"I do not know what you think of departments of English, but the good ones are not random collections of tedious pedants..."

So wrote Yvor Winters, who knew a tedious pedant when he saw one, to the father of an aspiring poet way back in 1954; he continued:

"[English departments] are rather carefully selected groups of historical scholars who work in fairly close collaboration with each other. Such a group, in two or three years of instruction, can save a student like [your son] (no matter what his genius) fifteen years of labor, simply by giving him a succinct outline of their own work in background materials and in historical outlines. And without these background materials and historical outlines, he will misunderstand at least in some measure, and often in a large measure, almost anything he may read; and if he is a poet, his development may be irremediably retarded... One’s scholarship improves one’s poetry; one’s poetry improves one’s scholarship. It is a unified life. Furthermore, like life in a law office, it is life; it is not an ivory tower. I have never really encountered an ivory tower, any more than I have encountered a unicorn or a sea serpent. And my acquaintance has not been limited: in my time, I have known Stock Exchange brokers (my father was one), Board of Trade brokers (my father was one), prize fighters (Leach Cross, for example), actors (Otis Skinner and a few others), coal miners (for two years I lived in a couple of coal camps in northern New Mexico), and so on. All of these people in retrospect impress me as having been more isolated from Real Life than I am. In fact they impress me as having been very severely isolated; I have seen a lot, and I talk daily with learned and brilliant men, most of whom have seen a lot. The only penalty one pays for this life is that one has to teach; but if one likes to teach—and I confess that teaching amuses me infinitely—it is no penalty. I find myself charmed by the intelligent young, just as I am charmed by beautiful puppies."

You can read the whole remarkable letter, and another one as well, by clicking here.

Well, it's August... almost back-to-school time, which causes me to reflect on the whole schools for (and schools of) poetry thing. There's something quaint about the spectacle of Winters coaching would-be poets; and yet in some ways these fifty years later it seems as if not much has changed, beyond the sheer numbers of aspiring poets. Even so, I was surprised and fascinated to learn this weekend that Seth Abramson, a poet who has documented the phenomenon of writing programs in more depth than anybody around, has helped start up a consulting group - which you can read about here - to guide writing students to their educations. As he explains on his own blog:

"In making the decision to start ALC, I thought about all the poets I knew who did one-on-one tutorials and private workshops as side-jobs (for money). I thought of all the undergrads who pay thousands of dollars to take poetry courses during which their one-on-one time with the professor is limited to 2-3 hour-long meetings a semester. I thought of Kaplan. I thought of Sylvan. I thought of Princeton Review and BarBri, and the $1,000 I happily paid the latter (and would gladly pay again). I thought, too, of the exorbitant rates that educational consultants generally charge--$150/hour is a pretty typical figure--and how no one can afford to pay that much unless their parents are rich, given that most consultations span ten billable hours or more. I thought of all the doctors, lawyers, nurses, social workers, and journalists who've e-mailed me over the past few years saying--in so many words--that they don't know any poets, that they write privately on their own time, and that they want to make a commitment to themselves as writers by applying to an MFA program (for the time to write, that is) but they don't know the first steps to take toward that goal. I thought of the fact that MFA acceptance rates--which most programs had intentionally and systematically concealed from their applicants for nearly seventy years--had now been revealed, as a result of research, and that they indicated that (unbeknownst to applicants all these years) MFA programs were harder admits than medical schools..."


My own early education in poetry was pretty naive, by comparison. The first living poet I ever saw was Allen Ginsberg, when he came to Tennessee for a reading. He opened by chanting for a good long while; then he played the harmonium while singing Blake's poems; then he read his own. In preparation for the reading, I'd bought a copy of Howl and Other Poems - no easy thing to do in a Southern town with about two bookstores in it at the time, and before Amazon was a gleam in its founder's eye. The only poetry I'd ever known was the stuff you're taught - and taught to ignore - in high school: harmless, syrupy anthology stuff, although even "Howl" is in anthologies for schoolkids these days. It took me a while to realize that there even were living poets, because I'd only been told of the dead ones! And once I smacked myself on the forehead and figured out that of course there were living poets, I imagined that they were all ghostly gray-bearded men, 3D images of, say, Whitman or John Greenleaf Whittier (I was not to meet a female poet until I was out of college). Well, Ginsberg had a beard, alright, but he was the liveliest most exciting man e're I laid eyes upon. I fell in love with him like almost everybody else did in those days, and resolved to escape the South and go to New York - which I did, in due course, at the age of 17, partly at his invitation (literally: scrawled on a scrap of paper).

Long story short: libraries. I learned about poetry by reading my way through two small libraries while holding down shit jobs, which come to think of it, didn't suck so bad if they afforded me access to books and time to sneak in the reading of poetry. I read widely and recklessly; it was fun. And because nobody ever checked out the poetry books, and as libraries used to get actual funding to buy them, I had some mighty fine resources at my disposal. When library funding was flush and books were cheap, man, those libraries bought everything! Full runs of Kayak! Lovely small press titles! Collected poems of everybody! After a while, I added books of criticism to my diet, and those turned out - again, by chance - to be by the likes of Winters - who shocked me as he turned against Hart Crane!, Hugh Kenner on the "Pound era," and Donald Davie, on everybody. Davie appealed to me most, and so as a young sprout I imbibed his notions of modern poetry, which leaned toward poets I immediately came to treasure - and still do: Bunting, Niedecker, in particular were revelations. His qualified approval of Olson coincided with my inevitable discovery of Eliot, Pound, and Williams; it was a short leap from Ginsberg to O'Hara, Koch, and all the folks in The New American Poetry. For a while, I couldn't get Paul Blackburn outta my thick head, and wrote poems with too many indents in them; I still get misty-eyed reading him.  What was clearly missing from this diet was work by Yeats, Hardy, Frost, Larkin, Lowell - you know, the non open-ended guys. But it so happened that I'd stumbled upon the goofy 1945 edition of Auden's collected poems, in which the poems were arranged alphabetically by title (some of the titles concocted only for this purpose). A library had withdrawn it in favor of a later version, so I got it for a handful of change at a book sale. It was the oldest book I'd ever owned, and with its faded blue boards and whiffy odor, it was a treasure. Nothing opens the young poet's eyes like pre-fifties W.H.A.! Then... oh, snap - Byron & Keats & Hardy entered the picture bigtime. From then on, my two favorite poets were Auden and O'Hara, and I carried their books with me everywhere - earning me some funny looks, because poetry simply did... not... exist... among the people I encountered in my hometown, which brings me back full circle, to Seth's description of hooking people up with educations.

Not having been an English major myself, I neither benefited from nor was harmed by a curriculum in poetry. Nobody encouraged me, but then no one told me what to read or like, or tried to convince me that there were "schools" or "kinds" of poetry; if anybody had, I'd probably have found the whole thing a torment, and I'd have gone (as was my plan) to broadcasting school as did my best friend, Mountain, who quit high-school to work in radio. Instead, a kink was put in me by verse, as Kavanagh calls it.

Yet people don't want kinks, they want credentials and mentoring, which is understandable. So...

From whom do we do our learning? What is it we hope to learn??

Originally Published: August 3rd, 2009

Don Share became the editor of Poetry in 2013. His books of poetry are Wishbone (2012), Squandermania (2007), and Union (2013, 2002). He is the co-editor of The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine (2012), and editor of Bunting's Persia (2012) and a critical edition of Basil Bunting's poems (2016). He...

  1. August 3, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Isn't poetry itself the teacher? "You who have ears to hear." It's like hearing a sound & following it. It may lead to school, it may lead to non-school, it will certainly lead to a lot of tragicomic stumbling around... but all that is after the fact. No one can advise anyone about poetry, because poetry itself is the wild school.

  2. August 3, 2009
     james stotts


    moral and constitutional aspirations are consumer decisions. if i want to be a poet, esp. a good poet, how do i spend my money right?\r
    what are the consultants? vanity agents?\r

    a commitment shouldn't rack up so many billable hours, am i right, seth?\r

    winters may have bristled at the criticism of his ivory tower perspective,as if we're just jealous of the great, egalitarian view he had.\r
    buying unwanted books on the cheap from libraries seems much more valorous. but what do you think of stealing from libraries? something i spent my youth doing to build my own wall-anthology. more recently, i inherited twenty boxes from an invalid bachelor/professor. \r

    seriously, commitments are free, even indigently so. and time isn't money.\r


  3. August 3, 2009

    Well, this is a good day on the Harriet blog! Lovely romp through an enthusiastic self-education. As Abramson has revealed, the job of poet has become so professionalized that virtually everyone in, for example, Best American Poetry has an MFA and a job in academia. So the answer to the question "For whom do we do our learning?" is "For the editors of poetry journals who look askance at poets without MFAs." I'm not saying Poetry is particularly guilty of this, but it would be interested to see a Poetry Magazine issue devoted only to living poets without MFAs and who work outside academe, the poetry equivalent of Obama's promise not to work with lobbyists. I wonder if it would have a different flavor.

  4. August 3, 2009

    the question was "from"

  5. August 3, 2009
     Don Share

    Iolanthe, as Matt points out, you've got my question wrong there!\r

    Anyway: I can't speak for any other magazines, but Chris and I do not look "askance" at poets without - or with - MFA's. In fact, when we read the poems submitted, we usually neither know nor care about it. \r

    As it happens, many of Poetry's contributors do not have MFAs, and elsewhere on Harriet I've written about them already. Among them in recent issues are mothers, fishery scientists, soldiers, public defenders (which Seth has been, it's worth pointing out) - and just about everything you can imagine!

  6. August 3, 2009
     Judith Baumel

    Thanks, Don, for this lovely meditation on poetic education and poetic self-creation. I think the goal is, as you say, a cross between monastic dedication to reading, on the one hand, and lively conversation with the real world, on the othe. But we all start as young sprouts. And that tender green must be protected.

  7. August 3, 2009
     Joel Brouwer

    Well, and that's the thing right there, Don. You could take creative writing courses from junior high through the PhD and turn out to be a terrific poet or a dud. You could never take a class other than the seminar in your own mind and then sit down and bang out a doozy . . . or a dud. Some people are going to thrive within the structures of the educational system and some are going to suffocate in it. Some people are going to teach themselves how to write well and others will merely imagine they've done so. \r

    You ask, "From whom do we do our learning? What is it we hope to learn??" I'd ask in response, "Who's 'we'"?

  8. August 3, 2009


    Your education in poetry and mine were remarkably similar–right down to Ginsberg chanting and me thinking poetry was a dead art. As Homer would say, "Doh!"\r

    I think self-taught is great. But it sometimes isn't possible. I don't remember my town library having even one book of poems by a single author, just a handful of tatty old anthologies. Nor did my town have a bookstore. Except one that sold used romance novels for a dime each or a dozen for a dollar. I wore out the only anthology my high school used (Immortal Poems of the English Language) and the teacher took pity on me and gave me the copy I'd dog-eared nearly to death. I still have it.\r

    So I did what most Americans try to do and went to school–in my case grad school because I'd already studied something else as an undergrad and only knew slightly more about poetry than I had at 17. I did my research online when schools were just beginning to jump on this here whole internet thingy. I asked former teachers. I wrote letters to living poets and asked them (and got answers). I learned. I applied. \r

    As far as Seth Abramson's enterprise goes, well, I think on the one hand if some poor sucker will pay for his help, then caveat emptor, etc. But I do think it is always going to be an ethical concern when you aim your money-making schemes at the needy and insecure and desperate (pawn shops, loan sharks, bail bondsmen, lotteries). If he sees such a need for guidance, and, having been through a single program, he feels he is expert enough to act as mentor, I guess my question is why not write a book and let anyone who wants to pay fork over their fourteen bucks? Or is he hoping to actually get rich off the hopes and dreams of newborn writers, especially poets? Because that always works. \r

    The man has a J.D. from Harvard. Can he honestly be that hard up for ways to earn a living? Or is he just a brilliant middleman–bellied up to the academic trough while grabbing goodies (and a whole lot of ink) with both hands from the piglets down below?\r

    If so, maybe he should set up a consulting firm getting wannabees into top law schools. Nobody would find an ethical concern with that. And he'd eat better.

  9. August 3, 2009
     Don Share

    Ah, yes: as Eliot said, it's a mug's game. For sure.\r

    Oh - by "we" I just mean us poetry chickens (see Eileen's posts). Seriously, I mean those of us who would learn about the reading and writing of poems; we contain, of course, multitudes.\r

    These are wonderful comments, and I am grateful for them.

  10. August 3, 2009
     Latino Poetry Review

    Hi Don:\r
    I enjoyed your re-cap of your "poetry education." It sounded wonderfully promiscuous.\r


  11. August 3, 2009

    Thanks, Don et al, for the civil discourse. I regretted it the moment I posted it, but there was no way to delete! Thanks again for the lively trip through Yvor Winter's mind and your personal journey. I enjoyed it.

  12. August 3, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    IIT, the "Indian Institute of Technology" scattered across different campuses, is India's most desirable and difficult-to-get-into institution for higher education-- mostly because doing well there guarantees you a scholarship at Stanford, MIT, and so on (depending on which campus you went to). The IIT entrance exam is so competitive and brutally difficult that, a few years ago, an enterprising individual set up "Brilliant Tutorials", an extra-curricular network of coaching classes that kids would start from the equivalent of tenth grade, two years or more before the exam. Brilliant became hugely successful; each year it posts the photographs of IIT "toppers" who came through its coaching classes. However, this made Brilliant itself popular and difficult to get into, and now there are other extra-curricular coaching companies that start from the equivalent of sixth or seventh grade, I think, that are designed to help you get into Brilliant Tutorials.\r

    This suggests that in a few years time I may be able to start a consulting firm that prepares people for coaching by Abramson & co. (The unsaid on their website is their set of connections to the actual people of the poetry world and writing programs.)\r

    Reading that Menand essay in the New Yorker, I got the sense that the great hope of creative writing programs-- quite apart from producing great writers on an assembly line-- was that they would bring a "little of the outside into the inside", that is, make a place for the values of holism, irrationality, transgression and unprofessionalism in the university, and thereby help the more locked-down disciplines to unravel themselves too, so that we would be not only taking apart the categories of "poetry", "fiction", etc. but also "history", "writing", "research" etc. and the very structure of knowledge itself, our easy divisions between emotion and thought, rational and irrational, form and content, style and content, synthesis and analysis, etc.\r

    I suppose that was (is) asking too much. I suppose that what most people are searching for in these times is the sustainable business model. Me too.\r

    Thank you for your account of your making as a poet. That too, will continue to be that way.

