Some Notes on MFA Discussions

by on Oct.05, 2010

It seems like there is a proliferation of discussions about MFA programs in the Internet. I have opined too in the past (Here’s a post I wrote a while back in response to Mark Wallace, though I don’t entirely agree with it anymore).

Yesterday I read a couple of articles denouncing the MFA system: Anis Shivani’s article in Boulevard, and Franz Wright’s article on facebook. There’s also been a lot of bruha about McGurl’s book The Program Era, which I read a while back and found pretty useful.

Wright seems nostalgic for a pre-MFA era when there were fewer poets; there are too many counterfeit poets produced by the MFA programs, a glut of poets. MFA programs have (as in attacks on MFAs by Kenny Goldsmith etc) made kitsch out of poetry.

This quote seems very telling: “I could provide you with a lengthy list of contemporary American poets who will tell you my conception of a poet is archaic or based on romantic cliches and so fort.” People like Wright, no matter how hooked-up, still want to think of themselves in terms of the Solitary Genius, opposed by the masses (all those mediocre “contemporary american poets”) The worst offender of this is of course Tony Hoagland, who insists on painting himself as an outsider, even as he heads up a big-name MFA program and teaches at Iowa etc. It’s disingenious (sp?) by Hoagland and it’s disingenious by Wright, whose writing and teaching has depended exactly on that vile MFA program he denounces.

Wright’s main opposition to MFA programs is that once students enter them, “half of its freedom and wildness dies.” Obviously there is some truth to this; I can’t deny that this romantic argument is part of the argument I’ve made before; and I think it’s true of a lot of schools.

Except, I don’t believe in some kind of inherent genius that is then curbed by the MFA programs. And I think MFA programs don’t have to work that way. I’ve been around schools long enough to see that it often works the other way around. Schools can radicalize students by bringing them into contact with ideas, writings, performances etc that they would not get in touch with if they – as prescribed by Wright – sit around all by themselves and just write. The social interaction of writers and artists can and should challenge students.

Even at Iowa, where I think the pedagogy was on the whole pretty normalizing, brought me in contact with a lot of interesting ideas and folks. I would be a very different writer if Iowa hadn’t dragged James Pate out of his parents’ house in the Memphis ghetto to talk to me about Godard and Kenneth Anger; or if I had never read Amy Lingafelter’s take on Frank O’Hara. And Jorie Graham, that beacon of MFA-ness and Insider Moves, was actually really important to me as a poet because she gave me great encouragement and challenged me; and Lynn Hejinian gave me important critical tools for understanding what I was doing. And I owe an incredible amount to Jed Rasula, who was my teacher in PhD school, even though my ideas are in many ways contrary to his own (see for example my blog posts where I use his conceit of “American Poetry Wax Museum” to criticize the “community” ideal of a lot of American experimental poetry).

The main problem with Wright is that he thinks MFA courses is merely: “overseeing younger poets and their inevitably really awful work and having to talk about it, kill yourself to say positive things about it…” If that’s all Wright does in his classes then he should’t be teaching. That’s poor pedagogy.

Another issue: Wright may claim to be all for “wildness” and “freedom,” but his own poetry – though I think it’s pretty good at what it does – is pretty much in line with the poetics of his dad, whose poetry served as a model for a lot of those myriad of MFA schools where the wildness and freedom goes to die. So how much wildness are you really interested in, Franz Wright?

Furthermore, I know he’s been a loud proponent of the Dickman Brothers, a couple of poets who’ve been praised and made famous by exactly the MFA Mill that Wright claims to abhor.

In his article, Shivani notes: “… the talentless journeymen, Matthew and Michael Dickman might be apt examples of favored stars, whom the masters – and their friends in the New York publishing and reviewing communities – have decided must ascend to the top.”

I actually think the Dickman brothers are quite talented writers, but they are, as Shivani points out, hardly “wild” and “free”; rather they fit all too nicely into the James Wright aesthetic that both Franz Wright and other high-ranking MFA folks (Tony Hoagland) can appreciate and not feel threatened by. Let me repeat: I do think they’re good at writing that kind of poetry, but they don’t do anything that would threaten Hoagland and Wright. So much for Franz W’s “wildness.”

