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Pedagogy 3.2 (2003) 151-169

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The Strangeness of Creative Writing:
An Institutional Query

Shirley Geok-lin Lim

When I arrived at Brandeis University in 1969, the first graduate course I registered for was a creative writing seminar taught by J. V. Cunningham, a poet, noted Shakespearean scholar, and translator of the Roman author Martial. On the first day of the seminar he announced that he wrote poetry with his left hand, did scholarly work with his right, and never let his right hand know what his left hand was doing. This aloofness, within the same mind, of the scholar from the poet serves as a useful figure for certain professional contradictions rising out of the anomalous position—the strangeness—of creative writing at the research university.

Quite a bit has been written about the ignorance and disdain said to characterize the estrangement of creative writing programs, usually institutionalized in English departments, from the rest of the profession of English. Ben Siegel (1989: 7) notes that "certainly in no other area of the university are the internecine hostilities as frequent and vocal as those between its professional teachers or professors of literature and its invited poets or novelists. . . . Here resentments and bruised sensitivities on both sides appear most bitter and open." 1 I intend to avoid such characterizations and to survey instead the uneasy, embattled territory on which what has sometimes been viewed as a hegemonic English discipline incorporates, bifurcates, rejects, separates, or otherwise manipulates the provisional practices that pass for creative writing pedagogy and programs. How does the modern research university incorporate or contain creative writing? Does creative writing possess a disciplinary base from which certain methodological notions and practices can be drawn, and if so, how should we begin to talk about such a discipline? [End Page 151]

Creative writing is largely absent from discourses on the discipline (some say the intradisciplines) of English studies. Gerald Graff's (1987) Professing Literature is often taken as a pioneering account of the development of literary studies in the United States, from the Yale Report of 1828 to the controversies over teaching theory in the 1980s. In his history Graff traces the successive rise at the university of the Greek and Latin classics, oratory, generalist pedagogy, and specialization, in which scholars lost ground to New Critics and they in turn to theorists. Creative writing, unlike philology, philosophy, psychology, social thought, and other subjects, does not appear as a force in the profession's formative struggles. Reviewing the contest of scholars against critics between 1930 and 1950, Graff describes the "founding criticism" produced during the period by John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, and R. P. Blackmur (and T. S. Eliot before them) without remarking on their primary social and professional identities as poets and novelists. Rather, he explains their marginal positions in departments then ruled by traditional forms of scholarship as shaped by their own New Critical practices. "Many of the first critics to achieve a foothold in the university did so on the strength of their poetry rather than their criticism," Graff observes. "It is worth pondering the probability that the critical movement would not have succeeded in the university had it not been tied to creative writing, from which it was soon to part company" (153). But he does not then ponder this probability, nor does he track the parting of the ways between creative writing and criticism. Instead, he offers a few anecdotes testifying to the uneasy relationship between traditional members of English departments and creative writers. Yvor Winters, for example, said that his chair at Stanford University, A. G. Kennedy, had told him "that poetry and scholarship do not mix, and that he had given up the writing of poetry at the age of twenty-five. And he added that my publications were a disgrace to the department. . . . And he was far from an exception so far as the profession as a whole was concerned" (154). Graff also quotes John Berryman, who said that at Harvard University both he and Delmore Schwartz "felt crushed . . . but gradually we drank...


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