I enjoy reading as I defecate. The former seems to complement the latter nicely, though I have never been quite sure why. Perhaps inertia is to blame; since pre-school I have flipped through newspapers, novels, my journals, and my textbooks while seated on the john. It is a habit, and a pleasurable one at that. Call me a fecal hedonist.
So imagine my shock as I pulled a moistened April issue of the Tory off the bathroom floor one night. In previous sessions I have been unable to contain my sheer delight at the narrowness, bigotry, homophobia, latent racism, and not-so-latent elitism riddling its every page. One cannot help but laugh the entire thing off—just as one dismisses Mathey’s recent Orientalist stereotype-fest “Party in the Dessert,” or that crazy evangelical pedophile in the subway. Not to do so is to be consumed by the ignorance of it all. And as much as I hate the conservative epithet “humorless liberal”, I feel it is my duty as an aspiring writer, as a lover of literature, as a Princeton student— and indeed, as a human being—to respond here to Matt Schmitz’s “A Creative Catastrophe.”
I have a lot to say, and I think it best to begin at the beginning. It appears at the outset that Mr. Schmitz has a bone to pick with the Program in Creative Writing. Such complaints are not beyond the realm of possibility; after all, nothing, not even a prize-winning and much-lauded faculty, is above reproach. And indeed, reproach we see. He is as blunt as he is nonsensical. “Arts instruction at Princeton is not in good shape. At present there is too much focus on creativity, and not nearly enough on craft—that less flashy element that stands behind all great art.” This mindless platitude leaps off the page with all the force (and none of the elegance or import) of a Muldoonian line. Schmitz implies that the creative and the technical are born of separate yet equal sources. But any writer who composes something more substantial than a VCR manual knows perfectly well that technical strictures are meaningless if not somehow enlivened by the new, or at least the innovative, or at the very least, the impressively-old. If, as Professor Muldoon says, poems are written through rather than by the author, then technical experience in prose or poetry must be subordinated to the energy of the piece, to its creative stimulus. The manner in which the author channels this energy is largely up to him or her. It is not to say that form is unimportant, but rather to understand that style must serve a master, be it political or social or philosophical or deeply personal (or a combination thereof). The creative must motivate the technical, even in an introductory writing class, even among the “philistines” at Princeton (his characterization, not mine).
But such an explanation is, to Schmitz, simply another example of 185 Nassau’s culture of “vague creativity and artsy poseurism.” And—gasp—the professors in writing are downright Luddites, not even using Princeton’s WebMail! How ghastly! How…conservative! How un-American! And when Susan Wheeler references the (very real and true and not-at-all surprising) fact that poems are in conversation with one another, well by gum, she might as well kick the bucket on the spot! What are we to do as citizens? Now you’re going to tell me that Shakespeare knocked off classical mythology in his plays, or that T. S. Eliot took entire lines of other people’s stuff? Bah!
The bombast dies down a little as Schmitz finally gets to his point. The Creative Writing Program’s “scramble to teach creativity,” he says, has left classes vague and useless. Never mind that Professor Muldoon assigns his students a different poetic form each week—along with copious source readings. Never mind the meticulous analysis of rhyme, meter, sound, color, form, timbre, and other qualities that occurs in every seminar—even the least inspired. Let’s all throw up our hands and condemn some crappy writers like…oh, I don’t know, James Joyce or Ezra Pound, you know, the real stylistic slackers, for not composing sonnets every chance they got. Schmitz’s ability to write off an entire century of literature is not merely narrow-minded and wrong—it’s simply unfathomable. Let’s be real—the poem died with Shakespeare, the play with Marlowe, the novel with Austen. The old thing is always the best thing, right? Who is this guy kidding?
I suppose it is overly harsh to criticize a conservative for his conservative literary attitudes when these predominate in our nation’s middle and high schools. Poetry at the American secondary level is more like an exercise in making a Hot Pocket than a foretaste of what can become a lifelong passion. Literary forms taught at Princeton (and exceptionally well, I might add) do in fact differ from those of Dickens and his forebears, but who said difference was inherently bad? Who said unrhymed poetry is inferior to rhymed, or that books must have chapters, or that rock music must have guitars, or male lead singers, or white lead singers? Who honestly believes that the new is bad simply because it is new, different, a break from the past?
Maybe Schmitz does. I certainly can’t be sure. Despite the numerous flaws and generalizations that pepper his piece (Terrace is only for artsy poseurs, artsy poseurs should just go to Brown or Yale, &c.), he makes at least one semi-discernible statement: rhyming stuff is good stuff, and art instruction ought to cater to the mediocre in order to prevent discomfort for a few “members of the J. Crew set.” I could not disagree more.
For if one asserts that only style can be taught—and that the energy propelling style cannot be encouraged but merely accepted if and when it arises—one abandons the idea that creative arts can have meaning in the world. Schmitz’s real purpose is to marginalize 185 Nassau and a group of people who create. And how better to do this than to reduce all their striving to a simple exercise in what Edward Said terms “refinement”—the long, steady, reactionary march toward sameness, marked by a constant re-reading and emulating of a constricted Western canon. Anyone can write a villanelle in a vacuum, but the teaching of creativity, the encouragement of a fresh perspective—these demand an understanding of the physical world and of the writer’s particular circumstances. Matt’s is the most conservative of literary ideologies, always looking to the forms of the past without any concern for their real-life motivation. This ideology causes him to fear newness in itself, to fear engagement with any text. It restricts his conception of the arts to a tiny circle of anachronistic norms. It causes him to distrust some truly remarkable writers.
And it’s just an awful shame.