Donald Hall - On Workshop & the McPoem
From Donald Hall’s “Poetry and Ambition”
The following are collaged bits from Donald Hall’s rather famous (well it was when I was first in college, way back when) essay “Poetry and Ambition.” It was delivered at an AWP conference, I think, in 1982. It was then in the Kenyon Review, and later re-published in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle.
Anyway, I’m below posting some bits of it that directly address the Workshop experience, and the “McPoem.” Ah, the famous McPoem. Two things about that. As this essay is 25 years old now, it’s important to remember these were the (rather) early days of MFA programs. A lot has happened since. Specifically, wonderful poetry has continued to be written . . . even as the idea of the “McPoem,” though it’s now referred to mostly as “The Workshop Poem,” has continued, defined generally, and with so many caveats and exemptions to be nearly useless as a term. But (but but but) it’s always good to think about, to ponder, the criticism of the workshop, aimed, as we are, at continuous quality improvement. Naturally.
Just to keep it straight: I do not endorse the following. In fact, I rather strongly disagree with nearly all of it. But, even in its over zealous criticism, there is a point. Something to keep in mind, at least.
The United States invented mass quick-consumption and we are very good at it. We are not famous for making Ferraris and Rolls Royces; we are famous for the people's car, the Model T, the Model A-"transportation," as we call it: the particular abstracted into the utilitarian generality and two in every garage. Quality is all very well but it is not democratic; if we insist on hand-building Rolls Royces most of us will walk to work. Democracy demands the interchangeable part and the worker on the production line; Thomas Jefferson may have had other notions but de Tocqueville was our prophet. Or take American cuisine: it has never added a sauce to the world's palate, but our fast-food industry overruns the planet.
Thus: our poems, in their charming and interchangeable quantity, do not presume to the status of "Lycidas"-for that would be elitist and un-American. We write and publish the McPoem-ten billion served-which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable-the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.
And every year, Ronald McDonald takes the Pulitzer.
To produce the McPoem, institutions must enforce patterns, institutions within institutions; all subject to the same glorious dominance of unconscious economic determinism, template and formula of consumerism.
The McPoem is the product of the workshops of Hamburger University.
Poems have become as instant as coffee or onion soup mix.
Anyone editing a magazine receives poems dated the day of the postmark. When a poet types and submits a poem just composed (or even shows it to spouse or friend) the poet cuts off from the poem the possibility of growth and change; I suspect that the poet wishes to forestall the possibilities of growth and change, though of course without acknowledging the wish.
If Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Robert Penn Warren publish without allowing for revision or self-criticism, how can we expect a twenty-four-year-old in Manhattan to wait five years-or eighteen months? With these famous men as models, how should we blame the young poet who boasts in a brochure of over four hundred poems published in the last five years? Or the publisher, advertising a book, who brags that his poet has published twelve books in ten years? Or the workshop teacher who meets a colleague on a crosswalk and buffs the backs of his fingernails against his tweed as he proclaims that, over the last two years, he has averaged "placing" two poems a week?
The workshop schools us to produce the McPoem, which is "a mold in plaster, / Made with no loss of time," with no waste of effort, with no strenuous questioning as to merit. If we attend a workshop we must bring something to class or we do not contribute. What kind of workshop could Horace have contributed to, if he kept his poems to himself for ten years? No, we will not admit Horace and Pope to our workshops, for they will just sit there, holding back their own work, claiming it is not ready, acting superior, a bunch of elitists...
The poetry workshop resembles a garage to which we bring incomplete or malfunctioning homemade machines for diagnosis and repair. Here is the homemade airplane for which the crazed inventor forgot to provide wings; here is the internal combustion engine all finished except that it lacks a carburetor; here is the rowboat without oarlocks, the ladder without rungs, the motorcycle without wheels. We advance our nonfunctional machine into a circle of other apprentice inventors and one or two senior Edisons. "Very good," they say; "it almost flies.... How about, uh... how about l.,m wings?" Or, "Let me just show you how to build a carburetor...."
Whatever we bring to this place, we bring it too soon. The weekly meetings of the workshop serve the haste of our culture. When we bring a new poem to the workshop, anxious for praise, others' voices enter the poem's metabolism before it is mature, distorting its possible growth and change. "It's only when you get far enough away from your work to begin to be critical of it yourself"-Robert Frost said-"that anyone else's criticism can be tolerable " Bring to class only, he said, "old and cold things " Nothing is old and cold until it has gone through months of drafts. Therefore workshopping is intrinsically impossible.
It is from workshops that American poets learn to enjoy the embarrassment of publication—too soon, too soon—because making public is a condition of workshopping. This publication exposes oneself to one's fellow-poets only—a condition of which poets are perpetually accused and frequently guilty. We learn to write poems that will please not the Muse but our contemporaries, thus poems that resemble our contemporaries ' poems-thus the recipe for the McPoem... If we learn one thing else, we learn to publish promiscuously; these premature ejaculations count on number and frequency to counterbalance ineptitude.
Most poets need the conversation of other poets. They do not need mentors; they need friends, critics, people to argue with. It is no accident that Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey were friends when they were young; if Pound, H.D., and William Carlos Williams had not known each other when young, would they have become William Carlos Williams, H.D., and Pound? There have been some lone wolves but not many. The history of poetry is a history of friend ships and rivalries, not only with the dead great ones but with the living young. My four years at Harvard overlapped with the undergraduates Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Peter Davison, L.E. Sissman, and Kenneth Koch. (At the same time Galway Kinnell and W. S. Merwin attended Princeton.). I do not assert that we resembled a sewing circle, that we often helped each other overtly, or even that we liked each other. I do assert that we were lucky to have each other around for purposes of conversation.
We were not in workshops: we were merely attending college. Where else in this country would we have met each other?
The American problem of geographical isolation is real. Any remote place may be the site of poetry—imagined, remembered, or lived in—but for almost every poet it is necessary to live in exile before returning home—an exile rich in conflict and confirmation. Central New Hampshire or the" Olympic Peninsula or Cincinnati or the soybean plains of western Minnesota or the lower East Side may shine at the center of our work and our lives; but if we never leave these places we are not likely to grow up enough to do the work. There is a terrible poignancy in the talented artist who fears to leave home—defined as a place first to leave and then to return to.
So the workshop answers the need for a cafe. But I called it the institutionalized cafe, and it differs from the Parisian version by instituting requirements and by hiring and paying mentors. Workshop mentors even make assignments: "Write a persona poem in the voice of a dead ancestor." "Make a poem containing these ten words in this order with as many other words as you wish." "Write a poem without adjectives, or without prepositions, or without content" These formulas, everyone says, are a whole lot of fun. They also reduce poetry to a parlor game; they trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art. This reduction by-formula is not accidental. We play these games in order to reduce poetry to a parlor game. Games serve to democratize, to soften, and to standardize; they are repellent. Although in theory workshops serve a useful purpose in gathering young artists together, workshop practices enforce the McPoem.