Essay: Anna Woodford on the Campus Poem

From full-time lectureships to literary residencies, professorial chairs to chairless hotdesks – poets have a well-established place within universities. Having joined their number as Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University, my thoughts have turned to poetry and academia and where the two intersect. I have been on the hunt for poems that address poets’ experiences within universities. The campus novel is established as a literary subgenre but what of the campus poem? Are endless corridors, library stacks, seminars and rooms named after alumni and decimal points really the stuff of poetry?

Pain, office hours and waterskiing

According to Wikipedia (my time as a Leverhulme artist in residence at Durham University taught me that even professors use Wikipedia for research) the campus or academic novel is one where the main action is set in and around a university campus. Elaine Showalter in her book-length study of the genre, Faculty Towers (2005), describes the campus novel as often being “wildly funny”, but also points to its melancholic nature, writing that “academic life has so much pain”, and noting that when she clicks on English in her spelling corrector (campus novels are frequently set in English departments) “the alternative that comes up is Anguish”.

Many of the poems I found, which are not – hasty caveat – in any way a comprehensive list, are also witty and wistful in equal measure. They are various and wide-ranging in their concerns, but have in common the matter of everyday university life, from absent students to colleague in-fighting to office hours. For a precise definition of a campus poem, I would adopt the tactics of the wily poet-lecturer in Tara Bergin’s five-liner ‘You at the Front’:

You at the front, I said pointing to a student with their hand up.
Yeah I just wanted to ask, what exactly is a Campus Poem?
I nodded and smiled demonstrably just like the instruction manual had shown me.
Great question, I said. What is a Campus Poem?
Several of the students raised their hands, so I let them kill two birds with one stone.

The instruction manual here hints at the administrative weight alluded to in various campus poems. As far back as 1939, and proving that office hours were a thing even then, Randall Jarrell begins his poem ‘Randall Jarrell Office Hours 10–11’ with an epigraph provided by his employer:

Dear Mr. Jarrell:
It seems that the twenty-fourth floor is complaining of lost students who are hunting you. Could you put your name and office hours on your door?
         Thank you.
                                                                           The English Office
                                                                           [University of Texas, at Austin]

Jarrell’s response, the poem, went as follows:

Mr Jarrell:                      Come back and you will find me just the same
                                      Hunters, hunters – but why should I go on?
                                      Learn for yourself (if you are made to learn)
                                      That you must haunt an hourless, nameless door
                                      Before you find – not me, but anything.

Jarrell, the writer of more than one campus poem and a campus novel, pinned the poem to his office door, perhaps further losing any students who did locate it. Sean O’Brien’s poem ‘Sabbatical’ is similarly concerned with academic bureaucracy and the poet’s feeling of being hunted. Here, technology has made the situation worse and the administrative note of Jarrell’s poem has evolved into an email – indeed multiple emails:

                                    Now I bid farewell,
Abandoning my desk, my books
And thirteen thousand frantic e-mails
Enquiring about the Diary Exercise

Hugo Williams, in his poem ‘Creative Writing’, deploys the found language of academic officialdom, that of a syllabus, to underline poetry’s place in the pecking order (spoiler: its place in parenthesis): “Trying to persuade about fifteen / Creative Writing students (Poetry) / to put more images into their work.” In ‘Introduction to Poetry’, Billy Collins also reveals a mundane reality behind his poem’s titular subject matter. A lecturer lists their dreamy ambitions for their class – “I want them to waterski / across the surface of a poem” – but the students respond by beating the poem with a hose “to find out what it really means”. Both Williams and Collins show the vulnerabilities of their speakers and playfully prick any pretensions. ‘Creative Writing’ ends with the speaker puncturing a condom in his pocket. In Collins’ poem, the introduction of the title is the poet’s introduction to teaching as facilitated by his students. However, while describing their speakers’ lack of control, the poems also restore order. They give the teacher the last word.

When is a poet not a poet?

What the poet in ‘Introduction to Poetry’ might also want – and what their expressed list of frustrated desires become – is a poem. The ‘Creative Writing’ of Hugo Williams’ poem is the teacher’s, ironically inspired by the students’ lack of productivity. There is a doubleness about the campus poem in that whatever it shows the poet doing, it also shows them at their writing desk even while voicing their desire to be at their writing desk. See these wistful lines from Dorothea Lasky’s poem ‘The Process of Explication’: “Students, I can’t lie, I’d rather be doing something else, I guess / Like making love or writing a poem”. Writing here is at least the poet’s second choice of other activity.

