From the Mad Mind
of Anthony Watkins
How Not To Write An Academic Poem
When I first met my wife, who was an English Major, and loves to read, but very rarely writes poetry, she said I was a very good poet, but I wasn’t an academic poet. This confused me, even if I found it flattering to be told I was good at something I had been doing all my life. What I could not grasp was what an academic was looking for in a poem besides “goodness.”
Twenty-one years later, I still struggle with the concept, but after nearly a decade of studying great American poetry with some very bright people, I understand a little better.
Sometimes a person will write a poem and academics will look at that poem and see “something else.” I have come to believe there are poets who actually bake things into their poems with the ingenuity of a skilled cook. They are not cooking a chicken of course, they may be recreating a moment in time, or a mood, or a reaction to circumstances, but the academic poet’s poem will hint at other things. They write a poem, the same as I do, except there are sometimes different levels of meaning. What they are writing about may have nothing to do with what they appear to be writing about. I have gotten much pleasure from trying to follow along with other students and teachers trying to sort out what these secrets within the poem are. Like trying to identify the subtle flavors in the cooked bird.
By contrast, I almost never write with a “something else” in mind. We non-academic poets write poems that simply are as they happened to come out.
I remain as lost as ever as to how to create a poem in the academic way. I do know if you just fling your thoughts down on the page, it is not considered academic. If you draw a word image of a clay pot and say how it reminds you of your grandmother and the way she let fried okra drain on folded paper towels, that is not academic, probably not even if you remember the summer of your fifteenth year sitting in her attic reading Homer or Shakespeare. But if you can take Homer’s dog and work him into some deeper meaning of the clay pot, you are an academic poet. Whatever kind of poet you are, I am glad you write!
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