Shivani’s argument, like Wright’s, is that the MFA system is inherently conservative, and he makes a lot of points that I think are valid as to why that is; for example, the importance of submitting to the social hierarchy in various ways. And he points out – as I have elsewhere – that the “community”-obsession with a lot of American poetry leads to a certain insularity (or the other way around). But like I wrote above, MFA schools don’t have to function that way.

More importantly, I have to wonder, what does Boulevard Magazine think of its own poetry. They are, according to their web site, publishing a pretty canonical, conservative slate of poets: Mark Doty, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, Billy Collins etc. Some radicals! And where are the foreign writers? Where are the un-tenured wild men? Does Boulevard even believe in the article it has published?

I think the problem here is that so much of the discussions fall back on the raw and the cooked paradigm. Wright seems terrified of actual aesthetic discussions, so it makes sense that he should fall back on such simplistic attitudes (cooked up by Lowell, afterall, at the inception of MFA programs, to further his own poetry).

What’s missing from these, as many other discussion about/in poetry, are arguments that actually try to develop and understand poetry in interesting ways; arguments that dare to put forth aesthetics. So much of contemporary discussions fall back on: raw-vs-cooks, normalizing (too this, too that, not enough this or that), anti-kitsch arguments (that’s been done, that’s not wild, that’s uncool), or PC arguments of demographics (not enough women etc, though these are often very useful, they can’t be the *only* discussions worth having ).

One thing one must appreciate about Silliman for example is that he’s got his aesthetic agenda and he’s willing to lay it on the line; and he reads new poetry (so many of these anti-MFA critics seem to have very little knowledge of the poetry that is actually being written across the land and elsewhere).

When Joyelle and I first started Action Books we wanted to make sure we wouldn’t just be another press that pretended to have no taste, to be “looking for just the best, no matter what the style” (the worst lie!); we wanted to make explicit our poetics, what we were interested in. And from the immediate response (we were ridiculed by Poets and Writers for having an aesthetics, and that’s a magazine that seems generally positive about everyone it chooses to include) we were surprised that people didn’t exactly value this foregrounding of aesthetics, in fact they hated it.

It seems that one product of the MFA era has sadly been the idea of a writer who creates in solitude and then depend on critics to engage with the work; ie the idealization of a very helpless, silent writer. But I think we need people to actually be interesting readers (as well as writers). That inherently conservative sociality that Franz decries can be a very dynamic sociality, a force for interesting ideas. But people need to come out and dare to take positions and dare to think about poetry in interesting and adventurous ways.

Conclusion II:
A useful thing I got from McGurl: the idea that MFAs are part of our literary landscape. The discussions should not be some naive pro vs cons of MFA programs. The discussions should be: what kinds of pedagogy, aesthetics, hiring practices, foetry etc is involved in it. To merely attack MFA systems these days is a kind of naive take and I think it’s important to think of the purpose of such naive attacks, especially when they’re made by such high-ranking establishment figures as Franz Wright. What is he really arguing for?

13 comments for this entry:
  1. Franz Wright

    You asshole, I made a POINT OF POINTING OUT that I have taught exactly 17 semesters, only one of them having anything to do with a graduate poetry workshop. And no, I am no solitary genius (though I am one of them, a thousand sincere apologies for that)–there are a number of others working in our time, and there generally are quite a few now, as there are more people on earth perhaps, I don’t know.
    If you do not believe that I led a life completely outside the academic and the literary worlds for thirty years, and spend more time homeless and in hospitals than in universities, I can do nothing about that but bemoan you (deliberate, no doubt) ignorance. In other words, like so, are a liar.
    F W

  2. Leeyanne Moore

    Like what you say — and agree with almost all of it, just in terms of fiction, and not just poetry.

