The Writing Class

On privilege, the AWP-industrial complex, and why poetry doesn’t seem to matter.

Sometime in the early 1970s, my parents got into a still-infamous row after one of them splurged two dollars on a houseplant the other insisted they couldn’t afford. That spat took place a few years before I turned up, but they’ve laughed about it so often, I almost remember being there. It fits into my real memories of other squabbles they had in that shabby apartment we lived in on the north side of Chicago, the worn green carpet in its kitchen, a claw-foot tub without a shower in its single bathroom, scuffed paint on its walls, their arguments tumbling through whole evenings. It fits into my memory of what money meant to their otherwise happy marriage. Sundays we’d go in the used Oldsmobile from one market with a sale on tomatoes to the other where a gallon of milk sold for 10 cents cheaper. On the way home, we’d forgo the bright new gas station for the gloomy old one where unleaded cost a few cents less.

These are some of the ways my immigrant parents survived recessions, layoffs, and the disappearance of entire industries from the U.S. economy. This is how they earned, saved, and invested enough to move us into a brick split-level house with a two-and-a-half-car garage in the suburbs by the time I started secondary school. Though my father clocked into the same hydraulics parts plant as a machinist for more than a decade and my mother did data entry for an hourly wage at a financial publishing company, they could afford to buy me a set of encyclopedias and an Apple computer. They could pay for tennis lessons and give me a stereo system with a CD player and a double-cassette deck. They could send me to the private academy instead of the public high school.

This is how I lived a socioeconomic reality almost entirely separate from theirs. While my parents scrimped and stressed daily as part of the working classes, I went to a school with honors societies, study abroad programs, and AP courses. I went to college. I managed to turn my philosophy major into a high-paying job at a software startup south of Silicon Valley. Higher education had kept its promise of onward and upward mobility, which seemed easy enough in the bloated turn-of-the-century tech economy. Still, after less than six months at the startup, I decided to apply to MFA programs in creative writing. This didn’t make sense to my mother and father. Though we were far removed from the ragged apartments of my childhood, their class consciousness remained rooted in those earlier struggles. It told them we weren’t the kind of people who did certain kinds of things. Abandoning a salaried job with stock options for a graduate degree offering little hope of future employment or reliable income was chief among these, but I liked the integrity in my plan. If a degree in poetry dumped me into bohemian poverty, I thought, so be it. At least I was being earnest in my pursuit. I was that kind of people.

My father wrote his share of poems in high school in India. He still recites verses—though never his own—in Punjabi on occasional late evenings. My mother, the daughter of a schoolteacher and at the top of her high school class in a village not far from my father’s, could probably recite a few herself. Poetry wasn’t a bad idea in the abstract to either of them. It might even be a noble pursuit, but it also seemed a thing better left to the children of the wealthy than to the son of working-class immigrants. To their minds, being a poet wasn’t a job. They still felt too near the keen edge of hardship to see me follow so precarious a career path. I didn’t see the danger.

I don’t think I entirely understood that it was the economic advantage they had worked and paid for that permitted me to be so brazen. If I’d been anything other than a protected spectator during my parents’ lean years, if I didn’t have their income and savings for a safety net during and after college, I probably would have stuck with that startup or some other bleary office job. Economists and accountants might make raw distinctions between the classes based on objective metrics such as net worth or income—the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, for instance—but class consciousness might be better defined by the kinds of choices we feel permitted to make. Where the working classes are regularly forced to take pragmatic action out of necessity, the privileged are allowed to act on desire. My parents’ money, modest as it was and still is, did more than pay for the things I needed. It allowed me to want things they couldn’t afford to want themselves.

There isn’t anything inherently bratty about this. It is, after all, what class mobility is meant to accomplish in the too few places such a thing is even possible. The brat is born when the privileged mistakenly believe that we somehow earned and deserve the socioeconomic and structural advantages granted to us by the fluke or fortune of family, gender, race, sexual preference, religion, education, or national origin. To suffer from that delusion is a mostly personal problem. It becomes a problem for everybody else when the privileged also believe that the things we’re permitted to want are necessary or superior to what somebody else wants, when we believe our desires should be respected and even admired by those who don’t share in our advantage.

I don’t know that I ever suffered from cluelessness quite so severe as that. I did believe my dream of a life in poetry to be pure, to be something apart from socioeconomics. My concerns were artistic concerns, I thought, my acceptance of bohemianism an earnest embrace of the artist’s life. The contradiction is that those concerns, however sincere, led me to graduate school. The desire to write and publish poetry leads a lot of us there, which is all well and good, but there’s nothing bohemian about it. Quite the opposite, Western postgraduate education has historically been one of our culture’s most prominent expressions of upper-class privilege. The fact that grad programs in creative writing exist at all is testament to the remarkable abundance of collective, institutional wealth in the United States. Those of us who are able to attend these programs can do so only as beneficiaries of certain structural advantages that are required simply to walk through their gates. Latter-day versions of my parents, meaning those who might appreciate poetry but lack college degrees or the time and resources to spend on graduate schooling, can’t join us there.

This might be acceptable in the context of professional fields such as medicine, business, and law, but poetry is supposed to be an art, which means it should at least attempt to represent the society in which it’s produced. It can’t fully do this if its primary mode of production inherently excludes large swaths of the population. The risk of such exclusions is that they limit the variety and appeal of the kind of writing produced in graduate programs. Nearly every complaint about contemporary poetry in the United States, whether in reference to the lack of diversity among those publishing it or to its opacity or to the very credibility of the genre itself, is rooted in this basic dynamic.

I wanted to write poetry. I didn’t need a graduate degree to do this. Nobody does. But graduate programs in creative writing offer a two- to five-year respite from that other life working long hours in restaurants, bars, factories, or offices. We’re given time and money—no matter how brief and how paltry—to focus almost exclusively on our art, which is no small advantage over everyone else writing on the fringes of a 40-or-more-hour workweek. For many of us, that advantage is supplemented by financial support from parents, partners, and spouses along the way. Added to this is the immaterial benefit of receiving feedback on our writing from published faculty and invested classmates, which helps us refine our poems toward publication—an achievement that might finally give us the satisfaction we’re all after to begin with.

