Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mark Halliday (2)

I'm really shocked at the response this review has received. This man has made a total moron out of himself and everyone seems to be OK with that.

Here are some responses to Max, Francois, Mark and all the people over at the Ploughshares blog:

1. Max, it may be that the academic system lends itself to "team"-thinking, that doesn't mean that's a good thing! It is perhaps favorable to the Quietist practice of treating hiring as being based on "merit." When it fact they are hiring based on team-think.

2 By setting up the "team" scenario, Halliday evades the fact that his "team" is largely in charge of the academic hiring processes. Acting like Fox News, he can claim merely to be "fair and balanced." But in fact there is no other team! It's merely a way of rhetorically justifying an oppressive and indefensible conservatism.

3. A more correct thing for Halliday would be to say: My team tries to keep poetry as unified as possible - we keep out people from other backgrounds and traditions, people who offer other perspectives on poetry.

4. As for your concept of teams taking over etc in due time, Max, I think that's a load of naivete. That simply does not happen. And it's terrible for poetry because it keeps poetry insular and inbred.

5. Now some may argue that I am very naive because hiring will always include aesthetics. But I think we can be a little less cynical and look for people from different backgrounds and aesthetics and artistic interests; we can think of Creative Writing as something more dynamic. Behind the Team paradigm there seems to be a real hysterical about alternative views.


Blogger mark wallace said...

I appreciate your frustration here, Johannes. But the situation is really complex.

The question you might have to ask yourself would be this: if the circumstances were reversed, would you hire Mark Halliday?

Consider what he would say (or try to hide saying) in the interview: that Joshua Clover and all these "extreme" whatevers, from Iowa for god's sake, are destroying poetry. Of your beloved European avant gardes, he might say, "I don't even think it's poetry. It's just a bunch of gibberish that could have been done by a bunch of monkeys on typewriters."

Would you hire him?

Another problem is that in your post, I agree with points 2, 3, and 4, minus perhaps a phrase or two here or there. And it's not simply that I agree with you, but that I know, on a deeply convinced level, that you are correct. Many other people however would not agree, and that would be true even though you are correct. What that means is, critique the concept or not, on some level you've already staked out your terrain: you're on my side, and I'm on yours. The differences between us are minor at best, and we could probably work together pretty well. Much better than other people could work together.

But how about Mr. Halliday? And let's say, for instance, that you and he were the ONLY creative writing professors at your school, and because you've hired him, you will now have to work closely with him for the next 25 years. So do you hire him so that your school can have "balance" in its perspectives? Or do you not hire him, because the years of stress, annoyance, and alienation would not be constructive for you or your academic program?

I think, that is, that the problem may be more than "hysteria about opposing views." It's that people with deeply opposing views find it very difficult to like and work with each other.

I think, that is, that the problem is: politics. And politics exist because people often don't like each other, and don't like what other people think. "Sides," if you want to call them that, exist because people fundamentally and deeply disagree. And just to state the obvious here, isn't most of political history the terrible story of those disagreements and their consequences?

The good news, I think, is that there are some people, in some places, who are more flexible in thinking about poetry and academic hiring than others. There are people who look for commonality across differences--but it's always a real question, how far commonality can go when people simply don't agree even on their most basic values?

Or consider this irony: that flexibility itself is only one of the possible clashing ideologies in the academic context. In other words, if you and I were to agree that the idea of "teams" was limited and damaging, that would mean that our agreement would put us on the same team one more time.

It's a tricky world, that's for sure.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Jordan said...


It's complicated. I have to laugh at some of the charges Halliday makes -- Joshua isn't committed to argument? -- and I have to scowl at the underlying intention of the piece, which is to begin a categorical attack on the Ashberyan.

That said, I take very seriously Halliday's use of the epithet "pseudo-thought." It raises the critical stakes in useful (if overdue) way. And besides, shouldn't your household take his gratuitous mention of JMcS as a victory of sorts?


7:00 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Johannes --

I think it's naive for you to insist that "there is no other team" or that teams need not exist in academia. Of course teams must exist, because when you have a job, at least some part of your effort must be put toward retaining that job, and part of retaining a job--especially in the field of academia--is building and nurturing an atmosphere, a work environment, that will allow you to retain your job. If you have any say-so in the hiring process, chances are you're going to see that people more in line with your beliefs, ideas, etc. are brought in, if only because to do so validates those beliefs, ideas, etc. and reaffirms your value as an employee.

To imply that you wouldn't think twice about, say, a person's aesthetics, or their theoretical grounding, among many other qualities--their personality, their "intelligence," etc--during the hiring process just strikes me as disingenuous. Now, perhaps "avant garde" (or let's just say "non-Mark Halliday") academics don't play as consciously for their "team," especially since it's much easier for them to believe they are not even on a team (after all, it's the Mark Hallidays of the world vs. ...... pretty much everyone else, and that encompasses a very wide range of aesthetics), but I'd bet plenty of non-Mark Hallidays are going to bat for other non-Mark Hallidays during hiring season.

