2.22.2012

Craft and/of Writing


Walt Whitman was perhaps better known in his day as a craftsman rather than as a poet. He worked as a bookbinder and typesetter. He self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass and he was closely involved with the production of each subsequent edition, often setting type to revise his work, to utilize paper more efficiently during its shortage in the war, and in selecting material for the cover. Indeed, each edition of Leaves of Grass published during Whitman’s lifetime – nine in all – is different, reflecting not only the poet’s own changing sensibilities about his work, but setting that work within the changing contexts of a nascent democratic nation. The self-published volume of 1855 is crafted much like an atlas and within a green binding adorned with foliage on the title letters and spine. The civil war edition, published in 1860 is rife with spermatic imagery and bound in red and with “the heft and feel of a Bible.” Other editions speak to different concerns and I recommend Ed Folsom’s Whitman Making Books: Books Making Whitman (2005) for more on the specifics of Whitman’s craft. My point here is twofold: 1) the man who would become associated with the founding of a new specifically American poetic idiom worked as much as a craft laborer as a fine artist, and 2) the poetry written by Whitman is understood as much through this material craftsmanship as through the various texts themselves.
Now, more recently, the idea of craft has been an interest among those of us who teach writing in one or more various sites of the American academy. This concern, at least on composition’s side of things, gravitates around larger issues of disciplinary identity and questions concerning how we might present our identity outside our area, how we relate to others who we may be mistaken for, and how we ought to be configured within the overall scheme of knowledge making, production, and dissemination. For instance, Bob Johnson’s (2010) CCC article proposed an interdisciplinary heuristic based on a reconfigured notion of craft knowledge. His central point is that composition, or “writing studies,” should consider craft knowledge as a kind of techne that aids in the creation of new spaces “where various forms of knowledge are brought forward in a mutually respected manner for the purpose of creating new knowledge” (682). However, while Johnson attempts to craft something ultimately anti-foundational by arguing that “to classify is… dynamic” and that “taxonomic constructs can be described as an economy” (683), he arrives at a fairly static heuristic of products, processes, selves, and cultures.

More often, craft is mentioned with respect to the more narrow disciplinary questions between creative writing and composition. TimMayers (2005), Carey Smitherman and Amanda Girard (2010), M. Thomas Gammarino (2009), and Doug Hesse (2010) have all asked about this relationship and offered or mentioned “craft criticism” as a theoretical genre in creative writing equivalent to composition theories. In this literature, all of which draws on previous debates across the decades, “literature” is often the bad guy or at least the elitist snob with an overblown sense of herself. Ohmann made the distinction between those literary types who did the real intellectual work and writers who worked with their hands. Creative writers are at least aligned somewhat more with the ruling intelligentsia who are, after all, their patrons and literacy sponsors. Without a new school of poets or literary avant garde, what would the intelligentsia critique? Composition, as the story goes, is simply assigned to the basement, the English department’s dirty little secret and cash cow that funds those graduate courses on Henry Fielding’s Sado-Masochistic Disciplinarity.

But I am not convinced that craft is or even should be a conceptual fulcrum with which composition can leverage itself or its disciplinary status vis a vis literature, creative writing, or any other discipline. As Geoff Sirc recently opined (2012), “refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice, refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing.” Simply put, literature matters. Granted, this is a rather quizzical position given the bemoaning about too many PhD’s and the increasing irrelevance of groups like MLA.

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Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..