  13. August 3, 2009
     Seth Abramson

    Hi Don (and all),\r

    I'm so glad you posted on this. It's an important conversation, and this is one of several really good places to have it. And the good news is that the MFA applicant community is more sophisticated than many might suppose; we've been having these sorts of conversations about the purpose and value and nature of MFA programs for years now--truly blunt, free-ranging conversations--and so it's good to see the non-MFA crowd joining in here and elsewhere.\r

    As I've mentioned in print and online before (too many times to count, perhaps even just too many times period, I sometimes feel), an MFA degree is not a professional degree--it doesn't "get" anyone anything and isn't intended to. And it's not a prestige degree. The number one reason to do an MFA, in my own view, is to carve out a space in one's life to do nothing but read, write, and interact with other working artists. I've always cautioned applicants against assuming they'll find a mentor in an MFA program, or that the program will "teach them how to write"--most MFA programs wisely and rightly make clear in their promotional materials that they can't and won't bring this benefit to students--or that an MFA is worth going into debt for. It's entirely the opposite: Tom Kealey and I have emphasized that no one should into debt to do an MFA program, that the greatest value of a program is time to write and time to interact with a talented peer group, and that learning to become the writer one has it within themselves to be takes decades--not two or three years. I think that MFA professors can act as guides to younger poets (the best thing my profs at Iowa ever did for me was to give me wholly-optional reading lists), and as inspirations, but you don't go to an MFA to sit at the feet of a master and soak up knowledge or anything like that. Yes, you may come across some things that will help you out, but you'll know it when it happens--and it may or may not happen often--so it's really no different from having a group of talented friends who sometimes inspire you in ways you could never have predicted (nor will you have chosen them as friends purely because you expected such moments to occur!).\r

    Iowa is about as open-ended an MFA program as exists in the U.S.--no grades, no attendance taken, most credits can be taken as workshops or thesis hours or independent study, and so on. I think that it would be great if more programs adopted this open-system curriculum, making funding the only thing which separates an MFA from an artist's colony (which everyone supports in theory): and for those who are fully-funded at their MFA, the idea is that, therefore, it would be just like a completely-funded colony.\r

    The problem, for years, is that programs wouldn't reveal their funding packages, nor provide enough admissions data to allow applicants to make smart decisions about how and where to apply. My goal has been to remedy this, and that's what my blog has been for (and any donations to the site are entirely voluntary; that said, scores of applicants have donated to TSE, feeling that the information to be found there is tough to track down and inherently valuable). The consulting thing is totally different--different purpose, different "cause of birth," everything. ALC was born out of applicants contacting me regularly asking me to read their portfolios, help evaluate their SoPs, and assist them in figuring out where to apply. Those were three very different services, of course. Someone asking for help with their writing--which is exactly what asking for help on a portfolio is--is proposing a situation no different than a for-free workshop, tutorial, online/live course, or even (needless to say) an MFA program itself. It's take-it-or-leave-it feedback, just as any of the above are (or as, for instance, an impromptu salon would be, or a post-reading Q&A, etcetera). Those who oppose MFA programs could certainly oppose, too, tutorials, but it'd be hard to be all right with MFA programs but not all right with tutorials, which is what a portfolio review is ("tutorial" is the wrong word; "private workshop/mentorship" would be more like it). As to application-list consulting, the only reason that exists as a viable thing one person could help another person with is that--unlike in any other field of graduate study I know--the sort of info applicants require is not readily available, not easy to master, not even (because MFAs are art schools, not professional schools) easy to identify (i.e., many applicants don't even know how to go about determining what features of a program would make it a fit for them, largely because many writers, poets especially, have been gun-shy about writing on MFA programs until recently--and the response ALC has gotten from some quarters is an indication, I think, of why). As to SoP consulting, that's the most traditional service of the bunch--thousands of educational consultants nationally offer identical services--but it was added because there was demand for it, and (again) MFA programs are oddly cagey on what they're looking for in an SoP. Fortunately, almost the entire fiction staff of ALC has read applications professionally (as part of their employment at Iowa), so we're bringing a lot of special institutional knowledge to the equation. But let me stop there--this isn't an ad for ALC, and I don't have any interest in trying to sell people on the idea of ALC, rather than simply clarifying what that idea is.\r

    Normally I would respond to too much of the personal stuff that's been said about me recently--there's tons of it, and people keep linking to it (while too infrequently, I fear, linking to my own blog, where many of the accusations being hurled are discussed, addressed, and answered)--but I think it's worth saying three things:\r

    1. I only read about this whole brouhaha for the first time after the initial, precipitating post (by Steve F.) had been deleted and his comments on my blog likewise deleted (by Steve himself). I never, ever, ever--and never would--threatened legal action, against anyone, for anything said about me, as hurtful as it was. Nor did I delete anyone's comments on my blog. For many reasons, the best of them being that this is a free country and everyone's entitled to their opinion, and my hurt feelings are my own to deal with and not a basis for a legal action (it goes without saying!).\r

    2. To answer Leslie's point, yes, I have a J.D. from Harvard--which is why I've never said on my blog, not once in many years of blogging, that I can't find a job. My situation is the same as any poet's: I want to do what I love, and as importantly I want to do things I believe in. So I became a public defender, so I left the law for an MFA, so I chose not to return to the law and do a Ph.D. instead, all bad financial decisions but decisions I made because I was pursuing a passion and my own dearly-held principles. I felt, and feel, that ALC can do important, honest, compassionate work with young writers. But I also know it won't be lucrative--because the associates will be getting the vast (vast) majority of the fees from their own consultations, not me, and as a Ph.D. student I won't have time to do many consultations myself. So this is a labor of love, not a get-rich-quick scheme. \r

    Likewise--from the position of applicants--it is as much a money-saver as a money-drain. Many of the young poets I've worked with over the years are, as I was at their age, isolated from any feedback about their work, not to mention without any knowledge or resources in the information-based fight MFA programs have been tacitly waging against applicants for years. The goal of getting a consultation is to avoid something which happens frequently in MFA admissions, and much more rarely in other fields: applicants applying multiple years in a row, at exorbitant cost, because either they haven't done any workshopping on their portfolios (which could really show their potential if they were worked on even a little bit with a mentor), and/or because they're applying to the wrong programs for them (and all too frequently, simply not enough programs to start with). One of the many reasons I felt proud to start ALC is that I believed, and believe, that in the long run applicants who use ALC will be saving themselves money rather than wasting it--not just on the front-end, the application side, but inasmuch as (and I have seen this so many times!) a talented writer who ends up at a half-funded program, thereby spending 20K-40K on their MFA, who could easily have gotten into a fully-funded program if they'd had some help in forming a strong application list.\r

    So for me, the notion that ALC isn't geared toward keeping dollars in the pockets of struggling artists isn't one I can back, because I've been a part of the MFA community for years and (I feel) know better. Likewise, those who have been saying that the MFA is being set up by ALC--or the MFA Blog, or me individually, or TSE as an entity--as a necessary prerequisite for a writer, and a place to "learn" to write, are I'm sure well-intentioned but honestly couldn't ever have read anything I've written on MFA programs over the past three years. My views are well-documented, and they're quite simply not what many are now saying or thinking they are. \r

    Be well, all,\r

  14. August 3, 2009
     Seth Abramson

    An unfortunate typo(!) That's "for-fee," not "for-free." Hopefully that correction makes sense in context. And I do realize my comments were only addressing a small segment of your post, Don, so I hope you'll forgive me for that also. Best wishes, --S.

  15. August 4, 2009

    First poetry loves: Milne and Seuss. Wrote a several-page-long rhymed narrative in 4th grade. Set my first poem to music (early Blake lyric) in high school. Took poetry workshops at U-Michigan with Best Teacher Ever Ken Mikolowski, who set me merrily on a lifetime of reading. Published poem in obscure Detroit journal (Beatniks from Space), with whom I had no personal contact or connection, when I was 21. Have not sought publication since, except in an arts-&-politics collective 'zine I was part of in the '90s, and on my blog, and occasional verses in comments sections of other blogs, of which Harriet is the only poetry blog (my other blog-comment verses have been limericks). Until taking up blogging a few years ago, never talked about poetry with anybody for almost 20 years, with the exception of one friend, a fellow Alice Notley devotee. Am currently working on 3 series of poems, one made up of fairly long, one of extremely short, and one of medium-length poems; I do hope to publish them, assuming I'm happy with them when finished (it's not only length that unites them). Have written probably around 300 songs, including a couple dozen settings of other people's poems and prose, and performed or recorded most of them, though never been "signed." I have recited other people's poetry at parties many times, including twice in the past month. Have hosted reading parties devoted to Chaucer or the Gawain-poet a few times at my house, though not as often as play-reading parties, mostly Shakespeare. \r

    From whom learned: parents, grandparents, one teacher in college, and then, mostly, myself.\r

    What I've learned: stuff to enrich my life, to feed my writing, to feed my songwriting, and just to read; but also, stuff to provide vehicles for rich social-reading experiences. Those reading parties -- we do them annually, around Christmas -- are great, great experiences, especially Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Gawain-poet. Highly recommended!

  16. August 4, 2009

    Thanks for the wonderful post reminding us that libraries are still a treasure to behold! I had read the blog storm these last couple of days regarding the MFA issue at hand and it was refreshing to read commentary. I would love to have a second go at education and get my MFA, but, real life will probably prevent this pipe dream. All is not loss, however, for I work in a public library that promotes learning through its collection development. That being said, I hope to "teach" by continuing to add to our poetry collection with hopes of inspiring those few souls who search our stack and decide they would like to become the next contemporary or postmodern voice .

  17. August 4, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Thanks so much, Don -- this is vintage Harriet!\r

    I was born in 1939, and came from such an old-world background my family forgot to tell me I would have to earn my living one day--minor detail because the money that had created the assumption had long since run out. Nevertheless I went through 11 years of university and 4 degree programs in this country and abroad without ever a thought for the future. And I was always an English major too, Columbia, Yale, and 6 years at Cambridge, and I read a lot of poetry too -- as we all did. But the fascinating thing is that up to my final degree at Cambridge in 1969, I never once took a course in modern literature, and as far as I know nobody else in my field did either!\r

    We we're surrounded by poets at Cambridge too, of course, Donald Davie, J.H.Prynne, and Thom Gunn are today the most famous, but they were just like the rest of us and better known for other things at the time. There were also great teachers with very close connections to modern poets, F.R.Leavis, T.R.Henn (Yeats!), and George Steiner, for example, but there was no one any of us would have identified specifically as a teacher of poetry or poetics -- anymore than my supervisor, C.S.Leavis, was identified with children's books or theology. \r

    And you know what I think it was? I think writing poetry was considered an amateur pursuit, something you did in your spare time like walking, fishing, and going to church. It was both as important and unimportant as all three of those essential human activities, walking meaning, of course, getting way, way out of yourself for 4 or 5 hours in the fens, fishing as Virginia Woolf, for example, or Sir Izaak Walton describes it, and going to church with the very slight hope that you might for a moment make sense out of your very unprofessional anxiety and confusion.\r

    Writing poetry as a profession, and therefore something you could study in graduate school and go on to profess for a living, was as of yet, in my mind in any case, uninvented.\r

    I tell you my own little story so that you can perhaps make better sense out of Don Share's younger story and, of course, for those of you still younger, out of your own.\r


  18. August 4, 2009
     Vivek Narayanan

    Iolanthe-- You ask, "What would a non-MFA issue of Poetry look like?" And one could equally ask, "What would an all-MFA issue look like?" \r

    The sad (or happy, depending on which ways you look at it) thing is that I reall think it would make no difference at all, aesthetically. That's something to think through carefully. It's not because there's no general pressure to tend towards a norm / set of norms, because there is. And I'm not saying the MFA system does not exert some kind of influence or shape the field in some ways because it most like does, by its vast presence if nothing else. But the proportion of writers who do their own thing seems to be the same inside or outside of the programs. Not so?

  19. August 4, 2009
     Joseph Duemer

    Vivek, is that you? Were you an undergrad at Clarkson? If so, I still remember your blues sonnet.

  20. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady


    I love your post. I found it interesting that your poet-coming-of-age story included no human beings, except for seeing Ginsberg perform, and a vague mention of vague others thinking you were odd. There's nothing wrong with a poet being isolated, but you have quite a public role now; you are no Emily Dickinson.\r

    We all have our stories of discovering this or that poet, but I don't know if I agree with Gould's retort that 'poetry itself is the teacher:' yes and no. Keats loved Shakespeare and that helped him become Keats, but today the strategy, initiated by T.S. Eliot and his New Critic followers--including the crank, Yvor Winters--who rejected entire eras of remarkable poetry, is to swerve from the best of the past, to avoid confronting 'the greats,' and find some humble, homely, clown poet closer to our own day, who we find less intimidating. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but that is a strategy used by many.\r

    Mentorism and connections have been ALL in poetry since Modernism was invented about 100 years ago at Harvard and Oxford. Again, sorry if I'm bursting 'romantic' balloons here, but it's true. Yet we still seem to naively think that it's all about the poets we discover in libraries. Well, yes and no. Don, your story does ring true, and I'm not questioning at all what you've said. I just feel that a crucial element is missing. I think it all has much more to do with flesh and blood human beings and what they choose to accept and reject for reasons that have nothing to with poetry, per se.\r


  21. August 4, 2009
     Don Share

    Sorry, I don't understand this. Human beings write and read poetry. I'm one. Ginsberg was one. You're one. The people I grew up with and around are human beings. This is all about flesh and blood stuff: what happens to real people who are drawn to poetry is the very subject of this thread. Emily Dickinson was a human being, too, duh, but beyond that, I'd never say I was like her in any way, and I didn't bring her up, you did. More importantly, my topic is not isolation, but its contrary. And that Winters troubled himself to write, however bloviatingly, to a young poet and even his father, is a sign of his humanity; if you read the intro to the letters, you'll see that W. tried to do whatever he could for Cal Thomas, Jr. - and that Cal resisted the sway, and found his own path...

