The Franz Wright Critique of the MFA Generations
Background: the post of mine he’s specifically reacting to can be found here: http://jjgallaher.blogspot.com/2010/03/blurb-as-argument-platform-ii.html. But his critique, that he posted in the comments section of that post seems large enough to warrant a bit more time and space, so here it is, the Franz Wright critique of what I guess might be called the “MFA Generations”:
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“Empire building.” Do you realize how your generations has bought into the vocabulary of stark naked capitalism and/or crude popular culture? After the ubiquity of the MFA programs was accomplished, and the bar was so lowered that per year maybe hundreds or thousands of pieces of paper (if you paid your tuition, or were a good low-level instructor slave) are issued stating that somebody in his or her mid twenties is now a MASTER of the art of poetry. Then you get the insane self-consciousness of the internet going, and put it all together and you get a couple or few generations of the most abject mediocrity, not in thought—anyone can blabber intellectually—but in the art of the poem which is made of out solitary silent meditation, made out of everything that is the opposite of what you kids daily invest so much importance in. You poor dupes.
One of your generations will produce a reaction, a generation of children who will rebel against your constant need to check in with each other on your computers to make sure you aren't missing out on anything, and who will withdraw back into the desert from which real art comes. You all are lost.
I see what the best of you have produced, and compared to the American poetry, arguably the best in the world, that was produced pre-MFA ubiquity—that is, before the late seventies—you don’t make good toilet paper. You can still choose, those of you who are young enough. You can turn away from the writing programs, the blogs, all the self-conscious ways to destroy the silent solitary spirit of lyric poetry. Maybe. I doubt it. But there may be one or two of you out there with the balls to do it.
And by the way, any blurb I have written has generally been for younger poets I feel are doing just that, and whose work I admire, and whose future I have hope for. There are thousands of people now in this country who actually call themselves poets—that astounds me. How many poets do you think even the greatest literary periods in history produced? FW
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This is an opinion I’ve heard before, and it’s easily dismissed as a “hey kids get off my lawn” argument . . . but behind every reactionary there is a bit of truth, or so I’ve heard. Is there a bit of truth in what Wright is saying about these post-70s generations? And if so, what is it and what does it mean?
Has the ubiquity of MFA programs done something to diminish the quality of writing being done today? I can imagine it could. Some situations and times are not conducive to the artistic sensibility. But poets of lasting value are always rare for any time period. Are there really fewer than before? Are we “allowing” too many voices into the choir? There is a critique that I often hear and kind of agree with, that there are simply too many books being published. It makes it impossible to find the hay in the needle-stack. But as soon as I think to myself, well, what would I propose, I back away from my criticism, because it would mean denying participation by someone, and who knows what might be lost then? (Probably nothing much, but still, the possibility is enough to keep me from getting all reactionary.) Beyond that, what has the MFA done to harm anyone? Mostly, from what I’ve seen, it’s just people sitting around talking about each other’s poems. I suppose that could be damaging to a young poet if the people were saying really dumb things, but mostly I’ve seen that the things said in workshops are rather benign, and were often constructive, especially when talking about how to read poetry as opposed to how to write poetry. Really, I think the MFA structure is a scapegoat, a convenient way to dismiss people without having to engage them.
Wright didn’t mention this, but it often follows the above: And what of AWP? What has the AWP influence been on the production of poetry? I’m sure there has been one. One thing it seems to have done is that it’s created—along with MFA programs—a cult of the young, the new, the first book. And how could it not? The bookfair has all these books. And much of Stevens’s best work is in the public domain. Some of this, though, is because people of a certain age opt out of the AWP conference. If you decide not to talk to people you have no one to blame but yourself when they don’t think of you later.
The other AWP critique is that the panels are too “professional.” That argument sometimes has traction with me. I prefer panels on poets and poetry to panels on careers and structures. But there are plenty of panels for me to go to, and those who want to go to the other panels can go.
Thinking about this, how we tend now to focus on NEW NEW NEW, I recently went back to a few of my favorite books from the past, and had a wonderful time reading William Carlos Williams’s selected poems as well as Max Jacob’s selected poems. One of the things I was struck with (as many have said already, this is not new) is how much it seems the poetry of right now is influenced more by the poets of the early part of the 20th century than by the poets of the later part of the century. Could this have something to do with the dismissal of much of current poetry by Franz Wright (and others . . . Wright is not writing in a vacuum). Suffice it to say I see little common ground between Wright’s version of where we are and mine.
The language of power dynamics—the avenues to power—that Wright says the younger generations have created is not saying that these generations created the dynamics, just that they brought in the taxonomy. Perhaps he’s right about the way these things are talked about now, but that seems to me a good thing. It’s time these things were named what they are. These relationships were not made up by this generation, they were here already, and to argue against, well, the whole Internet and MFA structure, is to argue for a different order of power, one that was in place when Franz Wright was starting out. Wright promoting Dickman is an aspect of the old economy of poetic ascendency: well-known press, senior poet endorsement, and large distribution print journal (The New Yorker, etc). These are pre-Internet structures. They are ways that a few (editors and senior poets) can control what happens next. Blogs, Internet-based journals, websites, etc, throw a wrench in that economy. That economy still exists, and I would argue is still the fundamental way that poetic reputations are made (one need just look at the trajectory of the Dickmans’s careers so far to see it in action), but it is no longer the only game in town.
I was highly critical of Franz Wright’s blurb on Michael Dickman’s book for many reasons, but, in the end, my feeling is that such a blurb does a young poet like Dickman no good. Certainly it’s great to be called the cure for what ails poetry. It’s a tremendous ego boost. But what happens next? The poet has to write another poem. “Come on, genius, write something,” the voice whispers, much like in James Tate’s poem “Teaching the Ape to Write Poems.” It’s a terrible place from which to make art. I would argue that a blurb such as that is concerned more with the career and attitudes of the one writing the blurb than it is the poet it’s written about.
Think of, as a counter-example, a poet like Zachary Schomburg, who arose without any help whatsoever from any of the old ways of endorsement. No famous poet blessing. No large-circulation journal publications. No well-known press. This sort of thing would not have been possible without these other avenues of publication and participation allowed by the Internet.
Is this sort of thing better? Is it worse? Who knows. It’s all still a system of mediating structures. Think of Mrs. Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (I’m going from memory here, so I may be off, apologies), where she sees the dead walking off to heaven in a great parade, with the great unwashed leading the way . . . “flip the ladder and put the bottom rung on the top and you still have a ladder with a top and bottom rung” . . . is a paraphrase of her complaint against God. It’s a good complaint, one to keep in mind. It’s always US vs THEM, and, as Pink Floyd would have it: “In the end we’re all just ordinary men.” (As a side note, it’s hard to get away from the MALE-ness of this. It seems every time I come across one of these issues it’s older males talking about younger males. What’s up with that? you might well ask.)
What matters, and here I will partially agree with Wright, is the quality of the art. So I challenge Franz Wright to make a list out of this: “I see what the best of you have produced, and compared to the American poetry, arguably the best in the world, that was produced pre-MFA ubiquity—that is, before the late seventies—you don’t make good toilet paper.”
I’d be fascinated who Wright thinks the “best of you” is (and with a nod to the fact that if he thinks it’s Dickman, he’s just now consigned Dickman’s poetry to the bathroom), and who the best from before the late seventies is, for comparison. I believe (which is not at all a new assertion) that the greatest American poetry so far was written around the 1920s, and that the next couple generations were less inspired. But if he’s going to do a generation throw-down, I’ll take that bet. I think some of the best poetry written since the poets of Modernism has been written since 1980.