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Rethinking Academic Discourse:
A Poetic Approach to Intellectual Endeavor

Andrea Custodi
The George Washington University

Is there a rule in academia that says
you've got to fill up a page to sound smart?
if there is isn't
then why does everybody think they have to?
and if there is
then why does it seem that no one has thought to break it?

I am advocating a new approach to intellectual endeavor –
a poetic approach –
an approach that is
yet grounded –
consciously performative
yet nonetheless sincere –
eminently playful
yet very much in the spirit of backgammon.

My starting point is the postmodern and deconstructive
challenge to intellectual tradition,
which I find powerful and compelling
but not effectively realized
in the works of the theorists who propone it.

If thought is language
then why is it that their language
the thrust of their ideas?
They radically undermine
call into question
our most commonly and deeply held assumptions
about the very nature of intellectual endeavor,
yet seem to content to pratter off in endless prose
ornamented with standard academic niceties
adopting the same didactic tone
as the white rational male meta-narrative
they so emphatically refute.
Glaring contradiction.
But not a healthy contradiction,
a contradiction that is gleefully aware of itself
revels in itself
and flaunts itself
to those who would require safe consistency –
this is a contradiction
that challenges those who would be its masters –
for it speaks of neglect
of oversight
of critical lack of self-awareness
of disappointing conventionality
in those whose work
conveys radical potential.

If thought is language
then how can you subvert
through standard academic prose?

In standard academic prose is implicit
centuries of language-as-a-medium –
language as transparent –
in standard academic prose we are communicating our ideas
through choices of words
composed into sentences
grouped into paragraphs
organized into chapters
presented as whole
with an introduction
a body
and a conclusion.

A useful heuristic device, perhaps.

But if thought is language
how can academic writing
still be so passive, transparent, functional?
If thought is language
how can we justify

If thought is language
how can one
traditional academic prose?
if we are no longer willing to admit
pre-linguistic thought-reality,
if thought is language,
then writing must become the ideas
it seeks to express –
form and content
one and the same

and poetry thus presents itself

I advocate a poetic approach
to fulfill
the thought-language
that postmodernists describe.

Now this will require a reconceptualization of poetry,
for poetry has traditionally resided
in the realm of
It has been everything
antithetical to academic prose
at cross-purposes
to the very nature of intellectual inquiry –
mystical unity punctilious detail
suggestion description
subjective objective
imaginative concrete
to be interpreted to be transparent
an end in itself a means to an end
you can debate the divisions –
but that is not the point
the point is a breakdown of the divisions –
a reconceptualization that makes poetry
suitable for intellectual discourse –
indeed creates a new paradigm for intellectual discourse
in which the poetic
is the intellectual made honest
for too much has changed
for academic writing to continue in its current form

there needs to be a breakdown
of the boundaries between art and theory
theory can no longer hold itself
above or beyond or apart
for it can no longer claim
any closer approximation of truth
through its methods.
both are products of
how we perceive
how we sense
how we understand
prose to poetry
traditional to abstract art –
art which sought the utmost in realism, detail, description
achieved it
then had to turn toward
unexplored new dimensions of expression
to not degenerate into kitsch and irrelevancy

a poetic approach to academic writing
is very much an aesthetic endeavor.
consciously so.
intentionally so.
for understanding
is now a multimedia process
no pure Reason
we sense
we feel
we are active turbulent psyches

things come to us
are produced in us
are expressed by us
in ways that all but
often circumvent the frontal lobe –
we should no longer deny
our multimedia intellectual formation
but rather seek to navigate the channels –
the poetic is the aesthetic applied to writing.

in poetry the form speaks
strategic arrangement of words on page
form is content
language is thought
in poetry the aural element
poetry written to be read out loud
the cadence
the syntax
the sounds
and vowels
spacing and pauses
and emphasis
ly placed to
create an
reader –

but not necessarily the desired effect.
for art-poetry recognizes that once the work has left the hands of the
it is a free radical
reacting in myriad and unforeseen ways
within the life-worlds
of those it comes across –
something that occurs also with standard academic prose
though no one seems to take much account.

