Prose Postscript

I really don't intend to be an apologist for MFA programs, but since the late 70s I've heard over and over the same basic critiques that are either extremely general or that misplace too much emphasis on the centrality of MFA programs in American arts and letters. From Donald Hall's disgust over the McPoem (which I think he's written more than his fair share) to Hayden Carruth's bemoaning of the Iowa "Wrackship" (and Carruth is one of my heroes), to current venemous treatments found in the New York Times and the Foetry web site, these criticisms miss the mark, locating the demise of literature and literacy to these programs.

I want to be very clear here. I think you can be a great writer and never trod a step in any higher education institution. You don't need an A.A., B.A., B.S., B.F.A., M.A., M.A.T., M.Ed., M.F.A., M.B.A., M.S., Ph.D., D.A., D.B.A., Ed.D., M.D., J.D., D.D.S., D.V.M., or any kind of sheepskin to be a great poet. And I would not argue that there is an exact correlation between attending an M.F.A. program and becoming a better (or worse) writer. The argument for the M.F.A. is really individual, about whether or not you want to take 4 to 6 workshops, perhaps 4 literature classes, perhaps take 2 courses in a language, hang out and work with (and maybe against) a dozen to thirty people, read all kinds of literature, attend readings, maybe teach a composition class or two, maybe teach a creative writing class, maybe work as a writing tutor in the writing center, maybe work as an editor at the literary magazine, and then leave with a degree that does not guarantee you any kind of career advancement, that has no real pragmatic ends, after two to three years, then it can be a great, refreshing experience.

For some people, I know that the M.F.A. experience was an unmitigated disaster (could say this is true for any post-graduate degree, of course). They attended a program where it was a hostile, cut-throat environment, where one learned the skills of basic political survival: backstabbing and sucking up. Of course, you can also work in a bank or a co-op organic foods store with the very same dynamics. I also know that the M.F.A. program can be a location of creative group-think, where you have a bunch of like-minded poststructuralist, post-Language, neo-New-York-School, avant-dadaists all gathered together and praising their numbingly conformist works. But I think that happens, has happened anyway (The Fugitives come to mind, so do the Martian Poets, etc.), with or without an academic institution.

To be a great poet, yes, you must read (and I recommend reading far more broadly and deeply and imaginatively than what Prose prescribes), but I also know many poets are social critters, wanting to group, share their work, argue, and disband. An M.F.A. program is one institutionalized and artificial means for that kind of gathering, and that is a good thing. But, of course, there are other gathering places, such as Poetry Thursday, that are every bit as valuable and celebratory and right, and maybe as pointless.


January said…
I support the idea that overall, MFA programs are positive influences on young poets. I agree that not all writers have to go through a program to become a good poet. But I think the plusses outweigh the minuses.

Even though I’m 10 years beyond attending NYU for my MFA, I feel as strongly about my degree as I did when I graduated. I had a good experience meeting other writers who have become lifelong friends. I worked with some of the best poets around. And the living in NYC was the quintessential experience this budding young writer. But I think I’m one of the lucky ones because I certainly knew people in the program who dropped out after the first semester.

My complaint is that colleges and universities can teach someone how to write and who to read, but they’re lousy at teaching English majors how to apply their skills in the real world. Since poetry is viewed as an art form, it’s almost taboo to talk about the business aspects. There needs to be more talk around the realities of publishing and forging a career as a writer. And I don’t think students have that conversation early enough in their academic careers.
jim said…

Small world. I decided between Indiana and NYU (I was too much of an Idaho wimp, and was just too scared to go to Manhattan--what was I thinking, as NYC is now my favorite place?). I had the best experiences at Indiana, anyway, and so that obviously colors my positive views of MFAs in general.

You make a very fine point, especially in how English programs veer away from any kind of professional-oriented training(too much of an effront to the classical liberal arts snobbery).

We're in the midst of designing a creative writing/English major, and I'm going to take your comments to heart. I'm already working closely with faculty in our communications program, and you remind me how the degree must also be grounded in the very practical.
Catherine said…
Your comments are very interesting. For myself, I don't think I'd even get into the creative writing programme that is the most esteemed one in New Zealand, entry is just too competitive. Besides, I'm way past the days when I was willing to pay for yet another degree. If you are designing a creative writing course, though, you might find this book interesting - the title is "Mutes and Earthquakes" edited by Bill Manhire - he describes what they do in the creative writing programme as well as publishing quite a lot of the work produced on the course. You could also look at their website
The Iowa workshop is the American programme best-known here because the Victoria University workshop has links with it.
twitches said…
MFA programs are not for me, but I have no problem with them and don't really understand the fad of condemning them as harmful to poetry. I think it's up the individual writer to determine what they need and then pursue it; if you're writing "McPoems" when you graduate, well, I'd say you were probably prone to writing them before you took a workshop.
January said…
Jim, you and I are kindered spirits. I considered Indiana (and Iowa) but went with my first choice--I craved the big city life at the time.

Good luck with your courses. Your students are lucky to have you an instructor.
gkgirl said…
interesting points of view...
even for one
who has no mfa

all i know is that
words excite me,
they make me feel like clapping,
they leave me silent,
they often elude me.

i do know that
if i don't put them down
on paper
in type
doodled, scribbled, drawn
in some shape or form
they will rattle and jumble
in my head for days...

that is why i don't call
myself a poet...
but a scribbler really.

it is a release
on more than level.