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Journal, Day Five
I woke up this morning thinking about Bach. About the fact that he had all these commissions and composed sublime music, often music-to-order. Maybe he didn’t always feel inner necessity. He was brilliant anyway.
And here’s an e-mail I got today:
I saw your blog on the Poetry Foundation website today in which you mentioned poets running to get MFAs so they could teach, etc. I know there’s been a debate for awhile about the proliferation of MFA programs etc. What do you think about the merits of getting an MFA for the purpose of the discipline, the focused time writing poetry that it would require—that sort of thing. I’ve got a full-time job and a family and struggle to find time to read and write as much as I’d like, yet I want to get better. I steal minutes at lunch, in the coffee shop in the morning, a few minutes in the evening—that sort of thing. I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have about the value of an MFA (I’d have to go the low-residency route) in that context.
I think MFAs are fine, on one level. I just think that some people view them as some sort of imprimatur: I’ve done an MFA, so now I’m a Real Writer. A professional writer, sanctioned by some higher power. But I believe that poetry is an art and a vocation, not a profession. Frankly, a lot of people in MFA programs are bad writers. MFAs are cash cows for some institutions of higher learning. They can be good places to develop, and maybe save some people some time—yes, discipline and time to read and focused writing, and finding a community and maybe a mentor or two. Doing an MFA can help you feel that you’re moving forward, accomplishing something. There are a myriad ways to get better, different ways at different times, and only you know what will work for you—whether you need the structure of a program, or can take classes at the local college or university, or set yourself a course of reading and study on your own or through a low-residency program. But here’s an interesting thing. I’ve taught in all kinds of venues and have found that talent is pretty much the same all over. Out of any group of people—whether they are taking a private group, attending a writers conference, a community college, or in a graduate program—most of them have been bad to mediocre, and a few have stood out as having some sort of spark in their language and some sort of depth of ability and feeling and sensibility and intellect, and the dedication and drive to nurture that spark. Most of the people I went to graduate school with back in the eighties are no longer pursuing writing. At the time, every one of them seemed committed to becoming a writer. Some of us just continued to write because we needed to, no matter what, and other people figured out that they could make more money, or have more fun or fulfillment, doing something else. I learned a lot by getting a Master’s in English/Creative Writing, but it was only the beginning of my education as a writer. Most of it, after that, I learned on my own, and as I said previously, there are those deficiencies—the people I haven’t read, the theories I’m not conversant with, the things that, had I had a better education—maybe gotten a Ph.D.—I might not feel were such gaps in my understanding now.
re the other comments: I did read the Terrance Hayes poem on Poetry Daily. I liked it, and have liked his work, but for me, it’s a little too linear/rhetorical right now to compel me in the way that some other work currently does. I haven’t encountered any Godzilla bees, whatever they are, & hope they’re not swarming like the killer bees. I like the idea of critics as fleas, though. Or maybe mosquitoes, sucking the blood of writers in order to fatten themselves.
I know that there are fine poets in the academy who are also good, committed teachers. I don’t have anything against MFAs or academic institutions, I just know I don’t belong there, and that their structure and function and nature seem to me intrinsically inimical to art. As is our culture. And there is a real difference between Akhmatova’s Russia and Milosz’s Poland, and Bush’s America. Those poets were operating under completely different, and more overtly oppressive, conditions. There was a structure of state oppression, and intellectual resistance, that might have had a sort of corollary here in an earlier era, but I don’t see it happening now. Poets in America have no importance, no stature. So for the most part, no one is listening. So the government needn’t bother to imprison or censor anyone. And when censorship does happen, it’s a function of that perceived (and structurally inherent) lack of importance, that blithe ignorance of and indifference to what poets might have to say. When I went to the National Book Festival in DC, sponsored by Laura Bush, I did not go to the White House breakfast the participants were invited to, and I gave a little speech during my reading about my feelings toward the administration. CSPAN was filming, but when their coverage aired on Book TV, it did not include a single poetry reading or poet’s comments. We were treated to Tom Wolfe, Sue Monk Kidd, and others with more “celebrity” status. No one cared whether we showed up at the White House or not, or that demonstrators were massing just outside to march against the Iraq war. Which event mostly wasn’t covered either. We are, simply, beneath notice. That confers both freedom and (political) irrelevance.