If writers are shown to be in two places at once in the campus poem so, critics have suggested, a twofold identity is required of them within the academy. In his essay ‘The Rise of Creative Writing’ (2016) Andrew Cowan looks at the expansion of creative writing as an academic discipline in the UK over the last twenty years or so, preceded by its growth in the USA in the late 1960s and ’70s. He notes that writers in UK universities and further afield may assume a “dual identity” because of the “contortion of their professional identities and working practices” required by traditional research definitions (notwithstanding the widespread acceptance of creative work as research).

Sue Dymoke and Jane Spiro, in a study of poets working within UK HE institutions, describe writers as “poet-academics” or “academic-poets” according to the extent to which they identify with the different halves of their job description (‘Poet-Academics and Academic-Poets: Writing identities, practices and experiences within the Academy’, 2017). In a blog post for the Poetry Foundation concerning American academe, ‘The University as the Poet’s Community’, Kwame Dawes notes: “When artists become a part of a university, their primary role is deemed as one of teaching, training others to do what they do.” He writes of the problematic situation of such artists, who might have to become “someone other” in order to pursue tenure and promotion.

The experience of becoming someone other at work is not unique to poets. Anyone required to squeeze into a literal or metaphorical uniform to make ends meet may feel similarly. However, it could be argued that there is something peculiar to poets (perhaps artists in universities generally) about being employed as one thing in order to do another while still being the thing for which they were originally retained. The act of writing a campus poem might be considered a response to this double bind: an affirmation of a primarily poetic identity and implicitly the rejection of a primarily academic one.

A struggle for identity within the academy and the subsequent imposter syndrome it can engender is testified to by Lydia Davis’s ‘A Position at the University’:

perhaps I really am the sort of person you imagine when you hear that a person has a position at the university. But, on the other hand, I know I am not the sort of person I imagine when I hear that a person has a position at the university.

Elsewhere, ‘“Don’t call me Professor,” / I say, dozens of times a semester. “I’m a writer, / not a teacher”’, corrects Daisy Fried’s professor? poet? in ‘Torment’; David Lehman’s ‘With Tenure’ reflects tongue-in-cheekily on the artist’s chances of thriving within academe:

If Ezra Pound were alive today
            (and he is)
he’d be teaching
at a small college in the Pacific Northwest
and attending the annual convention
of writing instructors in St. Louis
and railing against tenure

August Kleinzahler’s poem ‘An Autumnal Sketch’ comments from outside the academy, without a shred of envy, on the situation of poetry professors within: “They so badly want a poem, / these cagey and disheartened men”.

Campus poems demonstrate the sometime sniffiness of academia to the poet and the sometime sniffiness (right back atcha) of the poet to the academic. In ‘The Poet Ridiculed by Hysterical Academics’, W.D. Snodgrass presents the polarised picture of the poem’s title although the ridicule the academics dish out is notably poetic: “You’ve labored to present us with / This mouse-sized volume”. Snodgrass is markedly and wittily the voice of both poet and academic in the poem as he was IRL. Poets are also capable of dishing out “ridicule” to academics. David Hart takes a playful poke at lofty theorising in his poem ‘At the break’: “one professor / wrote and passed around Amen shit shit ok so and / established it on the internet”.

I’ll not take off my coat…

The poet who is a visitor, writer in residence or literary fellow within a university – who “constitutes an interest and tangential force in the academy”, as Kwame Dawes puts it – may not face the same struggle for identity as their more contractually obligated peers. Their job is to look in at the academy rather than to belong to it. Sometimes they are simply too cool for school – here in full is Richard Brautigan’s poem ‘At the California Institute of Technology’:

I don’t care how God-damn smart
these guys are: I’m bored.

It’s been raining like hell all day long
and there’s nothing to do.

Brautigan two-fingers the institution and the sort of poetry one might expect from a residency within such august walls. The apparent casualness of “I’m bored” together with the wit and brevity of the piece conjures the anarchy of graffiti.

Julian Stannard in ‘Turkey Blues’, depicts a visiting professor in a Liberal Arts department being killed with kindness in an American university. The situation is synthetic and unsettling:

                      […] waffles? scrambled eggs?
And coffee which doesn’t taste like coffee yet so much of it.
Then a walk in a professorial manner to the tower
which is like a beige smack across the face.

In her poem ‘To a Visiting Poet In A College Dormitory’, Carolyn Kizer evokes a poet apparently in situ addressing a poet visitor: “Now, as I hope you sleep, I turn the pages / of your committed life”. The poem may be read as one part of a poet’s split identity acknowledging another. There is no way of knowing whether the addressed poet sleeps soundly or is composing ‘To an Academic Poet In A College Dormitory’ on the other side of the wall.

