MFA: What The Skeptics Don’t Want You To Know

By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published in The Modern Review 1.1 (2005): 45-49.

When I had the chance to question Ed Hirsch at one of David Lehman’s uniquely entertaining events as part of The New School’s MFA program, I asked him the question for which no two people in the field seem to agree on an answer: is the MFA phenomenon helping or hurting poetry? Of course, David Lehman, who is the pulse of that program, shouted “It’s helping!” Hirsch, however, had his doubts.

While he agreed that the growing popularity of MFA programs indicates a yearning for community and culture in a society that mistakes Paris Hilton’s cleavage for a news headline, Hirsch was less encouraged by the “workshop polish” evident in poems submitted to contests for which he served as judge in recent years.

Hirsch is hardly alone. In a book review that appeared in Poetry earlier this year, Brenda Wineapple regurgitates the usual stereotypes: “creative-writing programs,” she sighs, “churn out poets whose short, forgettable lyrics were written mainly for each other and their workshop teachers.”

She may have misnamed a certain “Edward” Arlington Robinson in the previous paragraph, but she sure has those MFA kids all figured out! If you are yet to meet the people who popularize these sentiments, look a little harder around the room at the next poetry reading you attend: they’re the ones sipping Merlot over the block of aged brie while thumbing their lapels.

The problem with the dismissive attitude Wineapple echoes is the inaccuracy inherent in such sweeping generalizations. To take poets to task because they are writing for someone is ludicrous. Every poet writes for somebody. If a poet does not yet enjoy the attention of at least a few passive readers, it is essential that some kind of audience is envisioned and taken into account while writing the poem.

The idea that poets write for themselves is nice, but the great poet knows better. The reader is an active participant in the making of meaning, and if there is no available reader—imagined or literal—to finish what the poem is saying, then there is no poem.
Before I ever walked through the door of a graduate-school workshop, nothing helped me recognize moments of insincerity in my work more than the thought that I was writing for my favorite poets. Anticipating the lofty expectations of such esteemed readers enabled me to write with courage and tenacity.

Among my readers at The New School were three professors: Laurie Sheck, Richard Howard, and David Lehman. I benefited immensely from their experienced eyes, and the failure to take advantage of that opportunity would have been disastrously foolish.
For weeks after Ed Hirsch’s remark about “workshop polish,” I found out just how many of my classmates suffered from the neurotic self-consciousness with which the MFA atmosphere afflicts young writers. Hardly a day went by when I was not asked: “does my work have the workshop polish?” or told: “I don’t want my stuff to have that workshop polish!” I felt like a resident of Brooklyn during the “Son of Sam” murders. Everyone was a suspect, and there weren’t many clues.

Sure, the possibility that my poems were all bones and no blood was discouraging, but I got over it. It was Mr. Hirsch’s next concern that really lingered with me.
“There just isn’t room for all these people,” Hirsch said, warning against the misperception that every MFA student will graduate into a career somewhere in academia, publishing or writing.

The misperception, however, resided squarely in Hirsch’s lap.

The corporatization of college in America, which is rapidly creating a generation of people who enter the workforce at an unprecedented disadvantage because of crippling debt to City Bank, Sallie Mae, and MBNA, encourages the view that a college degree is more of a meal ticket than a record of achievement.

Now that exorbitant student loan and credit card debt is accepted as a consequence of education, students and parents want a return for their investment. The result? The classroom becomes the venue for a corporate transaction, students are transformed into customers whom professors must please with inflated grades, and a graduate’s ability to write a complete sentence is less important than the amount of salary a degree is worth. As vocational programs continue to attract more students each year, corporations are hiring writing tutors for employees who can hardly compose literate emails.

While an undergraduate, I endured the sounds of snapping bubble gum and banter about various styles of Versace jeans during “group discussions” in literature class more often than I care to recall. These were the students who came to college for a “career,” and I am endlessly thankful that I encountered few of them at The New School.
Ed Hirsch’s belief that MFA students are participants in this aspect of American cultural decay misrepresents my own experience at The New School and, like Brenda Wineapple’s remark, settles for erroneous generalization.