The upside is substantial, but it isn’t just life in these programs that demonstrates our position of privilege in attending them. There’s also the fact that we know they exist in the first place, that we possess the credentials and resources to apply and enroll in them. Every would-be graduate student needs an undergraduate degree, letters from qualified recommenders, access to qualifying exams like the GRE, and funds to cover application fees. We need a disposable share of time to spend on years away from gainful employment and (for many) a safety net to catch us if we fail to find gainful employment after we finish our programs. Most of this is contingent upon access to a college education, and that access is far more readily available to those from middle- or upper-class backgrounds.

While some aspiring writers from less privileged backgrounds do find their way to graduate school, they remain substantially outnumbered. Because socioeconomic disparities in the United States have long coincided with gender and race, that factor of class goes a long way in determining the demographic makeup of grad programs. This has far-reaching consequences for who gets represented in the American literary canon that graduate-educated writers are increasingly coming to dominate. When Junot Diaz, in his essay “MFA versus POC,” complains about the overwhelming whiteness of his experience at Cornell in the early 1990s, he’s noting the cultural consequences of socioeconomic inequity. Even if we believe, as I do, that demographic trends have improved since Diaz’s years as an MFA student two decades ago, this doesn’t mean the system is correcting its culture of privilege. Instead, I worry that all of us are simply being indoctrinated into and blinded by it.

The more advanced our degrees, the more conversant we become in the mores of the upper classes. For creative writing programs, this is borne out in all those wine and cheese receptions, in the pomp and circumstance of the formal reading series, and in the annual pageant of the AWP conference, where thousands of nattily dressed writers spend their days commiserating in the hotel ballrooms of America’s priciest urban centers. We might be sleeping four to a room and putting the $10 drinks in the lobby bar on already overburdened credit cards, but the entire culture of the conference is in wild opposition to the lifestyle afforded by a graduate stipend of $15,000 per year—where such scant funding is even offered. If grad school’s pay scale provides an authentic experience of lean living, grad school’s culture delivers the distinct whiff of old-money society. This isn’t the fault of creative writing programs themselves. It’s a culture they’ve inherited from the cultural history of the academy in general, which has little to do with the socioeconomic experiences shared by millions of people in the United States and billions around the world. When entry into a field becomes contingent upon class advantage and participation in it becomes a kind of class indoctrination, stratifications become inevitable.

Those of us who matriculate through MA, MFA, and PhD programs join a select club relative to the general population: writers who can make some kind of living, no matter how meager, from work related to their art. Access to that club is so limited and our numbers so few that we become a class unto ourselves, a writing class serving as poetry’s own version of a 1 percent. It’s true that club isn’t so decadent as the analogy implies. I put in time after my MFA and again after my PhD earning lousy incomes as an adjunct lecturer, postdoctoral fellow, and visiting writer. I taught my share of overwhelming course loads for underwhelming pay without health insurance or job security. Still, I remained a poet in the academy and party to its culture even as it exploited me as a low-cost laborer.

This is one of the bizarre contradictions so many of us—adjunct, tenure-track, and tenured instructors alike—decry about the current labor structure in higher education. Teaching at a university is supposed to be a middle-class occupation. Except when it isn’t. In that case, the history, image, and culture of higher education stand in stark contradiction with reality. That reality, the one of scrimping and saving and stressing, is the bohemian lifestyle I was embracing when I decided to try for an MFA. It’s similar to the one I’d been born into and raised out of by my parents. In spite of its hardships, though, off I’d go to the wine and cheese reception. Off I’d go to the panels of the AWP conference like an old-world intellectual, as if my learning and art somehow distinguished me from anyone in a factory or a Walmart earning as little as I did.
This is class consciousness under the influence of academia. Graduate school endorses the idea that we are rare and recruited for our talents, but the more accurate statement might be that we are rare only because we have access to graduate school. Once there, we’re taught to engage in the thinking and behaviors of academic culture, a collective entity whose origins and practices don’t have anything to do with the working and low-income classes we’re more accurately a part of when we don’t land a tenure-track job. We might have come to graduate school from privilege, but even if we didn’t, the culture of privilege that insulates us once there is mind-altering. We learn to live poor but think rich. To borrow a couple of lines from John Ashbery, something ought to be written about how this affects you when you write poetry.

The academy changes us. It might significantly expand our thinking and knowledge, but it also asks us to adopt its culture. The trouble is that this kind of assimilation also tends to affect our language. I can’t imagine the wealthy often say WIC check or second shift. The poor probably don’t use terms like escrow or dividends. For the middle classes, there might be a dissertation in studying the diction of our Facebook posts as a function of income. Imagine a line graph where x is annual salary and y is occurrences of the words resort or reception—or dissertation, for that matter. One of the things that distinguishes the classes is that they speak and sound different from each other. The thousands of choices we make daily in our diction and syntax are almost entirely reflexive. We hardly notice them at all when we’re talking or writing to people who are like us. If we encounter only such people, if nobody comes along to challenge our language and its embedded frames of reference, the result is that ours becomes a private conversation continually reaffirming our existing perspectives. While this might be interesting to note in a general sense, for poets it becomes downright existential. Poetry as a practice should be completely antithetical to any kind of linguistic restriction. The entire premise of poetry, the thing that fuels and continually renews it, is that it demands the expansion of language. We can achieve such expansion without advanced degrees, with that well-worn library card alone, but that’s not what many of us do. We go to graduate school instead.

We believe we’re doing this for the way it benefits our writing, but we’re not. We’re doing it for the money, or at least for the dream of landing some of it. Poetry isn’t a job, but when I started my MFA in 2001, it seemed like it could be. The steady growth of MFA programs nationally throughout the ’80s and ’90s had been predicated on the idea that this was a terminal degree that offered the real chance of an income at its conclusion: you published your stuff, you published a book, then you went out and landed a tenure-track gig at another university. The MFA seemed to have become the aesthete’s version of a DDS. The automatic thinking is laughable in retrospect, and if I’d known the realities of the academic job market at the outset, I might’ve run screaming to dental school. I didn’t. I went to poetry school, and I did it for a job as much as I did it for the writing. This makes my decision to get a graduate degree as much a careerist ambition as an artistic one.

Thousands of others must share some part of my motivation. According to the online database at Poets & Writers, there are currently about 260 graduate programs in creative writing in the United States. That number is astonishing in comparison with the fifteen or so I had a little knowledge of when I was deciding where to apply in 1999 and 2000. I remember using a 1997 ranking of MFA and MA programs for reference, which I recall listed somewhere around 60 in total. The growth of these programs can be attributed to a number of factors. Universities that are willing to fund MAs, MFAs, and PhDs do so in order to address the widespread interest in creative writing classes among their undergraduates. Aside from having high-profile writers on their permanent faculties, schools gain a low-cost labor pool of graduate student instructors available to teach in-demand undergrad workshops along with required composition courses. Further, they steadily accumulate an even larger worker pool of low-cost, benefits-ineligible adjunct instructors whose ranks many of us join upon completing our degrees. While low-residency programs might be an exception to much of this, because they tend not to provide funding, they serve as a low-overhead revenue generator for the universities that offer them. For the graduate student, the pay is paltry and the employment outlook bleak, but this hasn’t discouraged thousands of us from signing up.

For whatever benefits they offered, nothing about my degrees made me a writer. The only direct consequence of those letters after my name and the schooling they represent is that I became minimally qualified to apply for teaching jobs at universities. This is their single, practical outcome. While I don’t fault myself or anyone else for attempting to make a career out of writing, the fact that my degrees are the essential qualification for that career means they take on a market value. This further means that the work I produced in order to attend and pass through those degree programs becomes a commodity. The degree is something like a visa into a country where published poems act as currency. If we aspire to the comfort and stability of tenure-track positions that are sparingly available there, then some part of our motivation to write and publish our work is market-driven.

Such motivations have propelled poetry in the United States through its own version of an industrial revolution during the past quarter century. Its industrialization might be fractional relative to soft drinks, sneakers, or smartphones, but the expansion is real, and it has consequences. That same database at Poets & Writers lists more than 280 small presses that publish one or more books of poetry a year. It’s difficult to even estimate the increasing number of outlets, in print and online, that publish individual poems daily, weekly, monthly, and annually, though the P&W database puts that number at over a thousand. What was for centuries a small-scale pursuit available mostly to white men of means has become a cottage industry attended by thousands of established and aspiring writers. In spite of its size, that industry has been largely incapable of bringing poetry to the masses. Instead, it seems mostly a resource for those of us looking to bolster our CVs and bulk up our tenure files. We are writing to ourselves.

The clearest indication of this fact is that all of these presses and journals are housed, along with our graduate schools, under the umbrella of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. In less than three decades, the AWP has grown into a kind of industrial complex replete with commercial and boutique brands, gatekeepers and cliques, infighting and nepotism. MA, MFA, and PhD writers dominate almost every aspect of its marketplace. Yet there doesn’t seem to be much demand for the growing supply of writing produced by graduate-educated poets by anyone outside of graduate-educated poets. This might be because that writing is part of its own economy. We love what we do, and others who are invested in that economy might love it too, but when the consumers of poetry are also almost exclusively those who produce it, we are left ascribing value to our own product. The trouble is that nobody outside the industry needs to agree with our valuations, and if the critics are right, nobody does.

Poetry has been slammed by Harpers. It’s been declared dead at the Washington Post. It’s been called AWOL by NPR Books. Whenever recent observers announce poetry’s demise, their autopsies tend to offer impalement by ivory tower as a major cause of death. They tell us that poetry is out of touch, that the genre is too much a part of the incestuous relationship between graduate creative writing programs, literary journals, and publishers, all of which are controlled and operated by (mostly academic) insiders. This has marginalized what was allegedly once a mainstream art and disconnected it from those masses apparently yearning for poetry out there in the wide world. The critics, then, are standing up for the vague notion of a “general” public when they attack the academic version of poetry, though I’m still not sure how any of these folks writing for Harpers, the Post, or NPR is any less a part of the overeducated middle-class literati than any member of the AWP.

The editors of the New York Times took a more conciliatory approach in addressing the state of the art by posing the question “Does poetry matter?” to a forum of highly decorated poets. (As far as I’m concerned, Jonathan Farmer’s response to this exercise in the LA Review of Books far outshone anything included in the original forum.) The editors’ introduction included the sub-question “Can poetry ever regain its relevancy?” Even if I ignore their frame of reference—I’m not sure when poetry ever was “relevant” or ever did “matter” in the way they mean—the fact that these questions are being asked at all suggests there’s a crisis in the art so severe that its very existence needs to be interrogated. On the other hand, even while the editors question poetry’s validity, their decision to present this particular forum seems an endorsement of poetry’s viability as a topic of interest for their general readership, which is a funny thing for dying art. The Times seems to be banking on the idea that there’s enough merit in the question for it to be taken seriously and that there are enough people seriously invested in poetry for the forum to attract traffic to their site in serious numbers. I suspect the argument did exactly that for the Times as well as for the Post, Harpers, Slate, and even here at the Poetry Foundation—and wherever else it tumbled onward.

If there’s a credible complaint in the criticism, it’s that we can’t distinguish art from the context in which it’s produced. The critics, however, focus on factors of aesthetics and personality when they ought to be paying attention to factors of economics and market forces. There is a desire in graduate-educated poets to write for the sake of readers, but there’s also a desire to leverage that writing into a career. We need to impress each other as much or more than we need to impress those outside of our immediate industry. A consequence of this is an interiority to the poetry we produce, but I don’t think that interiority is the result of snobbery, meekness, or obliviousness among poets the way critics have alleged. Too many of us are politically motivated in our writing and politically active in our lives for those accusations to hold up. I think it has more to do with the subtle effects that academia and the privilege inherent to it has on our language. If we intend for our work to appeal to an audience outside of ourselves, the first step might be to acknowledge the isolating effects of that privilege and admit that we need to learn as much about WIC checks and second shifts as we do about disjunctive narrativity and postmodernism. If we come from places that have taught us something about the former, our writing might benefit from not losing that culture and language to the culture of graduate schooling.

This isn’t to say that I have no problem with the critics’ complaints. It’s true there are poets, both established and aspiring, who have long forgotten or never acknowledged the ways they’ve benefited from the class advantages of higher education. There are also poets for whom the esoteric concerns of academic scholars and critics have become the primary motivating force in their writing. Both types of writer have little need for or interest in a mainstream audience. These are aesthetes writing for aesthetes. There isn’t any sin in this, but it does contribute to the perception that poetry is out of touch with the wider culture. Still, one of the reasons I’m not naming names here is that for every staid or esoteric poem, for every too-big-to-fail poet I might offer as an example in support of these observations, I can offer another that counters them. The fact is, there’s simply too much poetry out there coming from too many sources to make for believable generalizations about the art, and the trouble with recent attacks on poetry is that they’re based on too few examples without credible knowledge of the vast numbers of alternatives.

Beyond this, when critics call for a more relevant brand of poetry, their impulses might be well-meaning, but to believe that poetry should trump Facebook, cable, the movies, music, the news, Twitter, and the fact that more than a billion people now carry the entire Internet around in their pants is a weirdly capitalist ambition. It’s a desire for the elevation of one mode of expression over all those others, and I’m not sure why these critics believe that desire should matter more than somebody else’s need for something else. The thing that’s more troubling is that their nostalgia is for a time when self-expression was available to too few, when education and publication were far more limited than they are today. The times and places poetry mattered in the way its critic-defenders mean were those in which freedom of expression wasn’t the default for all.

In other places where this continues to be the case, poetry does have a truly existential value. Poets are being executed in Iran and jailed in China. Their voices matter because there are so few of them in those countries and because they are willing to say things that nobody else is willing or able to say. Meanwhile, in this country where terrible injustices and inequities continue to persist, poetry is only one of many ways to confront them. Poems of witness and protest are being written, and they are being published, and they can be extraordinarily powerful. If they seem more difficult to find than they might have been at a moment in the past, it isn’t because they don’t exist. It’s because they’re part of a much larger cultural machine in this country founded on freedoms of speech. In such context, it doesn’t seem to me that poetry has suddenly stopped mattering. It’s that a whole lot of other modes of expression matter too.

As for poetry itself, it’s possible that more people are writing, reading, performing, and publishing it today than at any other point in human history. If, in spite of this, our work doesn’t seem to bring enough refreshment to readers outside of our industry, if so many feel disconnected from both, it probably isn’t because their desire for the poetic mode of expression has gone away. It’s more likely because they can’t afford our version of it. They don’t have the same time and money some of us have had to invest in it. Our poems, then, become a thing like that $2 houseplant my parents waged their small war over. Neither is an object anybody needs. Either can be ignored when more vital concerns loom large. Yet people want them still. Open-mic nights and slams that take place daily across the country stand as proof of the desire for poetry. Beyond these, millions turn to the lyrics of singer-songwriters and hip-hop artists for experiences in verse. The complaint among the poetry-is-dead set is that too few of those people ever turn to us certified, bona fide poets of the AWP.

If we want to bring those critics and those masses to our poems, if we want poetry to matter to those outside our classrooms and conference halls—and there may be some poets who don’t; bully for them—then those others, their lives and their language, have to matter to us first. The only way they will is if we disrupt the culture of privilege that insulates us. And we need to disrupt it, not for our egoistic desire for a larger audience, but for the sake of our art. The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language. This is how poetry changes the world—not by grand ambition or the lauding of critics. It takes the plodding, unending effort of many to alter line by line, phrase by phrase, word by word the way we describe ourselves and everything around us. This is how we change perception. This is how we change the mind. We can’t do it while isolated by our privilege. There are too few of us. Our language is too limited. We need more words. We need more than ourselves and each other. We need every broke shoulder to the wheel.


Originally Published: November 12th, 2014

Born in Chicago, poet Jaswinder Bolina earned a BA in philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, and a PhD in English with a creative writing concentration from Ohio University. He is the author of the chapbook The Tallest Building in...

  1. November 14, 2014
     Sarah Stockton

    I would add one other common motivation for pursuing
    an MFA: a sense of identity. Most poets and writers
    long for community, recognition by said community, and
    a way to define and validate both personally and
    culturally, who we are and what we do. Our tribe, so
    to speak. Is there anything inherently wrong with
    wanting to seek out and be validated by one's
    literary, intellectual, and creative tribe? I don't
    think so, and in fact if I could have afforded to
    attend an MFA program my younger days, I would have
    done just that, and for that very reason: the sense of
    shared intellectual values and creative identity.
    Besides, let's not kid ourselves, members of the tribe
    not only read, they publish each other's work. But my
    life and my writing have been enriched by other
    educational and career paths (and the friendships and
    cultural experiences they offer) and that longed-for
    creative/literary community can be found in other
    ways- online groups and classes, workshops, open-
    mikes, comment sections like these- not to mention
    writing poems and launching them into the world.

  2. November 14, 2014
     Robin Hutchinson

    Acutely observed and brutally honest.

  3. November 14, 2014
     Bernadette Rivero

    Perhaps some poetry matters, and some doesn't. Sonnets fall out of favor, and the 140-character writing form surges in its place -- with its millions of people globally, from all walks of life, balancing and weighing each word, each letter, just so. Our human desire to take delight in how vocabulary snaps together never disappears; maybe it just shifts to Twitter and rap and music lyrics these days instead.

