Monday, August 08, 2005
Someone said to me that there were five MFA programs that really meant anything. I think this could be true. There are 300 programs in the country that graduate 3000 poets each June. I don’t know 3000 poets I could read and like. Some schools must have more interesting writers and many must not. What should this matter or even mean? I don’t know; I wish I had written Buck Downs’ answer (see below.) That I enjoy poets who came from MFA programs and who didn’t means you learn what you learn from somewhere.
And then yes, the competition that breeds like malaria, but works like a Darwinian pressure, which I bracket so that you can skip:
[You get hurt a lot in an MFA program. You don’t get to think youre wonderful and brilliant for too long. At UMass Amherst there were so many student-writers who had been publishing in great journals and many who had books published before they left and others who started successful presses. Jubilat, Verse Press, Slope, Rain Taxi, Conduit--these were the outcomes of being in touch with faculty and visiting readers, but mostly outcomes of fellow students learning from one another what can not be learned in class --in short, the outcomes of community. For some, the MFA program is the first community.]
I never believed the cookie-cutter complaint about MFAs. It assumes a personal stasis. The writer who graduates at age 25 is not the same writer who is re-absorbed by the real world (whatever that is) at 26 and who is writing at 30, 35 or 50. Youre talking about two or three years in the gulag, in heaven, or whatever. Then you get in touch with everyone else again.
And then there is this: A visiting writer to Amherst decried MFA programs. Someone asked how he’d learned to write. He said he’d hunkered down in a Manhattan studio and wrote. He was asked if it was difficult to make ends meet and learn how to write, in Manhattan of all places. He seemed confused--he hadn’t worked at all. The studio was a gift from his parents. He had allowances. Having three years at UMass paid by teaching fellowships vs. working at the Metro bakery--well hats off to the latter for self-sacrifice, and to the former for finding an easier path, I guess.
I’m just now recovering from an MFA program where competition was peculiar and consuming, for some. There were the typical cliques you’d find anywhere, and in those cliques poems became inbred and those poets tended to publish similar things in similar places. I spent a lot of time consciously avoiding both the social and poetic aspects of the factions, mindful of my efforts to write away from them. I’m glad I did and I suppose I would consider this a sort of reverse competition, though I could have done without the ridiculous politics and gossip. No, I enjoyed the gossip.
There was a bulletin board in the department hallway where poets could post their latest literary journal conquests. I always viewed this with distaste; it seemed that most of the poets who announced their publications were publishing in lousy journals. This, too, forged a determination in me to only publish in what I considered to be the best journals.
I don’t recall feeling that professors encouraged much, if any, competition. I found the professors to be helpful to a fault, if a little busy or absent-minded. They seemed to act as bumpers in a bowling alley, offering gentle guidance. I learned as much from my colleagues as from the professors. The poets in my program whom I admired were the poets I learned from. They were present always in my workshops, at readings, at parties. I entered into a sort of quiet, self-imposed, deferential competition with them. This still touches my writing, and those poets are the foremost reason I do value the time, and the sickening amount of student loan money, I spent on graduate school.
It is unethical to review oneself, glowing or otherwise, because poets (I, at least) are too close to their own work to view it with any kind of impartiality. Certainly some sort of detachment would result from years away from one’s work, but the mental and emotional ties, for better or worse, are always wedded to one’s poems. I always look back at my old work with either pride or disgust; there are some poems I’ve written and grown to despise, and others seem so good I couldn’t have been their author.
However, there is something so endearingly naïve about Whitman—his childish egotism, his bare-assed baby-view of the world, even after his war-time experiences—that I have to forgive his reviews. Someone else mentioned Pessoa, and that is where my mind went first, but it is difficult for me to ascribe that kind of pathology, or single-minded purpose, to Whitman’s intentions. It is presumptuous of me to assume this; I can’t help but to find charming earnestness and sweetness in Whitman’s reviews of himself. I have to believe that he believed in his own poems.
I should clarify that I don’t find Whitman as one-dimensional as I feel I’ve just described him; it is just that I find a wholesome quality in his poems, and a willingness to strip bare and divulge so much, that it is difficult for me to view him with much cynicism. I know many poets, some here, some elsewhere, who have self-aggrandizing tendencies and who are fond of rather vocal public self-praise, and whose intentions I always meet with skepticism. If they don’t quite have the balls to truly review their own work, they have friends to do it for them. They aren’t Whitman, though, and their poems don’t begin to approach his. I think I’ve arrived at this: there’s nothing unethical in believing in one’s own work, but it’s mighty suspicious to tout it in reviews, hence Whitman’s need for pseudonyms.
A few respondents seem to have exhausted this question. I don’t think America offered (or offers) too many avenues for radical queens of genius. It’s a lot of underbrush that makes going difficult. The best Whitman move was to publish Emerson’s personal letter to him without Emerson’s permission. Emerson was miffed. I think a more interesting question now is what do you get when you don’t promote yourself in any way except that which is respectable. What are the lines of propriety? Do your poems die with you or is there still hope for a poetry of genius in a nation that teaches advertisement as the one true hope for the kind of respect Whitman still receives?