Intelligence Failures and David Lehman

In the most recent issue of Writer's Chronicle, which I dutifully read during my lunch breaks, David Lehman laments that young writers are arriving to MFA programs and other writerly vocations without having read, frankly, as much as he did. Lehman muses about how these admittedly-talented writers escaped school without completing the required reading of anyone from Heroclitus to Swift.

What disturbs me about this common assertion is that I feel like it rebulds an ivory tower of literature and corrals writers as artists who are other. A reinforcement of literature as precious, of having some kind of value above and beyond other experiences.

I think reading is important, and for writers, it is pretty much compulsory. But what about writers who are exploring other arts? I am very interested--academically and artistically--in film, so I do spend a lot of time watching movies, reading about them, and teaching courses about them.

I approach cinema not only as cinema, but as an opportunity to use cinema to learn more about writing. What can film teach me about poetry? Montage theory, for one: the concussive act of colliding disparate images. Montage deletes narrative from a poem and places the burden of narrativization on the reader. We do it so seamlessly in film, I wonder how we can do it in poetry.

But Lehman doesn't account for this shift. He also gently slams the increase in students who read theory over literature. Lynn Emanuel said to me, "Hearing someone say they don't read theory today is like someone in the 20s saying they haven't read Freud." Lehman posits that reading theory distracts students from the source text, instead of illuminating it. This may be true. However, consider the source texts theory provides writers access to: Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. Frued's Creative Writers and Daydreams and Civilization and its Discontents. Ferdinand de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics. Without access to theory, revolutionary movements like Language poetry would never have come to be.

Even if you don't like or appreciate Language poetry, you can't deny its influence or effect: things are changing. New frontiers have been opened. It's time to move out of the yard and into the forest. If Lehman wants to leash us to the porch, that's his business, I suppose. But I won't stay. I'll read poetry, and theory, and watch films, and study photographs and paintings, teach myself to play music. Because art doesn't have to be one thing: it can be all things.


  1. Charles, I would argue that young poets need to do it all: the reading, the arts, explorations of things outside Literature. I haven't read the piece by David, but I do know that when I visit MFA programs as an editor, I am always amazed how little people in them seem to know. They usually seem really young, really green. Maybe, I am not there long enough to really find out what they know. and maybe we are all that way in MFA programs. But I find many in MFA programs barely know any contemporary art, much less the art of the past. And I am including not just Poetry but the Arts in general. I started out in Painting and visual arts. I think visual are is an exceptional background for one who wants to write poems. I would argue Music also can teach you much for a life in Poetry. As depeche mode sings: "Everything counts in large amounts."

  2. I think MFA students seem greener because they are greener. It seems to me the average age of the MFA student has been steadily decreasing for some time, especially with the growth of programs across the US. I don't think this is a bad thing; it think it's part of a) the natural evoluation of the degree program and b) part of a national/generational shift wherein people arrive at grad programs immediately (or soon) after undergrad.

    It seems to me that Lehman, in his article, is more critical of the change than he is of the result. What is the result? Ultimately, I think it's that young poets read much more contemporary poetry than poetry by the "masters." Why? Because the "old masters" are old white guys. Contemporary poetry--first books, new anthologies, etc--are encouraging multiple, coexistent literary canons.

    If everyone supports the idea of one poetry/one canon, I think it reduces the significance of American poetry. We're a disparate, varied bunch.

    Of course, I'm grossly generalizing here--Lehman may, in fact, be in contact with some really wily young poets.

  3. Charles, Well, I leave David's opinion to David. But, he IS in contact with young wily poets, mostly through his past involvement with the KGB reading series and because he teaches at the New School.

    As for MFA students being more green, you may well be right. Maybe more people are going straight from undergrad to grad school. In my MFA class of 5 poets, only two of us came directly from undergraduate work. One of the 5 was in his late 30's and the other two were in their late 20's.

  4. What the hell are you wearing in that picture? At first I thought it was a neck brace. Then I thought perhaps it was a dickie then I read some other posts and decided it couldn't be a dickie because you seem to sophisticated for that. Then I thought perhaps you were a priest but quickly abandonded that idea. Now I think it might be a very white tee and a stretched out green sweater.

  5. I'm wearing my Master's hood. The only pictures of me recently taken were at graduation, and this is the only one of me where I am not:

    a. Making a weird facial expression
    b. Wearing my mortar board, or
    c. In an inappropriate stage of undress or dishevel.

    So, I had to go with that one.

  6. Yeah, I knew that. I just wanted to tease you because you look like you have a sense of humor. Please post some of the naked pictures.

  7. I'm just glad you see me as the kind of person who wouldn't resort to a dickie.