  4. November 14, 2014
     Baltimore Poet

    This essay has much of value, and is a good opening conversation. I have not chosen the author's path into academia and the insular MFA culture, but I don't think it's all bad. The issue is much more ambiguous. The poets Philip Levine and Adrienne Rich spent quite a lot of time in academia. I bet Mr. Levine only left once he had a pension. No one writes better about the "second shift" than Mr. Levine. One also might find working life in Carl Sandburg's first book and the stories of Stephan Crane, and of course with more idealization in Whitman. I guess the author's point is it should be more prevalent.
    Also, there is nothing wrong with wine and cheese receptions. Maybe that's a synecdoche in this essay for a much larger point, but nevertheless, I appreciate wine and cheese, classical music, jazz, good dark beers, and many other things this essay appears to imprint as classist. I also appreciate less "refined" things. Education is aspirational, even in the Platonic sense. There are many institutions in American based on an expanded notion of educational access, including the CUNY and UC systems. Whether they fulfill that mission now also has to do with politics, that is, what our culture emphasizes and who controls the allocation of resources.
    That the MFA culture is importing industrial production into literature that no one reads is spot on. Further, English Departments by moving away from textual criticism and historical knowledge into nonsense terms of narrativity and postmodernism make themselves totally useless. Traditionally, the study of literature was not even considered a discipline in Europe. As a discipline, it should focus on historical knowledge and textual criticism. People engaged in post modern theory and writing are really engaged in bad writing and ill conceived thoughts, and also competition to be "original," like so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. Virginia Woolf was innovated in Ms. Dalloway for instance to document life (as she saw it), not to be clever. What appears postmodern might really be unpolished drafts and word salad.

  5. November 15, 2014
     Hanna B.


    no big deal. Go fill out those applications!

    (she says to herself sarcastically as she edits her portfolio.)

    I have to say, I honestly would rather get paid minimum wage teaching
    than working at Walmart or [Insert Superstore Name Here]. I'm getting
    bored of my cash register. Sigh.
    I'll write poems with the language of the people paying for the poems to
    be published. Not a GOOD thing, but it could be worse.

    I could get fired from Walmart.

  6. November 17, 2014
     Nancy Schimmel

    "Poetry Should Ride the Bus" by Ruth Forman addresses this issue
    in a poem:

  7. November 21, 2014
     Ray Bianchi

    The issue is not diversity of race it is diversity of
    experience. Williams, Rexroth, Creeley, and many others
    were not professional academics they were writers first
    and they lived in the "world" not in academia. This
    avenue is close to most writers today. There are a few
    poets who do have diverse backgrounds, Mark Tardi and
    Lisa Jarnot come to mind but all poets live in the
    poetical industrial complex

  8. November 21, 2014
     david eberhardt

    I think yu could have boiled this commentary down- needs editing.
    So much of the poetry I see- Poetry mag, Writers Almanac, New Yorker, seems aneemic and acadeemic (yes, I coined these words).
    No one deals w real issues like sex, money and expecially ego.
    Line lengths are cut in an arbitrary fashion, there is little music.
    Everybody is copying Wm C Wms or E Bishop- nothing grand attempted.
    You probably know that the Jains may walk around naked, begging for their food, and looking down to avoid stepping on insects. That's what poetry should b,
    Creative writing programs- that's a joke (but it does offer employ for "poets").
    I like poetes maudit like Arthur and Emily.
    But, for hope, I do offer "Split this rock".
    dave (yesiampissednevertobpublished) eberhardt, baltimorebaltimore

  9. November 21, 2014
     Slow Reader

    An essay astonishing, beautiful and true.
    Thank you Jaswinder Bolina for writing this, and thank you Poetry Foundation for publishing this acute and essential meditation on the worth and meaning of poetry.
    A long time ago, I lived in just the apartment you describe -- I wonder if your parents were my neighbors.

  10. November 23, 2014
     Dick Wall

    What about rap?

    Huge selling ie popular enough for ordinary people to spend their
    hard earneds on. Insighful brutal, beautiful and new and not a jot of
    academia at the start. Go figger!

    Robbie Burns to Big Daddy wotsit everybody's need for poetry is
    met and delivered usually without a PhD.

    Poetry may have 99 problems but relevant popularity ain't one.

  11. November 24, 2014
     Tim Barrus

    Brave piece.

    The kind of Peace Fanned into Flame by members of the We Are The
    Published Writers Tribe. Careful. They are like attack dogs that will
    bust your balls.

    I am from the Wrong Class. Wikipedia is not accurate because it is
    not compelled to be accurate (imagine that). I have no education.
    Zero. I never went (which is irrelevant) to school. And I got away with
    it (which is not irrelevant). Whatever high school was, it had nothing
    to do with me. I was going to write. The idea of it was laughable. It is
    still laughable.

    I do not belong to the correct tribe. I belong to the bored and thirsty
    writer's tribe. I am a demon. Do NOT Google Me. Oh, restrain your
    academic selves.

    I am Tim Barrus. And you are not him.

    I was going to write, and I did not care what anyone thought of it.

    I still do not care what you think of it. The Poetry Foundation People
    are usually Horrified.

    My first job was reading to children in a clinical setting who had
    cystic fibrosis.

    Working in Special Ed was far more relevant than writing. Ask any
    writer if he or she thinks writers can save the world. Yes.

    It is an aristocratic concept as is who owns the castle. You. The
    Pope. Or The Publisher.

    Saving life on the planet is not on the Writer Job Description. Writers
    think very, very, very highly of themselves. I used to think most of
    them were rich. I still think that.

    I started working with psychotic children in University Hospitals. I
    have written about it many times, but always as someone else.
    Writers are very conflicted about people who are, in fact, other

    They say I Fucked Publishing. I sigh. I say I did try to work up some
    enthusiasm or respect for Publishing. For about one day. We are so
    Human Rights we are the Human Writes People le rah, rah for us.

    The first thing I ever wrote was a piece of fiction which won an
    award. I got to sail around the Caribbean on that one. I wrote the
    piece as a Lesbian, and I said I was a Lesbian.

    I am a Lesbian.

    The Prize People were the Surprise People when I showed up.

