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Academic papers get poetic

The experience of poets slash philosophers in academe reveals the growing pains that can accompany shifting disciplinary borders.


In the alumni memorial building at the heart of the University of New Brunswick’s storied red-brick campus in Fredericton, Sue Sinclair, a University of Toronto PhD student, stands before an audience a few dozen strong. Dressed all in black, she begins to read her poem “Prelude,” in which her narrator asks the question, what if a patch of peonies “just kept on growing /. . . opening until they span / the horizons, dizzyingly, / until there is nothing that does not open with them.”

Ms. Sinclair’s reading is the first of several on the program. You’d hardly know this session was part of the 2011 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, if not for the fact that the participants are, aside from being respected poets, also all either PhD students of philosophy or English professors, and that their poems all deal directly with works of scholarship. In Ms. Sinclair’s case, the work is On the Aesthetic Education of Man: in a Series of Letters by German philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who forms part of the research for her dissertation in aesthetics on the beauty of nature. The peonies blooming endlessly in her poem transform Schiller’s argument – that nature, in its “endless generation and regeneration,” is a prelude to the infinite – into metaphor: a tangible, vivid, sensory attempt to test out his theory.

In one sense, the gathering is a playful attempt to turn the tables. Organizer Clare Goulet, a literary editor and English instructor at Mount Saint Vincent University, explains: “At Congress you have all these papers written on poems. Sometimes it’s as if poets almost exist for the purposes of academic conferences, so they can be analyzed. This was to have poems written on papers instead.”

But there’s also something more serious at play in Ms. Goulet’s intentions, and in the work of most of the poets here. Philosopher-poets such as Sue Sinclair are practising what Ms. Goulet calls “lyric scholarship,” a hybrid creative-analytic form of scholarship that she says is quietly flourishing in Canada.

We tend to think of a “lyric” as a musical and intensely emotional written work. Webster’s Dictionary relates “lyric” to the adjectives “exuberant” and “rhapsodic.” Scholarship, on the other hand, is seen at its ideal as cool, objective analysis. In the humanities, scholarship involves studying not just works of art but also criticism of works of art, and even criticism of criticism.

So how do “lyric” and “scholarship” fit together? A successful piece of lyric scholarship might read more like a poem than an essay, or a combination of the two, but it will be as firmly grounded in scholarly investigation as a traditional argumentative essay. It aims not just to convey an idea, but to embody it. Jan Zwicky is a well-known West Coast poet and philosopher, whose 1992 tome Lyric Philosophy has become a bible of sorts for the rising generation of lyric scholars. She prefers the term “lyric thought,” which she describes as “a model of thought that seeks coherence.”

“It’s not an attempt to throw analysis out the window,” says Dr. Zwicky, who retired from the philosophy department at the University of Victoria in 2009. “It’s an attempt to integrate it with other dimensions and produce a clarity of resonance among all of them. It’s actually a more complex and more demanding form of thought.”

It is, she says, a more accurate way of thinking about the world. A piece of lyric scholarship might juxtapose excerpts from other scholarly works without accompanying exhaustive analysis. It might borrow elements of poetry, such as rhythm, image and metaphor – the very elements scholarship usually studies rather than employs.

Earlier this year, Ms. Goulet was thrilled to see a Congress session planned under the auspices of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE) that invited proposals to investigate and practise lyric epistemology as related to Jan Zwicky’s work. Ms. Goulet decided to take things further and propose the poetry event that called for no traditional academic papers at all. “I wanted to make a noise. Particularly at Congress, where there’s so much emphasis on analytic thinking.”

Her call for poems was met with a swift and widespread response. Due in part to Dr. Zwicky’s influence, the rise of “poet-scholars who move in both worlds” may be more prevalent in Canada than elsewhere, says Dr. Goulet. She believes that it can only improve the halls of higher learning.

“Academic scholarship has, by and large, for the last 100 years or so allowed one form of knowing to be the only way,” she says. “But the lyric approach, as opposed to dissecting, taking apart for the purpose of examination, is about keeping something alive and whole in its context. Zwicky has a great line in Lyric Philosophy: ‘Anyone who denies backpacking as a means of travel is also liable to discount the value of places that can be reached only by that means.’ That for me would sum it up: why do things this way.”

Warren Heiti would agree. A poet working toward his PhD in philosophy at Dalhousie University, Mr. Heiti organized the Zwicky session at Congress and participated in the “lyric scholarship” salon. Mr. Heiti came to philosophy via English and creative writing, and he says the dominant method of academic study gives him pause.

“The world is a diverse place,” he says, but the analytic method wants to “cover the ground by itself and shoulder out alternative methods. Some poets think imagery and music are ways of accurately understanding the world. Scholarship is omitting something huge by turning those fully into objects of study rather than techniques of study.”

Although the lyric scholarship approach may be gaining more acceptance at Canadian universities, especially in philosophy, the change is far from systemic. Mr. Heiti, for example, has found some “kind and generous” supporters at Dalhousie for his work, which involves, in part, arguing for the relevance of French philosopher Simone Weil, who herself was marginalized because she wrote “aphoristically” rather than in the dominant academic style.

But working in academia still requires a kind of intellectual dance, he says. “I need to, out of respect, acknowledge their strictures. I’m also trying to simultaneously smuggle in some insights that I cherish from the world of poetry. I prefer to think of it as a compromise rather than a capitulation.”

Rob Winger, a poet doing postdoctoral research in English at McMaster University, knows all about this sort of compromise. When he entered a master’s program at the University of Guelph in 2001, he received approval to write a “creative thesis.” But any student pursuing the so-called creative thesis was given extra hurdles to jump, including having to find a supervisor who would agree to support the project before the application was even submitted. Also, the thesis – in his case a biographical long poem on the photographer Eadweard Muybridge – had to include a critical afterward that explained the theory behind the work.

“You had to critique yourself,” says Dr. Winger. “The academy does not train people to adjudicate creative work. At my defence, almost all that was discussed was the afterward rather than the poems.”

The creative thesis option exists at Guelph, and a creative PhD in English is an option at the University of Calgary. But Dr. Winger, who later turned his thesis into a poetry collection called Muybridge’s Horse that was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award, wishes the creative was more deeply integrated into academia, beyond these isolated footholds.

“If you write a critically acclaimed novel, that should indicate you understand style and structure,” he argues. “There needs to be more space in the meritocracy to recognize these other ways.”

There are hints of that space opening up. Two poet-scholars, Adam Dickinson at Brock University and Adam Sol at Laurentian University, say their creative publication records do count with their administrations. Dr. Dickinson says some institutions, such as Brock, are more open to un-conventional forms of scholarship, but he also believes an academic can have an impact on how their work is understood. His colleagues and administrators aren’t familiar with the publishing world of creative writing, he says, so he has “tried to articulate what I do at every stage so that my colleagues can better appreciate the peer review processes and editorial judgments that are involved.”

Kathleen McConnell, chair of the English department at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, is a poet who received a SSHRC grant a few years ago under a pilot project called Research/Creation Grants in Fine Arts. The program was prompted by a SSHRC working group report in 2001 on the future of the humanities that stated “we must bridge the gap between the creative and interpretive disciplines and link the humanities more closely with the arts communities.” But the pilot project wasn’t continued, and Dr. McConnell says the kind of work she accomplished with its aid remains an anomaly that is greeted with wariness by academic publishers.

Like others who work in both scholarly and lyric worlds, Dr. McConnell, who goes by Kathy Mac when she writes poetry, says lyric thinking opens her mind in useful ways. “It pulls connections together that I don’t know I would have gotten otherwise.”

Dr. Winger has had the same experience. His PhD was an examination of the Canadian ghazal, a type of poem with ancient Persian roots, focusing on the work of the poets John Thompson and Phyllis Webb. While writing the critical dissertation, he was simultaneously composing his own ghazals. The poems were recently published as a collection called The Chimney Stone. “If I could have submitted the one that really represented what I learned, it would have been the poems,” he says. “When I started to write the ghazals I started to understand the history and criticisms of them.”

Dr. Winger points out that the lyric approach is far from new: its worth was proven by influential Canadian poets and thinkers such as Robert Kroetsch and Daphne Marlatt as far back as the 1970s. When the lyrical and the critical meld seamlessly, says Dr. Winger, “there’s often a brilliant moment.”

He cites a scene in Michael Ondaatje’s famous novel In the Skin of a Lion, when the novel’s character Nicholas Temelcoff is working on the Bloor Street viaduct, stitching the crescents of the bridge together. “Ondaatje writes, ‘The moment is cubism.’ That comes from an essay by John Berger on Pablo Picasso. It’s a perfect way to describe the moment on the bridge, and a perfect invasion of art criticism into a literary work.”

This leads back to the question of what constitutes true lyric scholarship. Dr. Zwicky, whose written work and teaching has inspired many of those drawn to the practice (including her former students Heiti, Goulet and Sinclair), says that lyric thought should be conscious of all the elements. This is quite different, she says, from the feeling we sometimes get of seeing something and wanting to write a poem. But that feeling can be the seed of lyric thinking: “You know how a haiku, written by a master, can distill a world of experience in a single gesture? In the best work that’s what happens with ideas.”

