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Duriel E. Harris
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I’ve never been in a writing workshop. Indeed, I belong to a generation for whom only 15 of them existed in the whole country while I was a student–as opposed to more than 10 times that now.
So I’m not an expert.
But I’m experienced in another way. I’m the child who fell in the well.
Between 1995 and 2004 I submitted a total of 13 manuscripts to what in my ignorance I assumed was a bonafide literary competition. Since the postal system was very dodgey in the country where I lived during that period, I felt it was just my own bad luck that right from the start in 1995 (TWO m.s. that year) I almost never received back my SASEs.
Subsequently I found out that the editor of the series was regularly awarding the prizes to a small coterie of friends and colleagues, a large number of whom had graduated from the same MFA Writing Program–or had taught there, or was married to someone who had taught there, or who had baby-sat for someone who had taught there, or just been somebody’s lover. I also learned, through the good services of the Freedom of Information Act, that documents had been released to show that sometimes the editor in question had awarded the prize to poets who had never even submitted to the competition, and that piles of packets like my own had been left lying in the office unopened.
Which would explain the fate of my SASEs.
This situation has undoubtedly improved due to the big-hearted whistle of a librarian from Oregon, Alan Cordle, who started an activist movement called Foetry.
Which is done.
But what can’t be undone is the fact, yes the fact, that due to such favors all over the country for decades a certain type of workshop-generated poetry has received the lion share of the laurels, and that this has inevitably distorted our tastes.
I think Harriet is very much aware of all this, and that nobody feels it’s important to dispute either the facts of my story or its relevance. That part’s done, and we can all deal with Louis Menand’s article in The New Yorker, each in his or her own way.
But that wasn’t so just 2 1/2 years ago when a very well known and highly respected critic published a letter in a very conspicuous place defending the Editor that did me, and stating that the whistle blowers were just losers who showed a “willful misunderstanding of the process of editing and publishing poetry.”
I wrote a letter in reply to that letter, but it’s publication was refused. This is what I said:
“In top-flight poetry book contests all the finalists are the very best, and for that reason it’s even more important they all get an equal hearing. If a judge favors a friend or someone connected to an institution he likes, then another equally gifted but different finalist doesn’t get recognition—and when that happens over and over again for years it’s destructive to the whole poetry environment. If only one species of poetry is propagated the art ends up as dead as any other ill-adapted species, a dinosaur, a haemophiliac crown prince, or an emperor with inadequate clothing!”
I think we are all quite ready to hear that now.
That’s a trick question!
“Publishable” in the sense of matching the expectations and criteria of this or that set of editors, or “publishable” in the sense of reaching poetic achievement and originality?
The latter is not always easily “publishable.”
I’d say Menand in that passage is being playful. I hope so, anyway.
I just want my cow-related souvenir, Travis.
I have never really believed in creative writing classes. I took one once in London but the teacher wasn’t very creative. Because I had written a script about a killer dog on the loose all she could say was what have I got against dogs.
I believe it’s more important for a writer to follow his instincts than it is for him to spend time in creative writing classes. Not that the classes aren’t helpful. It’s just that learning all the technique in the world is no substitute for “sensing.”
The workshop movement has spawned imitations at all levels. I just saw an ad for a high-end Conference where you get help with your manuscript from famous Publishers and Editors, and is clearly intended for writers for whom the Workshop is long done. Indeed, it’s clear from the photos that some of the participants are already teaching writing in turn!
“…………………………………….. provides the faculty, tools and methods necessary to set poets with a completed manuscript or manuscript-in-process on a path towards publication. For details on location, requirements and cost, please visit……………..”
So it’s got tiers, this business to get published, it’s got expensive consultants with all kinds of clout.
My first question to the organizers of such a conference would be, what’s the market? Who are these books being re-packaged for?
Who are you reforming these writers to please, you Publishers and Editors in this business? Is it for readers of poetry, or is it for teachers who might choose their poetry to teach–or for search committees looking for poets who’ve had poetry published so that they fulfill the requirements to be set on the path toward tenure?
Where’s the joy for them?
I knew I had read this poll ‘question’ somewhere recently…ah, yes, Menand in the New Yorker–I think I was the first to mention this article on Harriet… I voted ‘no,’ because I don’t think this was the ‘theory’ behind the genesis of the Worskhop.
Shouldn’t we look at the genesis? The Modernist/New Critics brought the Workshop into the University and there’s a documented philosophy of these men who made it happen.
Allen Tate published an essay around the time he founded the Writing Workshop at Princeton in the early 1940s called ‘Miss Emily and the Bibliographer:’
“Mr. Babbitt saw on the one hand the ignorant journalist critics, ‘decadent romantics,’ for whom intensity of feeling was the sole critical standard; and on the other hand the historical scholars, who had no critical standard at all but who amassed irrelevant information. It was–and still is–a situation in which it is virtually impossible for a young man to get a critical, literary education.”
Babbitt was Tom Eliot’s professor at Harvard. We see here in this short passage almost the whole issue laid out.
First, notice the stridency of Tate’s polemics: ‘virtually impossible for a young man to get a critical, literary education.’
Secondly, we see the continuity between Eliot’s Modernism via Babbitt (anti-romantic emotion, anti-history-sans-critical-intellect which sums up T. Eliot) and the Fugitive/New Criticism of Tate and his colleague Ransom.
“The specific property of a work of literary art which differentiates it from mere historical experience he [Babbitt] could never understand; and it is this specific property, this particular quality of the work, that puts upon us the moral obligation to form a judgment. Mr. Yvor Winters remarks that that Mr. Babbitt never understood ‘how the moral intelligence gets into poetry.’ It gets in not as moral abstractions but as form, coherence of image and metaphor, control of tone and of rhythm, the union of these features. So the moral obligation to judge compels us to make not a moral but a total judgment.”
“Not being a literary historian I do not know when the literary professor lost confidence in literature; I suppose it was a gradual loss; we see its beginnings in the English romantics, and we do not yet see the end.”
“I am not attacking the study or the writing of history for use in the criticism of literature. I am attacking the historical method.”
We can see Tate hectoring with his Modernist/New Critical sword–attacking the romantics, attacking historical scholars, attacking the historical method. He is obviously ‘protesting too much,’ for how can one possibly tar all historical scholars and all the romantics with one brush? But he does. And meanwhile he boasts a erudition of ‘form,’ as if romantics and historical scholars don’t know what iambic pentameter or rhythm or tone or a sonnet is–but of course Tate and his friends, unencumbered by romantic emotion or factual history, *do.*
This is so obviously a swindle, so obviously a salesman trashing his competition–but it worked. Tate and his friends *won.* The referenced Winters set up the first important Workshop on the west coast.
John Crowe Ransom was the best polemicist in this regard; Pound, with all his bluster, and Eliot, with all his sagacity, laid down certain principles, but the Fugitive/New Critics got the job done. They forced the college doors open and got inside.
Ransom, in his essay, “Criticism, Inc.” (1937) does not beat around the bush:
“Rather than occasional criticism by amateurs, I should think the whole enterprise might be seriously taken in hand by professionals.”
“Professor Crane published recently a paper of great note in academic circles, on the reform of the courses in English…under the title ‘History Versus Criticism in the University Study of Literature.’ He argues there that historical scholarship has been overplayed…”
“the students of the future must be permitted to study literature, and not merely about literature.”
“In a department of English, as in any other going business, the proprietary interest becomes vested, and in old and reputable departments the vestees have uniformly been gentlemen who have gone through the historical mill. Their laborious Ph.D’s and historical publications are their patents. Naturally, quite spontaneously, they would tend to perpetuate a system in which the power and glory belonged to them.”
“Babbitt could make war on romanticism for purely moral reasons; and his preoccupation was ethical, not aesthetic.”
“Following…the Humanist diversion, there is now one due to the Leftists, or Proletarians, who are also diversionists. Their diversion is likewise moral.”
“The department of English is charged with the understanding and the communication of literature, an art, yet is has usually forgotten to inquire into the peculiar constitution and structure of its product. English might almost as well announce that it does not regard itself as entirely autonomous, but as a branch of history…”
“Contemporary literature, which is almost obliged to receive critical study if it receives any at all, since it is hardly capable of the usual historical commentary, is barely officialized as a proper field for serious study.”
“Here is contemporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature? They are watering their own gardens; elucidating the literary histories of their respective periods.”
Do we see Ransom’s problem?
HE has published poetry (“contemporary literature”) which is getting very little attention, as is true for almost all the self-important Modernists.
Poets like Millay–curse her–are selling books, but what of the Modernists, those true geniuses?
The English departments are too preoccupied with history–with significant literature in the context of human life. “Where are the professors of literature” to teach MY poems? Ransom asks.
Do we see how Tate and Ransom’s rhetoric–though they don’t come out and say it–is clearing a space for the Creative Writing Workshop?
At one point Ransom calls poems the “product” of English departments. How deluded his ambition has made him, and how prophetic and ironic his error! Mr. Ransom: poems are not the “product” of English departments! They are the product of hopeless amateurs like John Keats!
Imagine if history departments WERE attached to English departments–which today pursue their creative writing business models without ANY scholarly oversight? Ransom grumbled that English departments were not autonomous. Imagine a humanities department which actually functions like a disinterested whole, which combines history perspective with literary judgment! That model was appalling to Ransom and his friends and so today, instead, we have isolated literary judgment within creative writing business models, where the publishing of contemporary literature has become an assembly line process with no reason to exist beyond itself.
The insanity of Modernism has triumphed in poetry not only aesthetically, but professionally, commercially, and pedagocially.
Ugh! If, in fact this is the case, it would seem that MFA programs are completely careerist. I was never enrolled in an MFA program, never took a creative writing workshop. I can’t claim any particular virtue for this. I grew up in different times, but I’m glad I had a different kind of education.
The “business model” of contemporary academia has to do with modernism only insofar as they both stem from similar historical determinations: namely, late capitalism’s increased ability to function without traditional forms of cultural capital. Modernism was in part driven by the same forces that drive the irrelevance of the humanities. To decry MFA programs as “careerist” is to miss the point of the modern university, which is to provide training for careers. Of course they are careerist; there is no other raison d’être for academic programs.
There’s a quote from an Iowa writing course source which sums it up: writing cannot be taught, merely encouragedto happen.
This is the top and bottom of it. When Stephen King is asked (as he always is) in interviws: how do you write? – he always replies with the same answer:
One word at a time.
He says some interviewers become miffed at this, feeling cheated and that there has to be more to the slippery art than the zen-logic of one word at a time – but he is deadly serious; it’s that simple. And it is.
During my three years at writing school, falling into it when i first began, more by accident than design – Robert Sheppard the poet-leader and architect of the course said that his take was: doing a writing BA won’t make you a writer, but it will lead you to discover if writing is what you want to do.
I still have all my class-notes. On the very first day, in the very first session, everyone was asked why they were on the course, and i noted the answers. Some said they wanted to write novels, another femminist self-help books, some just to extend their hobby.
At the end of the course, we revisted our expectations and talked about our experience and how it had married up to the dreams of day one. By this time, it was clear who had the bug and was into writing and who had had the veil of fanatsy pulled aside, and the person i most admired was a young man in his early twenties, who had come in with big ideas of being the next Sepven Spielberg – who said the one thing he had got out of the course, was knowing that he didn’t want to be a writer – that what he thought being a writer was all about and the reality, were two different things.
The rest, to varying degrees were still peddling their original spiel. Some who were clearly in love with the idea of fame, but not the hard work component, gave out a new slant, that all was well and blah blah blah. Of the 80 on the course, only two had fallen seriously into poetry and were working at it. And it was nothing the tutors had imparted into us, but a finding of the route to within, learning how to find the pool and draw out.
Screenwriter Kenny Naughton, from Mayo, who grew up in Lancashire and wrote Alfie, which starred Micahel Caine, has an interesting take on how he became a writer.
Coming to writing as I did rather later in life than most writers, and being without education, or training so to speak, or indeed any of the usual literary familiarity which even working-class writers may get a touch of in London, and at the same time deeply longing in my own seemingly tinpot way to avoid becoming a hack writer, no matter how successful, but rather hoping perhaps to write one book or even one story that would be of itself alone I must now say that I had a difficult road ahead of me. But at the time, by the blessing of God, I could not see the road ahead, but only where I stood (it hasn’t changed of course as I write) and that didn’t seem too bad. But there was not question of making big decisions, being full of determination or much of that sort of thing (although to tell the truth I did occasionally indulge myself in day dreams) for I was still by nature lazy, and not given to summoning up that obsessive effort, which most writers find necessary to get
a thing done, so what I had to do, and which I believe I learnt to do naturally, was to learn to love writing. Or perhaps what I mean is that I made the daily practice of it become second nature to me, as it were, so that any day in which I didn’t write or at least turn to my writing was a sort of cipher day, marked by a sense of emptiness. I also surrounded myself with numerous minor disciplines – such as setting my writing things and a bicycle lamp beside my bed, and told myself I was to
sit up and write in the way I could get up in the night – and at the same time I tried to free myself from my many bad habits, such as being too soft with myself, putting things off, and being content with a page or so of writing and nesting back as it were. But i could not have done it with effort alone – I feel it needed love, a muddling along discipline, and the Holy Ghost.
(Anyway, although the following has just come to me as sort of afterthought, and has perhaps little place now, I would most earnestly plead with any young writer starting out, or any already along the way, do not give them your all. By that I mean do not pour every drop of yourself into some medium for immediate use, such as journalism or the like – people do this with a plan to become independent and then write their big book: this connot work – or even novels for your public. Always put aside some special offering of writing for God, a writing that will never be read by others whilst you are alive, and which may in its way contain your simplest yet purest and fullest thoughts – orbetter still your words and deeds. This will not only be a practical help in the long run, but is a sort of moral reservoir from which one can draw strength to go on.)
writing cannot be taught
This statement by the Iowa school denies the existence of what might be humankind’s first science: prosody. Whole libraries have been written on the subject.
In the history of human communication there has never been a more ridiculous assertion. Perhaps the school should have said: “Writing cannot be taught by us.”
Good point, Colin, and they proved pretty well what they meant. Indeed, I would agree with Louis Menand’s assessment of Iowa, that it’s contribution to American letters has been very much a mixed blessing.
Toward the end at Foetry there was a young man who came on-line to relate in some detail exactly what he had experienced with the Iowa faculty. The favoritism, intimacy, back-biting and idiosyncracies, but all that is not surprising–it happens everywhere, of course it does, and particularly in high-energy human endeavors. But what caused such a blip in the natural evolution of American poetry was about something else, and that was the astonishing way that Iowa’s faculty, their partners, their students, their friends and like-minded colleagues in closely-related institutions, took over the whole publishing network in America, including the compeititions. Indeed, one must never forget that the prizes are still the crown jewels in any potential writing teacher’s CV, so if the prizes go to one school of writing that school becomes the norm.
But what was truly eye-opening about the Foetry research was the way it demonstrated that a very small list of names stood behind so much of the unethical wheeling and dealing in poetry-country. And it’s a very small list of names indeed, I mean were talking 3 or 4.
That little word “unethical” will make some people very uncomfortable when it’s applied to some of the leading figures in the American poetry community, and I’m perfectly willing to admit that pre-Foetry nobody thought that way about it. It was normal to advance your own student, it was normal to advance the work of your colleague, it was normal to blow the horn of your own school and give it all the prizes. Where I live in Thailand it’s still normal to give the plumb job to your relative, even in mega-buck projects, and to cover up the pecadillos of your friends is what you are born and raised for. Indeed, if you didn’t you’d be betraying your own deepest values, as the obligation to your own people takes precedence over any other moral consideration in most of Asia.
Various ethnic groups came to America with the similar social values, and until only just recently it was a real struggle to come up with clean governments in our big cities, what is more police that you could trust. Education has been the key to this struggle, and as those various ethnic groups, indeed the very richest and most gifted people in our mix, a new ethic has been gradually nurtured based on universal respect for others regardless of their family or origins.
But what I worry about is that some of the ‘richest and most gifted’ of our poets, critics, editors and publishers have been very, very slow to get it. Indeed, I would go a step further even than that–I think it’s appaling they didn’t get it from the start! How could such bright and gifted poets and critics, editors and publishers NOT have realized from the very start they were fiddling the trust. I just don’t get it.
Except possibly for this. There were only 15 writing programs in American universities in the 60s, today there are more than 10 times that. The ethical slips crept up on the poets and publishers in the 70s and 80s, and by the 90s it was too late to stop.
I published my first poem in 1992–it was accepted almost instantly by The Kenyon Review, of all places, and I had the most wonderful correspondence with Marilyn Hacker ironing out the wrinkles of the text. Not bad for a beginner! And I had lots of other successes too at that time, and was brimming with hope for my work. But the shit was just about to hit the fan, and by the time my book was being submitted to the Contemporary Poetry Series in 1995 the office was already deep in the Iowa mud.
Since 1997 I have had very few poems accepted, very, and I never get Marilyn Hacker or anybody else on the line. The market’s obviously just swamped.
This is not about me as “a loser,” those of you who know me, nor even about what you have called my “sour grapes.” It’s the story of a child who fell in a well so that the pit could be identified and covered over. For I was 52 when I had that letter from The Kenyon Review, and living in Paris to boot–and now in Chiang Mai from 1994 to the present. So I was a genuine victim of a world that had moved away from poetry in general to the politically-charged world of The School. For nobody reads poetry anymore who is not in The School, all those books are being published for The School, the faculty, and the customers lining up to buy their MFA as a ticket to join the game.
