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Creative Writing at Harvard

By Richard A. Rand

A former Pegasus of the Advocate describes the various attempts of his magazine to maintain a home for creativity in Harvard's inimical "critical" atmosphere.

"Creative writing -- in sharp contrast to the writing of articles and scholarly works -- is marked by a lack of originality, a lack of interest, and a sterility that cause the monotonously regular and quite fair pannings that local magazines get in the CRIMSON reviews.... The fact is that Harvard plays up scholarship at the expense of creativity ... [but] where creative thinking flourishes, there the creative arts should flourish also; there will be no untouchable caste of painters, no group of Donne- and-Yeats-citing and always identifiable poets, but a general interest and activity in the arts...." from a letter to the CRIMSON.

THIS letter, which was printed last February, has in it almost all the protests levelled against the arts at Harvard. I've heard them every day for the last four years, spoken either by friends, strangers, or myself. These pro are a constant presence. They fill the air, either as a torment, an annoyance, or high praise, depending on the season and one's mood. Now, on the eve of my leaving, the question arises: what is it all about? What specifically is the raison d'etre of the advocate? Do its premises differ from those of this letter? What are the premises of this letter? I think this letter deserves a closer look. It takes a lot for granted.

To begin with, the writer draws a simple distinction between "scholarship" (meaning "criticism") and attractive thinking," exalting "creative art" at the expense of "scholarship." This is such a common statement of values that we tend to pass it over, ignoring the line of argument that prompts it. What is the argument? Simply this: that just as a work of art defers to the supremacy of life, so criticism should defer to the work of art. Criticism is here conceived as the lowest form of life, rather embarrassingly for Harvard, that lives criticism with such a passion. But is the line of reasoning a completely truthful one? I think not. Art' doesn't really defer to life; it does the reverse: it puts it into question. If an artist really believed in the supremacy of his condition (whose essence is mortality) why would he for a moment go through all the toil of creating an object whose whole intent is to last forever, to be immortal? We find these representative lines in a Shakespearian sonnet: "But thine eternal summer shall not fade/ Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st." Shakespeare, were he deferring to nature, would rejoice in the mortality of his beloved. In fact he does something very different: he calls her "eternal."

Let us pursue the argument a little further: he isn't really calling the woman eternal, he calls her "summer" "eternal." This is where criticism comes in: criticism is the voice that declares a paradox when it sees one: "'Seasons' and 'eternity' are a contradiction," says the critic. "Shakespeare has tried to say something and he failed. It won't work. It's beautiful but it just won't work." And what has he done? He has put the work of art in question, just as the artist put nature in question. So that our opening premise, that criticism defers to art as art defers to life, is no longer acceptable. Criticism is not inherently "worse" than art, it is a separate discipline, similar in enterprise but different in effect from "creativity."

And now another question comes to mind: why are people, like the letter-writer I just quoted, so unhappy with criticism? Why do they yearn so openly for "creativity?" To approach this question, we simply shift the previous argument in reverse: criticism is no more at home with itself than art is. And isn't this as it should be? Isn't homesickness at the very heart of the human mystery? Just as that critical letter yearns to be a poem, so a poem strives to be life itself. Both the critic and the artist are responding to something other than themselves; they may differ in their description of what it is, but they share this common unhappy truth: that whatever it may be, they themselves are not really a part of it.

This brings us back to Harvard: Harvard's genius, I think, is a critical one. When her teachers and students are joined in their pursuit of the past--and the pursuit is endless as the past is inexhaustible--then Harvard is true to herself. Harvard flags when her teachers are tired and her students indifferent--when both have lost the one secret to critical success: I mean the nostalgia for a work of art, the hunger of one's literary birthright.

IN the midst of all this, "quite fairly panned," we find the Advocate, a rather desultory enterprise in which a minority of people, for the most part afflicted with self-pity and a hovering sense of failure, attempt, with little morale and less money, to be "creative" in a "critical" climate. Whatever attention they receive may be attributed to Harvard's innate nostalgic for the "real thing." Annoyed and disappointed, Harvard hits back "This isn't Yeats, it isn't Donne. It is pretence. It cannot satisfy."

