Because Throwing Stones Is What We Do Best!
“Like a Jules Verne novel, Dana Gioia’s famous essay ‘Can Poetry Matter’ got the future’s big picture right, but the particulars wrong. In 1991, when the essay was first published, Gioia thought that the newly burgeoning MFA programs were problematic because they prevented the poet from being the necessary outsider and because they encouraged the proliferation of poet-as-careerist in an academic setting, thus stifling the life experience necessary to refresh the art. As it turns out, the bigger problem is that in many programs the writing education itself is without standards of excellence or a basis in craft. How can you effectively evaluate writing without any standards? Furthermore, as the promise of so-called ‘language’ and ‘post-avant’ writing degenerates from a fresh approach into a redundant and prerequisite MFA house style, the evaluation of student work is dispensed with altogether. How can you evaluate what you can’t understand?”
I was thinking of the Gioia point, I’ll call it the Theory of No Experience, while I was reading an interview with Donald Hall, himself a famous MFA program critic. Specifically, what I was interested in was his thinking back in time to how he got his big break in The Paris Review, etc. While he was at Oxford, he “edited Oxford Poetry, worked on the Isis and as editor of New Poems, and then, on top of that, [he] became poetry editor for the Paris Review.” He became poetry editor of the Paris Review, because, while he was at “Harvard [he] had known George Plimpton a little…. So George over at Cambridge heard about [Hall] winning the Newdigate [a poetry prize at Oxford]. He [George P] came over to play tennis for his college against [Hall’s] college. He got hold of [Hall] and [they] went out for supper together after the tennis match.” And voila, it was done.
I don’t mean this as a slam against the upper-crust good old boy network of the 1950s (well, who knows, maybe I do), but rather, a nod to the way people are always thinking that before 1990 or so, poets somehow LIVED and that poets these days somehow DON’T. Hall and Plimpton, and many others, including many poets I like very much, started in college and went right from that to fullbrights and other non-yurt-carrying things that, for the most part, seem to me to be the very sorts of things they now complain about in the new generation. That was considered fine as LIVING then, as was whatever it was T.S. Eliot was doing a generation earlier, as he scuttled about finishing his PhD and then working in a bank (until he got “saved” from it and placed in Faber & Faber). All I mean by this is to say, I guess, that all living is living, and the way these poets lived in the 1950s (20s) doesn’t feel to me any more (or less) authentic than the way I see poets live these days.
But then there’s critique number two, the Theory of No Standards, that Houlihan offers. She’s serious enough about this as to blame it for pretty much all of what’s keeping poetry from being popular:
“In a time when there are no critical standards, only proliferation of more poems, each new poem can only matter less. Over a decade after his spookily predictive essay, ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ Dana Gioia’s question has a troubling answer: it can, but more and more, it doesn’t.”
And that is the difficulty I’m having with what she’s saying. Problem one: say for instance that she’s right. Is she right 100%? Is it true that every single MFA program in America has no standards? Every teacher is a bad teacher? Certainly she doesn’t mean herself, as she is part of a manuscript preparation conference. So obviously, she has standards. So if she has standards in her teaching and evaluation of manuscripts, doesn’t that kind of ruin her argument?
Here’s what she says we have instead:
“It is a well-known phenomenon that the creator of a work is not an objective evaluator of it. Every capable writer and poet knows that they need critical feedback on their work in order to improve it—even T. S.Eliot had Pound. But instead of such feedback, students report a lack of criticism, of having a ‘group hug’ type of atmosphere or an overly subjective, mystical or impressionistic response to a poem.”
When I was at Ohio University, scuttling around, working on my PhD, one thing I most assuredly didn’t get from students or teachers, was a “group hug.” Us students, for the most part, were close readers. We were more than a little competitive. While there, I studied most closely with Wayne Dodd, who was very encouraging, but also could be quite formidable. But I also studied under Mark Halliday (who really disliked everything I wrote and was very clear about how they violated his standards), Sharon Bryan, Mary Ruefle, among others. And prior to that, in Texas, I studied mostly with Miles Wilson and Kathleen Peirce, who were both close, exacting readers and teachers.
So, my research on this topic shows that 100% of my association with creative writing programs directly contradict both The Theory of No Experience (as I was broke both places and had to take odd jobs to make ends meet, thereby getting a LOT of life experiences) and The Theory of No Standards arguments. How about you? Do you find MFA programs to be “Group Hugs” without standards, or are they muddy Woo Woo places, or are they High Standards (in the Houlihan sense) places? Or are they all sorts of things? My guess is that they are all sorts of things. Therefore, if they are all sorts of things, they can not, as is argued, be the reason Dana Gioia’s interested readers aren’t reading poetry.
Last week I was part of a reading in Santa Fe. Cormac McCarthy walked in, took a look at what was going on, and scurried back out to the range. On the other hand, a man wandered in who has a son in California who has taken some creative writing courses, so he was interested in what was going on. He stayed, and he even bought a book. This supports my counter thesis to Houlihan and Gioia. What is keeping poetry from being read is simply marketing.
PS. You have to love Houlihan tossing in the bit about “the promise of so-called ‘language’ and ‘post-avant’ writing” that she sees degenerating into a “redundant and prerequisite MFA house style.” And look how I didn’t take the bait! See how “water off the duck’s back” I’m becoming? Hakuna matata, y’all.