As I said before, Foetry’s work is done, and I think everybody agrees now it’s all a lot fairer. But we’re still burdened with assumptions about poetry derived from the dirty old days, and on Harriet we’re doing something about it.
Thanks to you all.
That’s it from me on this subject–I can’t do more at my age.
Thomas Brady puts it in a much wider context, and I’m sorry I’ve butted in with my cautionary tale, which is past. Or almost.
He says: “Imagine if history departments WERE attached to English departments–which today pursue their creative writing business models without ANY scholarly oversight? Ransom grumbled that English departments were not autonomous. Imagine a humanities department which actually functions like a disinterested whole, which combines history perspective with literary judgment! That model was appalling to Ransom and his friends and so today, instead, we have isolated literary judgment within creative writing business models, where the publishing of contemporary literature has become an assembly line process with no reason to exist beyond itself.
The insanity of Modernism has triumphed in poetry not only aesthetically, but professionally, commercially, and pedagocially.”
Mr. Colin Ward says this: “writing cannot be taught
This statement by the Iowa school denies the existence of what might be humankind’s first science: prosody. Whole libraries have been written on the subject.
In the history of human communication there has never been a more ridiculous assertion. Perhaps the school should have said: “Writing cannot be taught by us.”
Then Mr. Christopher Woodman starts out his long post this way: “Good point, Colin, and they proved pretty well what they meant. Indeed, I would agree with Louis Menand’s assessment of Iowa, that it’s contribution to American letters has been very much a mixed blessing.”
Mind you, I am no friend of work shop poetry, or of MFA programs. But I remark on this: 16 former students of the Iowa program have won the Pulitzer prize. 3 relatively recent students have been named U.S. poet laureates.
The quote goes, “Writing cannot be taught, merely encouraged to happen.”
Which was my point, and born out by the events, personalities, and social problems I examined. The same ambiguities might arise in a discussion of the white community in America, or the Jews or the Masons.
I feel very self-conscious retelling my tale, and have been trying too hard to keep it short and strictly utilitarian. So distortions creep into my narrative.
At 52 I got one of the best letters in my life: Marilyn Hacker telling me in person my poem would appear in The Kenyon Review. I was ecstatic.
It wasn’t until 14 years later, 2006, that I got that other letter offering me the leg up for $295.00. I was 66 by that time, and still not internet literate. Indeed, I cut my on-line teeth on http://www.foetry.com during the last few months before it closed down—and in the process found out why my SASEs had not been returned.
Spoken like a true modernist-besotted careerist.
There you go using statistics in dubious ways again.
Every year someone is going to win the Pulitzer–that’s a given. And why wouldn’t they have floated through Iowa at some time in their careers? Every year someone MUST win a Pulitzer in Poetry. Is the Pulitzer Prize Winner going to be someone living on an island somewhere, someone NOT associated with a university? Or, will it be someone associated with a writing university? And what statistics do we have on who was sitting on the Pulitzer Prize committees? How many from Iowa, for example, etc?
You see? Your statisitic is trying to prove one thing, when it really just proves the opposite. And yet most of us are drawn into the p.r. ‘logic’ which you are using.
George Dillon won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry when he was 26 years old, was the editor for “Poetry” after Monroe, starting in 1937, was in WW II and broadcast the liberation in 1944 from Paris.
Dillon quit “Poetry” after the war, writing Millay that he despaired at how crummy poetry had become.
The New Critics & the Pound school were ascendent. Two Pulitzer winners, Dillon and Millay were on the decline.
Dillon is now out-of-print and, of course, virtually unknown.
Dillon and Millay translated Baudelaire together–Millay had to remind him that Baudelaire was influenced by Poe when Dillon got too ‘anglo’ with his translations. Millay knew. She wasn’t fooled by the Modernist fashion to dismiss Poe and swoon over his French imitators.
Now, we can discuss prizes and “winners” in detail, or we can simply cite a few stats as if we were a p.r. office, and move on.
Which shall it be?
Self-evidently, to point out the obvious is not to endorse it.
I dunno…someone who thinks the following is ‘obvious:’
“late capitalism’s increased ability to function without traditional forms of cultural capital”
and ‘obviously’ puts the whole matter to rest
is, in my book, besotted with either intellectual pretension or self-interest and ‘obviously’ has no interest in discussing the matter at all.
You may want to clarify what you feel is ‘obvious.’ Or not.
Interesting. That’s hardly the controversial part of what I wrote. If this thesis is new to you, I have to wonder (yet again) where you get your sense of the field from. The idea that late capitalism has seen a decline in the relevancy of traditional forms of cultural capital is so widespread as hardly to merit comment, while the relationship of socioeconomic structures to cultural indices has been theorized throughout the last two or three hundred years so often, so prominently, & in so many respects that I’m disinclined to pursue the question with you, since you can “obviously” work it out for yourself if you care to put a little time or effort into understanding something that you don’t already understand, something you’ve hardly proven yourself willing to do thus far.
What’s the difference between citing quotes and citing stats?
A valid hypothesis.
Pound, in “How To Read” (1929) insists that all students of literature read: Confucius, Homer, Ovid, Catullus, Cavalcanti, Dante, and most in the original language.
Ron Silliman, on his blog, not long ago, listed his 30 or so poetic influences and ALL were of the Pound/Black Mountain school. (Silliman apologized for his list being so white and male.)
I guess I’m a little puzzled, then, when you write: “a decline in the relevancy of traditional forms of cultural capital is so widespread as hardly to merit comment, while the relationship of socioeconomic structures to cultural indices has been theorized throughout the last two or three hundred years so often, so prominently, & in so many respects that I’m disinclined to pursue the question with you…”
What, if I may so ask, in the name of John Donne, are you talking about? If Pound is crazy and Silliman is crazy (and I grant you they very well may be) then can I ask what contemporary counter-movements are “so widespread as hardly to merit comment?” Are you referring to Derrida? What are these “tradional forms” and “cultural indices” which are no longer relevant, and which “forms,” if you can tell us in your wisdom, have replaced them?
Secondly, it’s interesting to me how in your reply to my post on Tate, Ransom and the origin of the workshop you committed two prominent modernist follies: the past somehow no longer applies: first, you cite “late capitalism,” a convenient, though vague, way of making a ‘break,’ and, second, you pretend it’s a recent development that the function of universities is to provide ‘careers’ (graduates of Harvard in the 17th century fell right into careers as ministers) and that this somehow closes all discussion.
Myself I’d hate to have to reply to that!
I also believe in the wholeness of threads, however wobbly may be the weaving, and would like to replay a little bit of Desmond Swords’ last post to keep his colors in this workshop-dustup as well:
Desmond Swords wrote:
“I would most earnestly plead with any young writer starting out, or any already along the way, do not give them your all. By that I mean do not pour every drop of yourself into some medium for immediate use, such as journalism or the like – people do this with a plan to become independent and then write their big book: this connot work – or even novels for your public. Always put aside some special offering of writing for God, a writing that will never be read by others whilst you are alive, and which may in its way contain your simplest yet purest and fullest thoughts – or better still your words and deeds. This will not only be a practical help in the long run, but is a sort of moral reservoir from which one can draw strength to go on.”
Just before that clarion call to honor yourself by keeping something in reserve, Desmond Swords quoted a wonderful bit of reflection by the autodidact Irish writer, Kenny Naughton, the author of ‘Alfie,” no less:
“Kenny Naughton wrote:
“I surrounded myself with numerous minor disciplines – such as setting my writing things and a bicycle lamp beside my bed, and told myself I was to
sit up and write in the way I could get up in the night – and at the same time I tried to free myself from my many bad habits, such as being too soft with myself, putting things off, and being content with a page or so of writing and nesting back as it were. But i could not have done it with effort alone – I feel it needed love, a muddling along discipline, and the Holy Ghost.”
Thomas Brady wrote:
“At one point Ransom calls poems the “product” of English departments. How deluded his ambition has made him, and how prophetic and ironic his error! Mr. Ransom: poems are not the “product” of English departments! They are the product of hopeless amateurs like John Keats!”
Jesus wept. I can’t respond to all the confusions here. I wrote the idea that etc. It is the idea that is widespread: the common-sense recognition that literature & the fine arts in general are no longer necessary forms of cultural capital; of course I (& Ezra Pound & Ron Silliman) think that people should read Dante! Who’s asking us? The problem has been variously theorized, from the right (see Allan Bloom) &, much more accurately, from the left (see Bourdieu, John Guillory). The latter makes the argument that the perceived crises of the humanities originate in the rise of late capitalism’s managerial class, which does not need to know Byron or even Shakespeare in order to participate in the reproduction of social conditions. Hence the canon debate, the ascent of composition studies, etc.: scrabbling attempts to re-legitimize the institution. Thus the inanity of calling MFA programs “careerist” — & once again, you’ve misread what I wrote, since I never state that this careerism is a recent development; only its particular forms are. Nor is “late capitalism” a “vague” marker — one of the most examined historical categories of all time! If you think it’s vague, again, that can only be because you haven’t done the work (cf. Adorno, Harvey, Jameson, for instance, not that you will).
Again, Thomas, it’s telling that you hadn’t the slightest idea what I was talking about, & even managed to assume that what I meant was that Dante just isn’t relevant to Ron Silliman any more. Obviously there has been a decline in the reading of literary works in this country in general — start wherever you wish, Randall Jarrell was complaining about it in 1956. And obviously the purpose of the university as an institution is to reproduce social conditions. And obviously those two facts coalesce to produce humanities departments with fewer & fewer excuses to justify their continued existence. I’m in one of them, of course, & I’m hardly cheering these developments. But when someone comes along & says “how careerist” about a university program, I have to wonder what planet she comes from.
Oh, I read punishable and thought certainly.
Naughton says he learned how to love writing by making its practice second nature to him – which softly halloos to the point Colin Ward passionately makes disputing the very general principle that writing cannot be taught, only encouraged to happen.
Mister Ward is right to be incredulous, if we take that statement literally. Writing is a taught discipline. We all learnt it and so.
However, what cannot be taught is what happens next. The actual writing of the poems and stories an author creates.
Sure, writing can and is taught, but the art of it, writing War and Peace or Shakespeare’s Collected Works, only the individual can discover that, by trial and error, one word at a time.
There was a figure of 10,000 hours practise being bandied around in an article in the Guardian by Malcolm Gladwell, from his new book, Outliers: The Story Of Success.
Gladwell got the figure of 10,000 hours from Anders Ericsson, who conducted research amongst violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music. He found that at 13, there was not much difference between the various musicians, but at 19 when it was clear who had what, the one distinguishing feature seperating them, was tha amount of practise-hours put in. There was a big gap between those who had been practising 10 hours a week and those who had been doing 30-40.
Gladwell went and did his own research from a range of disciplines, including Bill Gates, sportspeople and others, finding that natural talent was only part of the equation, and he came up with a figure of 30 hours practise a week, for seven or eight years, before one becomes an *expert*.
This figure sounds about right.
Prior to becoming a bore, i worked in numerous jobs, the first one being a suspended ceiling and partition fixer from age 17 – 25, and by the age of 24 or so, had mastered the basics enough to know what i was doing.
In writing, which i have been at for 8 years full time, addicted to it having found a way into the Naughton principle of “loving writing” and at this and reading for most of my waking hours since 2001 – i would agree with this general principle.
It is only in the last two years i have come to understand how to deploy, at chemical level (as Annie Finch might say), all the various grammatical/punctuation tricks in the toolbox.
Dashes and double dashes, only in the last 18 months have these marks fed into the construction of sentances – slowly, slowly and which for years did not even feature because i was not at a level of skill attained through practise, whereby i could use them — indeed viewing text generally, of the high-enders, it’s only recently i can map with clarity, recogniose what’s happening in the field of composition.
The same with line breaks. I never got them until very recently, how to make the best
use of them by a combination of ceasura and all the rest of it. How to look at what i do detached and from the point of view of an audience, think of what they are seeing and how to maximise the surprise.
So, eight years full time writing, before we become proficient enough to go publice. That’s how it was in the bardic scheme. One needed to reach leven six of seven – anruth (noble stream) before one could publically practice as a poet, and then another four to five years before qualifying as an ollamh (poetry professor).
So, yes, of course writing can be taught, but what cannot, are the actually writing of the stories and poems and the fundamental understandings which come only by the act of doing.
The destination eight years down the line cannot be delviered up on a plate on the first day – that head-sapce of knowing our studies and trial and error practise attain.
On an unrelated note, the etyology of the name “Ward”, in Irish, routes to Bhard, and Ward is a name of old bardic import, and this family, like the O’Higgins and O’Daly’s, renowned poets in the olden days residing now on pages time forgot.
What about the God part, Desmond, the Holy Ghost? (and keep the wrath of the gods from my head by lovingly limiting the length of your response!)
My take on the Holy Ghost, is that Naghton was referring to a belief (or not) in the unseen, otherworldly, supernatural essence of Creation.
Whatever one calls the eye behind the mind behind the hand behind the blueprint of our universe – God (say) that one may or may not believe in as the unconscious order of unknowable tune heard within and which intuative spirituality – if one is lucky enough to have it – leads to: perhaps. Perhaps not.
The wholly ghost-part of us that found its way into verse as the:
…fuse of flesh life lit and left
as the pyramid of past we’ve no cognisance of..
The dead (and living) who make us, and we the single individual flash of consciousness atop a pyramid of ancestors.
8 great grandparents
16 great great grandparents
32 great great great grandparents
…and a doubling of contributary fuses of flesh life lit and left/ as a pyramid of past – every generation back.
Of course an ardent aetheists without Faith in an unseen Creator, can argue all this supernatural stuff is rubbish, which is fair comment, we’re all free to believe (or not) in what we choose to (or not) – and i am not here to try and convert anyone.
But Naughton, what he was saying (this version goes) is that he learned to trust in Wonder. The child-like amazement in what the scientists will explain in dry lingo.
When we write something which suprises us because we never thought we had it in us to express with such eloquence whatever got expressed, and which seems to come fully formed, as though we – in the words of David Meltzer – are merely the “conduit through which it comes” — this Faith/Self-Delusion, is what Naughton is on about, maybe. Maybe not; but as he isn’t around to tell us exactly what he meant, we can only speculate.
He was from Aughamore, very near to Knock, where most of my own family also orignate near to, and the official population of Knock, is in the hundreds and every year there are nearly 2 million pilgrims come because of an Apparition at Knock 130 years ago.
Imagine a poet having a Vision today and trying to speak of it without ridicule from the less creative colleagues on the love-bus in it for three squares, pension and sinecure?
When I began reading the New Yorker article last night, I questioned the vaidity of this statement right away, too.
However, I think this quiz question is completely separate from the debate going on about “writing cannot be taught”–the question deals with the workshop model on a student level, meaning, students who haven’t published yet, but are reading and commenting on other student work. It doesn’t even mention the teacher or published instructor who is supposedly in charge of the class. So for all the writing professors out there answering this question, I think you are missing the point—it’s about sharing ideas and being engaged with your friends/peers writing, in which, no one needs to have been published in order to read and comment on a written piece of work. Basically, all this question says to me is that “anyone” can collectively participate in a discussion about writing in order to deepen our understanding of writing. Think of all the important conversations about poetry that you’ve had with people who weren’t necessarily famous artists but who have motivated or influenced your writing, if not directly improved your poems.
So thanks for taking on this question—as I found it interesting and also had to be reminded to distinguish “creative writing” from MFA programs.
The disconnect here is I presented a specific thesis on the origin of the Creative Writing Workshop and you have rebuffed it without specifics; you seem incapable of making a pro/con argument, or arguing from specific examples; you did not refute my citing of Tate and Ransom and the specific rhetoric involved; all you have done is vaguely cite your post-graduate readings–as if this were enough, as if this were an argument. Your tone of superiority is a natural defensive gesture, keeping with your inability to have an actual, spontaneous discussion on the matter at hand. People DO read Dante. There’s nothing wrong with careers, per se. You are obviously beyond reach at present in your ‘ivory tower/late capitalist’ haze. When you graduate from college, perhaps we’ll talk. Jesus wept indeed.
I’m not the one who can’t have a discussion. “Specific thesis”! I wasn’t aware that the notion that all this bother about writing workshops arose because of John Crowe Ransom’s ressentiment required a refutation. Throughout your posting on Harriet you make the mistake of assuming institutional change occurs because of individual decisions. I can’t convince you of the need to view historical & institutional change as inevitably the manifestations of historical, social phenomena. The one time I & others tried, it was clear that you needed to do more reading on the subject – many have since recommended people more intelligent than ourselves whom you might read for edification, but you simply refuse to do so, preferring to charge those who honestly want you to understand better where we’re coming from with the inability to mount an argument – as if everyone were in your position of being able to spend significant portions of each day posting on a blog!
