LYNDON DAVIES: CW – Some Notes Towards a Regressive Polemic

The youth sits in his bedroom, reading. Who is it? It’s just a youth, any youth. He sits sprawled in an armchair reading a book. What book? It’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. His eyes ache and he’s getting a headache, but he doesn’t know yet that his eyes are aching; he doesn’t know yet that he’s getting a headache, or he may have forgotten it. He’s forgotten everything.

In fact he has no idea where he is, if indeed he is anywhere at all, at that moment, if indeed one could speak of that moment as a moment in any very useful sense of the term. Let’s call it a moment, for the sake of argument, because I’m writing about it, it’s a thing I’m writing, a picture I’m conjuring up: a youth, any youth, in a room, with his feet up, reading a novel.

What could be more appealing, when all’s said and done, than the sight of a young person buried in a book? The peculiar vacancy they impose on a room, is there anything more delicately charming and more corrosive? It’s as if the youth buried in the book has buried you, but not in the book, not quite, not even outside it, but just simply nowhere, in a nothingness you can neither assuage nor account for.

This article began life as an exploration of the exponential growth of academically-based Creative Writing programmes. I wanted to ask myself what the benefits of such courses could be, and what effects they might have on the literary products of a culture. It’s a popular subject (we’re speaking chiefly of the US and the UK), and so has been a bonanza for universities. It attracts students, attracts money; high-end publishers flock to the business-end of the hopper. In fact, the Creative Writing juggernaut has reached such proportions now, it seems to have developed a logic of its own. Doubts, queasinesses, no longer seem significant, the machine grinds on in that eerie way machines have. And yet it’s important to go on asking basic questions. For instance: assuming there is such an entity as Creative Writing, what relation might it bear to the actual processes of creativity? Then, what kind of Creative Writing might be susceptible to being taught, or even supervised, on a programmatic institutional basis, and, in general cultural terms, what would such a writing tend to signify?

But before I could even begin thinking about this in a serious way, I started to wonder about the question of reading, which is, after all, simply writing in “primal” form. You cannot write if you cannot read; reading is the writing you are already doing before you set out to smirch the inoffensive sheet. I should point out that when I say “primal” I’m speaking figuratively, of a hypothetical event which cannot be translated into something else, which can in fact only become matter for discussion by means of a secondary event – let’s call it a travesty.

Let’s have another look at that youth – what’s he doing? He’s walking towards the woman through the long grass, towards her but also inside her, in a body which is his, transformed, but not even a body, more a flickering soft moist ignis fatuus of erotic energy. He is magnetized by the openness of this flesh, into which pollen grains and prickly grass seeds sink, the succulent receptivity of a nakedness which is his and not his, so close he is lost in it. He is lost, this presence is consuming his existence. And yet there’s nothing going on in that moment, all he’s doing is reading a book made of words, a new book, he bought it, it’s called Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

He’s reading the book, actually physically reading it, and not in some vague philosophical sense. He’s actually, literally reading it, that’s the point, the sentences pass through his body, he can feel them sucking the minerals out of him with their viscous yearning. He tastes them, his eyes itch, they ripple in his marrow like delicate infiltrating viruses. He fingers them, he weighs them, he holds them up to the light. When finally he puts his book down he discovers that he can’t put it down, not really, not in any way that matters. The book is inside him now, it’s reading him. He is actually inside the book which is inside him.

Of course, it is possible to teach that youth to look in a more analytical fashion at what’s occurring in the book (what book?). What this involves is the writing of a different book – you cannot teach the youth to read the book through which he has already lived. You can deepen and formalise his knowledge of its surroundings, but if “primal” identification with the text has not occurred there can be no reading, and “primal” identification is always formless, chaotic, personal and transgressive, that’s to say entirely beyond teaching. If that identification is not there, like a burning core, at the centre of all pedagogical manipulations, it’s hard to imagine how there could be any role left for the teacher beyond a barren modicum of social engineering.

