Perhaps young writers today who hope to write poetry or fiction while teaching at the college level might profit from my experience years ago when I had the same dreams. I was finishing a master’s degree in English, hoping to go on for the doctorate, and then teach as a professor of English at a college or university, and write poems for the rest of my life. Maybe a little fiction as well, I thought, after reading J.D. Salinger.
Then I attended my first English Department holiday party for faculty and staff at my university. I was invited because I had an assistantship that required I teach two courses of rhetoric a semester in return for remission of tuition and a small stipend. The professors and their wives were all there and this was the first time I had seen my teachers outside the classroom environment.
The profs were a gracious bunch, all from good stock, and I was not particularly gracious nor from stock similar to theirs. I was the son of immigrants from Chicago where everyone was rough and tough and hard to bluff, or so they thought, and spoke a language riddled with balderdash and buncombe. All I had in common with most of my professors is that I, too, could write and spell.
As the party progressed, I mingled as best I could and talked with several professors who had guided me through Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Old and Middle English, all the usual courses required for the master’s degree. All I had to do was finish my thesis. It was a barn-burner in gestation, tentatively entitled “Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Concept of Skepticism and His Doctrine of the Infinitude of the Private Man.”
It was a hybrid piece, the spawn of two papers I had written for a class in Emerson. I needed to write an introduction, middle and conclusion, provided I could find some way to marry the two papers that had no discernible connection. Apparently I succeeded because months later the prof who oversaw my thesis told me in all seriousness that although he disagreed with my conclusion, my thesis was accepted.
At the party, however, the profs did not yet know I wanted to go on for the doctorate, teach and write poems. I had had by then perhaps 12 poems appear under a pen name in the university literary magazine, typical juvenilia for a poet starting out. For some reason, I knew using my own name would not have been a good thing. But I did not yet understand why in light of my goals I should be more interested in writing and publishing literary criticism in scholarly journals rather than poetry. I knew, however, that was the way to get ahead in any English department. “Publish or perish” was the motto of the time and probably still is today for anyone who wants to move up over time from assistant professor to full professor.
As the evening wore on, I finally sought out the chairman of the department. I had never had him for class but knew that his specialty was Victorian literature. He was a nice man who would have a big voice in whether I might get financial help to go on for the doctorate. To the best of my memory, student loans were not available at the time. My father’s hard work had made my first two degrees possible and I would never have asked him to pay for another one, although the assistantship I had for the master’s degree had lessened the load on him.
The chairman asked about my plans and I told him about my desire to get the doctorate, teach and write poetry. He was obviously taken aback and asked if I had given any thought to writing scholarly papers. I said I was more interested in writing my own stuff. This obviously failed to reassure him that I might be a good candidate for the doctorate and he tried to help me understand why.
He began by explaining that while writing poetry was a noble pursuit it was not a good way to earn a living teaching English at a university. Writing and publishing literary criticism in scholarly journals was the way to get ahead. I would be wasting my time if my intent were to write poetry or fiction. He was kind and honest and did his best to set me straight. To this day, I am thankful to him for doing that.
But even if I had thought of it at the time, I doubt that I would have said what would later come to mind as to why I was not a good fit. But I knew I would never want to write about what someone else had written if it weren't a course requirement. I wanted to write my own stuff or, quite frankly, write nothing at all.
I don’t think it was a matter of ego or pride although that element had to be a factor. I had written enough long papers to take two degrees and I had had my fill of that kind of thing. To be sure, I thought certain types of writers were called to write serious literary criticism and their efforts could be helpful to scholars. But I was not a scholar in the traditional sense and not cut out for that kind of writing beyond the classroom.
Years later, when asked by someone else why I didn’t want to write criticism, I said I would rather have poems of mine be carrion in the grass rather than be the vulture who drops down to eat them. I no doubt found those words deep in my satchel of balderdash and buncombe.
I never did go on for the doctorate and I think that was truly for the best. I worked mostly as an editor and writer for years with a late foray into raising money for charity. That also tapped my love for words. Nothing quite like trying to convince the wealthy to dig deep to help the poor. Some give willingly when the case is presented. With others, metaphorically speaking, a toilet plunger helps unless you point out the tax advantages.
On my own time, I have done fairly well writing poetry, fiction and essays. It’s been an interesting life in that regard and continues to this day. Hundreds of students have also benefited from never having to hear me lecture on Dryden and Pope, had I taken the doctorate. I never did like couplets and probably would have said so at the wrong time. That probably would have been as politically incorrect as writing poetry rather than criticism while a member of the English Department at a good university.