Irreverence is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.
~ Mark Twain


The debate regarding a MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry is getting really old. Those of us who care about the art of poetry are quite aware of each side’s stance—on the one hand poetry is treated as a calling (Anti-MFA; the romanticism of outsiders who lead reckless lifestyles and who place the judgment of a “successful career” as a poet into the hands of posterity), on the other hand poetry is treated as a career (Pro-MFA; careerism, wherein schooled poets explicitly strategize with other schooled poets, publishing each other’s poems and books in order to stay on track to tenure and/or to maintain a recognizable status of “success”). Without a doubt, the Pro-MFA side is the sovereign of literary publications and the publishing system. It is for this reason that the Anti-MFA side comes off as the aggressor in this debate; the Pro-MFA side deflecting its opponents’ jabs with an aloof air of boredom, or at times with an agitated sense of exasperation. The bottom line is that this debate, this nonsense, must be brought to closure. And so, please bear with me as I rehash a few issues here in a swift attempt to finally, and thankfully, put an end to the MFA debate.

The Anti-MFA side of the coin brings livelihoods into question. Being against MFAs, this side is essentially declaring “Down with the programs” and so “Down with those poets’, and those administrators’, sources of employment.” It is an ethically difficult side of the fence to raise a fist on, especially in these days, what with the state of our economy and with the continued growth of MFA programs. And bearing these two realities in mind, one might even soundly claim the Anti-MFA stance is a downright irresponsible one. But then we come across such information as that provided within Sara Floods’ “2010-11 Report on the Academic Job Market,” and it is in the revelation of such facts where we can begin to recognize that the truth of the matter will need to be confronted, no matter how decidedly unsympathetic its implications prove to be:

Despite the evidence of a slight decline in university enrollment and the suggestion of a general movement of students away from humanities departments, the number of degree-conferring creative writing programs continues to rise. In the past year, the number of programs offering an MFA grew from 184 to 188. This change is relatively small, considering the previous year’s leap from 169 to 184. However, the boom of creative writing programs becomes more apparent when comparing the current total number of programs to the mere 15 that had been established by 1975.

However, any new creative writing jobs that result from the advent of new programs will hardly be a match for the influx of students these departments will inevitably graduate. While the interest in creative writing is heartening, this doesn’t change the fact that there is an abundance of students graduating with advanced degrees only to flounder in the academic job market. What might need to change is the expectation many graduate students still have that they will find employment as a professor once they’ve finished school. (AWP Job List, November 2011)

In lieu of the lack of employment opportunities as described above, it is only logical to consider how a MFA is not an entitlement, especially in terms of the art of writing poetry. The art of writing poetry is not like the practices of law, health or economics—being a poet, to my mind, is an intangible practice, thusly impractical. The pursuit of a MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry cannot be spoken of in terms of being a right. The pursuit of a BA is a right, and the nurturing of poetry can exist quite well in the undergraduate curriculum: study the best and their methods, with an upper class workshop that gives practice to the various techniques of poetry (understanding the intellectual and emotional nuances of poetry’s various techniques is a must for any poet who wants to hold his/her weight; this is an incontestable matter). Those who  would be poets will be poets—they will tirelessly continue to study the best poetry, continue to challenge themselves by tackling the best works of criticism and by practicing various techniques, and continue to labor passionately through the toils of everyday survival to get at the heart of their art. Pursuing a MFA in Creative Writing or Poetry, in any artistic (as opposed to educational) discipline, really, brings senseless debt into the student debt equation (these students, after all, are choosing to go into debt; it is not being imposed on them, as most debts are in the real world), which is of course of great social concern today:

The total amount of debt is staggering. The New York Federal Reserve Bank puts it at $550 billion, but includes a footnote in the “technical notes” section suggesting this may be an underestimate. Sallie Mae, the school-loan equivalent of the housing industry’s Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, reckons there are $757 billion-worth of outstanding loans. A bank heavily involved in the area says there is at least another $111 billion in purely private loans, and with new lending estimated in excess of $112 billion for this year alone, the total amount outstanding will surpass $1 trillion in the not-so-distant future.