  22. August 4, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Just wanted to say that my comment above was not meant as a retort ("Gould's Retort" - sounds like a title. "Gould's Book of Fish").\r

    Nor am I recommending isolation. What I'm referring to, by saying "poetry is the teacher", is the process - which I think Don describes well - of affinity, osmosis & imitation, by which artists learn by doing. \r

    The pedagogical hierarchy of teacher/student, mentor/ephebe, can obscure this reality : that we are all collaborators.\r

    Maybe it's just a truism, but I'm trying to observe the rubric "first things first". The structure of this situation, in which everybody - old/young, masters/beginners - are learning together, directly, from the praxis - is a slightly different structure from the pedagogical (though Socrates might disagree). The academy is buttressed by standard knowledge, texts, exams, authorities. One advances by "degrees" toward "higher" learning, where one is allowed finally to participate (collegially, creatively) in the production of more knowledge. The craft-world of an art form, on the other hand, exhibits dimensions of unaccountability, mystery, unpredictability... there are no "degrees" in art, because 1) there is always the potential for seeing the traditions of the past in utterly new ways, 2) there is always great potential for non-recognition or mis-recognition of new art, and 3) art is future-oriented, embryonic - you can't grant degrees for what is just now being born. cf. Auden's remark : \r

    "Whatever his future life as a wage earner, a citizen, a family man may be, to the end of his days his life as a poet will be without anticipation. He will never be able to say: 'Tommorow I will write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I already know I shall do a good job.' In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever."

  23. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady


    I know human beings write and read poetry. Surely you know I was making a point slightly more subtle than that. You don't have to agree with it, but I guess I'm puzzled that you are puzzled by what I said.\r

    Your own post is marvelously specific about the human, and that's exactly what I'm talking about. \r

    In your own words, Don:\r

    "The only poetry I’d ever known was the stuff you’re taught - and taught to ignore - in high school: harmless, syrupy anthology stuff, although even “Howl” is in anthologies for schoolkids these days. It took me a while to realize that there even were living poets, because I’d only been told of the dead ones! And once I smacked myself on the forehead and figured out that of course there were living poets, I imagined that they were all ghostly gray-bearded men, 3D images of, say, Whitman or John Greenleaf Whittier (I was not to meet a female poet until I was out of college). Well, Ginsberg had a beard, alright, but he was the liveliest most exciting man e’re I laid eyes upon. I fell in love with him..." \r

    "I carried their books with me everywhere - earning me some funny looks..."\r

    This is very specific, human stuff--the fact that you imagined poets to look like Whitman, for instance, rather than, say, Shelley--unlike Henry's comment that follows, which I find very dry.\r


  24. August 4, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Today, by the way, is Shelley's birthday.

  25. August 4, 2009

    Shelley Duvall's birthday was July 7, Shelley Long's is coming up on August 23. Today should be a federal holiday in celebration of all three.

  26. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    Reviled by many a great Modernist.\r

    Happy Birthday, Shelley!

  27. August 4, 2009

    Are you kidding? You can't even wish someone a happy birthday without sniping about the modernists for the millionth time?

  28. August 4, 2009
     Don Share

    Not just modernists; his contemporaries Byron, Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, and William Hazlitt all wrote terrible things about him. Readers of the Forgotten English calendar may turn to today's entry, "holy-cruel," for a hair-raising sampler. (Via Jim Sitar)

  29. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    Matt wants more icecream!

  30. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    A lot of dislikes, huh?

  31. August 4, 2009

    Of course I do, we're celebrating three birthdays here. Three times the ice cream.

  32. August 4, 2009
     Don Share

    Ice cream? Here ya go:\r


    I recommend the Malt Whitman.

  33. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    Byron said bad things about everybody...as for Southey, he belonged to the Lake School, which neither Keats, Shelley, or Byron cared for...\r

    Modernism, however, completely turned its back on Shelley; Harold Bloom was an early advocate of Shelley...who else liked him in the 20th century...let's see...Elinor Wylie, Millay, I'm sure...\r

    How *could* a *poet* dislike Shelley? Shame, shame, T.S. Eliot, Penn Warren, Yvor Winters...

  34. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    Uh...it's Shelley's birthday today. August 4.\r

    OK...give him more icecream...he's getting hot and bothered....

  35. August 4, 2009
     Rebecca Wolff

    Oh my gosh, even "mothers"? This seems to me a funny addition to this list of inherently non-MFA'd citizens.

  36. August 4, 2009
     thomas brady

    No one's even going to post a poem by Shelley on his birthday?\r

    She-lley! \r



    How about a Shelley poem beside a Yvor Winters or a Robert Penn Warren or a T.S. Eliot poem?\r

    Fight! \r



  37. August 4, 2009
     Don Share

    Yep. Ange Mlinko, for example, who will weigh in if she finds the term offensive, I'm sure. (She has used the terms "poet-mother" and "writing mother.") Or Daisy Fried. Mothers are not all they are any more than Peter Munro is just a scientist: it's the work they do in addition to the work of writing.\r

    (Mlinko, by the way, addresses this in a piece forthcoming in our September issue, "As If Nature Talked Back To Me," in which she addresses, among other things, "the intellectualization of the mammalian." Fried, in the July/August issue, took on breastfeeding and reading Milton).

  38. August 5, 2009
     Henry Gould

    My life changed recently for the better, & I'd like to tell you about it. In 1957, at age five, I first discovered I had great difficulty in spelling the word "elephant". No matter how hard I applied myself to learn how to spell this valuable word, I always misplaced or switched some letter - alfbat, alfaburt, Alafent, elefunt, etc. etc....\r

    2 weeks ago, however, on a sultry, rainy evening in mid-July, in the Dept of Motor Vehicles parking lot, in Pawtucket, where I had installed myself, around 9 pm, in order to insert myself, bright & early next morning, into the license registration line, I happened to meet a gentleman named Adolphus N. Quigley, Esq., who was also planning to renew is license the following morning.\r

    Mr. Quigley, a tall, portly fellow, with a florid face, and a very florid orchid in his ambidextrous lapel, informed me, after a few minutes of light chit-chat, that he was an attorney; moreover, I was startled to learn, Mr. Quigley specialty in the law happened to be in the obsucre, little-known field of Verbal Construction Litigation, otherwise known as Habemus Verbum Spellosimi Liboolium, known in gossamer circles as Verbal Counseling. For a modest fee, Mr. Quigley offered to assist me with my entire legal & financial quandary with regard to the spelling of the word "elephant" - and any other words I might have trouble with at a future date or time, up to and including the day after my decease & burial, with a codicil happily applied if necessary to immediate & proximate heirs & occluders, if warranted!\r

    You can imagine how pleased I was to meet Mr. Quigley, especially under such trying & stressfuyl circumstances as the DMV parking lot, Pawtucket RI, near midnight. Though the lighting in the lot was rather dim at that hour, I lost no time in signing the necessary papers (which Mr. Quigley providentially provided on the spot!) to assign Mr. Quigley as my executor in all maters with regard to Verbal Construction.\r

    & I would not hesitate one whit, one millisecond, to recommend Mr. Quigley's services to any of my fellow poets out there who may be in some kind of quandary like mine - which I am gratified to say is now behind me!

  39. August 5, 2009

    Forget all this Shelley birthday b.s. Let's get back to the consultant firm for potential masters of the fine art of poetry!?!? Kaplan for poets? Are you serious? Someone (besides Seth) please tell me why this isn't an awful idea?

  40. August 5, 2009
     thomas brady


    "poetry" is not some abstract idea. "poetry" is "shelley," and will be known as such, oh, in a thousand years or so. The Muse, she's patient.\r

    As for Seth's idea: if Seth is hard-working, honest, astute and sincere, I don't see why he can't do some good as an advocate for young students, steering them away from the costly and dicey MFA programs--since there are so many of them now; I imagine most of them don't really give the student their money's worth. If Seth is perceptive and can spot the frauds, the bad, shallow poets and scholars passing themselves off as teachers, if he is truly on the side of the student and not taking handouts from the MFA programs themselves, he could do some real good.\r


  41. August 5, 2009
     Seth Abramson


    Thanks. To "Henriette": I fought the Government (capital "G") for 7.5 years as a member of one of the lowest paid categories of attorneys in the United States. The danger of me joining up with any institution--rather than trying to improve it radically from the outside--is pretty remote. Would it help if I pointed out that nearly 40 programs have changed their websites to provide detailed financial aid information since I published funding rankings in P&W last December, and that numerous programs have e-mailed me to say that the rankings are helping them to push their Boards of Directors to better fund young poets and writers? Or that I've been the most vocal opponent of the MFA-as-indoctrination-grounds of anyone in print or online--regularly asserting that "faculty" should not be a primary consideration for applicants, but rather elements which support one's own experience of the art, like financial, location, and peer-group considerations? Or that everyone at ALC is dedicated--as the site explicitly says--to helping writers better realize their *own* aesthetic visions, not to impose ours on them? Anyway, as I've said, we're extremely proud of what we do and believe passionately that it helps young writers. And--not for nothing--you could surf the blogs right now and find perhaps 30 to 40 young writers who've posted blog-posts or blog-comments supporting this view.\r


  42. August 5, 2009

    Good article, Don Share. The writing is good on its own account. I tend to read Harriet blogs as much for their style and structure as for the content(s) involving ideas and such. And I got this little test I call the Montaigne test, or, does the article (blog) carry over as effectively as an essay by the inventor of the essay form? I guess I figure the on line blogging comes as close to the original intention of Montaigne's essay then has been seen in a very long while: set up the argument (theme), develop it, either in contra temp or agreement, then tie off the statement succinctly.\r

    If I read your intention correctly here is what comes through. The article starts with the Winters letter, the purpose of which is to persuade that a formal education in poetry saves the new and young poet time learning poetry. Then, on the basis of personal experience, the article looks to body out the long, drawn out process needed to get what all is involved in poetry making and poetry comprehension. In effect, the essay tells me that Winters was wrong. There are no short cuts, no time savers, that poetry comprehension, when it doesn't come suddenly (pre-consciously), comes only through life-applications. Please let me know if I misread.\r

    About the MFA poet vs the non-professional poet argument, to me it amounts to poetry's Town and Gown argument, a fight that has been going on since the establishment of college systems in the 12th C. Personally, I could care less. It is not a street brawl, as used to more honestly take place, I would enter. Neither a degree or life makes a poet.\r


  43. August 5, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    C.S.Leavis, he writes for C.S.Lewis -- Intoxicated? Ignorant? Impostor? Bone idle? A little bit of all of the above. \r

    Aside from having been taught to read phonetically in the 40s, and therefore having no word-recognition facility, I grew up with the service of typists, if you can believe such people existed as recently as me. My 400+ page dissertation at Cambridge was typed 4 times by a housewife in Girton, and after that I disappeared into the woods. I didn't touch a computer keyboard until 20 years after, and even today I just peck. So I don't see what goes up on the screen -- and my screen is so small and antiquated I don't see much even then.\r

    I do wish Harriet had a Preview function. I could write so much better if you did--in ways you couldn't possibly imagine!

  44. August 6, 2009
     thomas brady

    Ironcially enough, Yvor Winters was not a true advocate of formal education, but rather a soldier in John Crowe Ransom's little army which snuck into the academy when few were looking; Winters was part of the coup which usurped disinterested scholarship in the name of 'professional critical/creative writing' based in the university, (i.e. teach yr friends) as laid out by Ransom's essay, 'Criticism, Inc' in 1937; Winters was one of the first Creative Writing Program directors in the country; he began as an early Fugitive, one of Pound's early imagist/modernists, was considered part of the New Critics as Ransom devoted a whole chapter to him in 'New Criticism,' gradually became 'neo-classical,' and was always at heart the same as Pound & Eliot, not a disinterested scholar, but a Manifesto-ist, with extreme views, rejecting all of Romanticism and Poe with pointed viciousness. This is crazy. Hating Shelley is crazy, and yet thanks to the work of the Manifesto-ists, today it's perfectly acceptable, and is done with no apologies.

  45. August 6, 2009

    Who hates Shelley? I've never met anyone who hates Shelley. Indifferent, maybe, but hate?

  46. August 6, 2009
     thomas brady

    People think I'm making this up. I assure you, I'm not.\r

    These are the words of Cal Thomas himself, from the SAME article from which, I assume, Don got his Yvor Winters letter quotation:\r

    "After sophomore year at Yale I went out to Kenyon College where John Crowe Ransom had a summer school. [!!] Allen Tate and Carolyn Gordon, Yvor Winters, Mark Schorer, Eric Bentley, Herbert Read, and Ransom were there. I was in love with a girl called Winifred whose sisters fed me at night. After composing the Latin ode for Yale’s Presentation Week in 1951 I enlisted in the Air Force, thinking I’d live longer that way. Everyone else I knew in Officers Candidate School went to Korea, but the Air Force found out I knew German and sent me to Germany. I interrogated men whose lives hadn’t gone well. I wrote poems with no plan for them. But I mailed them off with short stories to Wallace Stegner and to my surprise, learned I’d won the Stanford Fellowship, together with Thom Gunn. Now I belonged to Winters. Those were the afternoons! Winters and his wife, Janet Lewis, used to have me over pretty often for dinner, sometimes with such worthies as Tate and W.H. Auden (I once forgot an invitation to go with Louise Bogan). At Stanford, Winters had me sign up for courses in the usual periods leading to the doctorate–Old English, Renaissance, the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, American literature–to be followed four years later by written exams about them. If you passed you went on to do a dissertation and then orals. I dutifully took these courses, skipping the nineteenth-century one, and then sat for the exams after less than two years. I failed them all–except the nineteenth century. That set me thinking. Besides there was a girl I wanted to marry. In spite of all Winters’s arrangements for me to stay on, I left Stanford and got a job."\r

    You see? You couldn't swing a cat around Yvor Winters without hitting John Crowe Ransom or Allen Tate. Students of poetry in this country seem highly naive about these machinations and these relationships: they may know of them vaguely, but they don't put two and two together. W.H. Auden and Louise Bogan--poetry editor at the New Yorker for many years--are thrown in for good measure. \r

    Thomas was obviously being groomed, but what's so delicious and telling about Thomas' letter, in light of Winters' nutty rejection of 19th century literature, is the following: \r

    "I dutifully took these courses, skipping the nineteenth-century one, and then sat for the exams after less than two years. I failed them all–except the nineteenth century. That set me thinking." Yes, I bet it 'set him thinking' (!!) Given Winters' manic hatred of Poe and the Romantics, Thomas' grooming must, at this point, have come to a hasty termination. "I left Stanford and got a job." (!!)\r

    And...that's the way it was.