While I understand that it is fashionable to dismiss writing programs as havens for dilettantes and sneer at the very term “creative writing” as a slander against the craft, these comments are precisely the kind of unfounded assumption that misinforms so much of the derision and skepticism the MFA trend attracts.

To their credit, David Lehman encouraged students to consider alternatives to teaching, and Liam Rector emphatically insisted that there is no such thing as a career in poetry. Thankfully, these admonishments were unnecessary.

Most of the people I studied with understood that enrolling in an MFA program to land a job is like majoring in business to become a poet. My classmates came to The New School with one goal in mind: to become great poets, and they were willing to pay any price for that impractical reward.

For every pretender there were ten lovers of literature taking advantage of an outlet more widely available now than ever before, often volunteering themselves for tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt to do so (I am up to $57,000 and counting). For every dilettante at The New School, another ten students appreciated the hard work required of any aspiring poet as much as they demonstrated an ability to infect others with a love of poetry.

If we desired a return for our investment, it was not awaiting us somewhere outside the classroom; it was happening right there before our eyes. The workshops and seminars we enjoyed were not a means to an end; they were the end itself.

“What is the price of Experience,” Blake wonders in The Four Zoas, “do men buy it for a song / Or wisdom for a dance in the street?” Blake’s question is a great one because it is unanswerable, but I am certain of this much: not even fifty-seven grand can buy the night I sat in class for two hours as Richard Howard dissected Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Bight” line-by-line in an absolutely devastating exhibition of knowledge that dizzied the class for weeks.

What is the price of nights spent listening to fellow students recite catalogs of poems from memory over mugs of Guinness after class, or shouting Dennis Johnson sonnets at one another across the aisle of a noisy subway car at 3 a.m.? What is the price of all the critical voices from my workshops that I will carry with me for the rest of my writing life?
Those electric explosions that moved our minds as Richard Howard explicated “The Bight” are what kept us coming back to the classroom every week. We were learning how to read, we were discovering language, and we were becoming poets.

Were there students at The New School who epitomized the “career-poet” attitude? Of course. Some expected to ride a series of grants into their tenured middle age (how boring), while others talked about “all the books” we were writing as though Knopf, Norton and Harper Collins would be clamoring at the gates on graduation day.

Moreover, while I encountered none of those gum-snapping kids in English class at The New School, I did endure the desperate intellectual showboating that erupted between students on occasion and became, by the end, an insufferable agony. In that atmosphere of heightened political correctness and the megalomania that can result from a combination of youth and intellect, it was hard at times to cut through the agendas and do the only thing I was there to do: learn.

My journey through the transitory utopia of the MFA phenomenon was not without its disillusionment, but despite a society that is increasingly impatient with tasks that require as challenging and prolonged an effort as successful reading and writing, I came away from The New School with the absolute certainty that the younger generation of writers rising through the cracks of its shallow culture promises to help great literature maintain its vitality.

From the Haibun to the Ghazal, and from Sappho to Thom Gunn, the people I studied with were as committed to learning about the history and heritage of poetry as they were eager to hear others talk about their own work. The dismissive generalizations and deliberately alienating cynicism expressed by the MFA concept’s detractors redound to little more than inaccuracy and ignorance.

It is easier to sneer at students than it is to work with them. If widening poetry’s audience and helping it gather momentum through the twenty-first century is of genuine interest to successful ambassadors such as Ed Hirsch, their energy would be better spent on helping MFA students understand the hard work and incredible heritage that they must confront.

The vague and misleading assertions summarized by Brenda Wineapple do little to accomplish that goal, and only popularize stereotypes that threaten to stunt the growth and popularity of poetry in America at a time when it is as desperately needed as ever before.