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.