  47. August 6, 2009
     Don Share

    It wasn't a termination, and there was nothing hasty about it. Cal quit to marry his girl. Winters' attitude toward Poe and the Romantics had nothing to do with it. Cal passed the 19th century, so someone taught him something about it, eh? To this day, Cal recalls his teachers and mentors with admiration and gratitude, and he still writes poems. I say this not to debate with Thomas, but to correct misunderstandings his comment might generate.

  48. August 6, 2009
     thomas brady


    Sure, there's a great deal of indifference, which most poets would consider worse; but I would contend a large amount of this indifference is due to the pedagogical climate established by the Modernists' abuse of Shelley, and I could quote specifically from T.S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Yvor Winters and others, if you want...\r

    I haven't taken a huge poll--I wonder if anyone has taken an extensive poll on any poets, living or dead today, both inside and outside the academy--but it's a hunch from my personal observations and readings...if we're allowed to have those...\r


  49. August 6, 2009
     thomas brady


    Were you there? I'm not being glib. Were you there during all this?\r

    I'm sure Cal enjoyed 19th century literature on his own--he specifically says he did not study that subject at Stanford. \r

    Are you saying that Winters did not attack Poe and the Romantics? Is that what you are contending?\r

    I'm not sure what you are saying. I never said Thomas was unhappy, or he did not have fond recollections of his school days; why shouldn't he? He was being groomed, and that must have been nice; he was surrounded by interesting conversation, a beautiful campus, etc.\r

    Is your point that Yvor Winters was a nice man and that he was nice to young Mr. Thomas? I'm sure it was so. But what would ultimately be the point of such a story?\r

    There are many, many such stories: nice professors teaching nice boys about literature. \r

    The actual views held by poets and critics interest me, as do the machinations of the grooming process, and how the grooming process and poets' ideology may mutually interact; I find this fascinating.\r

    Does one need to 'quit' a university to marry someone? Are you assuming this, or, again, were you there? If you have a first-hand experience of all this, I certainly will defer to your opinion...\r


  50. August 6, 2009
     Don Share

    I'm obviously in touch with Cal. Who was there.

  51. August 6, 2009
     james stotts

    impatience (pardon my french) is the price you pay for free shipping. it seems that fully-funded (gratis) MFA programs that stress their impotence or even desire to teach a teachable skill do little to foster poetry but are like a depositional cholesterin--that is, if journals are the venues, so many MFAs pumping out wannabe poets (indistinguishable from the real thing, in source or shape) is causing dangerously high blood pressure. \r

    i've heard seth's argument before, that these graduate programs are not actually in the business of getting people published, but the criterion for creative-writing teachers is just that, and the modus operandi of students are all sorts of unsolicited cries for attention. the rise of the MFA programs exactly corresponds to the rise in submissions (which were overwhelming even before most journals would consider e-poems)

  52. August 6, 2009
     Sheila Chambers

    "The actual views held by poets and critics interest me, as do the machinations of the grooming process, and how the grooming process and poets’ ideology may mutually interact; I find this fascinating."\r

    Do you think anyone else here finds "the machinations of the grooming proces" fascinating in the way you do? This kind of speculation about poets, connecting the dots when you don't even know all the dots, obviously driven by a desire to create a sordid picture or to bolster some pre-conceived notions about "networking" in the poetry world, says more about you than your targets of speculation. At least without Foetry to sustain you, you are forced to exercise your exposure compulsion on (mostly) non-living poets. Here, you can do no harm, just bore people.

  53. August 6, 2009
     thomas brady

    Look! A 'dislike' that can talk! \r

    You seem certain about what defines me, but it sounds like an old foetry grudge defines you.\r

    I have no idea whether your grudge is specific, or just a general one, or what it involves, or why you think I should have to apologize for my erudition, or why you find the philosophical positions of poets and critics 'boring,' but if you want to talk about it, I'll be glad to tell you as much as I know. \r

    Thanks for sharing, Sheila. I do appreciate it.

  54. August 6, 2009

    If only you had any erudition to apologize for.

  55. August 6, 2009
     Alan Cordle

    When will Harriet implement the collapsible comment feature?

  56. August 6, 2009


    I'm not sure that I completely agree with your reading of Don's post; I don't think that Don intended to disparage the "shortcuts" that a teacher can provide; but regardless of Don's intention (Hi Don!), I think your reading is plausible, and I enjoyed reading it, even though I'm grateful for the shortcuts that my (one and only) poetry teacher (in undergrad) gave me. I've certainly read a lot more since then, and far beyond the (New American Poetry, approximately) canon that he outlined. But my teacher's enthusiasm for poetry -- and his kindness toward me -- were the main things, and they've stayed with me.\r

    I wouldn't have bothered saying any of this to you, except that I saw that stack of "dislike" votes for your post, and I wanted to go on record as having liked your post. I also share your disinterest in the aesthetic influence of the academy/poetry nexus -- it's sociologically interesting, and has its aesthetic influence, but a poet's education has never been a determining factor in my interest in their poetry.\r

    Your comments on Montaigne intrigue, and, I agree, Don's post was a dandy.\r

    Utterly baffled by the amount of dislike directed to your comment.\r


  57. August 6, 2009

    People have been railing against the New Critics for over 50 years. Check out Rexroth's (hugely entertaining) attacks on them. I do believe that much marvelous poetry has been written for many many decades that never took Eliot or Ransom or Tate "and the rest" (to quote the original version of the "Gilligan's Island" theme song; or maybe it was the later version) into account at all. So what's the problem? I would imagine that, more than 40 years after his death, Eliot's disparagement of Shelley doesn't have a whole lot of sway any more, especially since H. Bloom loves Shelley, and H. Bloom has had been making huge splashes for over 35 years, or is it 45.

  58. August 6, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Perhaps a whisper was born before the lips, \r
    And leaves whirled in the woodless world, \r
    And those to whom we dedicated our experience \r
    Gained their traits before any experience.\r

    - O. Mandelstam, from Octets VII (trans. by D. Smirnov)\r


    Strange sense ("through a glass darkly") of literary time, wherein the work precedes the life, the poet's chronological "development" is only its afterthought.\r

    Spell cast by powerful work of art. Sort of a mirror-effect : life itself becomes the play-within-the-play, its author becoming more & more enigmatic.\r


    And through the fetters of a flimsy lattice\r
    or stage-struck curtain-- an extended paw\r
    quilled with fabled disappearances--that\r
    mole of metaphysical law-- \r

    Shakespeare vanished into pseudonyms\r
    trimming his nails frozen sheer

  59. August 6, 2009
     thomas brady


    I never said that because the New Critics were "virtuous," no poets consumed cakes and ale.\r

    Rexroth would hate the New Critics, of course. They were a "problem" to him, I would imagine.\r

    Shelley was an early interest of Bloom's; by the time Bloom became really well-known, he was onto other things, like abusing Poe, for instance. Bloom isn't known for going out of his way to champion Shelley. \r

    T.S. Eliot calling Shelley a "blackguard" had more influence on Helen Vendler's generation, which in turn has been influential to the next, in a wider, more matter-of-fact, plodding, academic manner. Today no one is really influencing anyone; the influential isn't really influential anymore. \r

    The Modernists effected a change which is still being felt; the pins are still being scattered. As I demonstrated, you can find Whitman, Pound, and Ginsberg in a single passage from a single essay by Emerson. \r

    Influence is a complex thing. The New Critics are the Academic Face of Modernism more than anything else; the mid-century New Critics were the storm troopers who invaded the university on behalf of Pound's early 20th century coterie--they were the same folks. \r

    Rexroth and the Beats could be called the non-Academic Face of Modernism, a natural, convenient and inevitable divergence, but finally, the two are hardly different. They are both Modernist, through and through. "Understanding Poetry," the highly influential textbook by New Critics' Warren and Brooks celebrates 'Red Wheel Barrow' and 'At a Station in the Metro,' and these poems were embraced by the Beats.\r


  60. August 6, 2009

    John says:\r


    I’m not sure that I completely agree with your reading of Don’s post; I don’t think that Don intended to disparage the “shortcuts” that a teacher can provide; but regardless of Don’s intention (Hi Don!), I think your reading is plausible, and I enjoyed reading it, even though I’m grateful for the shortcuts that my (one and only) poetry teacher (in undergrad) gave me. I’ve certainly read a lot more since then, and far beyond the (New American Poetry, approximately) canon that he outlined. But my teacher’s enthusiasm for poetry – and his kindness toward me – were the main things, and they’ve stayed with me.\r

    I wouldn’t have bothered saying any of this to you, except that I saw that stack of “dislike” votes for your post, and I wanted to go on record as having liked your post. I also share your disinterest in the aesthetic influence of the academy/poetry nexus – it’s sociologically interesting, and has its aesthetic influence, but a poet’s education has never been a determining factor in my interest in their poetry.\r

    Your comments on Montaigne intrigue, and, I agree, Don’s post was a dandy.\r

    Utterly baffled by the amount of dislike directed to your comment.\r


    +2 \r
    Posted By: john on August 6, 2009 at 2:09 pm \r

    Thanks, John, for your comment. I too am baffled by the stack of dislikes to what I posted. I am thinking my post was misread and I assume the fault is mine.\r

    Let me be clear. Some of the best poets I've met recently are involved in MFA programs. Their facility for language especially blows me away. One such poet blows my socks off every time I read a poem by her. Conversely, some of the best, most impacting, poets I've read recently in online venues are completely untutored and know precious little about the canon. I don't have a parsing system to seperate out one provenance from the other. I could care less. Poetry is all that matters to me. My reading of Don Share's blog struck a responsive nerve. There are no short-cuts to getting poetry, either in making it or comprehending it. That's all.\r

    On a side note I have to say this like/dislike feature is cowardly and dishonorable because anonymous. Very disturbing it is. Poets should be expected to sign their names to what they opine. The function just facilitates cowards.\r


  61. August 6, 2009
     james stotts

    another line for venerable joe:\r

    "and the tongue, they tell me, kept speaking in the grave\r
    wouldn't follow the soul"

  62. August 6, 2009

    Bloom's first book, I just found out, is 50 years old this year! Title, you ask? "Shelley's Mythmaking." He was such a big Shelley fan that he edited the Signet Selected, a widely disseminated book. (I love the Signets.)\r


    And also wrote two more books about Romanticism. A big champion. (As was Northrop Frye, another anti-New-Critic critic.)\r


  63. August 6, 2009
     noah freed

    To whom is this news?

  64. August 6, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    Freed@Noah asked to whom is this news of Bloom's first book: Shelly's Mythmaking, being fifty years old this year.\r

    To me Noh art is news that stays true to the principle of news, being north east west and Southby was it, the other idiotic poetry moron? \r

    I love you Noh art, more than very life itself, as lived by puppets in the here and naw y'all, yeah old ole pals?

  65. August 7, 2009

    I was surprised to see that the book is 50 years old.\r

    Why do you ask?\r

    Thomas tries to dismiss Bloom's championing of Shelley as only "an early interest" and that Bloom isn't known for going out of his way to champion him. Not true. A whole book, plus a substantial part of another, plus an edition of selected poems; and, to refute the "early interest" stuff, Shelley remained a central player in Bloom's history of poetry; a decisive influence of -- through his decisive influence on Browning, who decisively influenced Pound -- modernism!

  66. August 7, 2009
     Henry Gould

    & corrals wayward blowhards.

  67. August 7, 2009

    Yes, it's too bad they don't all sign their names to their thumbs like the admirable "Terreson" does with his comments!

  68. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Surely everybody has noticed how some individuals get an automatic thumbs down no matter what they say on any topic.\r

    Obviously, for some, this is just a game of popularity. Sometimes I think I accidentally stumbled on to a teenage social site.

  69. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    And this very thing was predicted some time back...how a small gang of groupthink bullies would take over what had been a public forum open to everyone. It's called shunning.

  70. August 7, 2009

    I dislike the last paragraph.\r

    Not Anonymous

  71. August 7, 2009

    Maybe the same people always get thumbs-down because they always say stupid things. Just a theory.

  72. August 7, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Some individuals comment automatically, at length, while riding their volatile hobbyhorses, blithely riding over the topics & themes of the original post. & these discourteous noble riders get many thumbs down from the peons below, on earth.

  73. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Speaking of comments, Mr. Gould, I see that you did not reply to my comments at HG Poetrics.

  74. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Poetics, that is.

  75. August 7, 2009
     Henry Gould

    No offense meant, Mr. Fitzgerald. I just didn't feel like defending my original post, or getting into further debate about it.

  76. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Understood. I just like discussing religion/philosophy and there are few poetry places that focus on it. I got the impression that you were trying to start a debate. Sorry.

  77. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    The above reply was intended for Henry Gould, but it didn't show up there.

  78. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    You know, this 'Like/Dislike' thing has given me a great idea. I'm think I'm going to bring a box of rotten tomatoes to my next reading.

  79. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Or maybe I'll bring them to one of yours. How do you like them apples?

  80. August 7, 2009
     Henry Gould

    OK by me, as long as they remain anonymous.

  81. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    You know, of course, Henry, that my tomato thing wasn't directed at you personally. I do think it's a good comparison, though. All of you click-happy 'Dislikers' out there should consider how it might feel to be courageously expressing yourself in a public venue and have a big, fat, red rotten tomato land right in your face. Nobody seems to have enough class to show even a modicum of respect to anybody anymore.\r
    We hear about the continuing decline in morality and ethics in this country on the news every day but, Jeez, even a poetry blog? Et tu, Brute?

  82. August 7, 2009
     Henry Gould

    I don't see anything especially courageous about sitting comfortably at a computer & using its broadcast power to amplify one's own oh-so-sweet nothings. & there is a difference between dialogue and self-expression. A good conversation involves both, but not by emphasizing the latter at the expense of the former. Commenters take advantage of the forum offered here, & set up their gold-plated soap-boxes, & expect others to sit there docilely & spend their time a-listening? That's a cozy expectation which richly deserves the juicy, over-ripe tomato & the peanut shells.