We’ve moved on (well, it’s a question of narrative). The youth is stretched out under a cypress tree, still reading. He seems to spend a lot of his time sprawling, this youth, but on this occasion you really can’t blame him – it’s hot, the sun’s blazing down on the municipal cemetery. He sits in the shade of a cypress tree, eating a sandwich. His book is called called Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman.  He has just spent three hours digging a grave with a spade.

That grave astonished him, the neatness of its incision, the buttery squared cleanliness of its sides that his own spade shaped. He crouched at the bottom of it, five feet down in the cool earth. Beneath him a hollowness, he felt it in the spade, he sensed its approach in the spade and under his own boots. He has made an incision in the world and tasted it, on his flesh, in his ears, and now he is elsewhere, somewhere else, moving through a storm of impressions, a phantasmagoria, but the hollowness is at his feet, and the coolness, he can’t shake the coolness from his ears, from his back that the earth touched. But really he’s elsewhere, somewhere else completely. “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands”. And the youth thinks I know what the grass is alright: he’s spent three weeks cutting an entire cemetery’s worth of it, half-buried in the stuff, but he didn’t know it was that grass, not at first, not the sort that comes from the breasts of young men, from the white heads of old mothers, the colorless beards of old men. He didn’t know it was the handkerchief of the Lord. But he does now, his blisters know it, they recognize it.

It’s as if an incision has been made in the event that troubled him, was already bristling with a kind of saying, which he couldn’t quite lay his hands on, not yet, but not even words, just a bristling dumb hollowness down there in the depths of his labouring monomania. Each line in the book a block of clean-cut, buttery silent earth with a hollowness at the core of it. A silence which says these are not the words, but you have to go into the words if you want to find them, into that hollow place where the words commence, the ones that could rob you of everything you possess.

At this point, by way of provocation, I present a range of phrases ripped from a variety of Creative Writing guides and prospectuses:

“to develop a range of key transferable skills”

“Technical proficiency, Competence in Genre”

“Transferable skills for a variety of careers.”

“Form, and Creative/Imaginative Flair.”

“Late submission will result in a penalty of 5% per day”

“A tick box Work Appraisal Pro-forma is used”

“the needs of employers and make you work-ready”

“120 credits are required per year.”

All that, that’s a way of looking at it, no doubt, that’s to say of avoiding the question entirely. The question of what the youth is to do with the saturating radiance of the cleft that has opened up inside him. The absolute haphazardness of that event, the formlessness it required to appear in the way it did, as something belonging to the mystery of his own intrusion into the phantasmagoria of the written word. Yes, my cut-up is unkind – prospectuses, course-guides, what do they have to do with the reality, with the practice of good teachers teaching on the ground? Well, actually, quite a lot, when it comes down to it. To start with it shows what the state is thinking, it bodies forth the ghost of parameters, it presses. It exudes an ethos which, like a strong smell, eventually starts to penetrate everything.

“Creative Writing” – what an exquisitely institutional term: one imagines it on the timetable of a 1930’s prep school, a kind of physical jerks for the soul, to offset the intellectual rigours of double Latin. Of course, there are contrary ways of interpreting the term, and each carries with it an ethos and a history. The first sees it as a kind of tool for the production of goods external to the act of writing. This is the signification privileged by the state, by the educational establishments which do the state’s work. According to this way of thinking “Creative Writing” is an activity one engages in with a view to achieving goals. Self-expression, prizes, transferable skills, qualifications, career advancement, and so on and so forth. Through these teleological specs a text is chiefly a position taken in relation to something outside itself, an event which points out beyond itself to more fundamental areas of concern: material for the CV or the style-council; grist for the academic mill…

What the state, through all its ramifications, likes best is things more or less as they are. And the kind of artistic activity it likes best is the kind which gives it back what it already has. One that tickles the market without disrupting it, which tickles the fancy or the intellect in a controlled way, without ever threatening to step outside the bounds of the already sanctioned and sancified. To this end it manipulates curricula and personnel and imposes frames, methodologies, targets and outcome measurements. Of course, on the ground, good teachers (and there are many) strive to make a space in which some kind of creative unfolding (paradoxical phrase) can take place. But the sign is over them, the dead hand of accountancy, debit and credit, league-tables, exams, credentials.