The comment about work that says so much without saying anything at all really resonated.
The ways we are oppressed here—co-opted is probably a better word—are more subtle and insidious. Of course we are (many of us) lucky and privileged. Of course our standard of living is built on the backs of those not nearly as privileged, and for the most part it is not as difficult as it should be to quell the occasional pangs of conscience.
The poet is responsible for his/her commitment, awareness, and spiritual development. Wherever one finds oneself, in whatever culture/institution/society, the task is always to wake up to an authentic life, to try and live with grace and compassion and kindness, and to posit something beyond the given, to imagine life as it is not, but could be. To, as Tolstoy said, add your light to the sum of light. The darkness right now in our country is not gulags or Big Brother surveillance (that is, if you can put aside Guantanamo and the Patriot Act), but triviality, shallowness, lies, stolen elections, the pervasiveness of mindless crap forced into our personal space (billboards, bar & airport TVs, Coke commercial trailers before movies, the crawl at the bottom of CNN or Fox, the blips advertising upcoming shows at the bottom of the TV show you are watching, the logos on athletes T-shirts, the corporate-named sports facilities, the endless sponsorships of every aspect of life). . . so it’s not hard to be a poet? Add this kind of media saturation (wait, there’s more! Women’s magazines. indoctrinations of all kinds related to race, sex, class, status, manhood, the valuing of substance over style. . .), and the economy, and the way we are expected/required to spend our time (and what about trying to reach a live person on the phone anymore instead a labyrinthine set of prerecorded menus & commands), and the proliferation of technological gadgets that take us further from unmediated experience of life, the malling of America. . . . Okay, that’s enough. All this of course makes poetry more necessary than ever.
So I don’t know what my point is. I’m not a sophisticated political thinker. I just see that poetry stands against these things. That all art does, as does true connection & love, and depth in friendships, & some sense of presence in the world in which people are not just out for “getting and spending,” laying waste their powers, but are trying to give something back and create something that recognizes we’re in this together and need to help each other through, and try not to cause harm.
And, oh yeah, there’s play, fun, humor, pleasure.
And Gina Marie: nothing wrong in writing for yourself. Consider, too, craft for its own sake. I’m an avid and mostly closet harmonica player. I don’t have a big desire to get up on stage & try to play professionally. But I do have a desire to be the best player I can be. Even if it’s only for me, as I get more into the music I want to do it justice. So really I’m playing for the music, not for myself. Maybe something similar happens with poetry—you write for yourself, without necessarily wanting to (or being ready to) pass it on to others. But if /when you do, you want it to be a gift worth giving, right? So you want to work to make it a good gift.
Also the lobster comment from Lorca—I love that. Duende 4-ever. No art without it.
I have been writing this late at night without going back to read it, while drinking wine & eating cookies & banana bread & having hot flashes. So I hope it makes a kind of sense, as it’s been delivered on a sugar/chard/hormone rush. It’s been interesting and challenging trying to come up with something five days in a row.
I was thinking earlier about how your goals change the more you go into something. At one time, for me, I just wanted desperately to write some poems someone would publish. Now I am more interested in living a life in which poetry can arise, and that means living more poetically—being present, playing my harmonica all day if that’s what I need to do, dropping work on a poem because a friend calls & needs to be talked down from feeling crazy. In the end, if it’s balanced, the work is the life and vice-versa. So happy trails & for you writers—I suspect the majority of readers here are writers. Have to crash now. Good luck on your journey. Here’s the end of Cavafy’s “Ithaca”:
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have set out on the road.
she has nothing more to give you.
and if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithaca means.