|Jul/Aug 2005 Salon
I set out to get a PhD in English. I went off to graduate school at the University of Illinois, determined to climb the academic ladder rung by rung until I reached a safe and tenured perch somewhere in the academic tree.
This awful metaphor is on purpose, because the subject of this little meditation is the grotesque prose of academics who study, of all things, the best writings in one of the richest languages on Earth.
Today's text is from Professor Richard Howard. It appears as the Prose Feature on the Poetry Daily website (Nov. 21, 2004). At this writing, it's still posted at http://www.poems.com/essahowa.htm.
Howard is described elsewhere as "a formidable man of letters: a brilliant poet, pioneering translator, revered champion of emerging poets, and learned, far-ranging critic." [Booklist, date not given in the blurb I found.]
Maybe so, but this essay is a dreadful example of the kind of prose and the kind of mind that drove me screaming from the cesspools of academia into the refreshingly clean and wholesome world of journalism. A sample paragraph:
"And was such a thing, ontologically ripped from the gossip column, the chronicle, the matrix of our records of each other which the French so wisely call commerage—was such a thing poetry? Wasn't poetry, rather, an immediacy unencumbered, unconditioned by the circumstantial? Wasn't lyric poetry, precisely, the eternal Now, or even the immediate Then... but experienced without—literally—impedimenta, without the mere baggage of our lives?"
The purpose of this paragraph is to tell you that Professor Howard is smarter than you. He knows the wisdom of the French. (Right. That "wise" word commerage turns out to mean "gossip," which he has already said in English, perhaps unwisely.) He also knows Latin. "Impedimenta," alas, is known to generations of schoolboys as Caesar's word for "baggage." That's the same as the English word in the same sentence. But now we know that Howard knows that, and that is clearly important to him.
He goes on: "I speak of course of American poetry, and the mere mention of baggage affords me the occasion for a little excursus—the constatation of a geography..." But I shall not go on, except to pick off a few easy targets. Here are some of his Vocabulary Words: Immitigably. Discrepant (used in the phrase "but it is discrepant, there is a difference." Gee, both?) Inspissated. Initiatory. Ekphrasis.
Enough. Wade through it yourself. You may find that (as I did, to my shock) you agree with a lot of it. But you will pay a price. Life is only so long, and you can spend it plowing though this stuff or you can read critics who can write plainly. Howard cites and seems to admire Norbert Frye. Pity he doesn't write like him.
Anyway, to get back to my own abbreviated career in scholarship: It came to pass that I got drafted while still in graduate school—a long story of poor planning on my part. When I got back from saving a grateful nation from the Red Menace, I assumed I would go back and finish my MA (I lacked only a semester) and go on to the doctorate.
Then I started remembering what I did and didn't like about graduate school. I looked through my old copies of Publications of the Modern Language Association (yes, I was a member of the MLA) and read its advice to contributors, basically telling them to fuck off, this was not "a place for fledglings to try their wings"; only the elect need apply. I also reread one of the books a professor unwisely assigned: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. I say this was an unwise assignment because it rips the scab off graduate education in literature and shows us the kind of learned fools that control too much of the process. Amis's portrayal of Professor Welch saved me years of misery. I found a beginner's editorial job and never looked back.
Sometimes I regret this, thinking of a few friends who have nice professorships and will never turn a hand to honest toil. Then I think, well, good for them, but I'm OK. Really.