The kind of teaching which this ethos demands is one that deals in quantifiable objects. For instance, one hears a certain amount of justificatory reference to technique, to the nuts and bolts of writing (but whose nuts and bolts?). To talk about the nuts and bolts, though – as for instance that whole prosodic farrago beloved of pedants: rhythm, stress, metre and so on  – certain myths have to be swallowed whole; above all the myth that there are absolute forms out there in Platonic space, against which the momentary individual experience can be regulated, achievement judged, and consequently the success or otherwise of the educational institution in inculcating those measurable ideals. The truth is, of course, that literary and linguistic laws (putting aside the trivial rules of the poetic primer) exist only in relation, as a function of exchange between an actual individual with an actual body, with unpredictable elements in the world, such as texts, historical/physical events, weather and so on, and are subject to all the usual caveats on the transmission of power and ideologies. The technical relations of a literary act can never be separated from the totality of the immediate encounter with a text, either present or in potential, which again is dependent on the totality of the attention, intellectual, emotional, somatic, which the reader/writer brings to bear on a text. Ultimately a technique is a thing a person “feels” or doesn’t feel, in the course of their identification with the words on the page.

Left to their own devices any true writer will no doubt discover all this when the time is ripe, that’s to say when something materialises to which a technique offers itself, or itself sparks into being. We could speculate that there may be modes of expression in embryo within the psyche whose realisation only comes about as a result of a long foundering in the abjection of ineptitude. Of course, the student does not know that – how could they? The student signs up (at least partly, I imagine) to acquire competence, and the teacher signs up to facilitate the realisation of a student’s potentialities, imagined as a kind of literary nature. That’s all very well, but it may be that in aspiring to certain kinds of attainment at a particular moment rather than at a barely conceivable later hour, a young writer may be kissing goodbye to something crucial in themselves – a sort of anti-nature, perhaps (another dubious myth, but a useful one) which required to be waited for in order to become operative.

An anti-nature, then, as against the official nature imposed by the idea of literature on the malleable stuff of the ego. The state imagines its task as producing a homunculus from a pre-choate ferment of cellular activity, or of imbuing an etiquette in the already formed one. A homunculus, a working model, a persona. A voice, in other words. This voice may tend to orientate itself positively or negatively around the voice of its teacher, but this is not necessarily a problem – after all, we are always inhabiting the voice of others in the infatuative processes of reading. A problem may arise, though when the infatuated soul finds an instinct driving it to repudiate that mastering force, to refuse absolutely to assimilate institutional requirements, to take them into itself as its own nature. This is obviously something of a double-bind and puts everyone in a difficult position, from the institutional point of view, and yet it is perhaps the purest and most necessary transaction which the act of teaching can bring about. The institution strives above all to derive a voice and to put it in touch with publishers, but a voice, in spite of the best intentions of the student who may have signed up precisely for that purpose, may be of quite another mind. A writer at any moment may require silence, absence, may need at that moment, for reasons beyond themselves to retire to a pre-choate state of activity, a state of voicelessness, of near imbecility. Sometimes what’s coming may require this. What a teacher might actually need to do is wait, without reserve, or even – who knows? – to deepen the chaos, increase the panic by refusing to engage, or to allow an indifferent calm to settle over the site of disaster (perhaps forever). But this is precisely what the institution would characterise as failure, on its own part, but chiefly on the part of the teacher. Which is where, despite everybody’s best intentions, pressure comes into it, force, compulsion, power, in all sorts of hardly noticeable ways, perhaps by no darker means than the exertion of a personal charisma.

Nature, voice, such deadly, such fated and yet such comforting notions. And the inevitable corollary of those notions – The Work. The work implied by the particular voice of a particular nature. What an institution wants is this object, this wholly implied realisation, this juridically entailed outcome. What it absolutely refuses, necessarily to countenance, is the oeuvre which destroys itself from within, which refuses to be an oeuvre at all; the nature, the voice, which refuse to be a nature or a voice, at the required, the entailed moment. Which may in fact be the stirring of a more necessary work, perhaps not: arguably anyway, worth taking a risk over.