Also, my point in arguing for the inevitability of "teams" in academia was not to be like "Well, since it's going to happen anyway, we might as well embrace it!" Obviously, my point is that people need to question whether they want to be involved in such a system or whether they want to reject it, because it is inevitable that, to a certain extent, you will become at least partially abhorrent in your day to day behavior if you follow an academic line.

9:56 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

Max, Mark,

I realize that there's a contradiction in my argument - which you have both pointed out and which I don't attempt to hide. I think my problem is with this idea of "team" - not considering what a person writes or how they teach. For me, "team" suggests something outside of someone's views. Team seems a very static thing. Now that idea - as Mark points out - does put me at odds with a lot of people, but I don't think it puts me on a team. It merely shows that I have certain ideas about art and pedagogy.

10:09 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Well, Halliday is truly a nincompoop. But still, I have to say I agree with Mark here. Your surprise and horror seems to indicate some kind of valueless open-mindedness on your own part, as if you weren't yourself part of a team. And this is exactly the same position as the meritocratic idea that you critique; you posit yourself as the unmarked case, a free agent not bound by any allegiances, aesthetic values or commitments.

I've been reading your blog for years now, Johannes, and (don't take this the wrong way) you don't seem all that open-minded to me. You have a quite well-defined aesthetic, which you associate with a number of writers to whom you are fiercely loyal. And there's nothing wrong with this. Indeed, it's admirable that you can articulate and argue for a position (even if it's one I disagree with at times) and that, as you've said before, you don't claim to simply value what's best. I think you're backtracking on that claim here.

I think most people imagine themselves as having catholic, eclectic and unpredictable tastes, as existing outside of teams and allegiances. But this is just ideology. No-one should be surprised to find that Netflix or can nail their taste with a simple algorithm.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Max said...


A "team" doesn't have to be a conscious grouping or category in which one includes oneself. For example, a good many people, including myself, who will vote for Obama in November don't consider themselves "democrats." But we'll still do it, because we're opposed to the alternative. In the same way, if a Mark Halliday is up against someone more avant or experimental, and you're on the hiring committee, I have a hard time believing you're not going to vote for the other person. And while you may not see yourself as being on a "team" with this person (perhaps their aesthetics don't match your own at all), they are not Mark Halliday, or Billy Collins, or Ted Kooser. In short, the distance between your aesthetics and theirs may be quite far, but the distance between yours and Halliday's is even further, and moreover, the relationship between your two aesthetics is (seemingly) fractured on a fundamental level.

The reality here is that people are self-interested. When they have clear-cut choices in the matter, they are going to make decisions that increase their happiness and contentment. And why would somebody do any different? Are you going to get behind the hiring of a Mark Halliday type out of some inner sense of fairness? I don't think so.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


I obviously don't subscribe to some open-minded notion of eclecticism (or "World Music"). As you have correctly read my blog, I obviously have very definite opionions. And I think "variety" is often the most repressive stance.

But I don't think that makes a "team." Team to me suggests something else. Perhaps a more social configuration.

Perhaps I'm putting more emphasis on the word "team" here. Though it could be that Halliday is just more honest than I am.

11:16 AM  
Blogger Max said...


But what was Halliday suggesting by his use of the word "team"? I think that's what's important here. He seemed to be suggesting that there are more traditional, formal, mainstream poets such as himself, and that this constitutes his "team." And then there's pretty much "other," anything that isn't his team, and this constitutes the other "team."

That this "other team" exists doesn't imply that there is a single overarching aesthetic or idea that ties this team together nicely, but rather that there is an apparent divide between this large, variegated, but overwhelmingly "experimental" team, and the more traditional, formal, mainstream team. Obviously, there are many more ways to be "experimental" than there are to be traditional or formal. So this team is always going to appear not to be a team. And moreover, the people on this team are far more likely not to view themselves as being on a team, because to visualize oneself like that is antithetical (or seems to be antithetical) to the attitude of experimentation.

I think your understanding of "team" is relevant, certainly, but I'm not sure you're capturing what Halliday means when he uses the word, and that seems to be the most important element of this discussion.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Archambeau said...

I think Jordan's right about how "pseudo-thought" is a useful term, and could be used to help us make sense of both some very good and very bad poetry in the hipper contemporary modes of writing. I sort of hope this doesn't get lost in all the gnashing of teeth. I'm pretty sure Halliday gets the idea from Yvor Winters' notion of "pseudo-statement" -- Halliday admires Winters, and (I think) studied with him.

Winters is an odd one -- a modernist in the 20s, and the author of the best essay on Imagism by someone close to the movement, but later a slightly-screwy conservative (in poetry, not politics, where he was a New Deal kind of guy). He developed an elaborate critical apparatus to describe, and attack, modernism and other experimental work. I think it may be useful to adapt some of his concepts, if not his way of valuing poetry. But I also think the odds of this happening are pretty slim: the people who could most profitably use Winters' concepts probably don't know who he is, or, if they do, they probably dislike him intensely.

I think Mark isn't advocating the team system, by the way -- he sees it as an existing situation, which he sort of sighs and shrugs at. You know, despairingly.


4:02 PM  

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