Another Post About MFA Students: Insiders and Outsiders

by on Dec.23, 2010

For a week I’ve been thinking about the persistent models of insiders-vs-outsiders in American poetry. It seems to be a very crude model but all the same an incredibly persistent model.

It came up again in the goth-thread, where Adam pointed out that Sylvia Plath was in many ways a “mainstream” poet – hardly an obscure outsider. To this I replied, that I wasn’t really interested in terms like “mainstream” (or outsider, avant-garde) but with the way she was discussed. But of course I am interested in the term “mainstream” and the term “outsider” – I despise the terms and think they perpetuate themselves; perpetuate a static, a conservative model of literature.

American literary history seems based on this dynamic. You have the iconic outsiders (Beats, Frank O’Hara, Walt Whitman, Spicer etc) and the iconic insiders (Donald Hall, Jorie Graham etc). I say literary history because the present never fits into such easy molds.

The interesting thing is that in the present it seems like everyone feel like outsiders. Even Tony Hoagland, sitting on his mountain of influence and institutional power, tends to position himself as an outsider. This is certainly true of his essay, “Fear of Narrative and the Skittery Poem of Our Moment.” The interesting thing is that he seems to be an outsider to the MFA students, the very group he teaches! And which – as Joyelle pointed out recently – have very little power. Hoagland writes:

“The energetic cadres of MFA grads have certainly contributed to this milieu, founding magazines, presses, and aesthetic clusters which encourage and influence each other’s experiments.”

These students are writing the “poems of the moment” in Hoagland’s essay – not him, not the professor who gets to write the essay, but these nameless graduate students. Well, actually nameless is not entirely correct. He mentions two good poets (Mark Haliday, Matthea Harvey) and some – in his estimation – less successful poets (Rachel Simon, Kevin McFadden). The notable thing here is that the good poets are the successful poets; the bad poets are less successful. Hoagland even brings in Lorca and Aragon, heavy hitters of literary history, as an antidote to these MFA students who merely follow shallow “fashion,” oblivious to the “deep structures.” (Not surprisingly, these skittery poets are attacking identity.). It seems name-recognition is a key to being a good poet, to standing out from the masses, to being outside of those masses.

Sometime ago, Hoagland published an essay somewhere where he praised Lyn Hejinian, and this was considered surprising news in the blogosphere. I think the key here is: she’s famous. She’s part of literary history. She’s not part of that nameless group of MFA students starting journals and being fashionable. She’s a bonafide established Poet. She’s not the masses of MFA students being “churned out” (as Dana Gioia put it on an essay linked in the discussion of Joyelle’s piece) like so much inhuman meat.

This is also the anxiety I hear in Franz Wright’s diatribes in favor of Great Poets (such as himself), against these unknowns. Like Hoagland, Wright positions himself as an outsider because he’s an award-winning poet, though one would think this would make him feel like an insider. But in fact it’s the un-famous, frequently maligned, fairly powerless MFA students who are the insiders due to their own mass identity. They create a mass that is hard to differentiate (In job interviews, people always ask me: how do we grade these students? How do we know which ones are the good ones? As if this was a question of dire importance.) And the anxiety is of course that we won’t know who’s Great and who’s Not.

In my experience, grad students are hardly “churned out” either. They tend to be people who are very invested in poetry and are looking for some guidance, some network of exchange, some form of the social that they cannot find outside of the academy.

I admit I tend to see myself as an outsider, reminded at every turn of my immigrant identity. And this is certainly true of the poetry world and my experience in MFA school, which I felt really alienated from. But all the same I kept coming back because I found in the academy a kind of social structure that I couldn’t find outside the academy (my last job was as a landscaper, which left me so incredibly bored and exhausted I went back to get my PhD in just sheer desperate attempt to get some time to write a poem). And now I’m a teacher in an MFA program. And I still feel totally weirded out by the academy (I go to department meetings, I fill out forms, but I can’t really figure either out.)

It might be that the MFA program (and academia as a whole ) could be seen as a kind of heterotopia – in line with juvie or movie theaters – a space that can both be used to repress subversiveness (or insist that Kate’s novel should have “psychological realism”) and serve as the breeding ground for it.

But most of all there’s the threat of kitsch: how can we have schools “churning out” “fashion” rather than True Art? What if that kitsch poetry somehow drown out the Truly Important Poets?

I’m thinking of how in response to (or seemingly so) Joyelle’s piece on unnatural motherhood, in which she said we’d have to “wade through the plague grounds” of contemporary poetry, Stephen Burt had to set up Rachel Zucker as THE abject poet, to establish some kind of order, the order of literary history.

