SEPTEMBER 25, 2017
IN AN ESSAY for The Best American Poetry blog on his selection process for the 2015 issue, Sherman Alexie noted that “[a]pproximately 99% of the poets are professors.” The percentage, in actuality, is a little bit lower than that, but like many jokes, there is a kernel of truth to it. Academic institutions are now the biggest steward of poets, who teach everything from freshmen composition courses to graduate workshops. While the financial viability of this arrangement for writers seems to be waning, as universities and colleges find it easier and cheaper to exploit the labor of academics, it is still the uncomfortable status quo.
Evan Kindley’s Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture tells part of the story of how this system came to be. With the stories of a handful of prominent modernist poet-critics, he traces the shift in culture from the private stewardship of artists to their employment by academic institutions between the 1920s and ’50s. On the impact of the modernists, Kindley writes, “hardly any modernist managed to avoid leaving behind a sizable corpus of literary criticism […] they were the first to establish a particular archetype that still pertains nearly a hundred years later, a job description that those who desire a career in poetry still have to fit.” The transformation of the role of the poet-critic during the modernist period created the world wherein poets attempt to make a living through criticism and teaching.
It begins, or at least Kindley begins, with T. S. Eliot. In “The Perfect Critic” and “Imperfect Critics,” Eliot advances his vision for the poet-critic. In the first essay, he is unmerciful in his attempt to award the title of perfect critic, dismissing Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Champion, and others on his way to crowning none other than Aristotle, who “provides an eternal example […] of intelligence itself swiftly operating the analysis of sensation to the point of principle and definition.” Eliot has no interest in fellow critics taking up Aristotle’s method, because intelligence is not a method, but an innate characteristic. Kindley points to Eliot’s criticism of Arthur Symons in order to explicate this quandary:
Eliot’s portrait of Symons conforms to the general pattern of his treatment of other predecessor poet-critics, whose ideas are typically dismissed or disparaged even as their style and sensibility are complimented. Their minds, he suggests over and over, were exceptional, but the works those minds produced were sadly not; with a bit more effort and strength of character and philosophical rigor, they really could have done much better.
“Imperfect Critics” takes a harsher look at the history of poet-critics and their criticism, and Kindley excerpts gleefully vicious passages. In his assessment of Algernon Swinburne’s work, Eliot writes, “[W]e cannot say that his thinking is faulty or perverse — up to the point at which it is thinking.” Eliot found Swinburne’s work lacking because he saw it as appreciative rather than evaluative or analytical. What Eliot wanted was for poets to adapt in order to perform the work of scholars, which, in Kindley’s words, consists of “theoretical justification and the formulation of rational principles.” The level of intellectual engagement most poet-critics had was not enough to continually demonstrate poetry’s worth to the public, Eliot thought, and because he saw poets as the best equipped to make their own case, altering the practice was of vital importance.
Despite recognizing that both roles were important to the poet-critic, Eliot had little patience for those who favored the latter over the former. Kindley brings this point home, quoting Eliot, who said that “either a reviewer is a bad writer and bad critic, and he ought not to be allowed to intervene between books and the public; or he is a good writer and good critic, and therefore ought not to be occupied in writing about inferior books.” It’s a harsh assessment, but also an understandable one.
Kindley’s portrayal of Eliot is of a thoughtful man who cared deeply about the preservation of the arts he practiced. He suggests that Eliot was willing to bear the exhaustive consequences of being both poet and critic, even though he wasn’t entirely aware of what that would mean for everyone else. Kindley writes that what Eliot “bequeathed to the poet-critics of his generation” was “the glamour of overwork, of near exhaustion, and of sacrifice; a portrait of the artist as an old man.” In one sense, he argued for a world in which poet-critics could have more power than either the poets or the critics that came before them. On the other hand, he enlisted them to do work they may not have been inclined to do.
Kindley is also hyperconscious of the ways in which Eliot’s position insists on a meritocracy that does not, functionally, exist. He focuses on Marianne Moore, who was told both that her poetic work was “too clinical, too analytical, too oriented toward ‘arguments and ‘statements’ as opposed to the cognitively vague lyric utterances expected of a turn-of-the-century poetess” and that her critical writing was “too sensitive, or impressionistic, or ‘poetic’ in a stigmatized, feminized sense.” Unlike, the subjects of Eliot’s many takedowns, for example, Moore faced opposition not because she lacked intelligence, but because of how she used it in opposition to the men around her. She displays what Kindley calls an “antagonism toward agonism,” where Eliot, Ezra Pound, and other like writers are the agonists. Moore’s writing demonstrated that she was not fond of negativity, and instead wanted to “have power […] without taking up the cudgels.”
This created a complicated problem for Moore, who knew that to “abjure any relation to the new society of modernist poet-critics […] would have been disastrous for [herself] as a relative newcomer to the world.” Still, Moore was admirably uncompromising in her artistic vision, and instead of bending to fit the poetic-critical whims of the time, she became the managing editor of The Dial, which, much like Moore, was often criticized for its pluralism and unwillingness to stake out a position on political or aesthetic matters. The role of editor was an appropriate manifestation of Moore’s critical perspective, one “not fundamentally about contentions, which are private and open to challenge, but about choices, which are private and not in need of external justification.”
Editing gave Moore a great deal of control over the shape of the literary world even when her contemporaries may have wished it hadn’t. Her power was aided by Scofield Thayer who ultimately became a co-owner of The Dial. In this case, private patronage was able to ameliorate the oppressive culture that would have otherwise prevented Moore’s ascendance, but it was never going to be a sustainable means of support to marginalized communities on a broad scale.
