Let us put to rest all those huffy complaints about the proliferation of MFA programs, as if courses of study that offer support and allowance to people for the exploration of their inner lives, for the respected regard of their imaginations, their harmless madnesses and idiosyncratic musics and wild surmises, somehow lead to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of the high principles of art.
–Dean Young, The Art of Recklessness
Late to another MFA Bashing Party, I just recently read Raymond P. Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, published in 2010 but, according to its jacket, “…passed around underground as a digital file for ten years among those associated with The New York Quarterly” prior to its publication (that word underground is interesting, but more on that in a bit). I wouldn’t write anything about this book at all, especially four years later, but in poking around for reviews, I found very few that weren’t supportive, and the notion that writing programs are ruining poetry has hardly waned.
Despite disagreeing with other critics of workshops that they should be abolished, or that poetry in America is “dead,” Poetic Amusement is nevertheless chock-full of the same misguided complaints against writing programs:
…sameness infects the MFA students for several reasons. First, conformity is the name of the game if one wants to excel within the poetry industry.
And, quoting John Hollander:
…the resultant poetry is a “deadly sameness of verse.”
And my personal favorite:
The responsibility of agonizing revisions and decisions are left to a committee’s caucus rather than to the gut tendencies of an artist who is willing to sacrifice for his art. The resultant work is left gang raped and abandoned in a dumpster, barely recognizable.
I have no idea what was in the window next to the one Hammond typed that in, but I hope he’s since closed it and gotten out more.
I joke. But Hammond makes the same mistake nearly every other critic of writing programs makes: he conflates a valid criticism with a wrong one. The valid criticism is that the proliferation of MFA programs makes it possible (necessary, in fact, given the numbers) for poets who are not Giants of the Art to have careers. The wrong criticism is that MFA programs create mediocre poetry or “sameness.”
First, the idea that 20-somethings who want to be poets are that malleable is ridiculous. Have you met any of them? They’re nothing if not stubborn prima donnas who reject more advice than they accept, as do most young people in almost any creative endeavor.
I know. I was one.
I can only speak from my own experience, of course, so here’s a short list of poets I went to school with who have had at least one book published in recent years: Alison Apotheker, Michael Catherwood, Beth Ann Fennelly, John Hennessy, Graham Lewis, Katrina Vandenberg, Cody Walker, Bob Zordani. I challenge anyone to read a page of each and find “sameness.”
Another claim common to these criticisms is that MFA students only read their teachers and peers, and that teachers actively try to get students to write like themselves. Maybe there are teachers like that, but I have yet to meet one. Again my own experience contradicts this. I don’t recall exact numbers, but we were required to take nearly as many hours of pre-1900 literature (most often taught by MA rather than MFA faculty) as 20th-century, and the only up-to-the-minute poetry course I took was one in which the students had to provide the work to be read, rather than have it assigned. Our teacher, Jim Whitehead, made us “bring it and defend it,” and he challenged us at every turn. No other course I can recall featured much that was more recent than Lowell, Bishop, or Berryman, and this was in the early 90’s. I think a visiting poet’s recent book made it onto a reading list exactly once in four years.
The central claim in Poetic Amusement, that the Muse has been abandoned in favor of an emphasis on craft, seems reasonable at first glance. Anyone who reads scores of literary journals and new books (Hammond spent years reading submissions for the NYQ) might come away from the experience feeling that contemporary poetry is long on technical skill but short on inspiration. Fair enough, but when was it not thus? Again, Hammond assumes an obedient, pliable army of the uninspired, students who have no inner lives or sense of “the mystery.” Nonsense. They’re humans, right? OK. Let’s not confuse youth or inability to execute with lack of inspiration or desire.
The most accurate thing we can say about this, and Hammond does, is that too many poets publish too much too early (or at least try) in the mad rush to build a resume. I’ve written reams of merely OK verse, and even allowed some of it into print with my name attached. But how does this ruin Poetry itself? To quote Dean Young again, “POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT!” [caps his].
Oh, that underground thing. This is another common thread in the writing-program-hate genre: that of the anti-/non-MFA writer as “outsider artist.” It smacks of posturing, an attempt at strategic positioning. The NYQ may not be The New Yorker, but for those who write and read contemporary literature, it is hardly underground. Hammond is an “outsider” only in the sense that, having never attended an MFA program, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.