Invest Here, Sensitive Soul

A while back, Joseph Hutchison posted this poem on his blog:

To Writing Programs: A Canticle

This way, that way, that way, this,
Here and there a fresh love is.
—Robert Herrick,

Realize the greatness
of your voice. Inspiration
comes in many forms.
Discover the writer's life
in New York City.
(You're not in Iowa
anymore.) Write
in Miami! Write
from the Heartland.
(We'll let our reputation
speak for us.) Write
from the heart
of writing. (The world's
focus is on our faculty.) My
words, my time, my MFA.
Otis emphasizes the writer's
ability to articulate
innovation. What makes
us different? Expect
more. Big thinking
for a big world.
Finally—an MFA
that trains you
for a career, not just
a genre. Study
your way. (Scribbling on
the ether.) Achievement!
Change the world
with words.
[19] Antioch University Los Angeles

Pretty funny, I think, and thoroughly nauseating. Like everything else in America, poetry has become a racket. It promises you much more, deep meaning, fame and an oblique sex appeal, perhaps, than it can deliver. Get a loan--quick, before the bank shuts down altogether!--go into debt and in return you will be taken seriously by (mostly moonlighting) poets the rest of society doesn't give a caesura about--except during Poetry Month, of course. Just pay your tuition on time and at the end of the tunnel, you will have a comfortable, middle class career coated with a bit of bohemian juju, or so the student is led to believe. If everything goes well, you can encourage the next generation to stumble down this same path.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against young people wanting to learn about poetry or poetry writing. Those are beautiful yearnings, to be encouraged, but the system as it's set up demands a careerist mentality from both purveyors and suckers. Like every other ponzi scheme, it must entice its customers, the students, so that they don't shop at the next stall. This, it does mostly by flattery, since the poet's ego is always vulnerable and eager to vibrate. Poebiz must present its models, the professors, as somehow significant and relevant, though they may be nothing but careerist creeps. Oh shit, has the mike been on all this time?!

The mike is on?!

OK, all I mean to say is that the academy is fine and neccessary but it’s not good when nearly all of our poets are walled inside it. The academy is a utopia because that’s where our most untainted, optimistic and beautiful gather, and I’m only talking about the students, of course. Poets shouldn’t loiter in paradise. Paying through his nose, a young person drops into utopia, does a few hits of acid then leaves, but you can’t get rid of a tenured rhymeister with a crowbar, even if he hasn’t written anything in decades, if ever.


Beloved Snail said...

Yes, thanks for this. It may be sour grapes since I'm outside of academia, but I really find it troubling that for many poets, teaching in an MFA program is the height of accomplishment. We wonder why poetry feels unconnected to the real world.

Anonymous said...

(1 of 2)
I'd distinguish being in the academy from getting an MFA. the former is an excellent if not frequent way for a poet to earn his/her daily bread. i immediately think of jeff beam in chapel hill. he makes his living as a librarian on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. he isn't an MFA'd poet. his work has an iconoclastic streak and it does not appear beholden to a social network of academic poets immersed in the MFA industry. in other words, I don't think he frequently writes in a way that's been shaped by the demands and expectations of poetry publishers who intersect with the MFA industry.

i think that's where the problem begins: where poetic evaluation (making judgments for publications, contests, readings) is proscribed by the person's role in the industry's social network and/or his/her ability to conform to that network's aesthetic sensibilities.

I work as an academic and it provides me with a living and relative acceptance. it also affords me the opportunity to reflect on my work as a poet and inform it, develop it, push it. the very intellectual part of my day job has changed my poetry dramatically and in my mind for the better. yet that influence of the day job has not made that work any more acceptable to the poetry powers-that-be. in fact it's done rather the opposite. it hasn't helped me make very many new "connections" that will help me get my work in whatever tweedy poetry journal that might seem really groovy.

so i don't think the problem is academizing one's work. one need only look at jeremy prynne to find a clear example of this. he's as intellectual and uncompromising as they come.

Anonymous said...

(2 of 2)
i'd say the problem is two-fold:

- the lure of joining the poetry-academic clique leading to a compromise of one's work (a process that happens rather invisibly from day one of undergraduate creative writing classes and results most profoundly in a sort of de-fanging of writing), and
- the lowering of the signal-to-noise ratio of poetic production, namely, the industry's self-justification engine leading to more and more de-fanged poetic tripe.

Now, to be fair, boatloads of poetic tripe shouldn't be too much of a worry. We can find good work. Also, it's important to note that most of our better young poets have gone through MFA programs. An MFA program is not *necessarily* a bad choice, and in many cases, it's an excellent one, maybe even the perfect one. Maybe it's the time dedicated to the work that helps, or maybe it's the influence of mentors and/or peers that helps mature a poet's work and makes the MFA pivotal to the poet who benefits from an MFA program. I think it should remain a highly personal rather than professional or social decision.

Having said all of this, the writing MFA and resulting worries over the impact of such programs just doesn't really matter at all. It's as if the game is already over.I won't say that text is dying but I will say that the solipsistic aesthetic fueling MFA program enrollment ("find your voice" + "every voice is special") is doomed. It has very few years left before it vanishes altogether. The internet and cell phones are radically rewiring our brains changing how we interact with textual media, how we "read" it, no, how we view it, how we hear it, and how we produce it. As a result, much of the writing MFA industry we see today will be gone in 20 years. The book itself is somewhat threatened in terms of how people will produce new content. Writing programs that were early adopters of new media components to their curricula such as Brown and Iowa will survive the culling but those program and others like it will be very different. I can easily imagine poetry fine arts education at the masters level moving into media arts programs. As for the fiction portion of writing programs, that may remain the meat of such programs for some time but that too will give way as people cease to produce books. There will be some other unit produced, and that unit's framework will define what the academy will produce.