  83. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    I agree. As a poster with generally brief comments, I think I was one of the first to complain about people posting short stories here (or, as John Oliver Simon said, novellas.) Those endless diatribes are annoying at best. And some people are definitely overbearing. But it's a community. You should at least engage the offender and tell them to pound sand. It's not so much what people actually say any more as it is who says it and, like Terreson said, anonymous condemnation is cowardly.\r

    And I like your 'peanut gallery' reference. It's true that the term originated with the throwing of peanut shells.

  84. August 7, 2009
     Tom Harr

    Could be some of the thumbs-downs are for straying off topic? As has happened yet again on this thread?

  85. August 7, 2009

    Tom Harr says: "Could be some of the thumbs-downs are for straying off topic? As has happened yet again on this thread?"\r

    Mr. Harr, my comment was in response to a response to a post of mine. Please note that the greater portion of my post was devoted to Don Share's article.\r

    Henriette says: "Yes, it’s too bad they don’t all sign their names to their thumbs like the admirable “Terreson” does with his comments!"\r

    Henriette please be advised that Terreson has been my nom de plume since '91. The L of C has it registered, attached to the poetry and prose I got copyrighted. More recently, the Tor House Foundation poetry contest, '08, shows my name. Easily googlable.\r

    Harriet people, ya'll wont listen to me. But already, because of the like/dislike function, the community is getting polarized. Those who favor the feature, because it is management generated, will win. Those who oppose it will lose and fade away. The really big loss will be the quiet folk who will vote with their feet. \r


  86. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Topic, shmopic.\r

    Eventually you will learn, Mr. Harr,\r

    that the original posters are less literate than we are.\r

    (No offense, Don. Please approve my Poetry submission.)\r

    Like Hell!\r

    :-) :-D :-) :-D :-) :-D :-) :-D

  87. August 7, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Like Poetry did for Franz, maybe?\r

    Yes, you are "The Establishment" indeed!\r

    And you are completely out of touch.

  88. August 7, 2009
     Seth Abramson


    I'm incredulous at your comment, as at Iowa we didn't talk about publication (it was actually an unspoken rule, though a visiting professor did once sternly admonish me about it when he _thought_, as it turned out _wrongly_, that I was about to mention publishing). And whether one is considered a successful CW professor has nothing, nothing whatsoever, to do with getting your students published. Nor were hardly any of my poetry classmates at the IWW published--they weren't published when they came to Iowa, and most weren't published when they left. Again, I find your understanding of these things sorely lacking, and I don't know where this misunderstanding comes from? I realize MFA students do sometimes submit work while they're still in-program, but most see it as time to focus on writing and not publishing, a circumstance which frees their teachers, too, from being overmuch concerned about publishing (re: their students).\r

    Be well,\r

  89. August 8, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    Winters sounds like a privileged bore - to my ears at least Don - talking tosh about poetry; as if he was making it like - yeah sure? When people use the expression\r

    the good ones are not random collections of tedious pedants, they leave themself guilty to a charge of possessing the potential of being a pedantic tedious tosser themself, don't they though?\r

    The Socratic dialogie of Φαίδρος - Phaedrus - written by Socrates pupil Plato. Phaedrus the interlocutor in several diologic compositions. This one circa 370 BC, like Republic and Symposium; and considered by many to be a literary high mark of Platonic lore. Something the Ivor the bore would dribble on at length about no doubt to his own students who he tried to play the prophet, a street-corner Christ in front of in that very very underprivilged univeristy he made his dough at talking shit about poetry to dickheads who thought summat worth hearing spalshed out his head via the gob.\r

    By his letter here, we can tell he thinks he is something special, that him and his pals are the Best. Laughable as he was the son of a stockbroker, with no poetic lineage apart from the one he made up. I am willing to bet he knew not 10% of what I do. i more or less know without even having to check, because if he did, i would have heard of him here in Ireland, and I haven't. As you know, here is the European head-quarters of po-biz, turning out the some of the best in the world. \r

    If i heave a brick on Grafton Street, it will hit ten poets before it hits the deck, and mention the name Ivor Winters here, and you will recieve blank looks because he is not even remembered enough to be have been forgotten here S. its funny, how many American poets think they are great, when they are not. I have met a few, but most are too up themselves. I won't mention names, but of the few I have spoken to and swapped e mails adresses with in Dublin: none have stuck to their word about writing back.\r

    I recorded one poet on a 500 dollar Olympus LS - 10 CD quality recorder, when s/he read in Dublin; and when I sent it; guess what they said?\r

    Nothing. No thank you, zilch, just a person who thought I was a dickhead for being kind.\r

    Winters I think was probably like this. You can tell by the way he talks:\r

    I talk daily with learned and brilliant men not women - , most of whom have seen a lot but not you Winters you boring tedious pose-bag of rubbish poetry. The only penalty one pays for this life is that one has to teach; because you can't do it yourself Ivor mate and so don't have the htree strings to the poetic lyre: live spoken, on the page and being a Critic. Any person who confesses to being amused by their own teaching to find myself charmed by the intelligent young, just as I am charmed by beautiful puppies should be in the poetry's gitmo. \r

    What does he do put talk rubbish and try to make out he is an expert?\r

    If he is so much of an expert, why does he not know what I do? - as someone who is?\r

    If this drippy man knew anything, it would be that one should compose with a knowledge of the truth: if you can defend your writing when you are challenged, and if you can yourself make the argument that your writing is of little worth that's what an ollamh will do, and a plastic poetry profs like Winters type, who are all sneer and aristocratic longing.

  90. August 8, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Poe has long passed casually with me and with most of my friends as a bad writer accidentally and temporarily popular; the fact of the matter is, of course, that he has been pretty effectually established as a great writer while we have been sleeping." \r

    --Yvor Winters, "Edgar Allan Poe: A Crisis in the History of American Obscurantism," American Literature, January 1937\r

    Many would like to believe that the writing industry--from publishing to academia to little magazines--is really about one thing: good writing and good writing, only. \r

    These true believers want to believe that rivalry and politics are a very minor part of Letters, and rivalry and poltics only concerns a few bad people--who, of course, can't write well themselves, because if they could write well, they would be good, too, and never complain about the writing industry.\r

    And so good triumphs, and any reports of trouble in paradise are dismissed as a lie by a bad person.\r

    This is why a consumer protection site called Foetry was so reviled; it upset the apple cart of American Letters' rosy vision of itself.\r

    How could writers be anything but good? The world may be bad, but writers are good, right? And those who award and publish writers must be good, too, right? So goes the logic of the true believers.\r

    Something as simple and basic and necessary as consumer information has been, and still is, treated as a cancer by po-biz, simply because it interferes with the rosy myth--all poets and critics and editors are good.\r

    Desmond is right when he says not many know of Yvor Winters, and this is true; he wasn't a very good critic and he wasn't a very good poet. \r

    But we should know our history. Yvor Winters was influential, and he did contribute to the literary climate in which we live today.\r

    Many in po-biz (especially the 'good writer' true believers) reject criticism and judgment and comparison, and yet these things operate continually and we shouldn't be ignorant of their history and their effects.\r

    True, this is not the 20s and 30s, or even the 40s and 50s; we no longer live in a time when a few dozen, well-placed essays could alter entire ways of thinking about poetry, but that doesn't mean we should be ignorant of that slightly earlier time when a concentrated dose of rhetoric--during an academic take-over by a small coterie--did effect a tremendous change.

  91. August 8, 2009
     Sheila Chambers

    Mr. Brady/Monday Love, it is hard to know where to begin here, you persist in your reductive thinking to the end, but I will give it one more shot. \r

    "Many would like to believe that the writing industry–from publishing to academia to little magazines–is really about one thing: good writing and good writing, only." \r

    First, anyone who holds such a belief is either not involved in the field of writing, is living on an island, is in high school, and/or is just beginning to write. Second, the "writing industry" is a shorthand way of speaking about many aspects of writing and publishing (and academia and publishing are not part of the same "industry," while "little magazines" comes under "publishing.") Poets involved in teaching, for example, know that the publication of their poetry does not come about through their schools, even though the schools may prefer or require a resume that shows publications. For that, they need magazines and presses (also separate entities with their own procedures, people, goals, etc.). In fact, the editors of magazines they might submit their work to, are in turn often trying to get their own poetry published by submitting to other magazines. Some magazines (and presses) solicit work they like, some have open submissions, some contests or readings (both usually fee-based to support the press, which is usually a tax-exempt non-profit, which depends on donations, like a charity). Most do all of these things. Academia, on the other hand, is concerned with, among other things, education. Schools have a different set of goals and activities than presses or magazines. MFA programs do not concern themselves with helping their students get published, for example, at least in any official way (sometimes a particular teacher has influence with a press, but that's an exception, not the rule, and certainly not advertised). Magazines and presses are not concerned with the educational status of the author who submits work. Of COURSE, as in any other field: dentistry, undertaking, computer programming, psychiatry, etc. the people in the field of writing often get to know each other and refer to and/or recommend each other. The "writing industry" does not operate in a vacuum. If anyone is naive about that, it is you, Mr. Brady. Your naivetee and idealism about writing as a world apart shows everytime you express surprise/horror that there is anything like politics involved. Your anger and disappointment about that has taken some weird form of vengefulness against poets/editors/teachers and it found a home, for a while, in Foetry. Third and last, what is "good writing?" You say that as if it is in simple opposition to something else. Everyone is looking for "good writing," that's understood. But again, any writer or editor knows the complexity behind this notion, that it is a far from simple concept, that writers spend a lifetime defining and pursuing it, that teachers spend lifetimes trying to teach it, that editors and critics spend lifetimes looking for it. So even if the "writing industry" were only interested in this "one thing" how is that simplifying the picture? Or making it rosier? \r

    "These true believers want to believe that rivalry and politics are a very minor part of Letters, and rivalry and poltics only concerns a few bad people–who, of course, can’t write well themselves, because if they could write well, they would be good, too, and never complain about the writing industry."\r

    See above. No one who is involved in the field believes that rivalry and politics are a very minor part of letters. Only an idiot would believe that. Nor does any non-idiot think that rivalry and politics in letters only concerns "a few bad people" or people who "can't write well themselves." Many great writers were/are completely immersed in rivalries and politics. I know you know that. It's what you most like to talk about. Furthermore, EVERYONE involved in the so-called writing industry complains--constantly. It's a pastime. If you were a writer you would know this, too. Go to AWP sometime and just listen in to conversations in cafes, on the elevators, in the bars, etc.\r

    "And so good triumphs, and any reports of trouble in paradise are dismissed as a lie by a bad person."\r

    I don't know what world you are referring to here, no writer I've every known has done anything but perk up their ears if there are reports of "trouble in paradise," and some aspire to be that trouble. The reason Foetry was finally dismissed was not because of lies (although that surely happened, especially if you count reductive distortions as such) or because of its hysterical finger-pointing, but because it was perceived to be rather more in love with the idea of muckraking and "exposing evil" than helping anyone do anything but run for cover. It pointed out problems with the contest submission system. It raised consciousness about contests, and poets now probably do more homework before submitting their manuscripts and editors and presses have become more transparent about posting their procedures. And that's all to the good. But beyond that--what? Really, what?\r

    "This is why a consumer protection site called Foetry was so reviled; it upset the apple cart of American Letters’ rosy vision of itself."\r

    No, Brady, that's not why it was so reviled. It was reviled because it got the bit in its teeth and was a runaway nightmare. It engaged in anonymous attacks. It harressed people, on and off screen. It was not a consumer protection site. Poets needed protection from IT. Speaking up against Foetry ensured harrassment, so few did (or even will now). Speaking up meant being INVESTIGATED. Because surely only someone corrupt would speak up, someone with something to hide--so let's go digging, find out the REAL reason, connect the dots...and anyone who has done anything in the field of writing besides sit on their couch and write has dots to connect, even if it was only that coffee they shared with someone who ended up being a contest judge 5 years later, or that they went to Iowa anytime in the last 20 years. \r

    "How could writers be anything but good? The world may be bad, but writers are good, right? And those who award and publish writers must be good, too, right? So goes the logic of the true believers."\r

    I don't know even one writer who thinks this way. Not one. Unless you are one. But then, you're not a writer, right?\r

    "Something as simple and basic and necessary as consumer information has been, and still is, treated as a cancer by po-biz.." \r

    Consumer information? Only if you believe that say, the National Enquirer's goal is to dispense consumer information. \r

    "...simply because it interferes with the rosy myth–all poets and critics and editors are good."\r

    Whose myth this is I think I know, his mind is in the belfry though, his only listener, Mr. Poe. \r

    Mr.Brady. Try to think. Just try. That's all anyone wants here. Btw, who IS Po-Biz?? Is it that Don Share again?

  92. August 8, 2009

    Good post, Sheila Chambers. Very good post actually. It is always enjoyable to read a well thought out and nicely turned commentary. If you succeed in disabusing the gentleman of his notions concerning the monolithic nature of the poetry establishment, whatever that is, you will do what others have failed to do.\r


  93. August 8, 2009
     Henry Gould

    It's interesting to me, Seth, how you response to James Stotts parallels Sheila Chamber's response to Thomas Brady. A conjunction of opposites - hypocrisy meets cynicism. \r

    For you, MFA programs are not about publishing - oh no! It's all about CREATIVE DEVELOPMENT, SELF-EXPRESSION, LEARNING THE CRAFT... \r

    For Sheila, on the other hand, MFA is not really about publishing, because all the AWP vets are sort of disillusioned, disenchanted about that - given up on the mirage which an MFA degree was supposed to hold out (success, publication, grants, jobs, prestige, etc.).\r

    So po-biz is a little like health insurance. You pay all these middle-men to give you access to doctors; doctors, hospitals, drug cos. & middle-men split the profits. (Health insurers are sort of like bankers : experts at money management. So expert, in fact, that they forget it's YOUR money.)\r

    Kids, all you need is a good elementary & secondary education. You don't need an MFA Guide to Future Poetry Writing; you don't need a Legal Eagle to monitor your advanced degree expenses & receipts. If only more American kids learned to read & write, so they could write poems & short stories by 7th grade. If only some of the po-biz MFA people would find a 2nd career in elemenary education (or even basic English lit - or Latin - )

  94. August 8, 2009
     Henry Gould

    But the ironies are piled on ironies, actually...\r

    Yet, on 2nd thought, maybe deep down Poetry NEEDS Po-Biz (USA) and Writer's Unions (USSR)...\r

    because Poetry, my friends, is the veritable Fisher King.... the Old Man of Crete.... the Sick Man of Europe.... the bloody key to the Golden Bough.... & all that....\r

    it's a deep game of human frailty...\r

    Herodotus noted that the warlike Scythians had a special class of effeminate soothsayers, called "Enarees", who twirled willow twigs as they sang & prophesied (about future marriages & battles)... poets are still, here in USA, marked out, "special"... MFA programs & "creative writing" play into this agonic drama in diverse ways (emphasizing or effacing it)...\r

    What does it all mean?