Thomas, you have consistently attributed to me positions I do not hold & arguments I did not make. It seems that when you can’t respond to what I actually write, you invent a caricature that you can respond to. Yesterday you told me that I believed university training for careers was a new phenomenon, that the past is irrelevant, & that Ron Silliman did not read. (This second one is the most revelatory: since I believe that the past determines just about everything we do; I do not, of course, believe the actions of two individuals, whatever their delusions of agency, equal “the past”).this time around you suggest that I don’t believe that anyone at all reads Dante & that I think there is something wrong with having a career! Strange positions for a Dante-reading person with a career! So an unbiased observer will conclude (as many have) that you’re not engaging me in good faith, & that I’m an idiot for going back on my resolution not to get involved in this nonsense with you anymore.
Just to play out the string, a student who has never punished a poem?
Thanks, Lisa. I think it is an important distinction. It’s also valid, I think, to wonder if all students in creative writing workshops want to publish. There is that whole other life of the poem. The unpublishable (unpunishable?) part.
Lisa, I totally agree with you. When I read that particular sentence in that article, I thought like you he was missing the point in a crucial way, in his assumption that the purpose of a writing workshop (or of an MFA for that matter) was to produce “publishable” work.
That’s in fact exactly where a writing workshop is likely to go completely wrong. What’s “publishable” is, of course, constantly changing, plus, as we all know from reading a lot of mediocre published work, that’s not really the standard we want to set for ourselves as artists. I agree with Travis it’s also worth considering that not every writer has as his or her main goal to publish: regardless, whether or not a poet wants to publish, talking about whether something is “publishable” in a workshop is a sure way to have a tedious and unproductive conversation.
The best kind of writing workshop is neither a mutual support group or praise-fest, nor some kind of ad hoc editorial committee, but a group of thoughtful and careful readers articulating to the writer of a particular poem what they see, hear, understand, perceive.
Ladies and gentlemen,
There was a Harriet post made a few days ago about needing help in an effort to add more poems to the “Gay” poetry archives on this site. That post has, at his moment, four posts.
In contrast, this extremely brief quiz/post has gathered, as of this moment, thirty-seven responses of what I see to be a mix of hubris, misunderstandings, pettiness and sincere wonder. Would we rather argue about poetry–or certain programs intended (whether they do so successfully or not) to create/fuel more poetry–rather than actually a) write it, b) read it or c) create an archive that could aid the aforementioned?
Nevertheless, it’s no surprise to me that the “gay” post should look like a ghost town, while the “academic” post is overcrowded. Is it to you?
May I be honest? I have no idea what you’re talking about.
I do appreciate your response, and thank you, but this is going nowhere fast.
Well…carry on, then.
Good to get back to Louis Menand’s article and the vote. Thanks, Lisa. But we haven’t been wasting our time because of course there are so many angles to the topic, and hopefully what has already transpired can help us go back and read better.
The article begins with the phrase, “Creative writing programs,” so right from the start Louis Menand places the discussion in the classroom. But he has an agenda, obviously–that’s why he’s writing the article. To that end he makes the elegant glissade from the very real benefits of writers getting together that Lisa Schumaier praises to writers getting together to get published, a statement which collapses the whole history of the Creative Writing Workshop phenomenon in one go. And so we end up with that mesmerizing poll that pulls us this way and that.
I myself voted “yes” when the poll was first posted because I was thinking “program” too much, and wanted to emphasize the business aspect of the enterprise. I was very aware that the statement was absurd, because of course the teacher in such programs gets the job specifically because he or she has already been published, a lot, and indeed the number of students enrolled in the program will be in direct proportion to the amount the teacher has published, where and to what effect. If it’s Jorie Graham or C.D.Wright the course is going to be full for sure, and the particular school is going to be heavily subscribed.
Back to the poll.
On reflection I would have voted “No,” because I soon realized there was so much more in the phrasing of the question than I realized, that indeed the irony of the phrasing brought up aspects of the problem I hadn’t thought of before. Because of course getting published isn’t the motive at all when a group of like-minded friends and colleagues get together to talk about their poetry, surely one of the most fruitful social encounters a poet can have. Such exchanges have been going on forever, after all, from Lesbos to the cafés of Paris!
What Louis Menand is doing is trying to reveal the pitfalls of the movement as it goes from the spontaneous writing encounter to the academically profitable Program. Because in the latter publishing does matter very much, and is attended by students who love to write, of course, but even more so hope to embark on a career that will support them pen in hand. I’m sure there are students who join writing programs just for the love of it, particularly in Community Colleges and Continuing Education facilities, but even in those the teacher has to be paid, obviously, and equally obviously not all MFA graduates are going to find a place teaching creative writing at Iowa or Brown!
So in the end the absurdity of Louis Menand’s first sentence serves the purposes of his article very well, and has launched this thread with a bang!
But I do have some problems with what you say, Matthew Zapruder. Surely the purpose of an MFA is a professional one, as much as a graduate degree in engineering or psychology or even history is a professional commitment. I don’t know how many poetry MFA students are on scholarship, or what percentage of their expenses are met when they are lucky enough to get one, but it’s obviously a heavy investment for most, one which will take years to pay back. People don’t do MFAs just to read better or get more enjoyment from poetry, though of course they do get those perks along the way because that’s what they like to do best. No, the MFA poetry student is making an investment to get a good job, basically, and getting published is going to be the big one when it comes to their eventual competitiveness in the market.
Do tell me if I’m wrong on that, because I’m very much an outsider.
The next one. Of course not every writer has as his or her main goal to get published, but if one is a poetry professional and one’s income is dependent upon not the royalties but the kudos derived from getting into print, then you better believe it’s essential.
Which is a situation such as the world has never seen before, and exists in this country as nowhere else in the world either–the poet as a comfortable professional teaching poetry!
So of course you, the teacher, don’t approach the poem discussed in the program’s workshop to make it publishable, but you do pass on the sound and the feel and the perspective that makes it more au courant and, hopefully, if all goes well, publishable.
And in so doing inevitably there emerge certain habits and fashions. Certain types of poetry lend themselves better to the dynamics of the workshop than others as well, obviously, and certain concerns, so when the Creative Writing Workshop Program becomes the training ground for all poets it also puts its stamp on the product.
Go to the Contributors section at the back of any well-established poetry magazine and tell me how many poets there are in America who are not sinecured in a Writing Program?
Pedagogy is sexy. Haven’t you heard?
I suppose Menand is thinking of how MFA programs (he was reviewing a book titled ‘The Program Era’) typically advertise their faculty–and their publishing creds.
There’s no denying people find value in talking things out with their peers, but publishing is what eventually is supposed ‘to happen.’
But the larger issue is this. Kids who haven’t released a record get together all the time in private, and practice as a band–that’s how virtually all successful recording groups happen. It would be ridiculous to ask, ‘you mean these kids who haven’t made a record teach each other how to make a record?’ Well, yes, of course they do.
But then why can’t this happen with poetry? Why do you need the MFA program, the graduate school? Why can’t poetry belong to amateurs, like Paul, John, George, and Ringo? Why is poetry seminarized, laboratorized, credentialized, professionalized?
That’s the issue.
Power to the amateurs! Down with credentials!
Art can’t be taught. Craft, I guess, can be taught, in a slipshod way. Just be sure to keep it slipshod.
Programs are for lemmings.
Credentials are for weasels.
The lion sleeps on its paws.
Happy Bloomsday !
Yes, let’s hear it for amateurs, like Poe and Millay, who did some college and then (imagine that) went forth and sold their work to the public.
But pedagogy is still important, even for the amateurs. Poe made pedagogy extremely important; he sought to elevate American Letters; “The Philosophy of Composition,” “The Poetic Principle,” and “The Rationale of Verse” were the first three chapters in a proposed textbook; and he went to the public with it, in articles, in lectures, but he never knocked on the door of the ivory tower. Poe never finished his bachelor’s at Virginia, which was probably a good thing; it forced Poe into the wilderness of the marketplace, where he thrived.
But here’s the point. Pedagogy works best when “we” learn.
The Workshop tends to be a collection of individuals. Individualism is fine–in private. Genius does much development in private. The amateur is largely self-taught. But the social, the pedagogical impulse, still matters.
Should the pedagogical be given over to the ivory tower entirely?
No, for we see the hideous result. Hence, Michael Robbins, who, when presented with specific actions, documented by writings, of specific individuals, responds with something about “late capitalism” and vague references to texts that he doesn’t bother to quote from; Mr. Robbins presents gobbledeegook–which no one can understand. But that’s the whole point, that’s the essence of ‘the con.’ No one can understand what Michael Robbins is saying, at least the ‘unlearned’ cannot understand what he is saying, and this, it turns out, is a point in Michael Robbins’ favor, for if the unlearned cannot understand Michael Robbins, then perhaps he IS learned, and the learned, desperately not wanting to seem unlearned, nod in assent, (yes, don’t you ‘get it?’ ‘Late capitalism!’ Of course! Hrrmmpff, hrrumpff, nod, nod) and everyone agrees with Michael Robbins that “late capitalism” is the cause of the Creative Writing industry, not the actions of specific individuals. No! God forbid that we actually get specific!
