Heavy industry – light industry
Creative writing is almost a branch of heavy industry. The number of courses suggests an intense interest in literature, albeit more in its production than in its consumption.
So the snow did fall, in miniature blizzards that lasted for twenty minutes at a time. I was watching it from the second floor of the university arts building where I teach the masters course in creative writing – the poetry part of it. The room was a little cold and we struggled to make sure the windows were tightly shut, the eight students and I.
Usually there are ten students, half of them American, mostly female. Two were ill this week. This part of the course consists of one student delivering a short paper followed by discussion, then two of the students presenting two or three poems each for close discussion. One of the students, Ági, is in fact Hungarian but she lives in England and writes in English. The session is three hours long after which, unofficially, I give the two students presenting poems that week a half an hour tutorial each. The other masters degree is at the art college where I work with roughly the same number of students of all ages, whose particular interest is in writing about visual art in the form of poetry, fiction or some hybrid form that is not precisely theory or art history.
I enjoy this element of teaching. The University of East Anglia where I teach pure poetry was the first of the creative writing masters courses. Founded by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson, their first student was Ian MacEwan, followed by Kazuo Ishiguro and various other well-known novelists. The course started in the early seventies, but in the last five or six years an enormous creative writing academic industry has sprung up and there are some sixty such courses in the country now.
It is almost a branch of heavy industry, and if you throw in all the short residential courses elsewhere it suggests an intense interest in literature, albeit more in its production than in its consumption. There was much skepticism about such enterprises in the early days. How can you teach poets, was one question, to which the answer was that if you can teach artists and composers, then why not poets? The other concerned the nurturing of hopeless illusions. It is certainly true that the country is not producing 600 new publishable poets a year and any course that promised fame and fortune would be guilty of deception. But on the other hand there is the creation of a matrix of intelligent readers with specific insights into the way poetry works. And there are indeed a number of success stories – poets emerging from this or that course, as out of a short apprenticeship with some of the best poets in the country.
Because many of the best poets are teaching on such courses. Here I could produce a series of names that would be familiar to readers of English poetry, up to and including the current Poet Laureate. In that respect academia serves as a form of patronage to poets, and poets need patronage, since, despite the numbers studying the writing of it or entering competitions that offer substantial prizes, very few people read books of poetry. Merely writing books, however highly praised, will not provide an income, except for two or three at most.
I like talking about poetry with students. They are fully motivated, often very intelligent, and interested in everything. Two days a week is fine. It is good to be paid for such things. I don’t think I would miss it very much if I didn’t teach but I would probably see fewer people who were much younger than myself.
The fully freelance life is possible at the price of constantly chasing jobs, pushing oneself forwards, looking for bits and pieces of reviewing or radio work. I do quite a lot of all those things but I am not one of nature’s born entrepreneurs, and least of all on my own behalf. The next generation down from me is better at it. More cohesive as a group than my generation ever was, they hold the reins of power at publishers and magazines at the moment. I don’t mind since I never had such ambitions. Literary power goes in decades and has never interested me. There is no doubt the last five years have been my best in terms of recognition but Norfolk is far from the center. It is, as I have written elsewhere, a quiet land with big skies you could drown in. Cold clear light. Light industrial.
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