BOSWELL. “Then, Sir, What is poetry?”
JOHNSON. “Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not. We all know what light is; but it is not easy to tell what it is.”

French School; Portrait of a Gentleman Reading a Book

They say that one of the major peculiarities of the Christian religion is that its founder never wrote anything down. I find this a supreme blessing. For if Christ began writing things down, he may have been tempted to use footnotes. It is easy for a man to footnote his writing; it is nearly impossible, unless he is a politician, to footnote his speech. I am personally beginning to hold the position that a man’s body of work ought to mirror his body of flesh, that the essayist who footnotes everything to death is really a bad writer, just as a man with seventy feet would be a bad walker. A man has two feet; let his essay have but two footnotes, no more. The footnote only further suggests the speaker has no idea what he means to say. There is a reason Christ did not speak with footnotes; he knew he couldn’t put his foot in his mouth.

But the modern writer is much too afraid. He is afraid, primarily, because he probably doesn’t even believe half of what he writes. One might draw the obvious conclusion, from reading their works, that many writers do not believe what they write because they do not know what they write. It is one of the deep ironies of our age that the worst writers among us are English professors. The English Department, in its drab, dull, boring writing, may only be trumped by the Communications Department. But, then, though both write some of the most hideous prose mankind has ever witnessed, at least the Communications professor is understood. It might, of course, be a blessing that the English professor generally can’t be understand. The typical situation is one in which a man spends his entire life reading the greatest examples of prose and poetry known to this planet. Then, after hours of far too much thinking, with a brain wound so tight, ready to snap, he rejoices. His muse has finally sent him something that may just be new and original, and in his revelry, he spews out something like this:

The matter is complicated somewhat by the fact that the obscurity of much poststructuralists theorizing resists easy delineation of its claims, and although Subaltern Studies is less given to such murkiness, the project is by no means free of it. No critic can approach the task of explicating its central theoretical commitments without trepidation. But, as it happens, members of the collective have, on a few occasions, offered a summary of the project’s core theoretical agenda.

He has gone from musing on this:

For hours I lay there, listening to the wind and water; imagining, now, that I heard shrieks out at sea; now, that I distinctly heard the firing of signal guns; and now, the fall of houses in the town. I got up several times and looked out; but could see nothing, except the reflection in the windowpanes of the faint candle I had left burning, and of my own haggard face looking in at me from the black void.

To writing this:

This plethora of changing and pet names registers different aspects of his character and the fluidity of his personal and social relationships; at the same time it obscures the self-identity that he seeks as he matures.

and finishes only expecting publication, or tenure, or full professorship, all of which he sacrifices his prose for. He is published in some obscure journal, read by very few, misunderstood and misquoted by undergraduates, and remembered by none.


Recently, one afternoon, as I was sitting in my office, I found myself discussing the nature of Shylock with a colleague. At one point, my colleague said the unsacred words one never expects to hear from an English doctoral student: “This is all really pointless, you know. Our entire profession is pretty meaningless.” Now, if you consider bickering about Shylock’s portrayal as a Jew an end in and of itself, a mere debate, then, yes, I couldn’t agree more. But I had to push back. I had to defend the profession. That is, I had to defend literature. If no one cares about literature, then any devil can get away with dragging Shakespeare through the mud, or making wild claims about Johnson’s sexuality or Kipling’s imperialism. In a sense, we need English majors because there are other English majors. Those few who read words and value making value judgments, who like history and human nature, are the last wall holding back a madness that would gobble up any beauty or joy or love in literature. There must be at least one professor at every university who can act as a guiding light of virtue and truth.

But on another—perhaps more serious—note, the English scholar is important because we need someone to save us from the dull world of Gradgrind and his facts. To study literature is not to win a debate about a social issue; it is to observe human nature and all its nuances. We can know that poetry is true because poetry is not foot noted. It is what it is. Human nature is what it is. It does not change by whim. It is paradoxically as diverse and deep as poetry but as rigid as algebra. But if children ceased taking any courses in literature, they would inevitably be left with nothing but a world of facts—math, science, history. Literature is the great interpreter of those facts. It puts flesh on the skeleton, adds color to the painting, laughter to the joke. It shows that an idea like love is not just a definition or even a concept; that love is more than a feeling or mindset but something like poetry, something fierce yet free, something terrible yet terrific.

The problem with our pointless career, then, is that the English professor is no longer an English professor but something closer to a scientist. As I sat in my office with my colleague and mused on my career a bit more, I came to the conclusion that our profession is pointless only because we make it pointless. A man may study Shakespeare for sixty years and not write one line of poetry—let alone a sonnet. A man may study Dickens his whole life and yet be so buried in articles and pointless work, that he never considers writing his own David Copperfield, something that may actually improve the world and change lives. They value publication over imitation. But the irony is that the men they study never thought twice about publication. They did not write for recognition or even so much for pay as they wrote because they saw something. Like one of the many rays of light emanating from the sun, only to be seen from their unique position on the globe, they saw but a glimmer of Truth, and it could not be contained or reserved for bad prose and footnotes. 

Broom Snow
Written at the Desert Schooner I,
Las Vegas, Nevada
Saturday, March 5, 2016

Painting: “Portrait of a Gentleman Reading a Book”
French School,
Oil on canvas, c. 1775—c. 1779


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