But we *must* be specific. We must have pedagogy which begins, and stays with, and ends with, “we.” We follow. We understand.
Not: a collection of individuals who *pretend* to understand what Michael Robbins is saying, and who don’t really care, finally, whether they REALLY understand what Michael Robbins is saying, or what Ezra Pound is saying, because, after all, it’s all about pluralism and individualism and…and…late capitalism. Not a collection of individuals in the Workshop who run in fear of “we” and instead get a secret nod or wink from the instructor now and then.
Let me give you example of the pedagogic “we.”
We decide to write a poem.
Not me. Not you. We.
We decide on a title for our poem.
“The Ballad Of Thomas Stearns Eliot.”
We now decide the best elements to include in this poem. We write the best possible poem, titled “The Ballad Of Thomas Stearns Eliot,” step-by-step.
We makes suggestions, we reject this, we approve of that, until WE have a terrific poem.
We do this, and this, then, is how pedagogy, operates. (I’m stealing a little bit from Socrates here)
All other learning is done in private, of course, and needs no pedagogy, per se.
But if we going to SHOW IT, let us SHOW IT. If WE are going to make public our assertions, by all means let us make these assertions in such a manner that WE can all understand specifically what WE are saying.
No, I don’t think you’re wrong at all. To be more precise, I was talking about the work that is actually done in the workshop class itself. In my experience, discussing a poem in terms of whether or not it is publishable leads to not very interesting or productive conversations; it also is very unlikely to lead to the production of work that will actually BE publishable.
But MFA programs — which can be, as you point out, quite expensive — have an obligation to provide the sorts of professional advice and guidance and preparation you quite rightly enumerate; I just think they do so more effectively in other formats, such as non-workshop classes, personal mentorship, other sorts of programs and presentations, etc. Most of them make a great effort do so.
Thanks, Matthew Zapruder–you get right to the heart of the matter.
Although I have never been even near one, like not even in the same neighborhood, I have no doubt that MFA programs do provide very professional advice, preparation and guidance to writers who want to become professionals in turn. Indeed, I should love to teach a bit in such a program myself one day—if I ever could find my way back! What a privilege it would be to spend a whole semester with a group of highly intelligent and sensitive adults who want to do nothing but crack the nut of poetry, who will read anything, discuss anything, and even take themselves apart to get to the meat and very marrow of the most demanding of all the arts. Indeed, that’s one of the tragedies of the whole MFA Creative Writing Program movement, isn’t it, that it could have done so much better? It could have served the American poetry community as a whole so much better, including, minor detail, the non-professional readership—but some powerful individuals within it closed the ivory doors behind them and threw away the key!
I think you’re almost certainly right as well that most MFA Programs make a great effort to provide the rigorous support and mentorship that every poet craves, however old he or she may be, and that those staff members who can lecture provide as many memorable moments in the classroom as there’s time for–and that the students will never forget those moments either, as I will never forget listening to F.R.Leavis at Cambridge in the 60s (I’ve recounted some of those stories on Harriet already). I give that example because that’s how much it surely means.
The bad part came in with The Great School part, when it became so profitable for both the teachers in The Great School and the students graduating from it that they began to lose their capacity to make some very basic moral decisions . As I see it, the whole MFA Program movement had built up such a head of steam by the early 90s that some very distinguished poets lost their bearings. How else can you explain what happened at the Contemporary Poetry Series, for example, as distinguished a publication venture as it gets? How else can you explain the fact that so many poets, critics, editors and publishers got so caught in flagrante delicto with their pants right down around their knees?
That’s why it was so hard to hear Foetry’s message, and why Alan Cordle and his gang had to shout so furiously to get heard it hurt your ears. Nowhere on earth has poetry experienced something as brute awful as Foetry, particularly in its first year, so crude and angry, but nowhere else on earth has poetry been so commercially important it was worth cheating for, as simply as that. Has their ever arisen a poetry mafia before? Just think of that!
Hard words, but I think they’re accurate. I also think we’ve begun to turn the corner, and that some unsavoury aspects of 20th Century Literary History are getting studied properly even this soon after the fact. Because who would ever have imagined in 1989 that Memorial would come into existence in Moscow either? Who would ever have imagined Russians could so soon talk about that?
I like your comments to Matthew.
Here’s why the issue is complex. F.R. Leavis taught his students that Shelley was a bad poet. (I would love to hear more of your first-hand experience with Leavis!)
Modernism/New Criticism (by accident or not) was the hand that set up the Creative Writing Industry; the first textbook by New Critics Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks (Understanding Poetry) 1938 which greeted the mass of GI Bill students after WW II (as the university took over mass poetry publishing and mass poetry taste) also attacked Shelley. Modernism could not tolerate Shelley’s spirit. Williams’ “Wheel Barrow” cannot live beside Shelley without resentment brewing: Shelley makes “Wheel Barrow” look tiny and pretentious.
This is not just a systemic issue, but a real, specific historical issue involving specific taste in poetry.
If we are to build a society of poets, the brute element can perhaps be civilized by Shelley, but never by Williams.
F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Ezra Pound gave up on the brute element of society by intellectualizing Letters in a way that no longer appealed to the builder, the athlete, the common man and woman, but appealed only to morbidity, neurosis, ‘difficulty’ and over-wrought, ego-driven erudition. The idea was to seduce a small percentage of the brute element (Kerouac, Pollock) but to reject art as that which could appeal to the great mass of men and women generally, the excuse always being something like Western Civilization was crumbling, with all those associated intellectually morbid complaints, making it impossible for poetry to be at all heroic or beautiful, or appeal to any but the elite-minded, which is why modernism tends to be a male club, since males, in this modernist idea, in a purely unspoken manner, are higher up on the elite chain.
Whether one agrees with the content of the modernist animus or not, one can still see modernism’s human activity in this regard.
So here’s the thing about education, academics, and so forth.
Your Shelley does not grow on trees. Shelley (yea, he lived in the 19th century, but he was modern) was the product of a rigorous classical education.
When I argue for the amateur, what this means is THAT AT SOME POINT THE EDUCATION STOPS AND THE ACADEMY SENDS THE STUDENT OUT INTO THE WORLD. The education should not substitute for the poet existing in the real world as a real servant of the general public; the education lets go of the student after a concentrated period of extreme rigor, a rigor in which the pedagogy reflects the reality that poetry can express and revel in the heroic, the beautiful, and the melancholy, rather than morbid, sarcastic-tinged erudition which we see in modernism generally.
Not sure we’ve come to the heart of the matter. I do believe it is a worrisome matter, given that such programs have changed the face and very possibilities of American
publishing of poetry. For us all. Supply and demand have overloaded the entire scene, and we all suffer from it. Many speak of this, and many remain silent because their livelihood and or sense of worth depends on it, for now.
The matter is not only whether workshops benefit writers or whether we are each born whole from the head of Athena. A system which costs a great deal to enter, and holds the carrot of publication out to its graduates – or at least the encouraged belief that one deserves a decent teaching job and a book, for the cost and endurance to receive its degree — has overloaded many a publisher’s desk, and created a rather over-fed market. We all(most) hope that our books will be read. we worry along with the publishers,
who is reading.
I would offer that the Menand article, its subject, and the subject, “en gros” — affect, directly–who reads, whether the work is read, or published. And also — how we write. Our influences. And, what future our books may have in coming seasons.
The MFA industry, and it IS an industry — has led to a mostly over-supplied miasma, for many. And the art of poetry – however one may construe that lovely word or thought – is reeling from the effects. Can one go back to Whitman’s poems in his pocket? or ED’s quiet rooms and shyness, or home schooling or small groupings under the ash tree sharing work and wonder? Maybe. Though, not as long as the “industry” exists with its needed purpose which has become to create a survival mode for those who only know poetry as a way to survive in economic terms. A maybe tragic feeling, that. But maybe true.
It may be useful to examine a chapter from the New Critical textbook (1938, Henry Holt) by Professor Penn Warren and Professor Brooks, “Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode.”
We find a glaring grammatical error in the first sentence:
“The relationship of poetry to history is, needless to say, a most important one, though it is a relationship frequently confused.” [‘confused’ is incorrect; ‘confusing’ is closer to the meaning the editors are attempting]
“We know that poems arise out of the process of history – that they are written by men who live in that process – and the temptation is strong to see the poem merely as a historical document or to allow our reading of it as a historical document to settle for us the whole question of the failure or success of the poem. Moreover, if one protests against so simple a view, he may seem to be denying the importance of history and historical contexts altogether.”
Here we see a classic case of what we might term ‘the New Critical fallacy.’