  95. August 8, 2009
     thomas brady


    You write as one who professes to understand every aspect of the writing industry from top to bottom, as one who is very familiar with 'rivalry' and 'politics' in Letters, as one who understands the nuances of good and bad writing, and as one who has followed Foetry closely during its entire history. You also write as a close reader of mine.\r

    I can't say how much I admire this. I am really flattered. You surely have a great deal of experience as a writer, and you must have overheard many conversations in cafes and elevators. You must know great deal. \r

    I am really glad you are here.\r

    I couldn't find anything specific in your lengthy remarks above, however. Was that intentional? \r

    I said there are rivalries in Letters. You agreed there were. Yet you disagreed with me in tone, and gave no examples of rivalries yourself. I found that a little confusing.\r

    You told me publishing involves publishing, while academia was concerned with education. It was nice of you to tell me that. Were you going anywhere with that, or was that it?\r

    You compared Foetry to...was it the 'National Enquirer?' I guess that does reveal how you feel, if nothing else.\r

    Again, you were short on specifics, but maybe that was because you were feeling a great deal as you were writing.\r

    But as I said, you sound as if you've been around and have read and experienced a great deal.\r

    I look forward to your future posts.\r

    Thanks, again, Sheila.\r


  96. August 8, 2009
     thomas brady


    Great idea. Teach kids how to write when they're young. \r

    But how many MFAs could take your advice and go into a second career teaching the young? They would have to teach Poe and lose their Modernist pets, who have zero pedagogical weight. How could they do that? They'd rather kill themselves. \r


  97. August 8, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    What an interesting post--truly astonishing. Indeed, you reverse almost every position you've ever maintained in the past when you endorse Sheila Chamber's arguments here. Obviously your philosophy is evolving, and I for one would be interested to hear how you reconcile the positions you argued so eloquently on Poets.org with what you seem to be saying here. Even more specifically, I'd like to know if you still stand behind the principles of your manifesto, "The Pee in the Pool of On-line Poetry?" Is all that fierce independence now on the scrap heap of literary history? Should we now embrace uncritically the systems you before found so insidious?\r

    This thread is about the REAL LIFE of American poets discovering their vocation, and indeed there have been many surprising revelations. How did you, Tere, manage to get from the strong-minded maverick you used to be to a spokeman for the establishment?

  98. August 8, 2009
     Christopher Woodman

    Thank you, Sheila -- although I don't agree with everything you say, I am relieved that someone is at last entering into this discussion about Contests who really takes Foetry seriously. Yes, I agree with Thomas Brady that your summary lacks specifics, but it certainly does get to the heart of the matter. If you would now just fill it out a bit we could really get down to brass tacks.\r

    And speaking of specifics, for me the most important moment in the fight over the true value of Foetry came in a letter in the Dec. 2007 issue of Poets & Writers magazine by a very influential poet and critic. For those of you who don't know it, here it is:\r


    Craig Morgan Teicher's profile of Bin Ramke ("Noble Rider," September/October 2007) referred to the now-defunct Foetry.com as a "poetry watchdog," with a legitimate point of view in a "squabble." But thanks to that "watchdog," one of the best poetry series in America has been dismantled (the Contemporary Poetry Series), an independent press was smeared (Tupelo Press), and Ramke, one of poetry's most dedicated editors, chose to retire. Any influence that Foetry wielded came about through its bullying tactics and sensationalist accusations, which were far more serious than what Teicher calls "sour grapes." They were the product of a willful misunderstanding of the process of editing and publishing poetry.\r

    Joan Houlihan\r
    Acton, Massachusetts


    I think what is helpful about this letter for us here on Harriet right now is that it is so specific -- that the issues it touches on are so black and so white. Almost by defintion 'corruption' and 'cronyism' are extremely hard to identify what is more to prove, and Alan Cordle had to work extremely hard to get the facts together to prove that such things were taking place in American poetry circles. And make no mistake about it, Alan Cordle went only for bonafide, fee-paying, publicly advertised, guidelines-in-the-U.S.-Mail contests. Nevertheless, although the evidence was convincing in many of the contests, there were relatively few that really got nailed, and among those were the Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series and the 2006 Tupelo Press Dorset Prize. And needless to say, these are the very two contests Joan Houlihan uses as examples to dismiss Foetry here!\r

    So why don't we start here too, Sheila? Any comments on Foetry's exposure of Bin Ramke and Jeffrey Levine? Was Foetry wrong to blow this whistle, and do you dispute any of the facts? And if not, what do you think Joan Houlihan had in mind when she disputed these cases? \r

    And if you tell me they're just so unimportant, well you'll have to tell that to me. I submitted 12 manuscripts over the years to Bin Ramke, and 8 to Jeffrey Levine. And yes, I did receive the latter's 'template' letter signed and delivered to me by mail, and no Jeffrey Levine did not recuse himself from judging my manuscript in the 2006 'Anonymous' Tupelo Prize even when he had personally overseen the revision of some of my competitors. Nor did he even bother to reply to my complaint, but just announced in a public statement that he was tired, and it was all just a fish-feeding frenzy.\r

    So yes, can you explain to me why we're confronted with such a huge disjunction here, Sheila, or why this black and this white aren't important?\r


  99. August 9, 2009
     Margo Berdeshevsky

    Sheila, it's a no-win plan. Better/best to vote with one's feet and walk away/change the channel. Neither reason nor well wrought argument clothe the obsessed. Personally I'd rather listen to this other Thomas: \r

    by Thomas Merton:\r
    Pardon all runners,\r
    All speechless, alien winds,\r
    All mad waters.\r

    Pardon their impulses,\r
    Their wild attitudes,\r
    Their young flights, their reticence.\r

    When a message has no clothes on\r
    How can it be spoken.\r


  100. August 9, 2009
     Seth Abramson


    I didn't follow most of what you said, except to gather that you've called me a hypocrite. Okay; not sure why, though, as one could hardly claim I used my MFA to publish. I was publishing regularly before I entered into an MFA program, wrote my first book before my MFA program, got my first book contract before my MFA program...\r

    In any case, your one-size-fits-all solution doesn't jive with my experiences in education--as either a student or a teacher. Sure, for some aspiring writers having Mr. Holland teach them in high school will do the trick--WCWs in no time. For others, some college exposure to, say, Paul Muldoon at Princeton will do it. And for some--sad to say, Henry--having three fully-funded MFA years to do nothing but write poetry will be something of an aid in their development.\r

    Or maybe it takes twenty to thirty years to know what helped a poet along, and anyone trying to nip the process in the bud (because of some benighted sense of foresight or self-righteousness) is just plain foolish?\r

    I wouldn't trust anyone who said everyone needs an MFA--which is why I don't say that. Ever. But I also wouldn't trust anyone who assured me, with equal confidence, that absolutely no one can benefit from getting paid to do nothing but write for several years.\r


  101. August 9, 2009
     thomas brady


    "Pardon?" Who are you "pardoning?" And do you think "pardon" means to give up and walk away, as you advised Sheila to do?\r

    And again, what is your specific issue? Is this the sort of rhetoric to which you aspire? Vague rebuke? Wouldn't it be quicker and easier to hit 'dislike' and steal silently away? \r

    Sheila is obviously upset. She claimed poets were INVESTIGATED. \r

    This is simply not true. \r

    Contests were INVESTIGATED. \r


    I would NEVER, EVER condone such a thing. If I ever seemed to do so, that was NEVER my intention, nor will it EVER be my intention. No one has EVER pointed out such a thing to me, nor am I aware of it. When consumer protection is greeted with mere hysteria, does it make you ever wonder?\r

    As you and Sheila must both know, the contest is quite a special thing. \r

    If, like Harriet Monroe, you have the sagacity and the drive to start your own poetry magazine, you can publish anyone you want in that magazine. The key there is to sell enough copies, or, to raise enough money, to keep the magazine afloat. Then, you as editor can do any thing you want, and publish any poet or any type of poem you want. If Ezra Pound is dominating the editorial tone of the magazine, the public can see that, and can step away--or not.\r

    The manifesto-ism of Pound failed in the marketplace, but, thanks to enterprising and brilliant friends such as Allen Tate, Pound's manifesto-ism gained a foothold in the academy, and has been there ever since, quietly canonizing what the public has never accepted.\r

    Poetry has never seen such wide divergence between popular and critical interest; poetry considered critically meritorious has gone begging; history has never seen anything like it.\r

    John Crowe Ransom published Robert Lowell's poems in the 'Kenyon Review' many years ago, and this fact was used by Dana Gioia to illustrate how wonderful & open things used to be. The 'Kenyon Review' was one of the nation's leading magazines of poetry criticism, and wasn't it great, Gioia exclaimed, in his famous essay which attacked the insularity of po-biz, that Ransom, a critic, was beneficent enough to publish poems by Robert Lowell? Lowell and Ransom??!?? This needs no further comment. This is one of my many hobby-horses--but I do ride my horse in the zone of facts and truth.\r

    But, as I said, the poetry contest is something a little different. \r

    The contest is indeed a special thing. I shall not speak further of the contest's necessity--the public does not buy poetry, so revenues for publication of poetry books must be raised; this is well understood.\r

    I shall only summarize briefly the importance of contests--and this too, should be well-known by now:\r

    Contests furnish credentials for academic resumes, furnish credentials for further publications, sometimes furnish credentials for the canon, and also directly raise funds for those entities involved in contest governance. Contests rob Peter to pay Paul, Peter being the contest hopefuls who send manuscripts of poems with submission fees, Paul the contest winner who reaps all sorts of tangible and intangible rewards, including book publication--paid for by the losers' submission fees.\r

    None dispute the above. Also, none would dispute the importance of the poetry contest being clean and fair. This goes without saying. "Clean and fair" is not always easy to measure when it comes to the subjective judgment of poetry, but difficulty of measurement does not lessen the importance of what is measured: "clean and fair." This, too, goes without saying.\r

    I don't know if you and Sheila are following what I have written so far, but this is what I look for in writing: a wee bit o' truth and a wee bit o' clarity.\r

    Now, one can argue and disagree with specifics, and I welcome dispute, as all true intellectuals do. Please, disagree specifically, if you wish. Or, remain silent. Or, remain silent and hit 'dislike.' It is all good.\r


  102. August 9, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    The fact that you keep getting deep-sixed by the 'Dislikes', Thomas Brady, just proves that you're smokin' 'em!\r

    They can't handle it, son. They can't handle the truth!

  103. August 9, 2009
     Henry Gould

    Absolutely no one can benefit from getting paid to do nothing but write for several years.\r

    You cannot serve two masters.

  104. August 9, 2009
     Seth Abramson

    Oh good grief, Henry. You know, Henry--you know full well--that MFA students are "paid to write" (in the sense you're using that phrase) only if one intentionally misconstrues my words. I mean, of course, that MFA students receive financial support for living expenses so that they can focus all their energies on writing, and thereby serve but the _one_ master.\r

    On the other hand--and I say this seriously--I wish people were as candid as you've been about the radical bases for their anti-MFA opinions. I think that if these bases were fully articulated, their extremity (and ill-informed nature) would be absolutely crystal-clear--most of those opposing MFA programs don't even seem to understand what an MFA is or does or what it's like to attend one, let alone allow for the possibility that the MFA model is ever-changing and ever-improving (and that it takes continued effort to change and improve it). \r


  105. August 9, 2009
     Chris Reiser

    " I find myself charmed by the intelligent young, just as I am charmed by beautiful puppies."\r

    Wow, what a prick. Students, never take a class from someone who would condescend to you like that.

  106. August 9, 2009
     Chris Reiser

    Is this really a problem? Who has othered the mothers? Seems a bit ginned up. I guess some people feel more inspired to write when they're carrying some righteous anger around.