Either you have the plague grounds or you have Literary History (whether it’s written by Marjorie Perloff or Tony Hoagland or Helen Vendler). Here’s a piece from Joyelle’s post:

8. Poetry’s present tense rejects the future in favour of an inflorating and decaying omnipresence, festive and overblown as a funeral garland, flimsy and odiforous, generating excess without the orderliness of generations. It rejects genre. It rejects “a” language. Rejects form for formlessness. It doesn’t exist in one state, but is always making corrupt copies of itself. “Too many books are being written, too many books are being published by ‘inconsequential’ presses, there’s no way to know what to read anymore, people are publishing too young, it’s immature, it’s unmemorable, the Internet is run amok with bad writing and half formed opinions, there’s no way to get a comprehensive picture”. Exactly. You just have to wade through the plague ground of the present, give up and lie down in it, as the floodwaters rise from the reversed drains, sewage-riven, bearing tissue and garbage, the present tense resembles you in all its spumey and spectacolor 3-D.

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Jacob Wren

    When Sarah Palin was entering national politics the advice she got, over and over again, from the powers that be, is that she must present herself to the American public as an outsider.

  2. Johannes

    Good example. yes, this shows how potent this position is.


  3. Laura A Wideburg

    Americans love the whole concept of the outsider. It would be difficult to say “I am an insider” and be respected or admired. Heaven forbid that a politician say he or she would be effective because she or he knows the inside world of D. C. inside and out.
    As far as I’m concerned, once you are in the MFA world, you are an “insider” in the group called “people who have received MFA degrees” and like any group, these people know and support each other in their cohort (ie. when the grad students become professors, they support the people they knew in grad school and eventually their students). The MFA folks also know a great deal about theory, which is not known by the general population. It becomes an inside jargon to the “insiders in the know”, even if they feel like “outsiders”. So, in short, from the outside of the MFA field, you all look like “insiders” to me. But maybe the fact that I read these posts makes me a suspect “insider” after all????

  4. Johannes

    Yes, on a basic level jsut earning an MFA makes one inside the MFA boundary but many people get MFAs and many people who dont’ get MFAs know far more theory and have more connections etc, so by itself it’s just a flawed inside/outside paradigm; and I think again that the pardigm hides more important conversations?


  5. adam strauss

    Insider/Outsider assumes one “circle” if it is to make sense as a term–tho of course it’s less accurate than that and yet amazingly legible in a “you know what I mean” way. I would call you, for example, an insider when it comes to glam small presses–and an outsider when it comes to knopf etc. I guess some would argue Tarpaulin Sky etc are always on the outside, but then shouldn’t it be that one can never be in them? Maybe the best way to define the term is whoever knows mucho po-biz dirt is an insider. Or who always has a venue for publication, with no significant effort (I don’t include the writing of aspect here) needed to publish books. Something that sorta weirds me out is I feel like the “mainstream” is queerer than the “experimentel” world; I for sure link in experimental to hetero, which is not to say this is always the case; but it does seem like there’s no equivalent of Carl Phillips (who I am not, as of now, interested in) etc. I’m guessing this note of mine answers/resolves nada and just points to more lacunae.

  6. Johannes

    I guess the more I think about this the more I see how difficult it might be to get what I’m trying to get at –

    I do seem to conflate a whole bunch of versions of alienation/ousider-nesses. Of course not just MFA programs but other literary organizations (NY Times, journals etc) tends to filter out people who dont’ have the right backgrounds and aesthetics.

    And as I noted, this kind of literary history, official poetry type of position tends to do the same, but in that case there’s a real anxiety about “MFA students,” which I really in the end tend to represent something more like forces that are opposed to the literary historical narrative… Great authors… “psychological realism”… “mainstream” etc

    I think all of this amounts to a feeling of alienation and it seems the outsider position is the only tenable position, but then that position is already taken it seems. And further, it seems too easy to defeat, to marginalize and I guess this is what I was grasping towards when I wrote to Kate originally…

    But this post no doubt bit off more than it could chew so I might cancel it and rearrange it abit.


  7. Johannes

    OK, I realized that my conversation with Kate and possibly my conversation with Adam was a totally different conversation so I simplified this post a bit.


  8. David Rylance

    Johannes, I don’t think you should back off the train of thought you’re pursuing quite yet. The fact there are concentric circles of entanglement re: insiderness and outsiderness, as Adam points out, all of which depend upon the co-ordinates of who is looking in at who in what scenario where, doesn’t quite undermine your point about the distorted valence of the moral authority of the outside, cross-culturally, in America. Or, it does not quite answer the question: is the instinct for the outside an outsider instinct? Because there is – as you intimate in your post – not just a complex lattice-work of insider cultures that zone persons in and out on a series of abstruse criteria but a common rhetoric in which the outsider is a kind of credentialization that crosses circles, and constitutes their apparently individual circular elegance.