  3. Franz Wright

    I seem to have misspoken: at the end I informed you you are a liar, and that is what you are. You ought to publish my statement, so that everyone can see what I mean, but you will not do not, will you.
    American poetry will continue to be diluted and ultimately become a source of appalled laughter throughout the world as long as generation after generation of people WHO ARE NOT NOW AND NEVER WILL BE POETS continue to enrich universities in order to receive a piece of paper proving they are masters of the art of poetry–something I believe could be said only of Keats, Hart Crane and a few others–at the age of 24. Europeans have a wonderful time with the concept of receiving a terminal academic career for writing poems, I have had to hear all about it many times!
    But it is clear that you, no doubt born at a time when the MFA system was firmly established and unable to imagine a world without them (a world that existed a bare thirty to thirty-five years ago) simply cannot grasp what I am talking about. Much of the greatest poetry in the world was being written in this country until the American poets born between the late 1920s and late 1930s–the generation of Levine or Merwin, say, and the generation of Strand, Simic, Charles Wright, etc.–failed to resist the promise of an upper middleclass lifestyle plus the prestige of professorship and got the whole thing rolling until it rapidly became ubiquitous (college administrators noticed the income rolling out with practically not outlay and the sudden ability to say, Look, we support the arts, because they hired name poets to teach in these programs).
    Those poets’ work suffered (not Merwin and Bly, who were the only poets and remain the only poets of note in this country, besides me, who do not teach in MFA programs)–they were poised to become much better poets, then mysteriously, about the time they found out what working in a University English Dept. really means, their work began to go downhill…
    I thank God every day for keeping me outside the academic and literary worlds (actually they form one entity, one complex, like industry and the military, like pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession) by making me a “disturbed” person.FW

  4. Johannes

    You clearly did not read my post very carefully. I’m not arguing for or against the MFA system. It’s here. It’s part of our literary system. I do find it ironic that a person as hooked up as you, someone holding a far more privileged place in said system than I do (published by a major press, given awards etc etc, and most importantly *taught* at MFA schools), should be attacking the MFA system (and me as a representative of the MFA system). You attack the mediocrity of theMFA system, but your poetry and the poetry you praise is exactly (literally) the poetry promoted at the majority of MFA schools. This reeks of hypocrisy at best, disingeniousness at worst. So it seems to me that attacking MFAs is an easy target to make up for the fact that you don’t seem willing or able to engage in arguments of a more substantial kind. (As for Europeans, I happen to be a European, and I translate and interact with a lot of European poets; I’ve never heard anybody even mention MFA programs; they have far more state-supported arts grants etc for one, a system with just as many flaws.)

  5. Franz Wright

    It is also clear from your “writing” that you are one of many involved in all this who really could not give a shit about the fate of American poetry. For some this is a sacred matter, believe it or not–and there will always be a few of us, don’t worry.

  6. Ryan Sanford Smith

    I think, in this discussion, it all finally comes down to, for me, just realizing & accepting the simple but (to me) truth that there’s no one answer for everyone.

    Let’s face it, there are indeed some solitary geniuses out there, always have been / will be.

    I agree there’s no genius any MFA could ‘destroy’; I’m not sure I’m 100% convinced there are relatively ‘talented’, passionate people who might not walk into the wrong MFA for them & suffer greatly because of it, but this isn’t anything wrong with the MFA itself so much as, again, people finding what works -for them-.

    Maybe what works is SUNY, or Iowa, or Notre Dame, or maybe it’s working like Bukowski did as a mailman for 30 years.

    Like anything else in or related to any other kind of art, I don’t buy anymore there’s a truth or rule to this that will be true for everyone.

    It’s all part of the game; learning what works for oneself; there’s a part of the ‘talent’ or ‘genius’ in that, it’s just part of the territory; maybe an MFA won’t destroy your genius because if you’re actually a genius you’ll see an MFA isn’t what you want or need, so you don’t step foot into it regardless.

  7. Johannes

    Ryan, I agree with you for the most part. I would point out that there seems to be this unspoken romantic cliche that schooling necessarily ruins a “genius.” I think Milton would disagree; he certainly had more schooling than any of us. Schooling may ruin some people but it will certainly help a lot of people. It’s in how you navigate everything. BTW, great poems yesterday.

