As a poet teaching English composition, I often feel torn between two worlds: the creative, metaphorical, emotional world of poetry, and the more structured, objective, world of academic writing. My experience is a little like trying to reconcile religion with science. Poetry — at least the poetry I try to write — makes the same confounding imaginative leaps as a person may find in many religions. In some ways, poetry is even more confounding than religion. Unlike religion, poetry doesn’t explain. As a poet I was taught to show rather than tell and let the images, the metaphors and similes and music carry the poem’s meaning — which is often heavy on the emotional side of things. Academic writing, on the other hand, seems to require more of the scientific method: make your claim and demonstrate its validity with sources. Or, demonstrate with credible sources and sound objective logic how a particular idea, theory, belief, is false.
I imagine many people are content to treat the two disciplines simply as different methods for approaching different kinds of knowledge. Poetry would be the examination of the self and its place in the world, whereas academic research tries to answer questions about the world itself. I’m simplifying things of course. Psychology deals directly with the “self” and psychological research is a far cry from poetry. And poetry isn’t always obsessed with the “self,” but often explores elements of human existence often found in scientific inquiry (who’s to say a poet can’t write about the atom?).
It is, however, very obvious that a poet would write about the atom for a very different reason than a physicist. In this sense, poetry and academics cannot be reconciled. The two disciplines approach knowledge in very different ways. At the same time, the formality of academic writing could benefit from the informality of creative writing. To be clear, when I refer to academic writing, I am not referring to scientific study. Scientific studies, although part of academic discourse, has its own unique purpose that is very different from other forms of academic writing. So, for the time being, when I say “academic” I am excluding scientific study. To be even more specific, I am not excluding scientific inquiry, but only scientific study. In other words, I’m excluding the kind of writing that that begins with an abstract, moves into an introduction of the thing to be studied, outlines the methodology (longitudinal, double blind, case study, etc.), and ends with “results” and a brief “discussion”. Scientific inquiry, is something different. The inquiry is what comes before the study. It’s the hypothesis. It’s the guy with his chin resting in his fist mulling over a particular idea or problem and coming up with a possible solution, a likely answer that needs more rigorous exploration.
With these definitions in mind, I think it is easier to reconcile academic writing with a more informal creative style of writing. They are easier to reconcile because they have the same purpose: to make sense of the world. Fiction is not a collection of untrue events. The assonance and slant rhymes and oddball metaphors in contemporary poetry are not written to entertain. The creative arts aren’t an anything-goes-take-off-your-clothes-speak-in-tongues kind of writing. The creative arts are just as serious about the world as the best academic writing, and they try to come to an understanding of reality with the same depth of thought, the same rigorous inquiry as the graduate student writing his or her doctoral thesis on the current state of American racism.
The difference, I suppose, is simply in the “art” of the writing. The choice of words and phrases. The grammar. In other words, academic writing — as I currently understand it — has a different tone than informal, creative writing. Not just tone, but the structure of a personal essay is very different from an academic essay. And, of course, no one would argue that a poem structurally resembles anything academic either.
But, I am getting off track. My purpose is not to reconcile creative writing with academic writing. The two are obviously different. My purpose — my argument — is that the informality normally reserved for the creative arts, can also play an important role in academic writing.
It’s getting late and I need to wrap up this post, so rather than offering any evidence to support my claim (I’ll come back and attempt that later), I’ll simply end by illustrating my reasoning in the form of questions that are probably going to sound rhetorical. First, it is clear that informal writing alone is not academic writing. But what about the use of informal language, personal narrative, the “I”, in conjunction with sound reasoning and well supported claims? In what way, if any, would such a style of writing detract from its academic nature? In what way would informal language diminish the validity of a strongly supported thesis?
These rhetorical questions, though in no way evidence in defense of informal academic writing, do suggest that making a sound claim has little to do with tone or style, but depend more on presenting sound evidence. They suggest that an informal presentation of well supported evidence has no effect on the reliability of the evidence — only on the way it is presented.