A viable alternative was the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) created by the Works Progress Administration in 1935 as part of the New Deal program, in which writers were put to work writing guidebooks. The FWP offered “women, writers of color, and other people ordinarily marginalized within literary culture […] an unprecedented […] opportunity to participate in American literary and cultural life.” For black writers and intellectuals in particular, the advantages and enfranchisement offered by the government “were often at odds with those of the African American intelligentsia, and those who worked in government were always vulnerable to accusations of compromise and betrayal from the black community at large.”
Kindley examines this dynamic further by telling the story of accomplished poet-critic Sterling A. Brown, who was tapped as the “editor of Negro affairs” for the FWP. Even with a trusted scholar at the helm, and projects like the Slave Narrative Collection, skepticism from black communities was inescapable because the institutions themselves had proven to be untrustworthy.
This manifested as a point of tension for Roscoe Lewis, the “Negro unit supervisor” in Virginia. When Brown shared with him that a book based his writing and interviews was going to be published, Lewis’s position toward the project changed. Lewis felt that the make-work program was incompatible with literature as an artistic endeavor and this alienated him from the end product. “Frankly, I’m ashamed of it in its present form, though I admit I haven’t seen its present form,” he said. In the end, the black writers who made the books possible were treated as workers, not artists, and though they were remunerated for their labor, they were not given the credit they deserved.
The New Deal make-work programs didn’t last forever, and the kind of funding offered to modernist poet-critics by individual wealthy patrons, who sold literature as a luxury good, was not useful in advancing the project of modernism more broadly. Writers were at a crossroads. R. P. Blackmur’s “The Economy of the American Writer,” published in 1945 in The Sewanee Review, argued that continued institutional support in some form was essential for the progress of literature, largely as a means of separating it from the whims of the market. As Blackmur wrote, “the theory of a culture market does not work.”
However, the university did not offer enough separation for Blackmur. Kindley notes how, as a professor at Princeton, Blackmur was able to “keenly [perceive] the academy’s crucial relation to the national labor market as a whole.” Further institutional support had to come from foundations. In Blackmur’s case, it was the Rockefeller Foundation who commissioned the essay in which he came to these conclusions.
The early 20th century led to an explosion of private foundations, mostly as a result of changes to the tax code that made such structures financially advantageous for the über-wealthy. As Kindley notes, “[whereas] in a purely market-driven expansion of the literary field, the big winners might simply be the ‘best’ writers […] this particular philanthropic form of growth privileged, above all others, the village explainers.” With no objective measurement to guide foundations toward the right writers and artists, the poet-critics were the natural choice, providing the art and the justification for the art in one fell swoop.
In October 1946, Blackmur solicited opinions from a wide range of prominent literary figures on the types of journals that would be the best candidates for funding. The results were unsurprising. Kindley writes, “[even] if none of the respondents […] would claim that literary criticism was more valuable […] than poetry or fiction […] there does seem to be broad agreement that criticism […] was easier to come to consensus about.” While this meant that journals positioned to publish the work of poet-critics received funding, it further institutionalized a focus on the latter piece of their identity.
The Kenyon Review ultimately received a big block of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, and in the late 1940s, John Crowe Ransom received a three-year grant from the same foundation for six-week summer courses at Kenyon College where “poet-critics were disproportionately well represented among the faculty” to teach 110 students and auditors about poetry, literature, and criticism. Following this example, Kindley identifies the intersection between the modernist-administrative relationship and the rise of the creative writing program that has come to shape the present literary landscape. One might see a domino-effect, in this progression, in which “The Perfect Critic” set off the events that brings us to Alexie’s blog post today, but Kindley cautions against it.
From within the disciplinary matrix of the academic field that poet-critics have helped to initiate, the movement from poet-critics to New Criticism to theory may seem like inevitable and intentional development, or it may seem like a tragic decline. In any case, by installing them as founding fathers and either blaming them for where we ended up or regretting that we lost sight of their mission, we risk projecting our present anxieties about our own precarious institutions onto our understanding of the critical decision taken by these historical agents in their own moment.
In other words, what seemed like good ideas at the time have had negative consequences for the present. It also is true, or at least it appears to be, that the academy is the most willing steward available at the moment.
Kindley’s book doesn’t offer much insight into what comes next. Creative writing programs are deeply entrenched, and growing more and more so. Between 2004 and 2012, the number of MFA programs in the field grew from 109 to 191 and the number of undergraduate majors in the field nearly doubled, from 86 to 163, according to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. At the same time, a growing number of candidates desire a diminishing number of tenure-track positions and spend their spare time working for journals that pay neither their writers nor editors well, if they pay anything at all. Our present institutions are indeed precarious, perhaps more so than any of the modernists envisioned.
Yet the future holds infinite possibilities, in large part due to technology. Crowdfunding, on a small scale, has offered presses and writers support for specific projects on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and elsewhere, and for continuing work, there is Patreon or more traditional reader-supported donations. What Kindley’s excellent and thorough history shows us is that, more than anything else, writers have found a way to navigate the gap between the cultural importance of their work and a market that does not wish to fund it. Kindley has an innate understanding of the uncomfortable relationships between artists and the power structures that simultaneously bolster and diminish their projects. For all their individual difficulties and peculiarities, the historical figures who feature prominently in this story are treated, rightly, as people who wanted what was best for their art. Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture reminds us that the systems that support writers did not change by themselves. Writers changed them, and if they see fit, maybe, they could change them again.