Which brings me to that other signification of writing: the writing which itself, for itself, is the impelling force, a writing that one undergoes, endures, that has its own time and reason and craft and curriculum. According to the ethos which it engenders, the encounter with a text, present or still to come, is an act of total existential commitment, beyond any question of goals, bureaucratic, literary or whatever. This reading, this writing, which has nothing to do with “creativity”, with academic or pedagogic agendas of any kind, economically and educationally unquantifiable and unjustifiable, reminds us of Jacob wrestling with the angel. A wrestling with something beyond beauty and beyond meaning, a hollowness that is almost sexual in its weight, in its depth, in its excess and its exaltation, in its inexplicably compulsive pointlessness. A wrestling which might have no immediate outcome, but silence. More silence. Confusion, annihilation. Deadlock. But where perhaps deadlock could be a sign of something new just beginning to adjust itself to the idea of appearance.

All of which, of course, any teacher/writer worth their salt knows very well and will have in mind continuously. And let’s not be too extreme about this. I’m quite sure many ‘budding writers’ will benefit in all sorts of ways from protracted and intimate contact with writers of greater experience; in some cases this might almost make the difference between life and death. I imagine this is why these courses were set up in the beginning, to provide a nurturing space for individual pracitioners to take what they need from in the way they need to take it, and there are committed and brilliant people out there struggling to maintain this ideal. It’s undoubtedly true, too, that the collaborative processes involved in a really generous writer/teacher to writer/student relationship could be informative, maybe from time to time transformative, and leave work of genuine value behind it. But any serious teacher knows that, beyond a certain point, every serious student has to find it all out for themselves, and that, ultimately, every new work has its own timetable and its own unimaginable space to discover.

Whatever the pros and cons for the individual student, my fear is, that in broader terms, the increasing institutionalisation of the idea of the creative act may not in the end be good for the development of literature, since it reinforces an already operative dynamic which to some extent favours an idea of the writer as a produceable commodity. I’m not suggesting this is all there is to it; nor that the people who teach or learn on these courses share such a value-set (the case, I know very well, is usually to the contrary). But the fact that a certain number of interesting practitioners have benefited from their involvement in an educationally-based creative writing amenity is not necessarily a recommendation for a system which, as a matter of business, or even mission, seeks to produce statistically significant numbers of competent, commercially, or at least culturally, ‘viable’ professionals.

Perhaps we have always had to worry about that youth, the one who will never put his book down and reassure us that there is something other in the room with us than vacancy or chaos. He is, in part, every true writer/reader at any age, isn’t he? Perhaps he is just a red rag to a bull, an irritant we can’t help plunging our horns into. Driving our own repressions into his disruptive but possibly fruitful, certainly unmeasurable dereliction. Could it be that for all the good will of far-sighted teachers and academics and administrators we are creating a habitat more than ever inimical to his welfare, poor dab, and that things will just carry on getting worse.

It’s true that he’s an absolute insult to any system, floundering about on his back through the disabling complexities of the primal inner act of reading, which is to say the primal inner act of writing. He may be insignificant, but on the other hand, if we lose him we may be losing something vital. If he loses his faith we may be losing something not only vital but possibly irreplaceable. A world that insists on closing itself off to his wasteful, disrespectful and chaotic silence, is a world that risks blocking off the channels of the unforeseen, the paths through the scratchy places at the edge of the map. And could any writer, in his heart of hearts, relish a universe that makes no provision for those monsters who come suddenly barging out of the fog, the destroying angels who shatter and renew everything.


LYNDON DAVIES lives in Powys. His first collection of poems, Hyphasis, was published by Parthian in 2006. His second book, Shield, (Parthian) came out in May 2010. He co-runs the Glasfryn Seminars, a series of discussion groups on contemporary literature and also co-runs the Hay Poetry Jamboree, an annual festival of innovative poetries.


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