Friday, June 02, 2006

Insularity in reading and writing

I am gradually rewriting some older and newer essays on poetry, and posting them here. it takes time, so I won't be blogging every day. I'm creating a Collected Essays out of this, perhaps, in the long run; compiling and editing to be undertaken later. Encouragement and brickbats will be listened to equally, although I reserve the right to be silent in response.

Poets reading only poetry, gay writers reading only gay writing, feminist thinkers reading only feminist thinking, neocons reading only other neocons—all of those lead only to insularity, and the very ghettoization of literature (and ideas), especially poetry, that so many poets and writers are complaining about these days.

The literary complainers don’t seem to see how they contribute to their own dilemma, by spending most of their energy in their own literary circles, and not reading outside their main interests. Ultimately they end up preaching to the choir, because of the very insularity they have created for themselves. It's hard to have a genuine discourse when you only read people you already agree with.

It’s potentially even worse for writers whose financial careers are made at universities and other academic institutions: because, too often, the culture within the Academy fosters insularity via the publish-or-perish pressure on professors to write contributions to basic knowledge within their fields, and also by containing the dialogue within their own walls and couching it in hermetic language few outsiders can comprehend. If you’re not of the high priesthood, you can’t get in. Hence, the accusations of the elitism of academic discourse and thinking. The danger is in losing touch with real life, with people different from yourself, and ultimately, losing touch with yourself, in the end. Perhaps every English professor should be required to take a sabbatical tending bar in a rougher part of town. Exposure to different kinds of people, different kinds of discourse, and different worldviews, if one is open to it, is inevitably broadening and enriching. So is travel, as the saying goes.

In my experience, it’s often the exact same way online, on the writers' boards. Of course, it’s easier to connect with a community of people who share one’s own specialized interests online: far easier than in realspace. But that very democratizing of the level playing field on the internet also leads to a different kind of insularity: anti-intellectual mob-rule being the extreme example of the lowest-common-denominator impulse. In the opposite direction from the English teacher tending bar, it’s the barflies going to visit the English department, and moving in. Smart people are frequently shouted down online, especially when they make comments in contradiction to the normative, or present alternative viewpoints.

I can’t imagine living my life in so insular a way. I read too much, and too eclectically, to ever be accused of insularity—on the other hand, people more comfortable in insular settings, such as professors I have known, have criticized me precisely for reading outside my discipline or field. Some people end up in insular settings because their minds are fundamentally geared towards insular thinking; such are the zealots among us. I note too a growing wave in recent months of neoformalist zealots on the poetry boards attempting to regularly disparage non-formalist poetry.

I think its a great idea to totally absorb oneself in an area of study—do a seminar, as it were, of self-study and total immersion in one’s current research. You find a writer who moves you or turns you on, or makes lightbulbs go off in your head with every line.

But later on, go back to eclectic reading. The seminar over, the priests must return to the bazaar, or be lost in their own insular universes, and lose touch. I love a good seminar. I love total immersion in reading something I’m interested in. I love doing research, and discovering new thoughts, angles, and ideas. And I also like a good hike in the forest, mind turned off, feet leading me forward wherever the path leads, destinationless and inanalytical.

So, I think it's a bad idea for poets to read only poetry, or mostly poetry. I think it's always better to read eclectically, omnivorously, and let the writer within be fed from many conjoining streams.

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