Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The MFA Generation

John Gallaher, "Nothing to Say, and Saying it," has a great post from poet Franz Wright about the failings of the MFA generation.

"...the bar was so lowered that per year maybe hundreds or thousands of pieces of paper (if you paid your tuition, or were a good low-level instructor slave) are issued stating that somebody in his or her mid twenties is now a MASTER of the art of poetry. Then you get the insane self-consciousness of the internet going, and put it all together and you get a couple or few generations of the most abject mediocrity, not in thought—anyone can blabber intellectually—but in the art of the poem which is made of out solitary silent meditation, made out of everything that is the opposite of what you kids daily invest so much importance in. You poor dupes."

That's hitting 'em!

--the comments to the critique are mostly cheap shots at Wright, alas; pointing out that, although Wright may write a mean anti-MFA essay trashing his former students and colleagues, he never turns down a gig.

As for myself, although I can claim to be a master of many things, I'm afraid mastery of fine arts is not one of them. So I don't really have a dog in this fight, I'm just in it for the amusement of watching the bloodshed.

(For what it's worth, the commentary by Wright was in response to an earlier series of posts by Gallaher about blurbs, where (in the second one) he dishes on Wright. It's a series of posts worth reading, if for no other reason, than to hear to him ask the questions "1. Should all American poets have “the ramifications of a new global culture” as their direct subject matter? 2. If they don’t have “the ramifications of a new global culture” as their direct subject matter, is it because they find it partly “incomprehensible” and that they are partly “fearful”?" ... and to see him illustrate these questions with a series of completely irrelevant graphs. Now, that's some poetry!)

So, if you have some comments about the MFA generation, leave 'em here! Me, I'm off to rectify my failings by writing some poems about the ramifications of the new global culture.

--see also the earlier post: There's Too Much Money in Poetry!


Anonymous said...

I never turn down a gig? Sorry for having to eat, pal. I have no advanced degree, went to no writing program, and have taught a total of fifteen semesters at three schools in my life (I am 57). I lived in some seriously terrifying poverty for thirty years. My point is mainly that all of you cranks who think writing poetry makes you a poet were around back in the pre writing program days--you simply had noplace to go, and there were so few serious literary journals or publishers of poetry that your delusions were quickly done away with, before you could proliferate and fill the country with a fog of mediocrity that now makes it nearly impossible to tell good from bad work. This country produced arguably the best lyric poetry in the world until the ubiquitous MFA programs and all the idiots teaching in them and all the idiot journals any idiot could publish in, some time in the seventies--what happened was the universities and colleges looked around and saw there was real easy money to be made, and now maybe tens of thousands of people have fallen for one of the most obvious capitalist scams going. Simple.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Well, fair enough. I was quoting that "never turned down a gig" line as an example of "cheap shots," but I suppose that in repeating it I'm guilty of apophasis, at the very least.

The internet and cheap publishing technology has opened up the floodgates, though, so if you think that the 00s have seen a deluge, I'd say you've seen nothing yet. Just wait.

pottygok said...

I'm curious about the idea that "the art of the poem which is made of out solitary silent meditation," which was actually a focus of my MFA program at Naropa. However, I think there are many who would argue that there are many great poems, lyric and otherwise, which are made not out of solitary silent meditation, but social action and activism, political sympathies, and engagement within a supportive community, such as an MFA program.

John B. Burroughs said...

With all due respect...

I don't have an MFA, but I find such generalized attacks and name calling as "Anonymous" has engaged in above not only annoying but contrary to reason.

The general "You" Anonymous denigrates seems as vague to me as a word like great and as subjective as the whole idea of great poetry. His generalizations about vaguely defined idiots (I might have thought he was talking about MFAs, but he seems to be responding to Geoff, who has confessed to being no MFA) remind me of the William Blake's maxim "To generalize is to be an idiot." There seems to be, as Mr. Gallaher points out, some truth behind Mr. Wright's reactionism. But I'm tempted to say methinks the "Anonymous" poet doth protest too much.

Guess what: if words mean what they say, then writing poetry does make you a poet, just like digging a ditch makes you a digger, placing a telephone call makes you a caller, or driving drunk makes you a drunk driver - whether or not the other diggers/callers/drivers like your digging/calling/driving or you are indeed any good at any of the above. At least according to Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: po·et
Pronunciation: \ˈpō-ət, -it also ˈpȯ(-)it\
Function: noun

1 : one who writes poetry : a maker of verses

And not "all (another generalization) of you cranks who think writing poetry makes you a poet were around back in the pre writing program days." I was born later.

But I wasn't born yesterday.

sammy greenspan said...

Proliferation of mediocrity would seem to be the core issue. Many MFA programs contribute. So do plenty of non-academic poets. I think this proliferation is important, and it brings me to John's parallel between ditch-digging and writing poems.

Digging requires a limited skill set, stamina, and a set of decent muscles (which can be acquired by other means, not necessarily requiring any prior acquaintance with ditch nor shovel).

Writing good poetry, for mere mortals, requires a long apprenticeship to craft. There's no substitute for having read and thought about reams of poetry; for having written, rewritten and thought about reams of poems.

The proliferation of mediocrity in poetry is often (not always) related to the notion that no such dedication to craft is required. Since anybody can pick up a pen (shovel) and write a poem (dig a ditch), anybody can "be" a poet.

So be it, by definition. That does not make their poems worth reading.

Mediocrity and lack of discernment are bad for poetry. We should care about that, in any garb.

The dog I have in this fight is use of a degree to gate-keep. I began a decade ago to travel 150 miles each way for an advanced workshop in poetry, because the only ones here in Cleveland were either MFA-based or required an MFA to enter. I petitioned one such workshop (sponsored by, but outside the university) to vet me using my work. They declined to see the poems: no MFA, no entry.

This MFA-only workshop no longer exists, whereas the one I attended flourishes and has now spawned a workshop here in town which I run, the Pudding House Salon workshop for intermediate and advanced poets.

Some members have PhDs in writing-related fields. Some have MFAs. Some are not high school graduates. What we have in common is the desire to develop our discernment and a dedication to the craft of poetry. Those attributes are not the property of any particular generation, but are available for the nurturing.

John B. Burroughs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.


The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau