Postgraduate education has been one of our culture’s most prominent expressions of upper-class privilege…
Photograph by ale
My father wrote his share of poems in high school in India. He still recites verses—though never his own—in Punjabi on occasional late evenings. My mother, the daughter of a schoolteacher and at the top of her high school class in a village not far from my father’s, could probably recite a few herself. Poetry wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract to either of them. It might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants. To their minds, being a poet wasn’t a job. They still felt too near the keen edge of hardship to see me follow so precarious a career path. I didn’t see the danger.
I don’t think I entirely understood that it was the economic advantage they had worked and paid for that permitted me to be so brazen. If I’d been anything other than a protected spectator during my parents’ lean years, if I didn’t have their income and savings for a safety net during and after college, I probably would have stuck with that startup or some other bleary office job. Economists and accountants might make raw distinctions between the classes based on objective metrics such as net worth or income—the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, for instance—but class consciousness might be better defined by the kinds of choices we feel permitted to make. Where the working classes are regularly forced to take pragmatic action out of necessity, the privileged are allowed to act on desire. My parents’ money, modest as it was and still is, did more than pay for the things I needed. It allowed me to want things they couldn’t afford to want themselves.
There isn’t anything inherently bratty about this. It is, after all, what class mobility is meant to accomplish in the too few places such a thing is even possible. The brat is born when the privileged mistakenly believe that we somehow earned and deserve the socioeconomic and structural advantages granted to us by the fluke or fortune of family, gender, race, sexual preference, religion, education, or national origin. To suffer from that delusion is a mostly personal problem. It becomes a problem for everybody else when the privileged also believe that the things we’re permitted to want are necessary or superior to what somebody else wants, when we believe our desires should be respected and even admired by those who don’t share in our advantage.
I don’t know that I ever suffered from cluelessness quite so severe as that. I did believe my dream of a life in poetry to be pure, to be something apart from socioeconomics. My concerns were artistic concerns, I thought, my acceptance of bohemianism an earnest embrace of the artist’s life. The contradiction is that those concerns, however sincere, led me to graduate school. The desire to write and publish poetry leads a lot of us there, which is all well and good, but there’s nothing bohemian about it. Quite the opposite, Western postgraduate education has historically been one of our culture’s most prominent expressions of upper-class privilege. The fact that grad programs in creative writing exist at all is testament to the remarkable abundance of collective, institutional wealth in the United States. Those of us who are able to attend these programs can do so only as beneficiaries of certain structural advantages that are required simply to walk through their gates. Latter-day versions of my parents, meaning those who might appreciate poetry but lack college degrees or the time and resources to spend on graduate schooling, can’t join us there.
This might be acceptable in the context of professional fields such as medicine, business, and law, but poetry is supposed to be an art, which means it should at least attempt to represent the society in which it’s produced. It can’t fully do this if its primary mode of production inherently excludes large swaths of the population. The risk of such exclusions is that they limit the variety and appeal of the kind of writing produced in graduate programs. Nearly every complaint about contemporary poetry in the United States, whether in reference to the lack of diversity among those publishing it or to its opacity or to the very credibility of the genre itself, is rooted in this basic dynamic.