The Academy of Errors?

News of the death of the very playful, very questioning ‘scul?tor’ George Wylie has made me think again about this wry, almost Socratic strain in the Scottish mind, as evidenced by figures as diverse as Wylie himself, Ivor Cutler, Chic Murray, R.D. Laing and the great Norman MacCaig, who attempted to sum it up as ‘Zen Calvinism’. As the biographical and cultural diversity of that list suggests, the label won’t quite stick, but you kind of know what he was aiming at.

That it’s a Scottish thing at all is also debatable, but it’s certainly the action of a particular kind of intimate periphery to question the fundamental principles by which ‘we’ proceed logically, socially, politically, using an absurd overturning of premisses that makes us laugh at the very moment we understand the critique. Both our instinctual and rational aspects are united in the moment of laughter, and thus, we might hope, the debate is already begun.

Except that, as a culture, we have constructed the defence mechanism of downgrading the status of comedy. Binary as ever, because we find tragedy both serious and important, we reason that comedy cannot be important – we may acknowledge that satire has a serious purpose and therefore grant it ‘relevance’, but the idea that not being serious is a still profounder critique isn’t given much space.

This has been weighing on me as I work through this period of research leave, and reflect on what it is exactly that I do. I am an academic and a poet: two resoundingly serious professions, in relation to each of which I exist at a eccentric angle, which requires an act of translation for me or my readers, students, publishers and employees to get a handle on.

In both cases I frequently use humour to make my points or to undercut what I perceive as the inflated status of those roles. In both cases I therefore run the risk of being placed on that same intimate periphery.

I’ve been thinking about this in two ways: one is the clash of rhythms between the strictures of teaching terms and REF publishing outputs, and the slower stranger process of coming up with original ideas, whether creative or pedagogical.

The other is the need for reforming the forms in which we hold these discourses – not the ‘new forms’ entirely of the Modernist endeavour, which seemed altogether too haunted by and in conflict with the authority of older forms to function as other than antithesis. I want to get back to the ‘essai’ as Montaigne saw it, and to get away from the poetry volume as the publishing industry proscribes it. But I don’t mean to give up scholarly discipline or the dialogue with a poetic heritage that access to form provides.

In both cases – creative rhythm and rethinking forms – the fundamental role of questioning and the centrality of an act of cultural translation seem central.

Where is the meaningful dialogue between literary theorists and practitioners? What is or are the theory or theories of Creative Writing? Should Creative Writing really be in a School of English (where it is popular but minor, fundamentally secondary), or in a School of Performative Arts like art, drama and music?

What happens if the assumed mappings between creative  tutors and their academic counterparts are too vague, or, worse, fundamentally Procrustean? What if new creative workshops continually need to be devised, if the marking process actually takes twice as long, if research projects require longer, slower gestations which over-run research schedules and intrude on teaching? If the speculative collaborations creative writers embark on run across established subject areas, as in the case of literary translation or engagements with psychology or neuroscience?

I’m feeling my way in this period of leave toward arguments on all these issues, but what I want to emphasise here is that I’m beginning to understand I am also attempting to find structures which, as with Wylie or Laing or Cutler, are themselves modes of critique. After all, one of the principles I work with as a poet is the idea that  form is as expressive as – and cannot meaningfully be separated from – content.

More, that the habitual sundering of the two which goes on in educational institutions and the media is itself a primary act of misunderstanding, contributing to the alienation most people feel in relation to most art works that cannot be consumed passively: they feel they ought to dissect that which they don’t know how to experience, but baulk at such a pleasureless process and, as a result, lose self-esteem. The art-work is then blamed for a process which, effectively, excluded it from the outset.

I intend to explore this topic here – as much in public as my thought processes and your interest will allow. One thing that is already very evident is how very long it has taken me to shift from ‘punctual’, ‘efficient’ professor (again terms requiring translation in my case) to stumbling writer, attempting to assemble ideas, sources and inspirations in anything like a coherent manner.

But that is, in a sense, the first lesson: how very long it takes to extract the contortionist mind from its frame of duties, to turn the box into a cocoon by a generative effort of the will – and how strange and ugly it seems to others that you should do so, like the giant bug emerging from Vincent D’Onofrio’s skin in MIB. How many imaginations, like that poor MI6 man in his sports bag, are being stifled by their restraints?

For months if not years now I’ve had the sensation in creative terms of having a finger hovering over the necessary button, without being able to trust that there was space enough or time to cope with the consequences of pressing it – all the half-formed ideas slithering out at once, foetal maquettes and half-assembled machines like the tortured chimeric toys in Sid’s bedroom in Toy Story.

The frame of reference here – at once childish and horrific – feels oddly appropriate to the endeavour. No wonder we resort to humour at such moments. I’ll try to keep you posted on a reasonably regular basis as to how it’s going.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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