Critics allege a viciously wasteful circle: the size of the loan pool expands to enable students to pay ever higher fees to schools whose costs expand because money is coming their way. That was just about sustainable in the good times, a lot harder when there are fewer jobs to be had. (“Nope, Just Debt: The Next Big Credit Bubble?” The Economist, October 29, 2011)

Do there exist exquisite moments of convergence, when a calling bleeds organically into a successful career? Certainly, but these moments are too far and few between to warrant the continued existence of MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry programs. For the sake of the art, poets must be poets again; be left to survive in an outside world that is cutthroat, unforgiving, and where they can be restored to the courageous “rigors of serving Milton’s ‘thankless Muse’,”* not merely exist in an insular world where, as Dana Gioia confirmed in his must-read title essay from Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Graywolf, 1992), “Poets serious about making careers in institutions understand that the criteria for success are primarily quantitative. They must publish as much as possible as quickly as possible. The slow maturation of genuine creativity looks like laziness to a committee. Wallace Stevens was forty-three when his first book appeared. Robert Frost was thirty-nine. Today these sluggards would be unemployable. … As Wilfrid Sheed once described a moment in John Berryman’s career, ‘Through the burgeoning university network, it was suddenly possible to think of oneself as a national poet, even if the nation turned out to consist entirely of English Departments.’”

The pursuit of a MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry is a choice, a choice whose time has come to be unreservedly discouraged. MFA programs must desist. By restoring the inspiration of a poet as being an outsider who is entirely free of the atmosphere of careerism, poets will be encouraged to make unheard of decisions because they will have nothing to lose. Poets will be able to inhabit a new atmosphere, embrace a new attitude. They will be free to spite authentically, to be authentically—not ironically, not sarcastically; not even empathetically—but authentically—irreverent. As a result, the art of poetry will stand to emerge as an instrument of honest character, and not merely be a tool of polite back-scratching.

The elimination of these programs will serve as a monumental step towards opening poetry to a greater readership—to people, not just poets. And this is decisive considering, as stated on a recent poetry contest page on Narrative Magazine’s website, “the number of adults who read poetry, as surveyed by the NEA, has decreased by approximately half in the past two decades. Less than 10 percent of adults read any poetry at all.” People can tell polite back-scratching for what it is: pretension; and pretentiousness displeases because it is trying rather than being. Just as well, people can tell honest character for what it is: irreverent; and irreverence earns a following because it distinguishes need over want.

So, I challenge MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry programs to selflessly summon the courage to admit it is irresponsible to entice, and even allow, a burgeoning and/or wannabe poet into a MFA program to pursue a “career” as a poet. I challenge these programs to stage a revolution of poetic conscience and come to the understanding that occupying poetry as a careerist endeavor champions the unrealistic vision that poetry is practical, and so selfishly plays contributor to the increasing student loan debt dilemma.

*Quoted phrase plucked from Gioia’s essay.

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JOHN HOSPODKA is Bohemian Pupil Press, publisher of the forthcoming Dead Flowers: A Poetry Rag. He and his wife Victoria, along with their rescue lab, Jimmy Boo, make their home in Bridgeport, Chicago.

8 responses to “Distinguishing the Truth of the Matter”

  1. DB Cox says:

    “…Less than 10 percent of adults read any poetry at all.”

    Economics aside–I suppose you could begin and end this essay with this simple, cold understanding.

  2. Boy, this discussion always gets us writers fired up. Cue the mini-debates here in the comments!

    I’m curious about why the programs are the problem, John. Post-secondary school land is populated with lots of “if you build/offer/teach it, they will come” institutions. I’ve taught at career-focused colleges where the fields being marketed were floundering (not growing, as Admissions claimed). I’ve taught at liberal arts universities, where students value college for their experience, not for career development (as they discover quickly after graduation).

    It’s not that I disagree that universities (in general) create an expectation in students that when they graduate, it will be easy/easier to find a job because of their schooling….universities DO do that. Certainly, MFA programs are just part of this….

    I think the responsibility should remain with the student and writer. You are right that we shouldn’t expect to have a teaching position with a graduate degree. I finished my MA, and have been adjuncting for the past 6 years….I’ve realized that I’ll have to pursue more school for even the chance to be considered for a full-time position. Any misunderstanding of this that I had previously (like right after grad school) is my own fault (my own wishful thinking).

    I would also bet that some students enter MFA programs in order to work on their writing (and their discipline and strategy). They certainly work on that. And is an MFA in Creative Writing any different that someone getting an MFA in Dance or in Photography? I wonder if those students have the same expectations (about career stuff) as students in English.

    I also want to be clear—I like teaching, learning, students, academia, and writing, and absolutely respect the author’s point of view. I just wonder if we, as writers, feel the need to justify the MFA by connecting it to career options?

