Sunday, March 11, 2007

Coterie Writing

David Damrosch's article "Trading up with Gilgamesh" (in the Chronicle of Higher Education) refers to how academic writing can be considered similar to "coterie writing" in the Renaissance:

"In 16th-century England, for instance, small groups of aristocrats such as Sir Philip Sydney, his sister Mary Herbert, and their circle would compose poems for their mutual entertainment, circulating them privately from one country estate to another. Scholars today may reach a somewhat larger circle, but most academic writing is part of a continuing conversation among a coterie of fellow specialists with common interests and a shared history of debate."

The concept of "coterie writing" is useful for thinking about contemporary poetry (in North America, in Great Britain, in the German-speaking world): poets today write for the coterie of their fellow poets. Is this something to be lamented? Many do lament it, but one should keep in mind that Sir Philip Sydney still wrote some pretty great poetry, and that the Earl of Rochester also did so in a similar milieu a century later.

Damrosch's conclusion is also interesting in this context:

"The lesson I would draw from my Goldilocks experience is that it is neither necessary nor desirable to dumb our projects down when writing for a general audience. At the same time, we need to write quite differently when we want to reach beyond the comforting confines of our disciplinary coteries. It is good to have a clear and vivid style, but equally, we have to retrain ourselves to write for readers who don't already know what we're talking about, and who need to be shown why they should care about the things we know and love so well. The trade market can bear an impressive degree of scholarly substance if we can teach ourselves to reach out to a substantial nonscholarly clientele."

Replace "our disciplinary coteries" by "our poetic coteries"! Those who want to be read by people who are not part of their own poetic coterie need:

a) to be clear and vivid
b) to retrain themselves about their own assumptions
c) to convince others to care about the things that the poet cares about
d) to maintain the high standards of their own coteries

As Damrosch argues, this is not a matter of "dumbing down" at all (he refers to scholarly authors who called what they did to their "popular" books "dumbing down"—and those books did not do well!).

Those who want to talk to the members of their own coterie need not worry about all this, of course.

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