    This insider culture of the outsiders who are actually on the inside – in particular, the ones who are obsessed with “individual talent” (or Great Poetry, same thing, since poetry collectives, the poetry of many writers, [on this point, Martin Puchner’s ‘Poetry of the Revolution’ is quite excellent] certainly never counts, only lone artists ‘aligned’ with, thus able to dissent from, movements) – depends upon the postulation of an alliance between the lowbrow and indistinct intelligence, between mass culture and mass intellectualization – as symbolized by the educated anonynous group-think of the dreaded “MFA student” – to mark out its own peculiar distinctiveness. However, such a move misses the true essence of the middlebrow: which is to link together mass culture and the indistinct “group intellect” in order to negate the very idea that the middlebrow is precisely what is produced via this very postulation. Christopher Hitchens – short on ideas, long on ‘distinction’ – would be an example of this. Franz Wright is definitely another.

    Bourgeois inanities flourish from the premise of a group-think that can be critically thought over from the outside, from which derives their (common sense) notion that we, as artist or critic, have something to say (to cite Jerri Blank) above that wretched straightjacket of mass cultural common sense. Massification of culture and educated averageness are thus drawn together as the mainstream that the middlebrow is above of and outside of, though, in fact, both are infinitely brainier than the middlebrow itself. What defines the middlebrow is elitist populism: an appeal to the masses as not masses, as always outside the circles they are in. Yet, unexceptional intellectuality (or, what used to be called ‘popular education’) used to be an ideal: an ideal, which, despite prevailing middlebrow notions to the contrary, was not at all about the ressentiment of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ or making originality impossible but about understanding remarkable clarity as neither above the obscurity of everyday epiphanies nor free from susceptibility to conformity to the advanced intellectual logic of conformity itself. That is to say, unexceptional intellectuality is against educated complacency but precisely because it is for the notion of the inherent dimension of intellectual to any ordinariness: precisely because, as Raymond Williams once wrote: “Culture is ordinary”.

    The intersection between the historical avant-garde and mass culture on this count highlights how high art was reconceived as a form (important to emphasise that word in its full meaningfulness) of mass intellectuality. The idea that mass material as has to be non-abstract – or always for the maximal mass audience – to be of the masses is a libel against the idea that mass-anything can be original or incomprehensible or for a limited audience (as though all mass cultural items were simply for ‘anyone’; as though its appeal to one’s interest played no role, for the Pavlovian dogs of the commons). In that precise sense, the anti-abstraction of the middlebrow, and the accompanying insistence that such anti-abstraction is the only way to communicate with the plebs, is actually a product of the infatuation with what Mark Fisher calls “the aesthetic dimension of capitalist realism” with “its echoes of socialist realism’s disdain for abstraction and montage, and its similar preference for the homely, the populist, the familiar: that which pushes already-existing emotional triggers.”

    The problem with the instinct for the outside, then, is that the outsider culture of insiders pushes these exact triggers routinely and constantly. I wouldn’t say that renders a claim to marginalization useless but it requires a transvaluation of values to be what it wishes to be. Important to remember then, on this point, is that the middlebrow – rather than being a mere, nontransitive preserve of Knopf, Oprah, the Harper’s, the Democrats and so on – is also an ordinary cultural practice as well. In that sense, a publisher of small press material could easily enlist in the service of as much as an institional organization. In fact, the middlebrow establishment actually depends on its ‘grassrootism’ to a large extent to reproduce itself, I suspect: which is to say that co-optation begins a lot earlier than we’re prepared for and certainly not as late as any single decision to join an institution. I think maybe this is why individualists who claim they’d “never care to belong to a club that will have me as a member” (to cite Groucho Marx) are nevertheless consummately clubbish and knee-deep in institutionalism or aiming to get there. After all, they all have to congregate somewhere.

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  10. Johannes


    Thanks for this comment.

    The “middlebrow” is a useful term actually, and your post provides great insight into the production of this position, a very powerful position. It is interesting how these folks can be so persistently simultaneously anti-kitsch and anti-elitist in their rhetoric.

    I obviously have a great deal of ambivalence about the outsider-position. Perhaps because I still hold on to the idea of a “transvaluation” of the outsider position.

    And yes, the outsider positions tend to generate clubs with its own consumate insiders.

    I will write a follow-up post.


  11. Agripina Conly

    I saw a tv show last week about this. It wasn’t as exciting as your writing.

  12. Johannes

    That’s a funny piece of spam.