Toward a Campus Poetics

By Jehanne Dubrow

The “campus novel” is a much-beloved genre of literature. How can poetry about academia similarly help us to explore our campuses, our psyches, and our societies?

Photo by Victoria Heath.

I’ve always loved a genre of fiction known as the “campus novel”: books set on college and university campuses that explore academic departments (often English departments), frequently revealing that faculty members—despite their lofty ideals and esoteric fields of study—may spend their days pursuing petty grievances, engaging in vindictive attacks, and forming secretive cabals. Even before I became a professor, I was fascinated with the ways campus novels interrogate the political intrigues of academic departments, examining how these small, enclosed communities function as microcosms for the larger political world. These books teach us that, in an academic department, we may find the same struggles for power, the same battles over scarce resources, the same contests of wills as we might see in our state capitals or in the vaulted marble halls of Washington, DC.

When I began writing the poems that would eventually become Wild Kingdom, I read dozens of campus novels, including Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, and John Williams’s Stoner, trying to understand how such texts evoke the distinctive landscape of academia: the long stretches of green lawn, the classrooms and auditoriums, the mildewed offices where interminable meetings are held. Because many poets are professors, it’s not uncommon to find individual poems that articulate the experience of teaching college students (see John Brehm’s “Sea of Faith”) or of fulfilling the dreary duties of faculty life (see Erika Meitner’s “To Whom It May Concern”). But I wanted to write a collection that would be the poetic equivalent of a campus novel, documenting in minute detail all the small agonies and triumphs of academic life.

Wild Kingdom begins with two epigraphs, one of which comes from Richard Russo’s laugh-out-loud campus novel, Straight Man: “Who but an English professor would threaten to kill a duck a day and hold up a goose as an example?” The quote sets the tone for the book, half-funny, half-despairing. In Straight Man, Professor William Henry Devereaux Jr., chair of the English department of a mediocre Pennsylvania college, slowly begins to unravel over the course of a week, as he deals with the infighting of colleagues, problems in his personal life, and the drudgery of academic service.

Many of the campus novels I read while working on Wild Kingdom balance comedy and tragedy in the manner of Russo’s Straight Man. There’s Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, an epistolary novel set at the appropriately named “Payne University,” another undistinguished academic institution (campus novels are invariably set in unexceptional places of higher learning). In Dear Committee Members, our protagonist, Jason T. Fitger, a professor of creative writing and English, sends a range of increasingly outrageous correspondences—recommendation letters, memos to administrators, exasperated notes to colleagues—so that it becomes clear his days are spent, not in sophisticated study of literary texts, but in frustrating, Sisyphean efforts to maintain his own integrity and autonomy. My own poem “Fairy Tale with Laryngitis and Resignation Letter” was inspired by Schumacher’s handling of the epistolary form.

Rahele Megosha reads my poem “Fairy Tale with Laryngitis and Resignation Letter.” With this reading, she recently won the Poetry Out Loud National Championship.

In fact, throughout Wild Kingdom, I wrote in what I call “received academic forms,” poems that mimic the language and rhetoric of strategic plans, assessment rubrics, and the minutes of department meetings. Using these forms allowed me to juxtapose intellectual passions with bureaucratic responsibilities, two opposing forces that are often in conflict in the lives of academics.

James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale introduces us to Nelson Humboldt, who loses his right index finger in the “whirring spokes of a bicycle” shortly after being fired from his lectureship at yet another unimpressive university. What follows is a spot-on, often surreal depiction of an English department full of odd, vividly drawn characters. Hynes is extremely skilled at showing how certain personality types are drawn to certain academic disciplines, the modernists and the postmodernists, the Renaissance scholars and the Chaucerians, the poets and novelists, and all of the poorly paid, badly treated lecturers and adjuncts expected to teach whatever courses they’re assigned.    

While writing Wild Kingdom, I also turned to Elaine Showalter’s Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, which offers an accessible overview of the genre. I was particularly moved by this passage in her book:

Perhaps we professors turn to satire because academic life has so much pain, so many lives wasted or destroyed. On the spelling corrector on my computer, when I click on English, the alternative that comes up is Anguish. Like the suburbs, the campus can be the site of pastoral, or the fantasy of pastoral—the refuge, the ivory tower. But also like the suburbs, it is the site of those perennials of the literary imagination John Updike names as “discontent, conflict, waste, sorrow, fear.”

There is humor in the campus novel precisely because academic life may often be filled with hurt and disappointment. Showalter, an extremely distinguished literary scholar, writes about the campus novel as someone who knows this milieu intimately; perhaps because she has achieved such enormous success within the academic sphere, she is able to speak authoritatively about the deep connection between the study of English and the experience of anguish.

The late Wallace Sayre of Columbia University famously said, “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” In Wild Kingdom, I argue that, in fact, the stakes couldn’t be higher. We call the campus the “ivory tower.” But colleges and universities aren’t set apart from the larger world; they’re a reflection of it, a blank screen onto which we project all our current anxieties about gender, sexuality, race, religion, speech, and (ab)uses of power. The campus novel often works to remind us that—unless we strive to be compassionate teachers, brave scholars, and respectful colleagues—the campus may be like another community: cruel, unjust, flawed as the people it contains.

Jehanne Dubrow is the author of eight collections of poems, including Dots & Dashes, Red Army Red, and Stateside. Her work has appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many other publications. She is professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas.

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Wild Kingdom explores the world of academia, examining this strange landscape populated by faculty, administrators, and students. Using what she calls “received academic forms,” Jehanne Dubrow crafts poems that recall the language of academic documents such as syllabi, grading rubrics, and departmental minutes. 

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