    Tim Barrus is not a Lesbian. People are different things. They come
    to it from different places where different things happened to them.
    Because they either had money or they didn't. Working With Children
    happened to me. I wrote about it. I told entire institutions to eat shit.
    In The Life, not The Writing Life, but The Life, Actual Life was trying
    hard not get cut by switchblades. Because I had no money. I have no
    money today. What is money. By then, I was already writing from
    blood. I pushed the kids I was working with onstage.

    None of us has any money. Editors are charmed. They put food on
    the table. They went to college. Places that had retreats and cabins
    and creative dance and they tasted wine. I loved the Wine and
    Cheese Event Swarayyz. So, you wrote a novel. Hmm. Honey, we all
    did that. Where's the bar.

    I decided to be gay so I started showering gay publications with
    writing. It was a revolution, who needs money. Even educated people
    care very much about who you sleep with, and who you do not sleep
    with. They need that box. Who is and who is not outside the tribe. We
    raise children with this idea in mind. Educated people need money. I
    am here to tell you that living The Life on Fucking Nothing is very Big
    Girl difficult. I mean, you become thin and fashionable. Everyone was
    a volunteer. Many of these people had multiple Ph.D after multiple


    All editors are rich.

    It costs a lot of money to be allowed into the temple. Writer
    Workshops abound. I went to one as someone else. Girlfriend, I was
    shocked. You could have knocked me over with a dildo. I started
    doing sex work. It was kinda heavy lifting. You meet a lot of
    psychotic people. Another tribe. The proximity to addiction is not a
    moral issue. It is a human rights issue, actually. I was addicted by the
    end of day one. It's not unlike Writing.

    In my neighborhood, addiction is addiction and the junkies on the
    street, any Crack Whore could do it. It. Many do. Doing Addiction.
    Our proximity to addiction and violence is more endemic than the
    writers and editors at the wine tasting. Editors are alcoholics (you
    know this) but we did the Big Girl Drugs.

    Class only is.

    It doesn't matter where you come from.

    Until it DOES.

    I can spot a degree at twenty paces. Sex Work demands this. You do
    it or you're dead. You look at people because they're dangerous. I
    would argue that the Degree People do not, in truth, know anyone
    who has lived in some of the neighborhoods I have fit right into. The
    Writing Life is marginal. Even in Paris. Some of us just marginalize
    ourselves harder than others. I would also argue that the Academic
    Types who run publishing are as adept with switchblades as the
    leather punk out on the street.

    We write what we have to write. It's not always extraordinarily
    academic or material appropriate for Esquire Magazine. I wrote porn.
    Now, who the fuck am I required to throw my prostate anal self in
    front of down on my knees to beg again beg for what. Oh, for
    forgiveness. Forgiveness is an attribute of class. You forgive who you
    can afford to forgive. Tribes are where you find them. Academics who
    run institutions do not live in Appalachia, but I do.

    You would not have a clue as to pull off survival here.

    I still work with kids. It's a disease the likes of which is a protease
    inhibitor inhibiting. I work with gay kids, too. It's the inevitable
    dialogue about pills and pills and more pills and pills, pills, pills. So
    you write about it. What writing we quit writing we especially and
    sometimes desperately cling to something of the real world. I don't
    even like books. Heresy, I know. There really is a bookslut. For us, it's
    poetry. We, too, are conflicted. We do it -- Poetry -- and no one from
    the academic privileged class above us can say shit about it. There is
    a freedom to being obscure, and at times marginal. You learn to lick
    your wounds and it's downright amazing something as marginal as
    book publishing faints dead away like Like Bette Davis in I've Been
    Dying in Bed for Thirty Years. Get a grip. Of course, the Academics
    will not be above the Arrogance Factor Level either. They would
    never do sex work. The mere thought of it. They can afford to be
    arrogant. That is why they go to those seminars.

    It is not writing poetry, a seminar. The Academics will weep that it is.
    They have written some of their best work at seminars. Right at the
    bar or back at the Motel Six I humbly suggest, it can be a problem.

    Our worlds collide. Briefly. Mostly, you are like a far off island to me,
    and I find you strange. You have a lot of rules about who gets to go
    inside the temple. Religeousosity tablets set in stone never send
    email to a critic who has just reviewed you in the New York Times
    and I just didn't understand what he was trying to say. In my
    neighborhood, if you need her to listen to you, if anyone needs to
    understand anyone, you say it and chips fall where they fall. Honey,
    the whores are formidable, in publishing they only want to ruin you,
    whatever it takes, you grab the bitch by the hair, and you kick her
    down, and then you go for your switchblade before she does. Class
    has everything to do with it because Tribalism has everything to do
    with It. Tribalism is the curse of humanity. We ran in packs to survive
    and who gets in and who gets out usually is how much can you bribe
    some gatekeeper. It's not unlike buying drugs. There are many
    gatekeepers. The ones in publishing belong to a class that is the
    academic pack. They provide employment for sex workers. They
    would never call themselves whores because they're someone else.
    They don't need to whore, and I am Marie of Romania.

    You guys are the top dogs. Identity is as much an element of class as
    is five front gold-capped teeth. You do not want to hear the truth
    anymore -- with your degrees and wine tasters and Book Convention
    Bar -- than my class of reservoir dogs Living The Life. Because you
    CAN'T handle the truth the truth inside the truth like the doll inside
    the doll inside the doll. Your tribe demands obedience and a one
    dimensional paradigm of self-revelation. I am finding that teaching
    young boy whores poetry gives them an out to lash with at The Life
    like a razor blade. Stuff you would never read (some of it is just video)
    because you do not read it is downright freeing because it does not
    give you the access and the license to tell us what to do. The Kid At
    Risk frequently participates because it gets him into a room that is
    relatively safe. He has no idea what you are talking about.

    Until he DOES.