The editors decry “so simple a view” in which “the whole question of the failure or success of the poem” is asked to be “settled.”
But who asks this?
Not the historians. The historical view of poetry is nothing more than the editors’ straw man which, according to the editors, is a view that wishes to “settle” the “whole question of the failure or success of the poem.” But historians, as historians, would NOT care to “settle” whether or not a “poem” is a “success” or a “failure!”
The editors continue:
“The editors are confident that it is necessary to distinguish between the poem as poem and the poem as historical document. For example, it may be an extremely useful historical document and yet have no value at all as a poem, or the reverse may be true.”
But why do the editors think such a distinction is necessary? “The poem as poem” can ONLY be read as a poem. “The poem as historical document” can naturally be read as BOTH.
The New Critical editors are getting excited over nothing.
With these words, “But these problems are best discussed with reference to concrete examples,” the editors then proceed to make an historical analysis of Marvell’s poem which is so lengthy and tedious (proving, I suppose, that they DO know their history and CAN do historical analysis if they WANT) no student reading such a thing would ever want to study poetry–or history again.
Yes, & then one can go back to horse & buggy, polio epidemics, & gaslight. Of course some idealized model from the nineteenth century is not available to us. As for the MFA “industry”: as if poetry up until the advent of creative writing programs were something other, purer, than an industry! hast read The Dunciad?
I don’t know anyone with an MFA who paid for it, by the way. I rarely admit that I have one, but I sure as hell got a fellowship to do so.
Sorry, Thomas, I think we’re on very different tracks.
Interesting thread and ensuing discussion. To me the proposition of a teacher of poetry looking to make poets who can write publishable poetry rather points to the central problem: the professionalization of poetry. That is the real problem: that poetry is viewed, rather bureaucratically, rather corporately, as a profession. Again in my view the professionalization of poetry is…a killer…of poetry.
Upthread, Margo Berdeshevksy points out that the MFA program has become an industry. The writer is correct. There is no denying the fact that virtually every university, four year college, and two year college in the country has either an MFA program or a Creative Writing program. This amounts to an industry tooled to mass produce poets. Once certified a poet what does the poet do? She and he look to get a job in their profession. They either turn to magazines for employment as editors of poetry or they turn to universities as teachers of poetry. And so the machine of professional poetry keeps the gears oiled, has kept the gears oiled since WW II. Some would blame Ransom, Winters, and their generation. I do not. I do blame their students who opted for regular employment in their profession. We in the poetry scene now harvest what they sowed: the artificial professionalization of poetry which has produced an inflated circumstance in which every MFA grad is certain that she or he is a poet.
Also upthread, Michael Robbins points out that poetry has always been an industry. He is not only right, he is damn right. Poetry has always been an industry. But it has been a cottage industry, like a smithy, or a potter, or a weaver working alone, sometime in tandem with her or his peers. This is the big difference, what amounts to a difference in degree.
What was it Gibbons said about the reign of the Roman emperor, Ceasar Augustus? So much money spent on the arts and nothing to show for it. Or something to that effect. So much money spent on professionalizing poetry. Now what it there to show for it?
In the sum I think I feel sorry for the professionals and teachers of poetry.
Leavis taught his students a lot of things, but above all he taught them that ideas and images were important for each one of us, that plots and morals and denouements not only lived but belonged to the people, not to the school, that art had feet of clay like his own, and smelled and smiled and feinted, just like he did. I don’t remember any of his theories or pronouncements, and I certainly wasn’t influenced in my own way of thinking by anything he said. I was influenced by him, and prickly as he was I loved him.
That’s why he never got a Chair. The Cambridge establishment couldn’t bear his manners, or the fact that he was never going to look right or fit in. By the time I met him he was a tramp that lived in Cambridge, but for every lucky student the stones flew when he rode by on his bicycle.
It’s just as inconceivable that he could have done what Jorie Graham did as become the Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard. And that’s what’s wrong with the American poetry scene, that the most influential poets sit in chairs and tell you that they’re good and deep.
He didn’t, which is why he was.
Finally, you should understand this better than most, dear friend. You make the most outrageous pronouncements in the most uncompromising tone, yet aren’t attached to anything you say. What you believe in is rigor and honesty, and expect anyone in dialogue with you to sit up and take notice of that, not you. It’s not because your ideas establish you as more important than someone else, or get you the job, or even influence, just that such ideas are life.
Which is what poetry should do to, of course, not impress, not support you!
I personally would much appreciate it if someone could reply to this statement of Michael’s. Is it just me, or does he move in circles unimaginable?
If you’re right, Michael, then all my calculations are invalid, as I always assumed that the salaries of all those creative writing teachers were paid for by the next generation of, yes, creative writing teachers. If the next generation are all on bursaries and scholarships, wherever does the buck stop?
Tax dollars? Now there’s a scandal!
And what percentage of your annual costs were met by your “Fellowship,” Michael? I mean, did you have a free vacation for two years including that whole library of freshly printed books, the shelves you put them in, your kitchen and your table?
If so, no wonder everybody with a pencil wants a piece of that cake!
Momentarily only, Margo–you are just arguing out of your grief for the loss of poetry and Thomas is trying to solve the murder!
Myself I think you get to the very heart of the matter at the end of your previous post: the poetry industry exists in America, you say, “to create a survival mode for those who only know poetry as a way to survive in economic terms.”
Yes indeed, and if only we could just rewrite that we’d be O.K: “to create a survival mode for those who only know poetry as a way to survive!”
I mean that, too, and I’m just like that myself. Indeed, I suspect most of us on this site are as well. Certainly you are, Margo Berdeshevsky, and Thomas too, and Terreson (I’ve just read his post ahead). Michael Robbins I’m not so sure about because his MFA was free!
What really bugs me is all the deep linguistic, aesthetic, critical and philosophical verbiage that accompanies what has become an entirely artificial display, like you see in the windows of the bakeries in Paris where the most delicious tarts and breads and pastries are recreated in carefully painted plaster to draw you in. And it does too—makes your mouth water, particularly when the shop is closed!
In the Creative Writing Program country that’s America, when you go into the shop you are sold the same indigestible fake delights that are laid out in the window, and go away not only hungry but missing an arm and a leg!
Just like you buy the emperor’s new clothes. Precisely like that. The emperor stays naked because anyone unable to see his delights hasn’t purchased his glasses at an MFA!
No one should pay for graduate school. It’s standard for the top programs to provide fellowships & stipends that, yes, will cover yr basic necessities for the duration of yr tenure. In return, there are usually teaching duties to fulfill. Seems like a fair trade to me. You’re going to be poor in an MFA program, but my fellowship & those of friends & colleagues I’ve talked to provided enough to live on without taking out loans or procuring steady work. Likewise, the doctoral program I’m in now pays me & every other graduate student to attend the university. I teach one class a quarter at a local college in addition to my teaching at the university, but not because I absolutely have to. This is de rigeuer.
And how you end up in the mess you’re in. What a struggle, and for what?
Unless of course you get tenure.
i.e. not for poetry
I’m still not following … I study poetry, am writing a dissertation on poetry, reviewing poetry, writing & publishing poetry, teaching poetry classes …
Yes, that’s it. All of the above.
Robbins and Terreson both generalize about the ‘good old days.’
Robbins says there never were any ‘good old days.’ He is the witty pragmatist.
At the other end of the spectrum stands Tere, for whom the ‘good old days’ corresponds to some hazy, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, cottage industry, world in which honest folks work with their hands at their rustic workbenches. Tere is the ‘small-is-beautiful’ romantic.
The problem with the views of Robbins and Tere on this question is the tendency to get lost in generalization. I could agree with each of them, by turns, on various questions, but finally we would be speaking a different language, not because of differences in aesthetics, so much, as from differences concerning simple historical facts and their effects on the larger issues.
We could blather all day from self-interest, or we could read the specific documents, such as “Understanding Poetry” (Penn Warren & Brooks) or the essays of the Fugitives, Modernists, and New Critics, which apply to the real, specific, and unique historical situation.
The New Critics were careful to cover their tracks: read the poem! Pay no attention to the historical documents behind the Red Curtain! I am the Great and Powerful…New…Critic!
Robbins is a product of the New Critical Creative Writing factory. He is immersed in poetry and brags about how he teaches and studies poetry all day. The consequence of this is that Robbins cannot turn around and observe the masters who made him. Because the New Critical revolution is now historical fact, it is beyond Robbins’ purview. He is Ransom’s robot. He will never again be a real boy.
Tere blames the world for poetry’s ills; he cannot bring himself to study annoying historical facts, facts that have no romantic sheen attached to them. Tere is not quite the New Critical robot that is Robbins, because Tere is not IN the industry itself, as Robbins is, so Tere is naturally a little suspicious of Robbins’ solipsistic self-interest, which regards the pedagogical nitrous oxide of Gertrude Stein/Henry James/John Ashbery as the only invention we will ever need. Tere is troubled by Lotus Eater, Inc. He wants to escape the island, but he’s not sure how it can be done.
