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Have MFA programs done away with standards?

By Harriet Staff

At Poets.org, Joan Houlihan shares some of her results from aninformal survey of students in four different MFA programs. While there’s an “upsurge of MFA poetry programs, and therefore of poets,” poets’ abilities to grab and maintain readers are declining, leaving a gulf between the amount of work produced and the audience for it. As Houlihan sees it, the clear problem is a lack of standards in the MFA programs themselves: who is admitted, how they are evaluated, and the bar for who teaches them. Can poets always be relied upon to teach their craft well? And what happens when the novel craft they were hired to shake things up with becomes an institution unto itself?

Furthermore, as the promise of so-called “language” and “post-avant” writing degenerates from a fresh approach into a redundant and prerequisite MFA house style, the evaluation of student work is dispensed with altogether. How can you evaluate what you can’t understand?

Houlihan believes that this a problem particular to the poetry MFA, although plenty of other creative fields enjoy placing the blame for their art’s increasing irrelevance at the feet of Too Much Theory. When theory overwhelms craft, Houlihan argues, there’s no place for criticism. Not only do students not have the chance to improve their poetry, they also learn that this is the proper way to teach and take it with them when they themselves become poetry professors. Surveyed students largely reported they felt unprepared to teach and saw little connection between being a good poet and a good educator.

As one student surveyed observed: “Our writing was not so much evaluated as commented upon, and teachers tended to reveal their criteria only in scattered, isolated terms, when reviewing single poems. Always there seemed to be a great deal of concern over not hurting our feelings, so it was rare for even the worst poem in class to not receive a few empty compliments.”

I believe that [Dana] Gioia had it right in 1991, and that it is even truer now: “By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art.” Without an education in craft, without a teacher’s attention to standards and an ability to use language purposefully, without “the hard work of evaluation,” the loss to poetry is twofold: to the art and to the criticism of the art that would enable it to evolve.

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Posted in Poetry News on Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.