  8. david

    not trying to be a jerk, i just think it’s hilarious how poorly someone with wright’s background is behaving about this issue–here, & elsewhere.

    the mfa question is definitely an interesting one, though. i will say that, as one having gone through an mfa program (for myself, i’m not presuming to speak for anyone else), while it has definitely set me back some loan money, it has also helped me move forward in my teaching career (& yes, i understand that wright is arguing against this exact path). though i should also qualify that with the fact that i’ve wanted to teach at the college level long since before i wanted to write poetry.

    more importantly, though, working with the poets i worked with challenged me greatly (poets decidedly not in the hoagland/wright tradition). & this is something that is invaluable.

    i’m writing poetry that moves in much different directions, & i can at least articulate what kinds of moves i’m making & what moves i’d like to make. & thank GOD that at least i’m not writing the same JAMES wright-wannabe poem over & over again, as i did in my 20s. but then neither am i relying on a name.

    i like the idea of “making it new.”

  9. Kim Koga

    So – I read the post on exoskeleton – which I enjoyed – and read Franz Wright’s article while it was still up on fb – which I disagreed with – and although I am still reading through the Shivani – I wanted to comment a bit –

    I’m thinking that if being an MFA professor is about stroking ones ego – then you’re in the profession for the wrong reason. If you need your ego stroked then there are other jobs out there you should be looking at. And it also goes to the idea of the student worshipping their prof as poet-god – I don’t think this is a good model either. MFA programs serve many different purposes but I don’t think that either of these should be part of the purpose. (I’m getting this from Johannes’ comment on Wright’s idea of what MFA courses are. And he’s is correct: it’s poor pedagogy).

    There are programs out there that support the idea of the poet-genius – I didn’t apply to any of those programs. I researched programs extensively before I applied – looking at their mission statements and faculty in order to gauge whether or not they’d be a good fit for me – and it seems that this sort of research should go both ways. If Wright believe in the solitary genius then perhaps he should teach in a program that supports that idea – if he’s also into the idea one is either born a writer or not – then he should teach in that program too. I completely disagree with those ideas. I think that talent/passion can be directed/cultivated, encouraged and developed. I don’t see how one could hold themselves up above “all those mediocre ‘contemporary american poets’” it just doesn’t make sense –again – this sort of statement just goes back to ego-stroking and insecurities – why be so threatened by other writers that you have to try to put them down? (perhaps that view is too simplistic?)

    I feel like I’m getting off topic – I do agree that most certainly there are programs out there in which wildness and freedom die –but I also think that this can be curbed or changed by challenging your students intellectually and socially. In notre dame’s program I have definitely been exposed to things that I would have never come across on my own – and this has been very very important to me in helping me contexualize my work with the work that is out there – to be in conversation with other poets and critical frameworks that I would have otherwise never been exposed to. I think that that is the most important part of an MFA program. Or perhaps that should be the goal (or a goal of sorts) rather than looking for some genius to mold/shape into a miniature version of you – the prof. And besides – sitting around by myself and writing is something I did as a teenager – how boring is that?

    Yes and the people in the community matters too – programs that have a homogenous aesthetic/background offer so little. I’d be so bored if all the writers were “traditional” or “experimental” – it’s impossible to learn each other when everyone is doing the same exact thing and is the exact same person.

  10. Hey, look! Over there! It’s a literary blog peacocking himself! « We Who Are About To Die

    […] his own group blog, Göransson like to pick fart-smelling fights, with posts on the pros and cons of MFAs and that most tired of poetryland axes, Franz Wright.  Looking at his posts reminds me of the […]

  11. David Grove

    “Tristan Tzara said:’Poetry is for everyone.’ And André Breton called him a cop and expelled him from the movement. Say it again: ‘Poetry is for everyone.’ Poetry is a place and it is free to all cut up Rimbaud and you are in Rimbaud’s place…’Poetry is for everyone.'” –William S. Burroughs

  12. Nadia

    Guys, what you’re seeing in the behavior and responses of FW is illness. Really, really grave and serious illness. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a very long time. Hopefully it won’t end up killing him. I know it’s hard to feel empathy for someone who is behaving so irrationally and maliciously, but try to. He is truly to be pitied in this case.