Students: their presence and absence

Most poets in university teach and many campus poems address the relationship between poet and student, sometimes anarchically kicking over the traces. Here’s Tara Bergin again, her speaker cheering on the absent student of the title in ‘Sonnet for Catherine Who Never Turned Up’:

Brave Catherine.
Don’t be afraid to stay away –
sometimes it’s all that can be done.
Our secretary rings and rings
your unplugged phone
while the envious ones push on

If some poets identify with students, others consider the gap between themselves and their class. As Billy Collins describes students torturing a poem in ‘Introduction to Poetry’, so in Russell Edson’s ‘The Academic Sigh’ it is the academic who is on the rack – albeit bearing up stoically: “And as they turned the wheel the professor was getting longer and longer. / Don’t make me too long, or I’ll look kind of goofy, sighed the professor as he grew longer and / longer.” Galway Kinnell’s ‘The Correspondence-School Instructor Says Goodbye to His Poetry Students’ depicts a speaker appreciative of the geographical distance between himself and his tutees and perhaps wanting to keep them at an even greater arm’s length:

I swear to you, it was just my way
of cheering myself up, as I licked
the stamped, self-addressed envelopes,
the game I had of trying to guess
which one of you, this time,
had poisoned his glue.

Elsewhere poems consider the gap between innocence and experience, youth and age. Ellen Phethean’s poetry tutor reflects on the youth of her class in ‘Reading “Kissing” by Fleur Adcock with 1st Year Students’: “blusher / thick on their young faces. / These girls, their foolish hearts, / not women, I couldn’t call them women.” Beauty and youth are also considered in Marilyn L. Taylor’s ‘Subject to Change’, where a lecturer comments on the transience of both qualities in relation to their students:

they remain beautiful. And very young.

Still, I have to tell myself it’s wrong
to think of them as anything but fiction,
these creatures that I briefly move among –

Some poets consider the reality of the students’ lives away from the glimpse that they witness on campus. Kathleen Jones begins her poem ‘The Romantic’, “Katie does telephone sex to pay her student rent”. Gail Mazur writes in ‘Poem for Christian, My Student’: “This week, instead / of research in the stacks, he’s performing / with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.” The traditional relationship between lecturer and student is upended with the poem’s conclusion: “‘Write a poem about me!’ he commands, / and so I do.” ‘Socratic’ by Jacqueline Jones Lamon also shows the fluidity of the roles of lecturer and student; the speaker answering “their next questions with more / and more questions, asking until time is up.”

Class dismissed

So what, if anything, have we learned? Campus poems often present their speakers as alone or outnumbered by students or colleagues who tend towards the irritating. (“People arrive and ask / ‘if you have a lot to do’ and you must not savagely answer ‘yes!’” observes Tony Williams in ‘The Photocopier’.) Occasional poems on a colleague’s leaving give glimpses of writerly camaraderie such as W.N. Herbert’s ‘The Farewell to Margaret Wilkinson’, a riff on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Spring and Fall’: “Dear Margaret, so we’re grieving / that our red-brick groves you’re leaving / – let us wail, abandon School, and don’t look back but upward!” However, most campus poems don’t portray their speakers rubbing shoulders with writer colleagues but instead situate them as lone wolves in a kind of psychodrama.

Campus poems are intended perhaps for the community of poets and likeminded souls outside the academy; to share a joke, often half against themselves. They may not take themselves too seriously (if a campus poet were an instrument it would be a tiny violin). However, they are also entirely serious; the speaker in E.A. Markham’s poem ‘59 or 60%?’ is part responsible for determining students’ grades and mindful of the responsibility:

You’re right, of course: in the end are planes going to crash
or Empires crumble if the average student falls
on this or that side of the line? And yet it matters
for your view of self, respect for the subject and all that

Campus poems are generous and show the poets they depict as fallible. They may be covert and occasional or not collected. Some campus poems are not intended for a wider audience – perhaps their poets don’t wish to reveal themselves to the colleagues or employers they write of, or perhaps they don’t want to pull back the curtain on the mundane detail of their own lives.
The list of campus poems I have cited here will contain omissions. (“See me”, as a poet/professor may never want to write.) That poets write eloquently of universities and colleges as places of work, of intrigue, of rich interpersonal relations deserves more consideration by both the subjects of such attention and broader audiences. Perhaps a slim anthology or a pamphlet is in order or perhaps we should just savour Tom Raworth’s poem ‘University Days’ which I will end by quoting in its entirety:

Anna Woodford’s most recent poetry collection is Changing Room (Salt, 2018). She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newcastle University. This essay was first published in The Poetry Review, 110:2, Summer 2020. © The Poetry Review and the author.