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Susan M.Schultz

Poetics at Buffalo

What is unique about the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo’s poetics program is that poets who participate in it, Charles Bernstein, Susan Howe, and Robert Creeley, teach reading rather than creative writing. Creative writing programs in the United States run on the workshop system where students bring in their poetry or fiction for review by classmates and by the poet who leads the class. The Poetics Program’s emphasis on creative reading rather than writing also distinguishes it from the English department proper at SUNY Buffalo and from English departments around the country whose emphasis is on literary criticism, not poetics.

What is poetics? An information sheet for the program defines poetics as “poetry as process,” rather than as product. “Every doing,” the anonymous spirited pamphleteer declares, using the word “poetics” against itself, “carries the potential of something new, emergent, something not already predicated by poetics. Practice overtakes theory, practice changes theory. And not just writing practice, but performance practice, the practice of sound.” While this definition is concise, it is also a tad compressed, and requires some unpacking to understand its philosophical and institutional significances. The best place to begin is with the criticism of Charles Bernstein, director of the program, which was launched in 1991 but came out of a tradition of experimental poetry in Buffalo that began with Charles Olson’s and continued with the presence of Robert Creeley since the 1960s. In his most recent book of criticism, provocatively titled A Poetics, Bernstein attacks what he calls “official verse culture,” a mainstream version of the art institutionalized and disseminated through the myriad of writing programs in American universities. Such art is readily identifiable in venues like Poetry (Chicago) and The New Yorker; as Mariorie Perloff has wittily argued, many of the poems found in the latter journal cannot be distinguished from the advertising copy of the day. Poems in this mode, which Charles Altieri has called “scenic,” owe their genesis to Romanticism, and often feature a solitary artist looking out at a pastoral landscape and discovering himself in it. This poetry knows what it says before it says it and the formula can, in fact, be taught — as it is in most MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs.

Bernstein’s “apoetics,” on the other hand, looks for what cannot be formalized, taught, handed down as tradition. Hence the emphasis on reading rather than writing, since the teaching of writing cannot be divorced from traditions of it. One quickly encounters a canon in Buffalo, however: Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, and contemporary Language poets among others. Susan Howe has taught a seminar on Emily Dickinson, and Bernstein teaches a myriad of poets in classes on performance and, most recently on “resisting translation.” One of the paradoxes of the program is that, although writing is not taught, a lot of writing gets done, writing that falls well within the tradition obliquely enforced by Howe and by Bernstein (and by Creeley, when he teaches Olson or Zukofsky).

The writing disseminated by “official verse culture” organs emphasizes authentic feeling (whatever that might be) over historical fact or intellectual groundwork. Poetics instead emphasizes the importance of intellect in poetry and the necessity of scholarly, as opposed to or in addition to, emotional work. Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson (1985), while emotionally charged, creates a lineage for a poet like herself, namely one who uses conversion and captivity narratives and editorial procedures, rather than loss and romantic love, as her tropes. The Poetics Program also emphasizes ethnopoetics, through the tutelage of Dennis Tedlock, a prominent anthropologist and performance theorist, and matters of translation, through the participation of Raymond Federman from the department of French. In all these activities a blurring of the genres occurs: poetry is critical and criticism, like that of Susan Howe, is creative.

Some of the most significant work in the poetics program is done by graduate students, many of whom publish journals (such as Chain, edited by Jena Osman and Juliana Spahr, a recent graduate of the program) and chapbook series (such as the old Leave Books series and the newer Meow Press and Tailspin series). The Poetics Program also runs the Electronic Poetry Center, headed up by Loss Pequeño Glazier, a recent Ph.D. graduate. The EPC contains author pages, electronic versions of poetry journals, syllabi from the Poetics Program, and many links to other poetry sites on the World Wide Web. (This site can be found at Charles Bernstein also hosts a radio show, Line Break, on which he interviews poets and has them read from their work. The Wednesdays at 4 series brings poets to Buffalo to give readings. This past Fall readers included Deanna Ferguson (from Vancouver), John Kinsella (from Australia), and a variety of writers from the United States. An email discussion list, “owned” by Charles Bernstein, supplements the Poetics Program, enlarging its scope far beyond the geographical Buffalo area. Contributors to this list include poets from Australia and the United Kingdom.


Photo of Susan M.Schultz, Hawaii, 1997, by Janet Bowdan

You can read Susan Schultz’s poem, Game Day, in this issue of Jacket.

This article first appeared in Boxkite: a journal of poetry & poetics, number 1, 1997 (ISSN 13286277) published by the Poetics Foundation Inc., Sydney, Australia.

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