so writing in this manner is a conscious balancing act
between the universal and particular –
on the one hand,

the writer is expressing something
that she hopes will make the desired impression on another
and so seeks word-images
accurate, concise, evocative of some commonality –
on the other hand,
she recognizes the contingency
of how her word-images will be received
so leaves them as little encumbered as they can be
open to free play
in the jungle-gym of subjectivity.

so the new poetry of intellectual endeavor
is sparse
words carefully chosen
for maximum effect
yet open to play

it chooses to say less rather than more.



explore –
rather than just trying to filter through all the crap.
This paper will be shorter
than those of my peers
but I hope it will say
as much
or more.


words are the mind's uplinks
present them as such

not dense

the intellectual work
should seduce the reader back
again and again
to reread
and savor –

it is not something just to get through
and put down with a sigh of relief
and hope you got the important stuff
out of all the other stuff
and vow you aren't going back
unless you really really have to.

a poetic approach to intellectual endeavor
is a creative synthesis
an inspired process
drawing from many sources
and reconceptualizing
and rearticulating

it has passion
inherent to the creative process
what drives art
what drives thought
and feeling
and expression
what is so sorely lacking
in standard academic prose

academic work that lacks passion
lacks authenticity
for it effectively denies
that which animates
the most constitutive
elements of human experience
passion springs
from the
alternate recognition and denial
of our own mortality
passion springs
from the oscillating
plenitude and emptiness of life
passion springs
from the tug-of-war
between meaning and meaninglessness
passion is in
the singular reaching out to the universal
in art in theory in love in despair

intellectual work
requires passion
to resonate within
the deepest layers
of our psyche

you know when it's got it
you know when it doesn't

it's draining

sometimes passion comes and goes
in others' works
in our own
but the idea of applying a poetic approach
to intellectual endeavor
is to find that place from which passion springs
and try to keep the channels open
for sustained inspired endeavor
it is as much a personal process
as an effort to bring intellectual dialogue
to a new level

what's the use of doing anything
if it doesn't have soul?

it's not going to be perfect
it's not going to be airtight
but neither is any academic work

the difference is that standard academic form purports perfection
pretends to cover all the bases
presents a unified hypothesis
because if you put on a good swagger and act like you know what's up
there's always a good chance that someone will believe you.

a poetic approach to intellectual endeavor
is an exploratory process

it is accessible
from a multitude of directions –
and the issue of accessibility is central
to evolving intellectual dialogue
as an artistic-poetic process –

some might say that art is only understood
by an educated few
but it is nonetheless made public
for it has the ability to touch many
who by choice or circumstance
remain outside the cultural elite.
the same principle needs to be applied
to intellectual discourse
for there is no reason why intellectual discourse
should continue to be as abstruse and inaccessible as it is –
why only a select few who have been initiated into the vocabulary
should have access to the currents of thought that
explore culture and its expressions--
this weaving of an aura of mystery
around academia
through unintelligible language
rings of the hypnotic power-effect
of medieval Catholic masses
and needs to be shown for what it is.

if our thoughts cannot be expressed
by a language that is accessible
to anyone with a modicum of intelligence
then we need to sit down
and think some more.

a poetic approach to intellectual discourse
forces us to adopt
a rigor in our thought-language
not required by standard academic prose.
we have no recourse to verbosity
abstruse vocabulary
stilted logic

instead, thought-language refined as an art
it is time to boil down the bogus jargon
for it clutters our minds
weighs us down
holds us back

it is time to strip off
the purple robes
and pompous prose

for too much has changed
for academic writing to perpetuate its inherited form

too many radical possibilities
too much to subvert
to blunder around
with conventional tactics

if there is no rule
then we have always been free
and just need to realize it
if there is a rule
then it's high time to break it.

Related Reading

Poetic Knowledge : The Recovery of Education
by James S. Taylor