Dean Young on MFAs, Recklessness etc

by on May.12, 2011

I’ve been meaning to write something about Dean Young’s book of poetics, The Art of Recklessness, which I borrowed from a student and have rudely forgotten to give back to him.

I like a lot of what Young’s got to say in this book; a lot of it is inspirations exhortations. I know a lot of people who have studied with young, and I can see why so many of them found Young such an inspiring teacher.

Though I question some of the rhetoric. For example, he uses “experimental poets” a lot as a strawman, defining it in very narrow ways without actually naming particulars; that’s a practice I think should be avoided. I want to see examples of this poetry, not just be told to stay away from it. I would like to know who exactly he’s talking about.

Likewise there is the common (see my Billy Collins post) distrust of poststructuralist theory, which I think is too reductive. Though here he is a bit more specific: the theory makes everything seem “construct”-ish to Young, and Young is very invested in authenticity.

I have an issue with this constant return to authenticity as the key term: “writing is not a craft,” “we’re making birds, not birdcages,” “poetry atrophies when it strays too far from the human pang,” “the blood may be fake but the bleeding must be real.” The real bogeyman is poetry that is not real, that is “ironic” and willfully obscure. I’m actually quite interested in birdcages (I love Joseph Cornell for example), and as I have noted in past entries, the immigrant is associated with kitsch, with the counterfeit. The brilliant fakey-ness of the “gurlesque” imagery in Chelsea Minnis’s poetry would be a good text to challenge this dismissal of birdcages. Or Daniel Borzutzky’s bureaucracy-appropriating atrocity kitsch.

I generally tend to agree with Young’s love of the “messy,” though this leads him to make claims exactly like the one I objected to in my post on “personal taste” (“art’s great obligation is to its own liberty” seems too easy to me, ignoring too many details). However, he is also opposed to going too far – becoming “obscure” or “murky.” He identifies an ambivalent urge in poetry: “to stand off from the tribe and to be part of it.” This seems an interesting take on “american hybrid” as well as the “accessibility” debates, as it does bring in the connection between the foreigner and obscurity – the foreigner being someone with a tense relationship with the “tribe” to begin with; Daniel Tiffany’s idea of obscurity in Infidel Poetics is very much about these “obscurities” of subcultures and marginal groups.

One noteworthy thing is that the book starts off with a long bit about the MFA programs:

“No one knows how to write a poem…. Prescriptions and intention are traps. The promise a certainty of outcome, of identifiability based on acquired skills that can only be parroted back at best. To approach the practice of poetry as an acquiring of skill sets may provide the stability of the curriculum, but the source of inspiration is as much instability, recklessness… If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices, what will produced will be sleep without dream, a copy of a copy of a copy…”

One might expect that this anti-kitsch rhetoric will lead into your average tirade against MFA programs (since it so often does), but it does not:

“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 musings and wild surmises, somehow lead to a great homogeneity as well as a great dilution of high principles of art… POETRY CAN’T BE HARMED BY PEOPLE TRYING TO WRITE IT! The billions of MFA programs and community creative writing and summer conferences and readings, all of it is a great sing of health, that the imaginative life is thriving and important, and worthy of time and attention…We are not a consumer group; we are a tribe…”

Instead of blaming the MFA programs, Young blames “careerism”:

“If there is a problem, it is in the professionalization of creative writing. J’accuse, AWP! When Tomaz Salamun was asked by one of my students what was the one thing he would like to tell a young poet, he said, Be artists, not careerists.”

But then:

“Our creative writing programs could do a better job offering students guidance in other possible employment options, suggesting courses, outside creative writing and literature that could lead them to decent work outside academe.”

Suggesting a different kind of “careerism” (perhaps a more realistic and lucrative career).

I don’t have much to say about it other than that I agree with a lot of his attitudes, but am suspicious of his use of bogeymen and his emphasis on authenticity (which creates the bogeyman of inauthenticity). Though I agree with him that the anti-MFA rhetoric is often thoughtless, I also think that we do need to have discussions about this institution. Not the simplistic pro- vs con- arguments, but more detailed discussions about pedagogy etc.

OK, now I’m returning this book to its proper owner, and I’m going to do some heavy grading.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. Spencer

    That’s good stuff, Johannes. I’m sympathetic to Young’s position on MFA programs (moreso, I agree with them fundamentally – as well as his rejection of the kind of elitism that arises out of mistaking poetry for a zero sum game). I’m also deeply sympathetic to your uneasiness w/ notions of authenticity and inauthenticity. Of all things – and Tiffany touches upon this, too (perhaps even more in Toy Medium, w/ his discussion of automatons) – I think of lyric poetry as a staging ground on which notions of inauthenticity and authenticity are constantly being conflated and reified.

  2. Michael Peverett

    Basically MFAs, theatre studies, blah are all pedagogical moves to accommodate western infantilism (I’m not against western infantilism, of course). i.e “do a course that prolongs your dream-castle of being a ballet dancer, rodeo rider, famous poet etc while we ensure you leave college with at least some of the skills you’ll need when you end up being a quality manager or events organizer.” Anyone who goes through MFA and insists on being a poet is breaking the process!

  3. Michael Leong

    If you’re interested in birdcages, you might want to check out some of Betye Saar’s work. She had a show called CAGE in New York a few months back: