Non-standard (1)

(Following on from my previous post, this is the intro to a talk I gave at, possibly, the 2005 British Council Oxford Conference – I say ‘possibly’, because I can’t find any confirmation on the British Council’s site. Perhaps a spire dreamt it.

At this point, ten years ago, I’d been teaching academically for about ten years, so for the moment, these count as mid-career ruminations. I’ll post it in four sections: intro; Scottish poetry; Creative Writing teaching; live literature on the campus.

As it indicates, I was booked to talk, give a workshop, and read, and I thought these three activities constituted a possible jumping off point to describe and analyse the interrelation of the roles I was playing at that time at Newcastle. 

My translation work was just beginning with trips to Bulgaria and China, while the NCLA (Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts) had still to be conceived of – in fact even its predecessor organisation, the Northern Writers Centre, had not yet been born. 

But many of the main ideas which would govern my subsequent work – translation as an organising metaphor, Creative Writing as study of the fluid text; the live literature campus – were already in place, sort of.)

Non-standard: the poet in the academy; the academy in the poet

I intend to act in three slightly different capacities this morning – lecturer (or after-breakfast speaker); workshop leader; and reader. And I hope to point out the ways these three roles interact for writers who, like myself, make their livings both inside and outside the academy. I’d like to suggest that such writers are doubly contagious figures, Typhoid Marys of both town and gown, carrying the germs of each into the heart of the other.

For this reason the whole morning will be divided into a series of triads. Not only does this talk have three subjects; but the subsequent workshop has three sections. I will even be reading nine poems. Just before you cart me off to the same obsessive compulsive funny farm they put the composer Bruckner in when he was discovered trying to count all the leaves on all the trees, I should refer you to the comment of Dante Alighieri when invited to read: ‘This won’t take long,’ he said, picking up the Divine Comedy – ‘I’ll just read the three.’

The three areas I’d like to look at form the main strands of my professional life in Newcastle’s School of English: my more academic teaching, usually of modern Scottish poetry from James Thomson to Kathleen Jamie; my creative writing teaching, which has included working with student teachers in Moscow, and MA and Ph.D. work with some of the best up-and-coming poets of the North-East; and finally my work as a writer and organiser of literary events on and off campus. The last of these may seem less relevant, but I would like to argue that it is the role of the poet in the academy not just to sit on the margins, but to cultivate them so the academy is extended in two senses of that word, not just discovering new territories, but being tested by them, pulled out of its accustomed shape.

By this point some of you may be remembering the arguments of my colleague and fellow Scottish poet, Robert Crawford, in his fine study, The Modern Poet, when he says:

If poetry and academia are renegotiating their relationship, then this should not simply be a case of academics telling poets what to do, converting them into efficient teachers. Poets do not exist for the mere purpose of serving the university system. If some of them are to work in the system, then they should profit from it. The gain should be more than financial.

All I would add to Robert’s argument is that the relationship can and should be seen as mutually profitable and mutually nourishing. By this point some of you may also be thinking it sounds like I’m going to go on about me a lot, glorifying my deeds and damning those of the mutton-headed authorities. Well, that would be nice, and it would certainly suit the profile that some of my contemporaries adopt, that the poet is a kind of demagogue of the mysteries. But, as Don Paterson put it in his recent T.S.Eliot lecture, ‘the poets’ beautiful tightrope walk…is the one between sense and mystery – to make one, while revealing the other.’ And the main form of funambulism I’ve got up to is financial – compared to making a living, making a poem seems a relatively straightforward business.

The real reason I’m discussing my own practice relates more to the Scottish poet W.S.Graham’s comments about what he called ‘those fictional problems of Morality’:

Let me be the poet writing in a disguise of the first person about the intricate marriage between those problems and the poem and the searching reader…with words my material and immediate environment I am at once halfway the victim and halfway the successful traveller.

The materials at hand, in other words, must suffice. And so with the intellectual materials the poet is required to deal with within a university. The negotiation taking place is about how to teach while maintaining the independent marginalised space of creativity. It is important to accept not only that it is marginal, but that certain strengths accrue from that marginality; certain perspectives are available, particularly on the cusp between theory and practice.

A no less relevant factor we must take into account in my case is: I never meant for any of this to happen. – When I did my D.Phil. on Hugh MacDiarmid in this university, I wasn’t laying down any groundwork for the course I now teach. I was learning how to write poetry in Scots. In the absence of a certified course of instruction, I was engaged in a conscious apprenticeship of the type described by Gabriel Harvey in the 16th century when he comments on the theory of imitation: ‘The better the author, the better the emulation required’. (Though as I took nearly the entire 80s to complete my thesis I certainly wasn’t following Harvey’s third proviso, ‘and in addition the more diligent the emulation.’).

As I hadn’t heard of Creative Writing as a discipline, when I was asked to teach students from the Bronx’s Sarah Lawrence College at Wadham, I had no plan that I would go on in the mid-90s to teach at one of the few courses then in existence, at Lancaster University under David Craig. And when, after a discussion in the Kings Arms back in the mid-80s, I and a bunch of friends decided we could probably run the University Poetry Society ourselves… well, you get my drift. I am far too passive to be outlining a masterplan here.

What I am suggesting is that the career I ended up following was coming into existence pretty much as I happened onto it, and for that reason my own experience charts almost by accident the evolution of a special relationship between poet and university over the last twenty five years. Before I blundered into academe I may have been a kind of Bartleby figure, heavy on the preferring not to, but this doesn’t mean the experience was undynamic…

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.
This entry was posted in xenochronicity and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s