended to hang only with other academic poets, to only invite other academic poets for readings, to only review academic poets' work. They tended to have degrees in creative writing. At the expense of going off on a gender riff, most of them were male. Of course there were exceptions to all of these categories, but suffice it to say that for those two decades few if any in the academy would review, for an easy example, Ginsberg...except Donald Hall, that great eclectic who eventually just walked away from being an "academic poet."

The reason given was always that the academic poets' work was "richer," "more aesthetically rigorous," and such. But I think a lot of it was really about snobbery over degrees and ivy league institutions.

(Stories with names named from my 1986 stay at Yaddo or my judging for the Ohio Arts Council available for an SASE...a PLAIN SASenvelope!)

Today, so many poets have MFA degrees and so many poets don't teach in graduate programs or even in academia. The term doesn't seem as applicable to me now. And styles seem to have little to do with who is in and who is out of academia.
The Storialist said…

Many people mean "academic" as "high-falutin'". Creating for a learned audience, maybe.

I don't know how many poets go into their writing being choosy about who their reader is. That is a turn-off, for me.

But there is nothing wrong with being schooled in technique and craft--I very much appreciate that in poets (I'm thinking of Jason Guriel, whose Pure Product I really enjoyed, partially because of his technical ability).

I think of those musicians who play and create for other musicians--the listener has to be "in" on what they are doing to fully appreciate it.

All these divisions...it is indeed interesting.

The good thing is--there is room for every kind of writer.
evelyn.n.alfred said…
Well, maybe there's negative connotations behind being an academic poet...but if I was willing to be put in a box, I would scooch over to being an academic poet. For me an academic poet is one that has degrees, I guess. You know, an MFA or a PhD, it doesn't mean that the audience that the poet wants is soley from academia. I don't think poets can be very choosy about their audience.
Cindy Veach said…
Ultimately, I think it has to be about the work itself and not the "label". I remember being surprised when James Wright described himself as a "straight academic". I first read Shall We Gather at the River and did not know his work before that. Then I learned that in The Branch Will Not Break he had broken away from formal verse and what was then I suppose more "academic" poetry. Yet, years later he still thought of himself as an academic even though he had a wider audience and had "freed" himself. There are so many MFA programs now, does that make for more academic poets? I don't think so. I go back to it being about the work - authentic, heartfelt work. That can be academic or non academic.
January said…
Jaci, “literary vs. commercial,” – very true. Thanks for reminding me of the distinction. Yes, we all have our stigmas. Hope you are enjoying the summer.

Diane—I’m always interested in stories! I agree that “academic poet” label seem to fit today’s poet but the distinction is still prevalent. There is a bias toward academics, but I wonder if they created it by isolating themselves.

Hannah—None of us choose our readership. Do you think, however, that poets who publish multiple books write to please their audience or write for themselves?

Evelyn—Is it possible to be an academic poet if he/she didn’t complete an MFA or PhD program? I can think of a few names who might fit the bill.

Cindy—This is where I get hung up. Many of us go through MFA programs, but don’t consider ourselves academic poets. I lean toward being an academic poet but not an academic. For me, it comes down to the style of writing and not education, but I’m not sure. I do think the term academic poet may be outdated, however.
January said…
Thanks, everyone, for the terrific conversation.
Jessie Carty said…
I'm a bit late to the game but this is a topic that I've struggled with myself as a person who returned to obtain an MFA and a career change into teaching in her 30's who also happens to be a poem.

I hear academic poet often as a negative term and I don't know that I would call myself one probably because of that access issue. I think the lack of access and what truly makes the term academic as so many people seem to define now is if they use many references that would only be aware of if you were in academics.

A poet, perhaps, who wrote more obscure allusions to other authors, books or who primarily wrote in older forms without much modern anchor. I would consider them a bit more academic or schooled...scholarly?

I don't personally see it as a negative but yet I wouldn't call myself one.
G. Tod Slone said…
While hunting for the face of an academic poet to depict in a satirical cartoon, I came across your blog. Those are interesting questions you pose, though you hardly get down into the marrow of them. It's interesting that you picked up on the negative connotation of "academic poet." It is the old story of the "academic poet" who sees herself (or himself) as not sharing the dubious traits of "academic poets." My job is teaching college courses. Oddly, my specialty is criticizing academic poets. The term for me implies poets who do not have courage to stand as individuals, who do not go "upright and vital and speak the rude truth in all ways" (Emerson), who ladder climb, who conform to the literary herd, backslap, self-vaunt, turn a blind eye in the face of corruption, rationalize cowardice and silence, censor others, self-censor, etc., etc. In other words, the "academic poet" for me is everything a poet ought not to be. For many cartoons and essays denouncing academic poets, see my website, check out my blog, pick up a copy of The American Dissident. Now, will you censor this?

G. Tod Slone, PhD and Founding Editor (since 1998)
The American Dissident, a Journal of Literature, Democracy & Dissidence
A 501 c3 Nonprofit Providing a Forum for Vigorous Debate, Cornerstone of Democracy
1837 Main St.
Concord, MA 01742
G. Tod Slone said…
Thank you very much for not censoring my comment. Inside Higher Ed censors my comments, as do other academic-based organizations, including Academy of American Poets. Best to you!
G. Tod

Popular Posts