    I would suggest not talking down to him because I am here to tell you
    that he'll go write a book about it. He is now from the I Told You I
    Would Write a Book About It Tribe. I said relatively safe. People from
    my class know this. There is no such thing as safe. You can only
    better the odds. A wine and cheese party has nothing to do with
    Living Life. But I do. Never let class or tribe define you. For some of
    us, that is what you do. You call it culture. But a pig in lipstick is

  12. November 24, 2014
     Slow Reader

    Dear Dick Wall --
    There is a growing body of scholarship on the poetics of rap --
    I am an AARP- cardholder and I happen to love rap and hip hop ...
    See Book of Rhymes by Adam Bradley, a wonderful book
    Also Bradley's Anthology of Rap -- a fascinating encyclopedia of rap across the past decades
    Yes, many rap artists -- like many poets -- write only garbage
    It is an ongoing debate that I have with my 20-year-old rapper son -- "you need to try harder, avoid the cliches, make it new and original"
    Poetry Magazine has done a fabulous job in the last year of featuring poets (like Nate Marshall !!) whose works illuminate the shared rhythms and poetics of poetry and rap ...

  13. December 2, 2014
     L M

    A very good piece. Ironic that it's been published in Don Share-era
    Poetry, the most MFA-centric in the magazine's history. If you want to
    know why poetry doesn't matter, look at the drop in quality since Wiman

  14. December 2, 2014
     George Balanchine

    Interesting. No negative comments on the writing of this article.
    Okay, here's one: I couldn't finish reading it. It really needed to be edited a lot more.
    It's another example of the wandering aimlessness in so much writing on the Internet.
    What exactly is the writer trying to say? Why does it take so long?

  15. December 2, 2014

    Two comments:
    1. this article is much too long for what it had to say. I got almost lost in the meanderings and puff. Please add concision to your toolbox which by the way is essential to good poetry.
    2. thank goodness there are people who still write poetry and commentary on poetry and manage to get it published

  16. December 2, 2014

    ITunes is crammed with poems.
    You don't need an MFA to write a song.
    You do need to have paid attention to life.

  17. December 2, 2014
     Lippity Ohmer

    Two things:

    1. Rap isn't poetry

    2. If you're in school to get an MFA, you're not a writer

  18. December 3, 2014
     Gregory McColm

    There is something surreal about all this. Yes,
    Bolina is describing poetry as a phenomenon of an
    elite. Not the 1 %, but instead the cultured elite
    that reads The New Yorker and buys poetry books.

    But in fact poetry is a multi-billion-dollar industry.
    Snoots mayh reach for the smelling salts, but if we
    take the anthropologists seriously - that language and
    music have a common ancestor which we can hear when we
    hear meter and rhythm - then what pours out of the
    radio is as much poetry as what is published in small
    presses. And what appears in greeting cards is even
    more poetic than the deliberately anti-metered and
    anti-rhythmic poetry (or anti-poetry?) that has grown
    increasingly fashionable among the avant garde as the
    popularity of ... respectable ... poetry plummeted.

    If the anthropologists are right, and if they are to
    be taken seriously, then what the Poetry Community
    occupies is a gated community in a vast metropolis.

    And of course, the great English poet of the 20th
    century, who wrote uncompressed poetry because his
    audience of 2-year-olds would not put up with
    compression, was Dr. Seuss...

  19. December 3, 2014
     Slow Reader

    Unfortunately, I do not believe that commenter LM above has actually read Poetry Magazine in the last year.
    Don Share has done a brilliant job of bringing true -- and not just token -- diversity into Poetry Magazine and has also done a commendable job of bringing non-traditional voices to the Magazine, the poetry from the SplitRock Festival being a notable example. The essays on poetics, the lyric essays, the whole issue on Landays -- all these pieces are original and meaningful.
    Instead of posting a snarky comment -- perhaps LM could offer a useful suggestion to Don Share as to poetry LM would like to see in future issues of Poetry. For example, I loved the UK issue, and would like to see a portion of some future issue devoted to contemporary Canadian poets like Susan Musgrave, Dionne Brand, Gary Geddes. I would also like to see an issue devoted to prose poems, and also poems by international poets whose primary language is English, like poets from Nigeria, Liberia, New Zealand, South Africa. Also some essays on documentary poetry and intergenre poetry. Also some new translations of ancient poetic texts -- who is translating Lucretius today? Who is translating Ovid?

  20. December 3, 2014
     Don Phillipson

    Bolina writes: "Poetry isn’t a job, but when I started my MFA in 2001, it seemed like it could be." Was this not in 2001 just as untrue and culpably silly as today?
    All those years in graduate school seem never to have exposed him to the lives of poets off-campus -- not even to Madison Avenue or Tin Pan Alley, let alone the rigging of a schooner with Masefield or washing dishes with Orwell in Paris.

  21. December 3, 2014
     Rob T.

    When I read articles such as this, I have only one reply:

    Clark Ashton Smith.

    Of course, Ashton Smith is not what the Poetry Foundation would
    consider a poet (although he was published in *Poetry* magazine in its
    very early days, and Harriet Monroe even paid him the tribute of a
    patronizing review of his first collection). But Ashton Smith's life
    confounds every point in this misguided article:

    --A poor, rustic WASP born into a family whose head squandered his

    --A man who lived in a rustic cabin he built with his father, who later
    supported himself and his aging parents alternately or simultaneously
    by writing and by hard physical agricultural labor.

    --A man who never had a steady or reliable income, and who didn't live
    in a house with electricity or indoor plumbing until was past sixty.

    In sum, Ashton Smith was White, suffered far more hardship that Bolina
    or most underprivileged minorities in this country could likely ever
    imagine, and never even finished grammar school (let alone an MFA
    program). And yet he is far and away the greatest American poet of the
    20th Century.

    While this isn't a contest of negative one-upmanship, compared to
    Ashton Smith's life, Mr. Bolina, your life has been a stroll in the
    sunshine. And the naïveté of your call to engagement reflects a lack of
    perspective that could come only from the truly privileged.

  22. December 4, 2014
     Joe M

    This essay reminds me of a quote from a book about Tom Wolfe. In a review of Tom Wolfe’s PhD dissertation titled The League of American Writers: Communist Organizational Activity Among American Writers, 1929-1942, Brian Ragen (the author) commented that “reading it, one sees what has been the most baleful influence of graduate education on many who have suffered through it: it deadens all sense of style (p. 9).”