But how can such thinking and the writing it leads to be assessed in an academic context? Dr. Zwicky acknowledges that evaluation might be one of the key issues in the institutional resistance to different methods of scholarship. “The institution needs hierarchical criteria of assessment. This is why lyric thought eludes it. The perception of resonance and integrity requires a practice of discernment, not a checklist.”

Dr. Zwicky is one of the most revered working poets in Canada. She’s also widely respected for her scholarly mind: she gave the Gauss Seminars in Criticism at Princeton University in October, was invited to speak at a symposium on ethics and narrative by the Jackman Institute in Toronto, gave the Austen-Hemple lectures at Dalhousie last year, and is even sought by mathematicians to participate in symposia such as those held at the Banff International Research Station for Innovation and Discovery in Mathematics.

But, she says that academic philosophy in general was not sympathetic during her 25 years in academe. Though her writing is widely noted in literary circles, her philosophical work has rarely been reviewed in academic publications and is discussed almost exclusively outside philosophy departments. Other Canadian poet-thinkers who work in a similar vein, such as Robert Bringhurst, have more often functioned independently. “A lot of people I’m aware of who’ve looked at my philosophical work and seen it as a genuine alternative,” says Dr. Zwicky, “haven’t found people to supervise their own work at the PhD level and have wound up leaving the academy.”

Those who don’t leave take a measured approach. Ms. Sinclair, for example, doesn’t think she’ll include the poems she’s written related to the philosophy of beauty in her dissertation. “I’ve brought in other people’s work,” she says, mentioning Hopkins, Zwicky and Steinbeck. “But not my own stuff.”

She’ll keep writing the poetry, though, because it opens the door to new ideas and understanding. “Philosophy’s got a tendency to work at a really abstract level,” says Ms. Sinclair. “But the more ‘you’ that’s involved in thinking something, the richer the thought’s going to be. The more relevant it’s going to be to life as it’s lived and experienced.”

Anita Lahey is a poet and journalist, and the former editor of Arc Poetry Magazine. She currently lives in Fredericton.


By Sue Sinclair

Late-afternoon antique light:
the peonies lean forward as though they were letting someone
fasten or unfasten a necklace
and fell asleep halfway through,
for, like anything beautiful,
they seem under its influence as much as we are,
succumbing to the pace of their fleet-footed lives
such that every moment
slows and quiets and builds up against itself, enlarging like the sound
of a dripping faucet in an empty apartment, peaceful,
the moment an expanded version of itself
with room to close your eyes and breath the deep, easy breath of sleep.

All the while, though,
almost forgotten, what doesn’t cease is the blooming, the endless
somnambulant begetting,
petals accumulating like the hymn that repeats and repeats
a single word,
pushing emptiness to one side, taking its place;
each heavy head is a storm blossoming silently on the horizon,
somewhere faraway,
and even then it seems to have slowed, somehow,
taking its time,
as though the storm will never come, not now, not to us, not in this life —

nature is not the infinite but its prelude,
that’s what Schiller thought,
and this afternoon I can see what he means:
the peonies have begun
to wilt, and I can see ants on the stems, I can see them
beginning to lose not just their conscious but also
their unconscious souls,
and what if they didn’t, what if instead
they just kept on growing, as though someone were not waiting
for them to take their last slow breaths,
not us, not anyone,
and they will have a chance to complete themselves, opening
until they span the horizons, dizzyingly,
until there is nothing that does not open with them—
and if they sometimes
bend a little, droop, if an ant still clings to a stem,
it’s nothing to worry about.
It’s just the memory of what things used to be like.

Anita Lahey
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  1. Mark A. McCutcheon / December 12, 2011 at 09:39

    Thanks very much for this article on a very interesting trend in Humanities scholarship. I’ve posted a reply on my blog, at:

  2. Raewyn Bassett / December 28, 2011 at 15:20

    I was very pleased to find this article on the state of poetry as research in the academy. I have taught graduate students in an interdisciplinary qualitative methods course over the last 3 or 4 years about the possibilities of using poetry in research, especially as a tool of analysis. I’m sorry I missed the session at the Congress this year.

  3. Courtney Bates / February 4, 2012 at 09:41

    Wow, I’m so glad to hear that this kind of conference took place and that lyric scholarship has roots growing! I’m working on a creative thesis for my MA program at the University of Regina right now and we’re very fortunate to have the Trash Talking conference, where both critical and creative pieces can be presented.