  107. August 10, 2009

    If I had the chops, which I don't, I'd consider an MFA in musical composition, figuring that at least I'd learn a heckuva lot of harmony and counterpoint.\r

    What does an MFA in creative writing teach? I had an interesting talk about theories of plot with a Ph.D. in English lit at a party this evening. Seth, in a comment I can't find (I don't know why I can't find it), seems to be saying that people who oppose creative writing MFAs have no idea what goes on there. True! \r

    So, what goes on there? What does one learn? \r

    (Please consider this a variant of the question with which Don began this discussion.)\r


  108. August 10, 2009
     thomas brady

    In trying to understand poetry's recent loss of cultural capital, surely it will help to make some stark, unapologetic comparisons between poetry and popular music.\r

    I find it worth pondering that just as poetry was becoming professionalized in the middle of the last century, popular music was going in the opposite direction.\r

    In the following passage from the new book, "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n' Roll" (Oxford U.) there lies, I think, an entire world of useful comparison:\r

    "But the music world [of the 50s] had changed. That fall, [Billboard magazine] noted that mainstream disc jockeys were increasingly shunning covers: 'The pop boys played Fats Domino, Lavern Baker, Nappy Brown, Al Hibbler, the Platters, etc., because there is strong sentiment growing everywhere for the 'original,' the creator, as opposed to the copyist.' \r

    That October, Chuck Berry's 'Maybellene' became the first black rock 'n' roll hit to reach the pop charts solely in its original version.\r

    Records rather than songs were clearly coming to define the pop mainstream: More than fifty years later, we continue to think of the hits of the 1930s and 1940s as 'standards,' performed by jazz and pop artists around the world, but of the hits of the 1950s as 'oldies,' usually heard on recordings by the original artists.\r

    The fact that single, unique recordings were replacing multiple performances of songs meant that record companies were becoming more interested in quirky, one-off records and less dependent on reliable studio performers--which is to say it encouraged the deprofessionalization of pop music. A street-corner doo-wop group could get a top ten hit while still in high school without making any professional appearances, knowing more than a handful of songs, or understanding the intricacies of union regulations, record royalties, or publishing contracts. So a lot of the resistance to rock 'n' roll within the music business can be traced to professional musicians, songwriters, and arrangers worrying about their future in a world that was being taken over by amateurs. \r

    Popular music would come to be seen less as a trade than a lottery in which young aspirants either got lucky or went into a more solid business, and it is no accident that whereas virtually all the artists who topped the charts in the 1930s and 1940s--including 'one hit wonders'--performed professionally for many years, a lot of the people who had hits in the 1950s were working outside music by the time they were in their twenties.\r

    In 1952, 'Time' magazine had described Jo Stafford as being comfortable with everything 'from ballads to bop, from hillbilly tunes to hymns, and quoted her saying, I don't want to be typed...Once you get typed, you lose value.'\r

    The cultural pundit Dwight MacDonald staked out a particularly elevated position, writing that rock 'n' roll was 'even less interesting musically than the insipid ballads that Crosby and Sinatra crooned...'"\r

    It may surprise us to find the 'anarchist' MacDonald unable to appreciate rock 'n' roll, but 'cultural pundits' are rarely as scientific as they think they are.\r

    Anyway, we may think, at first glance, that many of these comparisons between poetry and music fall short. Surely poems do not fall into the category of 'songs' v. 'recordings,' or 'original' v. 'cover,' but I believe if we look closer, they do. \r

    Couldn't the anthology pieces in a typical World's Greatest Poetry book be thought of as 'songs,' and Beat poems, for instance, as 'recordings?'\r

    And Jo Stafford not wishing to be typed: Was not this W.H. Auden's wish, as well? And isn't Auden the last Anglo-American poet who was truly popular in a variety of styles? \r

    Since the 1950s, hasn't both the study of poetry and even the writing of poetry become professional and scientific and academic?\r

    And doesn't American poetry in the last 50 years exist as one, and one kind of poem only: the 15-75 line, non-romantic, non-elevated, Synthetic Lineation lyric? \r

    As pop music was "taken over by amateurs" who appealed directly to a wildly appreciative public, poetry was taken over by professionals who sought to make sure poetry would never be merely popular again.\r

    A major tenet of the New Critics was that the study of poetry should be scientific, rather than historical. \r

    'Miss Emily and the Bibliographer' (1941) by Allen Tate, and 'Criticism, Inc' by John Crowe Ransom (1938) define the attack on historical scholarship in the university.\r

    Respect for history allows for a certain default variety; the popularity of a Robert Burns, for instance, is included as part of the historical mix as a matter of course; what happened when the New Critical 'scientists' stepped in, is that taste became flat and homogeneous (precisely because it became 'scientific'); Burns and Poe and Shelley did not fit into the dropper; they were too messy and sentimental for the laboratory.\r

    Amateurism in pop music quickly took over a key role of poetry, and did so gladly, and as poetry hardened into a study, the Muse was all too willing to fly elsewhere.\r

    In many ways, of course, poetry has feebly imitated its pop-music sister.\r

    One example: In the "lottery" described above, in which amateur musicians lucked into top ten hits by appealing to a fickle public, one cannot help but be reminded of the poetry contest, a sort of "lottery" in which a poet hopes for some kind of breakthrough. And yet appealing directly to the public allows the artist a certain freedom to think outside the box, to become 'appealing' by 'any means,' so to speak, whereas appealing to a 'professional judge' carries a subtle but important difference; judges are too shrewd, too smart, too knowing, to be impressed by any strategy which might 'go outside the box,' for this naturally violates the homogeneous 'taste' established by the 'science' of the schools, which is what the judge implicitly upholds--not the taste of taste, but the science of taste. For in reality all this crowing about 'individual taste' is nothing, for if contemporary poetry were really about 'individual taste,' there would be far more variety in it; the academy would welcome 'The Raven' into its bosom, together with 'The Waste Land,' and of course it cannot do that; the appeal of 'The Raven' is unscientific. \r

    Now, it is true that some comparisons simply cannot be made between poetry and popular song. However, those instances when it seems they cannot be made inevitably lead to a sort of arrogant solipsism, where, as Don described, the young poet lives alone in libraries, inevitably forming those sorts errors in judgment and taste which prey upon the bookworm, and, so: even when it seems such comparisons cannot be made, we should look to find ways of making such comparisons, if only to cure this one solipsistic flaw.\r


  109. August 10, 2009

    Tom: A great area to explore. Most important about music in the past 100 years (popular music) is that technology brought it to individuals with increasing ease. In the 19th century music meant someone playing the piano in the parlor. Then we went to cylinders, to scratchy 78s, to 45s and LPs, to compact discs, to today--a little plug in a kid's ear that brings any and all sound-studio recordings in perfect fidelity. \r

    Words about the immediate quality of song/sound...no interpretation necessary...have been written. In contradistinction, poetry does require some interpretation, some WORK, as I saw you note in another posting. \r

    So, what the poetry world needs to do is...\r

    Advertise. Advertise the fact that Paul Simon's lyrics suck. That hip hop lyrics are elementary school. Who wants to begin the shouting?

  110. August 10, 2009
     james stotts


    you've said that before--that mfa programs and publication are two independent variables, that mfas [successfully (and this is implicit in your claim, if not explicitly stated)] discourage students from publishing, and that you believe time to write should be subsidized more than it is already (that is, more free and fully-funded mfa programs). also, that teaching positions are not based on publication history (wait, did you say that, or just dodge it?, anyway...) well, to set up your argument on the claim that mfa students aren't trying to get their work published is to make it practically baseless. they are trying, en masse.\r
    well, i don't know why writers in any other field would publish, rather than to be get paid, so getting a scholarship and stipend is effectively a very similar proposal to a book deal, though i know you don't think of it that way, and answers the need of publishing, which is to get paid for work. unless...there's no work involved. so, an mfa program that doesn't offer help publishing (that actually wants its writers not to publish), that doesn't make any claims about its teachers' capabilities, or its curriculum's merit, that has no attendance policies, etc., etc. how can you keep advertising the wonders of this product, the mfa, that you're not willing to make any real claims for? is free time what you're spending so much time and energy defending? is that what poets need, the only definite thing they need (since you are so resolutely ambiguous about anything else)? and why do you bristle when your bag of wind gets pricked?

  111. August 10, 2009

    Song lyrics usually suck when you read them as poetry, without music. But they're not meant to be read that way. So why read them that way?

  112. August 10, 2009

    Matt: Tell it to the English professors in the Seventies who "taught" pop song lyrics. \r

    That is.....were they right or wrong?

  113. August 10, 2009


    The mirror-image trajectories of poetry and popular music that you describe ring true. I always appreciate a historical anthology (Victorian Verse, 18th Century Verse -- any period or topic) that includes anonymous ballads or lyrics -- and many anthologies do, though few general surveys of the history of English poetry include one-hit wonders or anonymous poems more recent than the Border Ballads. \r

    There is no culture of anonymity in poetry today, when there was as recently as 100 years ago. Some years back I found at my parents' house a scrapbook of newspaper clippings from a century ago, put together by an unknown relative. Many dozens of poems in there, almost all contemporary, from the daily newspapers, and many of them unsigned or signed only by initials. Most of them are too sentimental even for me, but there are some dandies and doozies, including a blistering anti-imperialist satire of Kipling's "White Man's Burden," written within a year or two of Kipling's publication, by someone identified only by initials.\r

    The exceptions to the general rule of professionalism in songwriting in pre-rock 20th century pop music are fascinating. One of Glenn Miller's biggest hits was written by an amateur, "Elmer's Tune," a delightful song written by a man named Elmer (who didn't write the words; a professional did). Folk songs sometimes hit it big, including "Home on the Range" in the 1930s, published by John Lomax in 1910, who learned it from an African American saloon keeper in San Antonio (scholars have since traced the song's origin to a 19th century white lawyer in Kansas).\r

    People who note the loss of poetry's cultural capital usually neglect to mention one hold-out: The academy. Poetry still has cultural capital in the academy. I wonder how long that will last.

  114. August 10, 2009
     Don Share

    I love "Elmer's Tune"!! There's a charming version by Peter Stampfel, he of the Fugs and Holy Modal Rounders:\r


  115. August 10, 2009

    A lot of people did regretful things in the seventies, from what I've heard. (Right? I didn't exist until '82, so I wouldn't know.)

  116. August 10, 2009

    Matt: some are doing regretful things today. But to the point...the popularity of song versus the popularity of poetry. How about a major push to scream ... hip-hop lyrics are not poetry? \r

    I didn't think so. End of discussion.

  117. August 10, 2009

    I was going to reply to this, but apparently the discussion has ended.

  118. August 10, 2009

    And I was trying (with tongue in cheek, or at least touching my favorite upper right quadrant molar) to suggest that poetry manufacturers make a stronger case for a role in the zeitgeist. Enough already with the cheap white wine.

  119. August 10, 2009

    Re: professionalization, 2 more things.\r

    First, the Slam Movement has, or originally had, a strong anti-professional component, which might explain why pros and academics of all aesthetic schools and stripes seemed as united in their indifference and/or opposition to it as they ever have about anything.\r

    Second, Sheila's snide comments about Thomas not being a writer can only be understood as, "professional writer"; agree with him or not, Like or Dislike him, Thomas is a writer, regardless of his pay scale. By Sheila's accounting, I guess Emily Dickinson wasn't a writer either. (Not comparing Thomas with E.D. here; only making a pitch for the standing of the amateur.) \r

    Third, and I hadn't thought of it until thinking about the song in the context of professionalism, the lyrics of Elmer's Tune could be seen as making fun of amateur Elmer, though they're also marvelously, giddily mystic.

  120. August 10, 2009

    I think slam sucks and I'm about as academic as a table leg.

  121. August 10, 2009

    Not all pros are academics, but I have no problem with anybody disliking slam (neither a slammer, nor academic, nor pro here), just noting the phenomenon -- and my generalization could be overstated anyway.\r

    I think thinking things suck sucks. :-)

  122. August 10, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Right on, John. Matt's just a technobrat.

  123. August 10, 2009

    My version, sung in the voice of Elmer Fudd, is a big hit with the 6-year-olds in the car pool. It got them to learn the song anyway! \r

    And, contra Matt, lots of pre-rock lyrics are very readable, at their best comparable to Elizabethan or Cavalier song; Woody Guthrie's best ballads are as good as the classic ballads; some rock lyrics are highly readable too.\r

    What makes a lady\r
    At 80\r
    Go out on the loose?\r
    What makes a gander\r
    In search of a goose?\r
    What puts the kick in\r
    A chicken,\r
    The magic in June?\r
    It's just Elmer's Tune!\r

    (Words by Sammy Gallup, an excerpt.)

  124. August 11, 2009
     thomas brady

    I think a crucial element in a discussion of pop music, professionalism, popularity, and poetry is how society regards 'the sentimental' and how 'the professionalism of good taste' prevails in such considerations.\r

    I agree with Matt that very often song lyrics either 'suck' or depend on the music to such a degree that they cannot sustain themselves as poetry alone.\r

    But this ignores the following: song lyrics, even as they succeed within their musical universe, still exist as words and succeed as words, to some degree at least, and if popular, shape poetry in society at large, whether poets like it or not.\r

    I always found the lyric "She Loves You" of paramount quality simply because 'she loves you,' in so many dramatic ways, is a qualitative improvement on 'I love you.' True, 'yea, yea, yea' fails miserably as poetry, but this doesn't cancel out the excellence of 'she loves you' in its wonderful simplicity.\r

    There is a lot of gold to be mined in mawkish crap, and there is a lot of 'sentiment' which is worthy, even though it is popular.\r

    'Professionalism' tends to reject what it considers 'sentimental,' and I'm not talking about 'the childish,' which is something different. \r

    I consider the 'sentimental' lyrics, for instance, of the 'oldie' pop hit, 'End of the World' to be worthy poetry, though I don't know anyone who would give that song a second glance. A bereft lover wonders why the world goes on--it's a marvelous combination of solipsism and naivete which unconsciously creates its opposite in the simple artfulness of the lyrics themselves.\r

    There was a day when music writing and lyric writing were considered separate arts in the music business: a writer would come up with a tune and desperately ask around town for a writer who could come up with the perfect lyric. There is something quite charming in this.