    Ragen, Brian Abel. 2002. Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

  23. December 5, 2014
     Jordan Pailthorpe

    For such a large complex topic, there needs to be a long,
    complex response.

    Loved this. Very well said.

  24. December 6, 2014
     Slow Reader

    I am sorry that Lippity Ohmer has such a narrow view of poetry.
    Rap is most certainly a poetic medium closer to our ancient poetic traditions than much modern poetry.
    Rap follows the great oral traditions of telling stories through song using rhythm, rhyme and other poetic devices.
    Much of today's rap is indeed garbage, but that does not mean that rap is not poetry.
    I would refer Lippity Ohmer to the poems by Nate Marshall, Danez Smith and Terrance Hayes on this website.
    One certainly does not need an MFA to be a writer -- but having started my MFA at the age of 48 after obtaining 3 other degrees, and taking 5 years to finish my MFA -- I can say that it was the best educational experience of my life.
    Maybe Lippity's absolutist comments are posted here simply for dramatic effect.
    But to me, someone who categorically disqualifies rap as poetry, and MFA programs as having value, is not someone open to the endless and exciting varieties of language expression.
    I am a paying subscriber to Poetry Magazine for years now -- but the true gift of the Poetry Foundation is that anyone in any corner of the world can access the bottomless pool of poetry and resources about poetry--essays, blogs, podcasts, etc.--on this website.

  25. December 7, 2014
     Stephen Kennamer

    "The only job of the poet is to destabilize and expand language."

    No. That can be done by good prose, but not as its only job, obviously – rather as ancillary to the job of informing and persuading, which tasks poetry naturally eschews.

    Almost all definitions of poetry try to define its content instead of its form and fail out of self-importance and sentimentality. When I was growing up, one of the self-regarding definitions I heard was "concise eloquence." While this describes Thoreau's prose, most of today's poetry is neither concise nor eloquent. Contemporary poetry, not all of it, but most of it, eschews word-music in favor of a colloquial flatness. The thought may be worthy but the wrapping is plain; and in place of concision, an easy rambling prevails. Read aloud, it sounds exactly like prose, although the reader can usually identify it by default – not quite a homily, not quite a vignette, and strangely mannered even where most casual. What has replaced the sonorous beauty of old-fashioned poetry is the startling metaphor. Of course, the law of diminishing returns has set in with a vengeance: we expect the unexpected with imperturbable confidence. As the poets have ratcheted up the element of violent catachresis, we have tuned out their provocations. Nothing punctures a figure of speech more thoroughly than the air of trying-too-hard.

    Poetry is not or need not be about our existential vulnerability; it should not set out to undermine our certainties. Once upon a time, a poem was not about the higher sensibility of the poet, exhibited to enlighten us readers like the koan of a fully ascended Zen master. Working-day poets were not special people in any way other than their ability to make language musical, usually via meter, rhyme, assonance, alliteration, and myriad types of word-music too numerous to name. When they combined an exceptional facility in their craft with an extraordinary responsiveness to the world, we did get poetic geniuses – we got Keats, Dickinson, and Dylan Thomas.

    The only definition of poetry that actually holds up turns out to be half facetious but wholly accurate: it is writing displayed in lines of unequal length and recognizable by the absence of a justified right margin. Where the content is lyrical or opaque, but the lines run all the way to the right margin, we use the term "prose poem."

    The idea that the poet destabilizes and expands language pushes two fallacies simultaneously, both deadly for the state of contemporary poetry. It vaunts the self-congratulation of the poets who claim to dispense a special type of truth – a truth so precious and rarefied, so different from and greater than the truth of science and journalism, that it cannot be expressed without a destabilization and expansion of the resources of language. It also purveys the fallacy that a poem is primarily made of words. Karl Shapiro disagreed vehemently: he called "the treatment of poetry as language" the "semantic fallacy." "Poetry is no more language than the landscape is paint." The poet is someone who, he said, is always asking, "What is the poetry of" the situation that is set forth in the poem. For most of its history, then, poetry was made of ideas, often commonplace, which were clothed in the music that words are capable of when arranged rhythmically and with an ear for euphony. There is no reason that "modern" poetry cannot dispense with the music. But then its composers in the academy must not be surprised to find themselves in the predicament, which this article so cogently describes, of talking only to each other. Meanwhile, to a traditionalist, the success of hip-hop is an ironic vindication: very poor stuff, but rhythm and rhyme aplenty. Think about it, poets.

  26. April 11, 2015
     Mira Martin-Parker

    With a Smile

    I work in a room the size of a broom closet and I am happy.
    My clothes are full of holes and I am happy.
    I eat beans for breakfast and beans for dinner and I am happy.
    A pack of peanuts with my paycheck and I am happy.
    A 3-cent raise, some personal days and I am truly happy.
    I am happy, I am happy
    lordy lordy, I am happy
    peanuts praises, beans and raises
    I am happy.

  27. June 20, 2015

    I've only recently rediscovered
    poetry (we learned it in school, but
    that was some time ago). In the
    interim, I've earned a professional
    degree, become gainfully
    employed, started a family ... --all
    of the things that go with a life that
    doesn't delve too far into poetry
    because there are other matters to
    attend to.

    This discussion is fascinating. It
    was gratifying to read thoughts on
    poetry that touched on reality
    beyond the rarified world of the
    ivory tower. I would agree with
    those who say rap is in fact poetry
    --it has meter, rhyme, rhythm, and
    all of the themes that make
    language "poetry". It is apparently
    also lucrative. Special attention to
    Mr. Kennamer's comments --he
    made some excellent points. Great piece overall and thank you
    for not looking down on people
    who work and do not have MFAs
    (yes, we do read!).

  28. July 8, 2015
     Slow Reader

    I hope it was obvious in my comment above, but perhaps it was not ...
    I would refer readers to the poems of Nate Marshall, Danez Smith and Terrance Hayes on this website as brilliant and exhilarating examples of the connections between rap and poetry ...
    Also, I recommend the poetry of Kate Tempest, whose spoken-word poetry is a startling and inventive fusion of rap, mythology and Shakespeare's rhythms ...