You are right. I have no self-interest, at least as viewed from the outside. My interest is purely pedgogical. I am selfless. Strange, though, how I enjoy this…
My complaint lies not with the quantity of education but its quality. With that many asses in the seats I think we are missing a tremendous opportunity here. Failure to teach Creative Writing students the elements of the craft is like making Anatomy an elective in med school. Nevertheless, if asking teachers to teach is too extravagant or anachronistic a demand then we must either seek alternatives or embrace the new reality. Amor fati.
Until we can regain the public’s interest, English majors will serve as a large part of our audience. Hell, I wish there were millions more of them. I don’t have a problem with citing publication as a goal, even in a time when everyone with a DTP or website development program is an “editor”. Sure, it’s a standard lower than a wheel rut in a sinkhole, but perhaps poetry readers have always harbored the notion that they were fledgling poets. The more people we have touting poetry in general, the better. I wish the graduates every success in their careers, doing whatever jobs are available to poets who think AnaDiplosis is a Greek porn star. Maybe some of these grads or their offspring will find innovative ways to blaze a trail to the public, if only as a background buzz.
Here’s a question or two for someone whose issue seems to be that there’s a failure to teach poetic technique, prosody, etc.
How much blame do you assign to Modernism for the collapse of technical knowledge? How would you characterize the cause of this collapse? Did it just happen from laziness? Did free verse win key debates, or did entropy set in? If you could briefly cite some historical documents of important arguments that turned the tide in favor of free verse (or influential poets or poems) what would they be?
I agree with Colin that the quality of education has deteriorated significantly. To compensate for this, I would like to offer:
Important guidelines for writers:
2.Check to see if you any words out.
3.Be carefully to use adjectives and adverbs correct.
4.About sentence fragments.
5.When dangling, don’t use participles.
6.Don’t use no double negatives.
7.Each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.
8.Just between you and I, case is important.
9.Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
10.Don’t use commas, that aren’t, necessary.
11.Its important to use apostrophe’s right.
12.It’s better not to unnecessarily split an infinitive.
13.Never leave a transitive verb just lay there without an object.
14.Only Proper Nouns should be Capitalized. also a sentence should begin with a capital and end with a period
15.Use hyphens in compound-words, not just in any two-word phrase.
16.In letters compositions reports and things like that we use commas
to keep a string of items apart.
17.Watch out for irregular verbs which have creeped into our language.
18.Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
19.Avoid redundant and unnecessary redundancy.
20.A writer mustn’t shift your point of view.
21.Don’t write a run-on sentence you’ve got to punctuate it.
22.A preposition isn’t a good thing to end a sentence with.
23.Avoid cliches like the plague.
1. No poems about wheel barrows.
2. No wearing green make-up.
3. No picking Mussolini over Shelley.
4. No epics about cities in New Jersey.
5. No writing poems on broken typewriters.
6. No inspiration from nitrous oxide.
7. No writing with white ink.
8. No taking –isms seriously.
9. No writing pop songs with the ‘Twelve-tone’ technique.
10. No ‘close-readings’ of Finnegan’s Wake.
11. Watch out for irregular poets.
12. Run from Charles Olson.
13. Never split a T.S. Eliot.
14. Don’t dangle Yvor Winters.
15. Don’t agree with Allen Tate.
16. Don’t capitalize cummings.
17. Never punctuate W.S. Merwin.
18. Don’t use commas with Helen Vendler.
19. Don’t use Harold Bloom as an object.
20. Don’t use John Crowe Ransom as a subject.
I’d like to abandon this thread but I can’t let some of these “rules,” recognized for decades as hypercorrect fallacies, stand, even as framed. Latinate pretensions of nineteenth century dons are to blame for many of these; some academics make up some rules & intelligent people accept them without question? Quelle horreur!
1. Prepositions have always been & continue to be perfectly fine to end sentences with.
2. To schoolmarmishly refuse to split infinitives is to reveal a fundamental ignorance of the history of English usage.
3. Don’t tell Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, President Obama, or I about how important case is.
But that’s the whole point, Michael, the rules are hypercorrect, and have been taught to well-brought up children for decades. On the other hand, even well-brought up children are intelligent enough to figure out polite society is full of rules that are much more fun and sometimes even clearer broken.
Sort of like sex.
Same thing in the training of violinists, acrobats and ballet dancers. The great ones a.) get a lot of hypercorrect discipline at the early stages, b.) put aside everything they have been taught when it matters!
What might be interesting for a pedant like you, because the point you have just made is pedantic, that such rules are “fallacies” instead of just part of the educational process, is to look over the various styles employed by the writers on this blog, It’s a high standard here, yes, but there are lapses because we are all in a rush and also usually more concerned with what we say than how we say it. On the other hand, there are individuals whose style does let them down, and their arguments are weakened by their lack of poise and verbal authority. You might look and see exactly what they do.
You might also want to reread Zen in the Art of Archery.
You’re beautiful, Michael Robbins. I knew I liked you.
Thomas…you’re a class act, dude. Your list was very clever.
Now, let’s get off this ‘Modernist’ shit, shall we, and focus on TODAY…on NOW, on OUR time of poetry?
P.S. If you guys all got together and went on E-Bay you might find a good deal on a used sense of humor and split the cost.
Actually, my point was precisely not that such rules are fun to break, but that they aren’t rules, despite what “well brought up” children are taught. I am grateful to my high school English teacher for teaching us the difference between accepted grammatical prescriptions & ones that no grammarian or stylist worth his salt would ever insist on – he knew, even if other “well brought up” children do not, that it is perfectly acceptable standard English usage in formal writing to split infinitives & end sentences with prepositions. I’m not a prescriptivist, of course, but no prescriptivist any more holds that you shouldn’t end a sentence on a preposition or split infinitives.
Of course I have never read Zen & the Art of Archery & am unlikely to do so in this lifetime, so I fear I cannot reread it.
P.S. “Hypercorrectness” is insistence that a particular usage is correct in an attempt to appear sophisticated when that usage is, in fact, incorrect. An example is “whom” is “the man whom I knew had just written a style manual,” when correct grammatical usage calls for “who.”
Zen in the Art of Archery
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
At least those are the words appearing on the splines of the copies on my shelves.
Re. The word “hypercorrect” applied to any activity means too correct. That’s a different concept altogether from incorrect.
What are you, Humpty Dumpty? The term is used in linguistics & has a specific meaning, which is not the one you think.
From the OED, which I suggest we let have the last word: “Of a spelling, pronunciation, or construction: falsely modelled on an apparently analogous prestigeful form. Also of a speaker using such a form.”
Just to clarify: the term was invented within the field of linguistics (Jespersen, 1922, earliest citation) to describe exactly the phenomenon I noted: the false “correction” of a perfectly valid form. This is the only sense in which the word is used, hence this is its definition. Just because a word’s etymology suggests other meanings doesn’t mean it also denotes them.
You know, Michael, quite honestly, words have no interest for me but what they actually say. If they sit and shiver, or are so high I can hardly see them, or wave and chatter like monkies, I’m neither impressed or distressed, They have to talk to me first.
The fact that some linguist, or even some whole school of linguistics, has come along and said that a word now means this or that, well that cuts no ice with me. The examples you give—splitting an infinitive, ending with a preposition—I’ve lived with those anomalies for years, as a student, as a teacher and as a writer, and each time I have encountered them I just do what any native speaker does, talk my best. “So what,” I say, even to my students. “Say what you mean.”
Hypercorrect is a new concept for me, not one that I’m probably going to need except to talk to you. So I’m going to use it as you presented it—too correct, anachronistic, atavistic even, in a hypercritical sense. Patriarchal maybe.
I like that. I’m not going to worry whether I’m right or not.
“Falsely modelled on an apparently analogous prestigeful form”—like waving a pinkie as you raise a teacup, or pronouncing Vietnam as if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, or thought silver spoons were better, or were auditioning for CNN.
Too correct is good.
Robbins, in a rant against 19th century Latinate dons, writes three very ugly sentences:
“Prepositions have always been & continue to be perfectly fine to end sentences with.”
“To schoolmarmishly refuse to split infinitives is to reveal a fundamental ignorance of the history of English usage.”
Ugh! (I’m making ‘history’ with my ‘usage!’)
“Don’t tell Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, President Obama, or I about how important case is.”
What say you, gentlemen?
How should we punish Robbins?
How many strokes with the cane?
huh? why punish someone who’s right?
Whoever has the cane is right.
Posted in Poetry News on Friday, June 12th, 2009 by Travis Nichols.
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