  3. S. says:

    John, we’ve got two options here: Writers can spend 60 years of their lives producing poetry in penury, isolation, and cultural insignificance while trying to make ends meet doing some job they detest, or writers can spend 58 years of their lives producing poetry in penury, isolation, and cultural insignificance and 2 years living for free amongst a large, vibrant community of fellow poets equally committed to the Art.

    You’ve unpersuasively argued that if the second option is chosen, poetry as an art-form will collapse. That would be a pretty preposterous claim even if it _weren’t_ the case — and it is — that non-institutional, bohemian avant-garde/post-avant communities of poets have been happily starting small presses and publishing one another in magazines and publishing one another’s books and giving public readings and seeking the influence and guidance of other poets and seeking, moreover, full-time work in the Academy for about a hundred years now (as a point of reference, in January of 1964, 48 years ago, there was only one MFA program in the world; the American avant-garde dates at least to a half-century before that).

    I don’t know — there are just too many straw men to count here, too many unchallenged assumptions, erroneous facts, and so on. One can’t possibly understand the institutionalization of creative writing — which, by the way, has had both a completely different history and a completely different series of effects ascompared to institutionalization in any other field of study or artistic endeavor (that is, “institutionalization” is not a monolithic concept) — until one understands the history of non-institutional, bohemian, avant-garde/post-avant literary communities. For instance, did you know that many of the foremost avant-garde poets of the 1880s generation (the ones who essentially founded the American avant-garde in the early 1910s) were educated at art schools, the precursor to MFA programs? Did you know that the avant-garde has been decrying the education of young literary artists — in any form, under any circumstances — since at least the Futurist Manifestos of the 1910s, literally a quarter-century before the first MFA was founded?

    When you try to have a discussion like this without any knowledge of history, we’re left with merely an impressionistic sense of what this writer or that writer thinks about _what everyone else should be doing_. Well, let’s let people decide that for themselves, and stop treating young literary artists like drooling buffoons with no capacity to understand their own self-interest as artists or citizens.


  4. Joe Haldeman says:

    There are a few of us who have an inside-out perspective on the “student loan” aspect. I was already a published (fiction) writer when I applied for Iowa’s MFA program, but I told them I was pretty broke and could only come if I got financial help. They offered a teaching assistantship, and along with the GI Bill, that gave me a very important two years of income while I studied and practiced writing.

    I do agree that in the current situation it would be pure fantasy to pursue an MFA in hopes of coming out ahead. But in fact, I just got the degree and more or less forgot about it, grateful for the couple of years’ financial assistance — and then nine years later, out of the blue, got an offer for a professorship at M.I.T. I’ve been teaching there now for almost 30 years, and it would never have happened without the Iowa MFA.

  5. milo martin says:

    poetry IS a dying art– in fact, it’s been dying for thousands of years…


  6. Daniel says:

    Demonizing MFA programs for making pretentious poets is a slippery-slope. Attacking MFA programs is like saying ALL art programs should be stopped. Why stop at MFA programs? Let’s get rid of music programs, art programs, dance programs, etc. In fact, I find this essay pretentious itself, and it is just another way to separate poets and artists when we need to be coming together no matter if we come from MFA programs or not. Don’t fall into the same trappings our two party system falls into by creating divisions of frivolous values such as MFA programs. JUST DO THE WORK!!

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  8. Luke Johnson says:

    This is an incredibly well written response to the ongoing debate. I suspect, those above arguing against it, rest their laurels on academia alone, and not, on the connectivity shared between writer and reader. Jack Kerouac would have been un-publishable in today’s MFA world. The irony is that Kerouac’s fumbling free verse, ‘mattered’ from a generational stand point, more so, than most ‘popular’ (popular from an inner poetry world sort of way) poets today. This closed-circle world of academic poets, is boring and bland. It does nothing for anybody, but pat one another back. What’s the difference between academic poetry circles and say, oil moguls? (one is averagely middle class, the other is not.) I’m worried that poetry has become an elitist sphere, by which, anyone slightly daring or playful or honest or experimental, is ostracized. Wasn’t poetry a unifying entity for people groups, a call-and-response back to injustice or cultural corruption? Today’s poetry is too nice. It’s become a cousin to smug educational oligarchies. I won’t say all MFA’s are a waste. I’ll say that MFA’s though, do need to open their doors to ‘outsiders’, with as much curiosity for them, as those inside.

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