  125. August 11, 2009
     Seth Abramson


    I misunderstood your comment on creative writing faculties; I thought you meant that their students' publishing successes aid their own career prospects, which is not true. If you're saying that folks get hired based on their own publication histories, yes, that's true--though you'd probably also agree that the pressures of publishing diminish somewhat once one has gotten a job in an MFA program (mind you, not because the pressures disappear, but because journal publications are no longer as necessary and, frankly, at that point, are easier to come by, and the real tenure-track necessity--publishing books--is often easier if one has already done so and has some contacts in the publishing community, which [publishing a book I mean] one would have to do several times over, usually, to get an MFA job in the first place).\r

    I decline your invitation to put myself between a rock and a hard place. If I argue (dishonestly) that MFA programs are dedicated to publishing, not art; if I argue that they are pedagogically rigid, with strict curricula and high-school-like rigidity (e.g., firm attendance policies and such); if I say anything of the sort, you will rightly accuse such MFA programs of being antithetical to art by focusing on business not aesthetics and on hierarchical instruction rather than open-ended self-discovery. But you've got a shrewd gambit here: If I say, instead, that MFA programs are primarily an opportunity for young writers to explore their craft and art away from the worries of the world--in a fashion no different than, say, artists' colonies (not that I've heard you suggest we burn down Yaddo)--you'll say that there's no _there_ there. Is that because you've never worked a job? I don't know you, so I can't say. But you wouldn't be inquiring as to the value of _time_ to an artist if you'd worked in the legal system (for instance) or any other job that demands much of one's time and attention and emotional energy, which is most jobs everywhere. My ability to improve my work while spending five days a week in court is not the same as the improvement I saw while in an MFA. There's no comparison. The improvement (IMHO) I saw in an MFA helped me to do in two years what would've taken me a decade while working as an attorney.\r

    And yet this isn't an either/or: I never said that there's no value to the guidance of faculty in an MFA. With Cole Swensen I learned valuable literary theory, which better allows me to understand my own worldview and aesthetics as an artist (i.e., what I "want to do" with my poetry); with Peter Gizzi I learned the simplest thing imaginable--to always read my own work out loud to myself while drafting, which I'd never done before or (if you can believe it) thought of doing--and to not be so quick to destroy the integrity of my own lines, and (perhaps above all!) his reading recommendations let me for the first time discover poems and poets from whom I can readily draw both enjoyment and inspiration. And so much more, from both writers. The basics of literary criticism that I learned from Tony Hoagland still inform how I teach undergraduates today--and the leaps in understanding and skill I've seen in my young charges when I differentiate, in reading poetry, between (say) image and diction and rhetoric, have been extraordinary. They have given these young writers (so my students tell me) new ways of "seeing" how a poem can be constructed. And they have allowed me to see, for the first time, the role of rhetoric in my own poetry, and my aversion to "description," which now a) helps inform my poetics, and b) helps me resolve my poet and attorney selves. But none of my instructors/mentors ever told me, nor would they, nor would I ever tell my own students, how or what to write. For instance, when Cole Swensen noticed a (brief and temporary) shift toward post-confessionalism in my work, an aesthetic she doesn't herself favor, it wasn't to chastise me but rather to make certain I saw and could identify the how/why of this trend myself. She wasn't going to stop or dissuade me whatsoever if I wanted to go down that path; she just wanted me to be self-aware. Every teacher I ever had was 100% forthcoming about their own biases, and bent over backward to either not teach from those biases or else to frame lessons in _terms_ of those biases (i.e., to openly say, "here is one perspective on things; after we discuss it, we'll discuss an entirely different one...").\r

    I never said that MFA students don't _ever_ try to publish. But I've been a poetry editor, James, and I can tell you that while countless MFA graduates try to publish in journals (naturally), the percentage of submissions coming from _current_ MFA students is well below their percentage of the poetry community (given that there are presently between 8,000 and 13,000 individuals total, across all genres, in graduate creative writing programs of one kind or another, and approximately half of those are in poetry).\r

    You write, "getting a scholarship and stipend is effectively a very similar proposal to a book deal." What? I don't see this at all. Are you telling me that spending two years in Iowa (or anywhere) just writing and reading and discussing poetry with talented poets (young and old) was the equivalent to signing my John Hancock on a legal contract? In any case, I'm not bristling, James--the internet can't convey tone well, but if it helps, just think of me as someone accustomed to being a zealous advocate for things (in-court and otherwise) but without ill will attached to that zeal--but if I were bristling, it would probably have been because I see you are using sophistry, not reason, to approach the topic of MFAs. Why not just admit that they feel icky to you, like the steam engine did to those who saw it for the first time, or a sub-Saharan shaman faced with a hypodermic needle, or anyone faced with something they don't understand and therefore instinctively don't like? I'd more respect a claim that MFAs "simply feel wrong to you" than an attempt to articulate the basis for that gut feeling using bad analogies and faulty information.\r

  126. August 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    Also, in popular music, you have the concept of the 'cross-over hit,' and I don't know if that exists in poetry. The public tends to perceive of poetry as a monolith, while the 'professional' poetry insiders (academics) tend to think of poetry as either academically worthy--or not. \r

    Within these stock responses: one view of 'poetry' by the naive, who don't really care for it, and two views of 'poetry' by the sophisticated--acceptable, academic poetry and 'trash' which lives outside the academy, there are obviously plenty of sub-categories: rhymed and unrhymed, perhaps, for the naive, and historical periods for the academics: romanticism, classical, modern, etc., but 'cross-over' appeal cannot operate here, since a 'Romantic' type of poem composed by Milton or Pope only ruins the edifices of the historical scholars anxious to keep Romanticism, for instance, in its place. \r

    This leaves only one area remaining for any real 'cross-over' appeal, and that is when a contemporary 'school' crosses over to another in some poet's work--but I can think of no real example of this, so one has to ask: why doesn't poetry have 'cross-over' appeal?\r

    Does this mean poetry is bereft of actual categories? Is poetry, finally, as the naive public sees it, one category?\r

    The song, 'End of the World' was a 'cross-over hit' for Skeeter Davis, a country singer. The song earned her a mega 'pop' hit, which actually hurt her career as a country artist, because 'country' DJs resented her sudden 'pop' stardom.\r

    I'm not sure there's a equivalent of this in poetry.\r

    But let's look at the song as a poem:\r

    Why does the sun go on shining?\r
    Why does the sea rush to shore?\r
    Don't they know it's the end of the world?\r
    For you don't love me anymore.\r
    Why do the birds go on singing?\r
    Why do the stars glow above?\r
    Don't they know it's the end of the world?\r
    It ended when I lost your love.\r

    I wake up in the morning and I wonder,\r
    Why everything's the same as it was.\r
    I can't understand, no I can't understand,\r
    How life goes on the way it does.\r

    Why does my heart go on beating?\r
    Why do these eyes of mine cry?\r
    Don't they know it's the end of the world?\r
    It ended when you said goodbye.\r

    Let's compare it, shall we? with a Yeats poem:\r

    Speech after long silence; it is right,\r
    All other lovers being estranged or dead,\r
    Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,\r
    The curtain drawn upon unfriendly night,\r
    That we descant and yet again descant\r
    Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:\r
    Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young\r
    We loved each other and were ignorant.\r

    How can we judge the worth of these two poems? \r

    The first is more classical in both theme and form. \r

    The second is more unique, but rather sloppy, and the poet's use of terms like 'unfriendly' and 'yet again descant' and 'the supreme theme of Art and Song' are harsh, straining, unearned, and mawkish. \r

    To assert this will get me hanged, of course.\r

    Finally, the former work, the cross-over ballad, appeals poetically to a large population which the academy, or even society at large, hardly recognizes as having poetic qualities at all. Surely, this should be taken into final consideration when judging the poetic quality of any work: the amount of 'poetry' administered by the work in context of the 'poetry' existing in the audience to which that work appeals.\r

    On this level, 'End of the World' wins hands down.\r

    I don't know if this factor is ever taken into account by literary critics.\r

    But shouldn't it be?

  127. August 12, 2009

    Dunno, Thomas.\r

    I think End of the World succeeds because of the exigencies of music...the plot around and within the authentic cadence (including tonal lyricism and syncopation). The lyrics are nice...yes. The crossover (country to pop) is not so much an appeal as a phenomenon.\r

    Music has the authentic cadence. \r

    We have the iamb. \r

    Let's get to work.

  128. August 12, 2009

    Oh...and we have the trochee.\r

    (which rock stole...)

  129. August 12, 2009

    Oh goodness gracious Thomas, your assertion won't get you hanged, merely Disliked. But I like your comparison, in part because the self-pity of the Yeats poem is no less sentimental than the self-pity of the Skeeter Davis song -- Skeeter's more hyperbolic, which rings true to me.\r

    As for crossover in poetry, Annie Finch has crossover appeal, with feet in the "formal" and "experimental" camps. I went looking for one of her books at the Best Poetry Bookstore in the U.S. (Open Books, a poetry-only bookstore in Seattle), owned and completely staffed by a lovely couple who are both poets themselves, and one of them remarked on how impressive is Annie's gift for having alliances from opposing camps. (They had a few of her books, but not the one I wanted.)\r

    Pop music doesn't frown on crossover any more, nor does classical. Star violinist (and hottie) Joshua Bell does albums of The World's Most Beloved Melodies. (I looked, and, no, it didn't have "Happy Birthday," which disappointed me. False advertising!)

  130. August 12, 2009
     thomas brady

    Thank you, John. I'd like to see 'cross-over appeal' become more of a virtue in poetry. Annie Finch is a good example; she certainly was good at engaging all sorts of different people on Harriet.

  131. August 12, 2009
     noah freed

    This is great: an entire thread where almost the only thing Thomas Brady has to say is "(click to show comment)"! OK, I'm in favor of the thumbs (especially since they also shut Woodman & Abramson up).

  132. August 12, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Willie Nelson, U2.\r

    Walt Whitman, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost and Yeats.\r

    Everest, McKinley, The Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro, Mauna kea, K2.\r

    Every range of mountains has its peaks. Why is this so? Consistency! When even the bad ones are better than the rest.\r

    So many ranges and mountains, but few true pinnacles upon which all may gaze.\r

    Consistency! Always there and always tall.

  133. August 13, 2009
     james stotts


    and you're argument here is, what? that if i don't think a scholarship is a good idea, then it's because i don't know what it is to work a real job and put in long hours. time, of course, isn't worthless, but invaluable--so what does make me feel icky is when people are determined to stick dollar values to it in so many ways. the way i see your argument, public housing, because it would ease a writer's financial obligations, would be a public arts project. that's a faulty analogy.\r

    and you won't hear me defending yaddo.\r

    there is, at least here, a disconcerting mentor-dependence. why does an institution have to subsidize your free time and provide you with [arguably] good poet-teachers for you to learn to read your poems out loud to yourself?\r

    though i haven't put in the same hours as some compiling statistics and tracking trends, i have had a good luck at a few institutions.\r
    and, so you don't misconstrue my argument, i didn't demonize or blame MFAs for anything. i don't think they're bad. or, that is, i don't think they hurt poets in any appreciable way. but the system is a microcosm of a boondoggle, and the poets are like so many barrels of honey sitting in a warehouse, already paid for, and never to go to market.

  134. August 13, 2009
     james stotts

    forgive the typos (*you're* for your, and cetera).\r

    and let me just take a sentence to extol the wonders of wild honey, where you can taste the flowers, and guess from which fields the nectar was gathered, and you can't taste the barrel, or the plywood. and which is absolutely free, even if it's a bitch to gather, and you can find even in the cities.

  135. August 13, 2009
     thomas brady

    "Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Willie Nelson, U2.\r

    Walt Whitman, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost and Yeats.\r

    Everest, McKinley, The Matterhorn, Kilimanjaro, Mauna kea, K2.\r

    Every range of mountains has its peaks."\r


    Ah, the Thomas Carlyle 'Great Men' theory that Poe used to mock. To blindly worship excellence is never a good pedagogical strategy. Yes, respect true greatness wherever its found, but blind hero-worship is quite something else. \r

    Bob Dylan loved to tell stories but he's no Debussy; some people love the early Beatles but find the Sgt. Peppers era pretentious and some would add the early Beatles just ripped off other sounds, and that fortuitous 'image' aspects contributed more to the Beatles' success than real poetry. Some find Whitman bombastic, Poe-haters are legion, Frost and Yeats hit a few homeruns, but much of their work is didactic or even doggerel, and one could go on and on.\r

    There's other considerations, too. We can heap together what we love, hoard it, and play it for ourselves over and over again, and then we find the magic we used to love fading. Aesthetic pleasure, as with any kind of pleasure, is a fragile and elusive thing; in some ways criticism is more lasting, and more true. I know this is a difficult concept to grasp, for criticism--to many--is the villain, while the lovely poem or song is the beautiful planet we should protect; but I don't mean the specific criticism is necessarily true, or that we should cynically spurn the beautiful poem, what I mean is that the ability to judge truthfully is what is finally the most valuable to human survival, and (bonus points) the critical faculty itself aids poetic composition...\r


  136. August 13, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Okay, Thomas, let’s try this:\r

    I believe that the Earth is round and the sky is blue on a sunny day. What do you think of that!?\r

    But I’m sure you’ll find a way to disagree.

  137. August 13, 2009
     Seth Abramson


    If you're asking, as I believe you are, why I didn't learn certain things on my own--isolated from any guidance--and instead had to discover them in/through an educational environment, I'd say, I don't know, I'm human?\r

    Take care,\r

  138. August 14, 2009
     james stotts

    i guess what i'm asking is, why should you learn that in an apparatus where peter gizzi's being paid to teach you something seemingly elementary and you're being paid to learn. you're human, so your poetry education should be public+you should get a paycheck (even a meagre one)yourself?\r

    and, if you're going to be advising young poets as a consultant, and expecting those reasonable billable hours...\r

    everybody wants a piece of the pie, self-education is almost dead in our education system, and yet i don't ask a consultant to find the right library for me.\r

    though, seeing as how don and i started out, maybe i should at least be tipping my librarian.

  139. August 14, 2009
     thomas brady


    Thy own prophet says, 'the first one now will later be last."\r

    Woe unto thee if thou wouldst not dare to dispute Thomas Brady.\r

    Do you allow George Martin on stage with your "Beatles?"\r

    Anyone could name thousands of obscure artists more profound than your obvious peaks.\r

    Is it the spark of individual genius you seek? Upon what hearth do you seek it?\r

    Would you pit Edgar Poe in all his genius against Walt Whitman? Whitman's skin would, before you could say 'Eureka,' flutter in the wind.\r

    Do you think the chorus of life is sung by Bob Dylan? It is sung by everyone.\r

    Oh, and by the way. Our planet is oval, and early this morning, as the sun burned off the mists in the forest where I walked, I looked up, and saw the sky was more white than blue.\r


  140. August 14, 2009
     james stotts

    but an education is what you make of it, and far be it from me to tell anyone they should pay what college costs. harvard law won't make you a good lawyer, but it offers prospects. and iowa won't necessarily do anything for you as a writer except teach you how to list your caveats generously. why it is a writer who'd already started publishing, and who has vocally downplayed the concept of institutional cachet would seek out that school and face the intense competition in a search for further and higher confirmation of their talents, all when what they proclaim is that they just want a little free time to write--that's beyond me.\r

    this country is in a bad way, and people with more and more education seem to know less and be less capable of educating themselves. i think MFAs just add to the resentful feelgood institutional dregs. these mis-educated become the teachers (you said you've taught, right, and edited?) \r

    if it seems to you like a shaman scared of hypodermic needles, maybe it's because in your arrogance you can't see that i'm actually a qualified country doctor who wonders if my patients need orange flavoring in their IV drip.

  141. August 14, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Everybody's a comedian.\r

    You did not address the point of my post, which was consistency, a regularity of quality over time in an oeuvre. That is what makes greatness, not wondrous one song.

  142. August 14, 2009
     thomas brady

    Consistency of quality? But isn't the quality far more important? Are you saying the consistency produces the quality? Isn't the opposite true? I guess I'm not sure what you are saying...\r

    Consistency is certainly worthy in an argument--but here Emerson disagreed with Poe and said 'consistency was a humbug.' Is that what you mean?

  143. August 15, 2009
     thomas brady


    It works this way. Most clicks on 'click to show comment' wins. This is TRUE notoriety. All the rest is mere chumminess.\r