And yet those who are attacked continue to contribute. Why? Is a lust for pain? Yes, in some case Heroics? Perhaps. The writer stand for something. He becomes an emblem of the great trial, and everyone sympathizes with him, nay, sings his praises without reading his work.

Meanwhile, the enigma. He goes on writing. If you talk of pain, he will sigh. If you talk of heroism, he will smile expansively. If, after this you ask him why he writes, he will probably shrug and keep his silence. What is there to say? Like the rest of us, he is only human. "I write," he says, "because I am miserable if don't write."

Which makes an attack on Harvard, the inimical climate, rather irrelevant. For how can you keep a real writer down? I have always thought that a real writer, no matter how vague his ultimate aims, is gifted with a shrewd eye for anything that threatens his movements, so that when he meets an obstacle--marriage, debt the army--he will either elude it with great tact or pass through it in a spirit of utter disregard. I doubt there was ever a genuine author who blamed the landscape for his failure. It is only after his heart has left him that he seeks excuses, and then he resorts to them with a relish that most of us save for deep shade on a hot day. Mother taxes, the bomb, far from feeding his inspiration, are now the very stuff (he says) that poisoned him. He intoned with authority against the parlous times. He wrings his hands and he yells for reform. When this happens is he not the same man as the one who attacks "Harvard" for the lack of creativity in its authors? Harvard., and a brief listing of its alumni will show is a great place for aspiring writers. It serves anyone who serves his own impulse. "It's like a bank vault," an old grad once told me. "A vault full of jewels. Only the guards are there to help you steal, not to drive you away!"

BUT what, if anything, has this to do with the Advocate? Let's go back to the letter: "where creative thinking flourishes," it says, "there the creative arts should flourish also. ...There will be no group of Donne-and-Yeats-citing and always identifiable poets...." He has accused our poets of imitation, and of course he's absolutely right. One only wonders why he concluded his list at Donne and Yeats. In the last year alone we have published imitations of Shaw, Shakespeare, Pope, Faulkner, Rimbaud, Keats, D. H. Lawrence Lorca, , William Carls Williams, Goldsmith, Katherine Mansfield, Hemingway, Lowell, Wilde, and Stevens, to mention only a few. Many of these authors appear in a single work; a few of them appear in almost every work. But how, may I ask, is this to be distinguished, at the college level, from "creative art"? Isn't it taken for granted that no young author can escape imitation? And if he could, could it be of itself desirable? If we cannot detect an influence in a writer's early work, we can be sure we have detected an overwhelming ignorance, or a native insensitivity, or both; and if this is universally true, how much more true of the writer at Harvard, with its ever-insistent past?

For an editor, then, as for the writer, the problem of eliminating imitation doesn't exist. The real problem, which carries a living interest, is to find the good imitator, and to watch him digest the old influences and assume the new, always growing and changing, sometimes slightly, some-comes enormously. Three or four have one so in my time, and it is to them that one points as the real life, the creative thinking," at Harvard. They have sacked my old grad's vault with an altogether enviable lack of decorism.

Choosing between imitations raises the matter of standards, which I suspect is the true issue of the letter. What is our policy? Do we discriminate preferentially against some writers, conspiring with others to bore and confuse the public? What do we stand for," anyway?

If Harvard were heaven, there Would be two Advocates, with two different formats and two different editorial policies. One would have no editorial staff at all, only a secretary or two. It would reproduce in mimeo-1

For an editor, then, as for the writer, the problem of eliminating imitation doesn't exist. The real problem, which carries a living interest, is to find the good imitator, and to watch him digest the old influences and assume the new, always growing and changing, sometimes slightly, some-comes enormously. Three or four have one so in my time, and it is to them that one points as the real life, the creative thinking," at Harvard. They have sacked my old grad's vault with an altogether enviable lack of decorism.

Choosing between imitations raises the matter of standards, which I suspect is the true issue of the letter. What is our policy? Do we discriminate preferentially against some writers, conspiring with others to bore and confuse the public? What do we stand for," anyway?

If Harvard were heaven, there Would be two Advocates, with two different formats and two different editorial policies. One would have no editorial staff at all, only a secretary or two. It would reproduce in mimeo-1

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